By Susan Wilson
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA
I've recently finished the next novel, Two Good Dogs, and await the day when the manuscript will land on my doorstep like a brick, the careful work of the line editor scribed within, requiring my acceptance of the myriad corrections and refinements. Far from quibbling about commas, I look at it as one more opportunity to perfect the work. I'll be honest, I've never actually typed THE END at the conclusion of any of my novels, because it isn't the end of the work, only the end of the story. The work goes on, through the editing process, the publication process, publicity and review process until, finally, the book is between covers and the words therein are truly set in stone and even if I wake up in the middle of the night with that one tweak that would take it from great to sublime, ain't gonna happen; yet another missed opportunity to win the Pulitzer. To paraphrase Anne Bradstreet writing in the 17th century, my book, dressed in rags, my poor child, is then taken from me and thrust into the world. "In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come; And take thy way where yet thou art not known/ If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:/ And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,/ Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door."
Every time I complete a book there is a curious sense of grieving, of loss, that can overwhelm the feeling of accomplishment. I mooch around the house, ignoring all those projects that looked so tempting while I was writing, but lose their appeal the minute I'm not. It's a bit like empty nest syndrome. I've lived with this book's particular cast of characters for more than a year, intensively running—ruining and repairing—their lives, until to me they are real people, I know them well and I miss them when they're gone. They are like best friends moving to distant places; keeping in touch for awhile, then not at all. We all have people who are important to us during certain periods of our lives, then become less so as circumstances change and we grow apart; new people come to fill that space. That is what creating characters is like, book by book, new characters, new stories. The old friends are still dear, but the new ones are more present.
We fiction writers are tasked with creating whole people out of shadows. It's obviously more than simply describing the character's physical attributes: tall, short, blue eyes or brown. Describing a character's clothing is a mildly useful way of describing a state of mind; if he's wearing a stained sweat suit, then he's maybe in a dark place; if he's nattily dressed, he's got a better handle on his emotions. But dressing only gets you so far. We work with shadow people, silhouettes on the page, but we must bring color to those shapes, believable emotion, actions and desires. We have to give them a story. My stories tend toward the character driven—an action, a mistake, a misunderstanding sets a series of other actions, mistakes and misunderstandings into play. Outside forces add to the pressure. When I first begin to create a character, I have only the barest idea of who that person will be. By the time I get beyond the first hundred pages or so, there he is, someone who has intentions and emotions and maybe can't reach the highest shelf in the cupboard, but can run a marathon. She might be in need of rescue, but I am surprised by what comes out of her mouth. The goal is to write a three-dimensional character who will resonate with readers, someone they will root for, worry about, believe in.
When I've reached that fabled moment of THE END, my imaginary people must now walk out of my head and become free to inhabit the imaginations of my readers. If I've done my job, those characters will be as real to the reader as they have been for me, and it will be effortless for the reader to conjure them to mind. In some ways, readers themselves are as mysterious and shadowy as the characters who inhabit my imagination. Faceless (for the most part) and all-powerful. Kind of like superheroes. Without readers, without the idea that someone, somewhere, will pick up my work and immerse him- or herself in it there would be no incentive to write. Readers are what keep the fingers on the keyboard. Although my readers may be faceless, they are not voiceless. Readers are a much more empowered lot now that they have access to their favorite writers via social media and websites, and I love to get emails and Facebook comments from them. Sometimes I'm taken to task, sometimes, thankfully more often, I get encouragement.
When a reader chooses a book from the shelf, there is a compact, an implied contract, between that reader and the author. Through the strange alchemy of imagination and emotion, what exists in the author's mind transmits to that of the reader. The highest praise an author can get is that a reader keeps thinking about the characters and story long after the book is returned to the shelf. It is a glorious partnership.