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Character first

Penelope Pudding (a genius pseudonym) writes:

Do your books evolve as you write them, or do you know how they will end in advance?

Interesting question. As you probably know, every author is different. Perhaps the story behind my Something Missing will answer this for you.

The idea for Something Missing began on a November evening in 2004. My wife and I were having dinner with close friends, Charles and Justine. During the course of the meal, Justine told us that she had lost an earring earlier that day and was hoping to find it when they returned home. I asked Justine how she knew that the earring had been misplaced. “Perhaps some clever thief came to your house and stole just one earring so that you wouldn’t suspect theft.” This idea lodged itself in my mind throughout the evening, and when I arrived home later that night, I jotted down the idea on my ever-growing list of possible story ideas.

Fast forward three months later to February of 2005. My wife and I are in Boca Raton, Florida to spend a week with her grandmother. After a day without Internet access or cable television service and a dearth of decent reading material, I found myself in a desperate search of something to keep me busy. With my idea of a thief who steals items that go unnoticed still rolling around in my mind, I decided to give the story a try. I wasn’t sure if it would be a short story or something longer, but by the time the trip was done, the first three chapters of the novel were complete and I was well on my way.

When I began the book, I had no idea where the story might take me. I’ve since learned to embrace the unknown and allow the story to come to me. Stephen King calls this “unearthing the fossil,” though I wouldn’t hear this expression until the book was nearly finished. A few years ago this would have sounded like nonsense to me, but now I believe it. There were many moments in the writing of Something Missing that I literally did not know what would happen next until I wrote it. In fact, as I closed in on the end of the book, I still didn’t know what my main character’s ultimate fate would be. I was writing the chapter in which much of the plot would be resolved when my wife called.

“I can’t talk. I’m about to find out what happens to Martin.”

“Really,” she said. “What happens?”

“I don’t know! I’m still writing it!”

If you are reading this chapter someday, remember that I experienced it just like you are: one word at a time.

Though many authors know exactly where their stories will ultimately go, I do not, and I’ve learned to trust this instinct. I start with character. I find a person who interests me, and then, in a vomit-provoking, disgustingly spiritual, earthy-crunchy way, I assume that the plot is already written in the character’s fate.

Once I’ve found the character, his or her fate is sealed. I just have to unearth it.

This philosophy seems to be working well in the book I am writing now as well. My main character, Milo, actually began his existence as a funeral home director, but after wrestling with him for three chapters, I finally put that book aside and planted Milo into the story in which he belonged. A story that’s still revealing itself to me.

Weird, huh?

But it’s true. I’d been trying to start a novel for more than five years before beginning Something Missing, but each time, I thought that I needed to plan the story from beginning to end before starting to write. While many writers work this way, I have found that I am better off beginning with a glimmer of an idea and discovering the rest along the way. I leave the story to fate, and things have seemed to work out so far.

I like to tell this story because I worry that too many writers sit around, waiting for their one great idea to emerge, when that idea might already exist, waiting to be unearthed.

So if you’re waiting for the next great novel idea to reveal itself to you, why not pick up a pen and start writing while you wait?