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When Characters Talk, Writers Listen

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My first two novels began with a plot. A solar energy company melting Antarctic icebergs into drinking water. A Nobel-winning scientist who wants to cure global warming through geoengineering. In both instances, the situation came first, and then I crafted the characters as needed to fit the story.

The novel I'm currently writing is different. This time, the character came to me before the story, as I was searching for a backstory for the main character in a different novel. I woke up in the middle of the night, and this character was in my head talking to me, telling me her history and who she was. I wasn't dreaming about this character. She was just there, as real as if she were sitting in a chair beside me.

Over the next few days, she never left, and as I jotted more notes in her voice, I decided she needed her own story. Now I'm writing an entirely different novel than the one I was planning, and loving it. What's even more exciting is that for perhaps the first time in my experience, the writing feels almost effortless.

Sandra Kring, author of five novels including the bestselling The Book of Bright Ideas, believes she knows why I'm having so much fun:

I really do believe that when we hear our characters speaking to us... when we sit down and the story comes in an effortless flow, it simply means that our right brain has taken over the task completely. I can always tell which books have been written by someone's right brain, or left brain, or if it was a co-effort. Those written from the subconscious have a different feel to them. A flow that feels organic. Effortless.

I call this the "writer's mind" -- that magical place in the subconscious where our creative ideas, our stories, come from. It sounds strange (even schizophrenic) that this should happen, but it's no stranger than when we can't find our car keys. We try to use logic to find them, and suddenly, while we're trying to retrace our steps, we'll hear in our mind, "In your blue jacket." We go grab the jacket, and voila -- there they are!

I've always considered myself a highly creative person. But if Kring is right, I've been letting my left brain exert too much control -- at least in the very early development stage. That's not to say there isn't a use for an outline -- all three of my published novels were produced working off of one.

But there's a certain magic that happens when we turn off the left brain entirely, if temporarily, and let the right brain take control. Kring continues,

If I've learned anything about writing from the right brain, it's that the sure way to ruin the good thing that's going on is to question what your writer's mind is creating, and start trying to guide it. Fight that urge all you can -- your left brain can have at it once the story's down and it's time to edit.

I used to think that when writers said their characters spoke to them, they were anthropomorphizing the writing process. I realize now that's because my characters never talked to me before. Now that they've started, I hope they never stop!