Wednesday, June 3, 2015
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hitchhikers. I couldn’t finish my novels without them.
Let me explain.
First: these are metaphorical hitchhikers. The characters you see along the road on your writing journey. Which, to use another metaphor, is pretty much driving in the dark on a foggy night with the headlights on: you can only see about ten feet ahead, but if you keep going you’ll eventually reach your destination.
We like to think this is predictably linear, a planned plot clearly marked by lines you can see even in the dark. But that’s a lie. A sweet security blanket we cling to. Because even though the ten feet of road ahead appear straight, this highway is anything but. It curves. It dips. It angles sharply and narrows suddenly in places where the shoulder is studded with gravel or practically nonexistent or mere inches from a sheer drop. And you’re out there without a GPS or a smart phone app or even a map for goodness sake, and what the hell? What were you thinking, taking this on? I mean, this was supposed to be fun, right? A trip, a journey, possibly a vacation. Instead, it’s this trial of nerves, endurance, fortitude, faith and … yeah.
Sorry. I lapsed into metaphor. I know: writing is not parenting. Or marriage. Or even getting out of bed in the morning and putting one foot in front of the other until the day ends. It’s a job. It’s work. Creative work, true, but just that.
Second: picking up hitchhikers is dangerous. Let’s face it, sweet grandmothers carrying baskets of warm baked goods are not thumbing it on the road on cold foggy nights. These characters you see out there have knives in their backpacks. Evil intentions. You let them into your car, and you will most likely not survive.
Third: my advice is to pick them up anyway. Metaphorically, that is. Because the ride is going to be way more interesting now. Even if it kills you.
In every one of my novels an unexpected hitchhiker got into the car and started talking. Starting filling my ear with things I didn’t know, things I found fascinating. Before long, I started asking her questions. Asking for advice. Asking if he or she had any suggestions for alternate, more interesting routes.
Wow, did they ever. Not only did they suggest different routes; they suggested different destinations. Forget going to California, they said. Go left at the next light and head south to Texas. Ditch wine in Napa: we’re getting barbecue.
“But I don’t want barbecue,” I argued. “I love wine.”
“Trust us: you will love barbecue,” they insisted.
Here’s the thing: in writing, and in life, you just have to be open. Characters, real and imagined, cannot step into a closed heart or through a locked door. Let them in, and you might be in for some pain, but you might also be in for the trip of a lifetime.
In my first novel, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, Mr. Beady was the hitchhiker. I thought he was simply an old man having dinner with the main character’s grandmother, but then he kept showing up and saying funny things. Next thing I knew, he was steering the plot and setting up the climax for the novel.
In my second novel, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, Eva the ballerina was the hitchhiker. She was simply supposed to be the main character’s best friend, but then she kept turning up in scenes. At one point, when my main character was about to head to Florida for summer camp and leave Eva behind in New Jersey, I commented to my daughter, “My editor is going to make me cut Eva. I’m leaving her in New Jersey while the plot moves to Florida. She doesn’t make sense.” My (wise) daughter sighed, grabbed a stack of her own young adult novels, and tossed them on my bed. “Clearly,” she said, “Eva doesn’t simply want to come along for the ride. She wants to tell her story. You need a two-narrator novel. Check these out.” The final, published novel indeed has two narrators, and Eva is one of them.
Finally, in Out of Nowhere, Myla the college volunteer is the hitchhiker. She was simply supposed to be the random person who directs the main character’s community service job. But she was cute. Funny. Flirty. Next thing I knew, she was knocking the main character right off his feet and inserting herself in chapters. Myla ends up being the solution to many of the main character’s problems.
The novel I’ve just finished (which I won’t name here because it’s still printing from my computer) for the longest time didn’t seem to have any hitchhikers, which worried me. It was not a good sign, I thought, that no one knocked on my car window, demanding to be let in for the ride.
Until late in the game. In the final third of the book a guy named Joe steps in. The room is dark, he’s pouring powerful drinks … and he meets one of my main characters. Suddenly, we’re walking into a room I didn’t even know existed ….
Let the hitchhiker in.