My mom has forever joked, “Aren’t you the one writing the story?” And sure, yes, I am the one physically putting the words on paper, but that’s about where it ends. And you might think that sounds crazy, but consider this.
But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no idea who he was more than Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlórien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22. I knew nothing of the Palantíri, though the moment the Orthanc-stone was cast form the window, I recognized it, and knew the meaning of the ‘rhyme of lore’ that had been running in my mind: seven stars and seven stones and one white tree. These rhymes and names will crop up; but they do not always explain themselves. I have yet to discover anything about the cats of Queen Berúthiel. But I did know more or less all about Gollum and his part, and Sam, and I knew that the way was guarded by a Spider.THE LETTERS OF JRR TOLKIEN – TO W.H. AUDEN, PG 216-217
I have never felt more seen than the moment when Tolkien writes to his son, Christopher, that a man had suddenly walked onto his page, called himself Faramir, and declared himself a character with a whole wealth of history to be discovered. I have been living this strange half-life for my entire life, and I thought I was the only one because every time I described this sensation to my friends, they looked at me like I was crazy. Even my writer friends! But this, truly, is how I write.
I can so vividly remember being in college, sitting out in the lounge with all my friends while they did homework and I wrote a chapter, when I suddenly slammed my laptop shut and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! He just died!” I hadn’t planned it in the slightest, and I was absolutely baffled by the idea that a character could just choose to die without informing me. These days, thankfully, I’ve got a bit more hold on things, and I know which characters are going to die generally when I start writing, but sometimes, they still surprise me. One of the biggest ones was in Saintsverse, and I remember coming up to the scene, feeling that something was off for much of the chapter, and then, right before it happened, I sat back and texted my friend, “This character is about to die. I didn’t mean to, but it has to happen.” I didn’t want that character to die, either, and, if you asked me right now, nearly three years since I wrote that scene, I’d tell you that I’m still trying to find a way around it. But they had to die, even if I didn’t know that, even if I didn’t want that.
It’s an odd thing, not totally being in control of your characters. This is going to sound absolutely batshit, but, for a good while there, my MC in Saintsverse, Landon, was straight. I know, take a moment to laugh me into an early grave. I don’t know why I thought this was the case? I don’t generally write straight characters as my MCs, but that’s the way he was leaning in the beginning. I probably have a screenshot of the text somewhere, but I remember messaging my roommate at the time to say, “I have something to tell you about Landon.” Immediately, she texted back, “Are you finally admitting he’s gay? Or did you just jump straight to gay with Ezra?”
Like, how did someone else know my character better than me? It’s bizarre, and Landon is such a good example of it, because he was literally just a name one day, Landon Ash, and this fully formed person a week later, with memories and desires and best friends and trauma and siblings and so much wrapped up in him that I didn’t even know yet.
It’s definitely gotten better over the years. I mostly know what I’m doing, and what path I’m striking, but, every once in a while, I’ll be writing away, minding my own business, and something will whisper in my ear, maybe Theodore fits so well with these witches of his because he is descended from their kind, and I just–oh? Is that so? Tudo bem. Well, let’s run with that and see what happens. And I really, really want to say that it’s my subconscious making sense of things, which, scientifically, that’s probably what’s happening, but magically? Folks, the universe is listening to something deep in my bones and drawing it up to the surface with absolutely no help on my part. Because Theo’s mom being a witch? That makes so much damn sense, and I don’t know where it came from.
One of the stories that aggravates me the most is Mason’s. I’ve written a novel for him, and while I think I definitely want that novel to occur at some point, I also don’t think it’s the appropriate place to start in his story. But what that place is, I have no idea, and it drives me absolutely bonkers. The weirdest part, too, is that I know his entire story. Start to finish, I’ve got it all mapped out. I don’t know the details, but the broad strokes of his life? Yeah, I’m there. I could sit you down and give you the whole run down, and you’d be making grabby hands for his book, but that? Of course, that does not exist. And while it’s infuriating, I know it just needs time to percolate, to let that magical subconscious do its dirty work behind the scenes until, ah ha! This is the place to start!
It’s annoying, though, that when I want the surprise to happen, it won’t. It only happens when I’m least expecting it. Recently, while working on my current novel, I was doing the same old thing, minding my own business, when, like Satan cackling up through the bowels of hell, I had a horrible realization. My MC had been exorcised by his father. Oh boy, I thought, this is going to get dark real fast. It has, too, but in a fun way, don’t worry, but it’s been such an interesting experience, watching this novel unfold as different secrets quietly reveal themselves.
It’s always the same, too, and, just once, I wish I could capture what it looks like. Because it almost always happens while I’m writing. Every once in a while, I’ll be driving, which is where a lot of the good writing gets done, and it’ll occur to me that my space story is not supposed to be a trilogy separating the three major plot points in the MC’s life. Rather, all three should be happening at the same time, like how Schwab wrote her Villains duology, the timelines tangling together as we race toward something in the present. But, normally, I’m in mid-chapter–heck, probably mid-sentence!–and my brain will just make it gay.
Nah, I’m kidding, my brain & I already know that going in, all my stories are gay, it can’t be help, straight people are boringggggg. But one of my favorites was definitely writing a chapter for my current novel, and a literal character walked their way into the scene, and I was just like hello? May I help you? Literally, this is how it happens. There was a knock on the door, and I was in the middle of the scene going why is someone knocking on the door, and my fingers are racing away to introduce all of us to Vicente, and when it comes time to name them, I had a real moment of WAIT WAIT WAIT WHAT IS GOING ON? WHO IS THIS?
Am I actually alone? Is it just Tolkien, me, and my dear friend, Sara, who thank goodness also does this? Because I hear about it so rarely, this strange out of body experience. And I wonder if that’s what it is, because I know I go into this sort of trance while I’m writing, and it’s hard to drift my focus somewhere else, so maybe it really is that I’ve dug so deep into the story that my subconscious is hard at work trying to be my standard conscious, and then BAM, GUESS WHAT, NEW CHARACTER.
(Vicente is great, I’m so happy they’re here.)
I always used to joke, “I’m half here, half on my own world.” And it’s so true. Half of me is here, writing my story, or just existing in general, at work or food shopping or practicing yoga or snuggling my cats or whatever else people do in their daily life. But half of me is also somewhere else entirely, sailing the high seas with Julian or digging into Irish soil with Caroline or lighting dozens and dozens of candles with Florence or watching a minefield of moons pass by with Soraya or lying in a circle of mushrooms with Mason. Half of me is always floating inside the wild words of a story I haven’t quite figured out yet, but that will slowly unveil its secrets to me, and I can almost guarantee that some of them won’t gift me those secrets until years and years later, when they’re published and I’ve long since stopped working on them, and then, like sunlight peeking through the clouds, they’ll whisper, but what if there was a dragon?
(That happened once, and it was awesome, and there’s now a dragon.)