Lassoing plot bunnies

I’ve never been comfortable with the ways most writers talk about their relationship with their characters. It feels like there’s two extremes: either the writer says, “My characters choose which direction to go in and I don’t have much say in the matter,” or “My characters are my invention and they jump in the direction I need them to jump.” Neither feels like the way I write.

Today it occurred to me, I work with my characters the way I babysit children. I have no problem with them leading me in an unexpected direction or wanting to focus on something I hadn’t thought was important. That leads to richer, more interesting play for everyone. In the context of fiction, maybe a side character wants to get more involved, or maybe two characters start flirting with each other, creating a romantic subplot I hadn’t expected. Those surprises keep my writing feeling organic and interesting rather than mechanical and paint-by-numbers. I don’t want to shut those down entirely.

But I’m the parent, as it were, and sometimes I need to make sure those digressions don’t make it impossible for us to get where we’re going. So sometimes that means going back over my manuscript and realizing the flirting started because I was carelessly throwing in dialogue tags like sighs or smirks in a particular scene. Change the tags, and that problematic romance turns into a solid friendship (or even enmity). Or, if I discover that while my side character is fun, they sap the energy and focus from the main plot, so maybe I need to snip them out of this story and save them for a different book.

I’m not in total control, nor should I be. I like it when my subconscious sparks new ideas. But once those ideas bubble up, I feel like what makes a good writer is the ability to choose whether to develop those ideas or shut them down. You can’t let the kids run roughshod over you. Sometimes you have to be the parent.


On the applicability of Winston Churchill to Facebook

I’m really selective about my friends list on Facebook; after four years, I still haven’t hit 100 friends. It’s all people I know in real life and who I really like hearing from and/or want to keep track of. And a lot of them have vastly different lives than mine, and some of them have wildly differing political opinions.

And like most people, I really hate to unfriend anyone. It feels like rejection, and I hate hurting people. But I think everyone has had the experience of the old college buddy or childhood friend who floods their feed with endless negativity or one-sided political rants. And at a certain point, especially if I’ve talked to them in private about how uncomfortable it makes me, I feel like I have to accept that they “won’t change their minds and can’t change the subject,” and ask myself if I really need to give them more of a platform.

It’s not that I can’t handle people who think differently. I love debate and discussion, and I like learning from perspectives that are very unlike my own. But if someone is just linking to 20 articles a day about something I find offensive, and refusing to discuss it, they’re not open to debate, they’re indulging in one-sided ranting. And there’s a difference between someone who is legitimately going through hard times and needs a friendly ear versus someone who delights in putting the most negative, cynical spin on every casual encounter and experience they have throughout the day. I don’t see why I need to indulge either.

But I still hate feeling like I’m cutting people off, and I worry about leaving myself in a bubble of only people who agree with me. I keep wondering if there’s a better way.

A gift of orchids

A little whimsy (no pun intended) for your Purim enjoyment: At the Jewish Women’s Archive, we regularly find ourselves working to solve mysteries, sifting through archives to piece together stories, but this one takes the cake. On Monday, a mysterious package arrived at the JWA offices, wrapped in brown paper and addressed by hand. Inside, we found three old books of classical music with the name “Rose Gruening” stamped in gold on their covers, along with a note asking us to return the books to Ms. Gruening, founder of the Grand Street Settlement (who died in 1934).

The only other clue? A gold-colored business card for Archie Goodwin, assistant to the fictional detective Nero Wolfe, with an outdated address and phone number.

We are delighted and baffled by this bounty, and working to discover the identity and aims of our elusive benefactor.