Several months back, I bought the fifth novel (The Wolves of Calla)in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series for Steph. After we read it, we got the final two books from the library and read them. Since then, I’ve been on a bit of a Stephen King kick. I haven’t been reading everything he’s written, but I’ve been trying to read the ones that are in some way related to the Dark Tower series.
One of the ones that I picked up that isn’t related to the Dark Tower — and in fact isn’t much like his other novels at all — is Misery. This one is different because although he has some awful things in store for the protagonist, they are all purely human evils. There’s no supernatural source of the evil — just one very sick lady. No telepathy, no low men, no Breakers, no Beam, no ka, no haunted hotel rooms or telekinetic attacks or little girls who can turn an entire farm into a smoking inferno within a minute and a half. Just Annie Wilkes.
This book scared the tar out of me. Paul, the protagonist, is a successful writer who isn’t very content with his life or with the books that have made him a success. Up in Colorado Rockies, he is dumb enough to take on a snowstorm while drunk and pays a heavy price for his stupidity. You probably know the basics of the story (having either read the book or seen the movie) — he wakes up from a severe car accident, legs mangled and shattered, in the house of one Annie Wilkes. Annie declares herself to be his biggest fan who happened upon his car. He is in her guest room where she has been taking care of him, and his life is about to get seriously unhappy.
Annie is devoted to the main character of his best-selling series of books, Misery, and has not yet reached the finish of the lastest novel to find out that Paul has killed Misery off. Her reaction is the stuff of nightmares. No one knows where Paul is, his car is buried under feet of snow, and he is at her mercy. He slowly comes to understand that Annie is a killer, but she will not let him die until she has what she wants from him — a new Misery novel, bringing her favorite character back from the grave. Paul’s months with Annie break him in body, health, and spirit, even while strengthening him as a writer.
This book scares me more than any other I’ve ever read. Why? Because of my dreams of being a writer, specifically a novelist. I’ve wanted it ever since I was old enough to know that people wrote books. I’m acquiring the skills and discipline to make it happen, I think I have the gift, and I think I have the determination to get published and make my breakthrough. I have a head full of stories waiting to be told. All the pieces are in place; now I have to make them work.
I’ve got some freelance technical writing to do, but I’ve made an important decision tonight. I have to carve out time to do my personal writing or I will keep finding excuses not to do it. When I’m writing pieces for 3Sharp, I don’t have the luxury of waiting until I feel like it; I have to write to a deadline. Sometimes that means fighting an empty screen; sometimes it means staying up late to meet a commitment. Always, though, it means action, not intention. I will never be a novelist if I do not act to make myself one. It’s that simple.
Tonight, Steph and I — with the help of several friends from the PyraMOO — shattered one of my last excuses. I am now ready to write my first words for The Next Day, which will be a retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast with a few hefty twists. I don’t know how it is for other writers, but I don’t want to have a detailed outline for a fiction piece. I want to have a general idea of how it’s going to go — who are the major characters, what do they want, where does the story start, where do I think it ends, and do I know any major stopping points along the way? Do I have any particular themes or symbols that help provide structure to the story?
Once I know these questions, the words come and the writing begins. The hardest part of this preparatory process, for me, is finding out about my characters. At first, I maybe know them only by the vague outline of the role they play in the story, by the shadows they cast on the insides of my eyelids. Slowly, I start to puzzle out a few details. At some point, I know enough about them to have a rough idea of who they are, but the critical step for nailing them down is to find their names. There are writers who can pick out a collection of personal details, grab a name out of a baby name book, and weave a character from whole cloth; they are bastards and I envy them, because I have to go sleuthing. I have to tease away each detail, each fact, and fit it into the puzzle until I see enough of the picture to accurately name what I am seeing. I now know the names of the four main characters; I know the flavor and feel of the world. Before I go to bed tonight, I will have the first paragraph of the story written.
I must have frustrated Steph. For me, the name is the central skeleton of the character, the structure from which all else hangs. Since my storytelling style is character-driven, I can’t tell you much about the world until I can tell you about the people. The characters drive everything else, and the names drive the characters. Once I know the name, I know how they think, what they want, what they fear. The name is my window into their mind. Steph doesn’t work like this; she’s not one of the kind of people for whom any old name will do, but I think she sees the name as just another detail one chooses for the character (perhaps off of a limited list; wouldn’t want to give the character an inappropriate name, after all).
For me, words are the boundary between chaos and order. Because of my Asperger’s, I am much more aware of the role that change plays in my life. I want structure, I want routine, and I have only a limited capacity for dealing with change. Yet I also recognize that entropy and change are constants and that perfect order is static and lifeless. Life depends on the interplay between chaos and order. Words, to me, are that interface — change and constancy brought against each other. With words, we take a small bite of chaos, a small bite of order, and we package them together into an imperfect symbol. They will never mean exactly the same thing to others as they do to us (hence the change), but they get enough of the meaning across to get the job done (the structure). Words are the building blocks of life in a very literal and mystical sense. In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God. God spoke Creation into being and gave to Adam and Eve the duty of naming all of the things He had created. Words are a gift, a charism, a power to be used in the pursuit of our relationships with the Divine, with His Creation, and with each other. Through our words we build and destroy, heal and hurt, grow and diminish. Words are not intentions; words are actions.