I was recently asked by an editor to describe my strengths as a writer, and after some fumbling about, I had to admit that I did not know. It’s a question that I’ve asked myself over the years, since so much of my success seems accidental.
I do not know the plot of any of my stories before I begin writing. Instead I choose a character and a place to begin and start tapping keys. While a story eventually emerges, it’s hard for me to take any credit since so many parts of my stories reveal themselves to me through the process of writing.
My books are said to be funny, but I never make any overt attempts at humor. In fact, when readers first told me that Something Missing was funny, I thought that they weren't reading carefully enough.
Even the occasionally clever turn-of-phrase is often stumbled upon as my finger connect with keys.
As a result, I’ve often wondered about what allows me to be successful as an author. Is it simply persistence and blind luck, or is there something specific that I do that makes my stories successful.
Then I saw a quote last week by author Ethan Canin that summed up what I think I do best.
Don't write about a character. Become that character, and then write your story.
This is what I do well. This is how I write.
Rather than envisioning a story, complete with characters, setting, conflict and themes, I simply imagine a character. I enter that character’s mind. I become that character, and then I begin writing.
As I wrote one of the final and most pivotal scenes of Something Missing, in which Martin climbs a set of stairs, prepared to meet his fate, I was inside Martin’s head, climbing those stairs with him, unsure of how the encounter would end. As the events unfolded for Martin, they unfolded for me as well, unexpected and surprising, because in that moment, I was Martin.
As I wrote the opening chapter to Unexpectedly, Milo and the word conflagration popped into Milo’s head, it popped into mine as well, without a hint of forethought or planning. Milo’s compulsions, a critical aspect of the book, came as a surprise for me, and they were delivered to me in the same way that Milo experiences his compulsions, suddenly and unexpectedly, because in that moment, I was Milo.
That is what I do well, and that, I believe, is why my writing career has taken off. For reasons that I cannot explain, I can occupy the mind of my characters with surprising effectiveness.
I am not the most talented writer. I have many weaknesses, some of which my agent and editor effectively conceal from the general public, and some that still find their way through into my stories. I am not the finest wordsmith, nor is my prose terribly sparkling.
But I can become the character, and then I can write his story.
That is what I do best.