I found an excerpt today from a manuscript I wrote fourteen years ago. It was my first attempt at a novel . . . and I failed miserably. Originally, I had envisioned this book being a Dean Koontz-esque small-town alien invasion story. Not at all cliche, right? Well, not suprisingly, I never finished the book. The story simply fell apart in my mind, as stories sometimes do. The good ones stick; the bad ones collapse under their own weight. Although that’s usually for the best, I will always feel guilty for leaving this book unfinished. Not because I’m compelled to write the story, but because–as strange as it sounds–I feel as if I’ve abandoned my characters in a terrifying world from which they cannot escape. Even now, I imagine them running through the nightmarish town, with the alien-possessed townspeople in eternal pursuit, frantically banging on doors and begging for help that will never come.
Writers are a strange lot, aren’t we?
The excerpt above isn’t exceptional by any means. Among other problems, there’s too much passive voice and it doesn’t flow as well as it could. I’m still learning the craft of writing. When I think I’ve finally mastered it, I go to a writing workshop and discover yet another mistake I’ve been making. Then I revisit my manuscripts and search for that error. It’s a process and it takes time.
But as I sifted through the pages of this manuscript, the page above jumped out at me. Not because it’s particularly well-written but because I wrote it about the death of my grandfather. Even after all these years, the scene inspired an emotional reaction in me. I still remember writing it at my kitchen table in Alabama, and how that night in 1993 came rushing back to me in a flood of emotions and sensations. Foremost among these memories was the way my grandmother’s strength finally failed and she collapsed into the arms of her three sons. As I typed, I could even smell that night: a citrusy, antiseptic odor that I will forever associate with my dying grandfather.
There are differences, of course. Unlike the character in my story, I wasn’t actually there the night my grandfather passed away, but the scene in the book was the last time I ever saw him. And the Stevie Wonder song I quoted actually came on the radio as we drove to his funeral. To this day, that song makes me sad.
I believe this passage is the first time I opened myself up emotionally in an attempt to create real, believable characters who do real, believable things. Authors sometimes get so caught up in their stories that they make their characters do things people don’t do in real life. Some authors can get away with that (ex. Stephen King–he gets away with everything!) but most cannot. Good writing pulls from genuine, honest experiences in an effort to illicit an emotional reaction in the reader. I think the excerpt above is the first time I really tried to write something good.
My characters are all extensions of me–the good and the bad–and we’re forever bonded by our shared experiences. In the end, I suppose that’s the real reason I feel guilty for abandoning my characters in that awful town.
Maybe someday I’ll write them out of there.