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Method Writing

Well, I've done it again. I added another chapter to WIP-B and pushed the eventual completion down a week or two.

The difficulty isn't in the increased word count. I just broke off a third of a too-ambitious chapter to turn it into a half of another, so I really only added one sequence. The problem is that now, instead of two chapters of my main characters' lives spinning out of control and crashing over the railing into a lake of anger and despair, I have three.

Writing chapters full of anger and despair takes a lot out of me. The first two novels I attempted never made it to the finish line because they were too dark to handle. I'm pretty sure Bubbles Pop only saw the light of day because I deliberately set out to write something buoyant to keep my head above water. Even at the lowest points, the plot stayed in the shallows.

See, I can't just distance myself from the stuff I put down. I'm not the kind of person who can just kill off a character and then send my adorably curious small-town journalist snooping around for the murderer after a two-second pause to mourn. I have to try to experience a fictional death the way I would a real one, and then attribute my own reactions to my heroine. So my small-town journalist would be more likely to (a) not give a damn about the victim and have selfish motives for hunting down the killer, or (b) be traumatized and spend the entire book reflecting on the fragility of life and the evils lurking in the hearts of mankind. And then she'd leave the killer-chasing to the cops and do something more productive with her apparently ample free time.

So in order to write these chapters realistically, I will have to spend a good chunk of my days being angry and depressed. It's not just a matter of describing the emotions—the way people interact, speak, and make decisions is strongly influenced by how they feel at the time.

Some things I think you can fake in writing. I don't have a problem describing scenery from a photograph and minimal research, or imagining someone a few decades older when I'm barely out of the gate to adulthood. Of course it won't be 100% authentic, but there's only so far a person can go. Unless I'm going to throw all of my money away on a trip to Europe just to stand in some old Victorian houses, and then wait twenty years until I'm actually middle-aged to write about middle-aged people, I have to accept my limits.

But when you're writing about emotions and reactions—things very basic and more or less uniform between all people regardless of age, sex, or nationality—you really have to experience it yourself to identify. I couldn't possibly write about depression if I had never been depressed, or poverty if I had never known people on food stamps. When writers say they can model their characters after something as trivial and refined as their friends' Twitter posts, it really gets my dander up. "Oh, it's such a convenient way to communicate," I've read. "The Internet cuts out all of the messiness to leave nice, pure thoughts and feelings."

Apologies, but I write about the messiness. As I responded to a post like that elsewhere, basing a character on the tidbits someone else selects and pares down into a 140 character string is like studying a stick figure and trying to paint a portrait in oils. The value of writing, to me, is in saying what a person would never admit on a Facebook wall, and probably doesn't even realize. The noise. The confusion. The messy motives and impulses. Cutting it all down is like compressing out the highest and lowest frequencies in a piece of music. You may not notice them when you hear the original, but once they're gone the sound loses its richness.

I'm not such a crazy method writer that I would, say, live in a closet for two weeks in order to write about being kidnapped. But it isn't too much to ask to remember the sensations of anger or sadness to sympathize with the people you're creating. We do enough simplification in the very act of writing; we should at least have authentic material to begin with.


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