Just yesterday night…um, last night, I guess…I reached a milestone in my story (which I would have to explain if I told you what it was, and which I suppose I could have done here in fewer words, but won’t) and the page 400 at the same time. This isn’t that big of a deal since some stories are really long, especially single-title romance novels which cover epic stretches of time, but it’s a big deal for me because this is the first time I’ve ever estimated how long something would take to happen (a few weeks ago Joshua asked me how long I thought it would take to get to this particular milestone and I said “It ought to happen by page 400.”) and been right. I’m not sure, but I might be well-known for thinking I can fit a story into a certain amount of space (20 pgs, writing school kids?) and realizing later that the story was in fact a very arduously compressed novel. So I’m pretty excited.
I’m also pretty excited that I’ve reached page four hundred because it’s the farthest I’ve ever come on a project (2/3 of the way, baby!), although it presents me with a new problem: repetition. A four-hundred page novel is bound to repeat phrases from time to time, but if you’re a writer and you’re anything like me you remember exactly how you phrased everything on every page…
What I’m trying to say is, when there’s no other way to write that “____ slammed the door,” “slammed the door” really starts to grate on your mental ear. Suddenly you start feeling like everything you’ve written has been written before and you start to wonder whether you’re just phoning this book in, but there’s nothing else you can do, you have to say that they slammed the door because they did slam the freaking door, and–
And your brain gets paranoid. Which it probably shouldn’t bother doing since you (meaning me) are going to be called a hack for writing a romance novel anyway whether you use the same phrase over and over again or not, so you (me again) should just do it up right.
Good advice, self. That’s what I’ll do, then.
How can this have come as a surprise to me? From the day I decided to write this story, I knew Clarence would die. I’ve been planning and researching and writing toward this moment–probably the greatest emotional climax that my story is going to have–for two years. I planted the misinformation of his father’s sickness, I showed his mother where to buy the arsenic, I put his freaking house in order.
It’s a cliche that people say when someone they loved dies: I always thought I’d have more time. Well, I honestly thought I’d have more time. Then suddenly I realized the scene I was writing couldn’t end anywhere but Clarence’s death. I think Twyla and I realized it at the same moment. We both started crying. I almost woke Joshua up with all my sniffling and sobbing.
Clarence Matthews is dead. Somehow the story and the people in it have to move on. Tonight, though, we say goodbye to a man who lived his short life to the fullest and filled every second he could with love and laughter. We’re all better for having known him.
I’ve been in a kind of bad mood the last few days–which would be fine if I had any right to be. But I don’t. Many of you (are there really “many” of “you” or is there just me?) know that I’ve been writing a romance novel for the last two years because romances make quick money, they’re always in demand, and even someone like me likes to write a happy ending now and then. (That wasn’t originally intended as a pun, but now that I see it, I like it.) What you (assuming there are some of you) may not know is that I’ve had to stop for long periods of time because of school and life and pick back up later. What you may not know unless you are a writer is that picking back up on something that you wrote a year, a month, or even a week ago isn’t easy. You have to recapture the style, the mindsets and voices of your characters, remember where the story was going, remember what’s already happened, recover the emotional tone…the list feels endless.
So, by rights I should be overjoyed that I’ve finally got back to my romance novel and the checklist isn’t giving me too much trouble. My coffee pot’s ringing off the hook, the way it does when I’m about to get some serious work done. I wrote three pages the other day that conformed to the tone, characters, set the plot in motion…I should be more than happy. But I’m not. Yesterday I realized that I’m about to kill the most decent person in my story. Clarence is a loving husband, a wonderful father, and the best friend a man could have. Doing the right thing is of the utmost importance to him unless it would be funnier to do the wrong thing. He’s charming, selfless, and alive. So alive. And even though he’s always known that he would die the same way his father did, he doesn’t want to die. Not yet.
Psychologists might suggest that I’m freaking out so much because I’m only 23 and haven’t had time to deal with my own mortality. Not so. I’ve been dealing with mortality all my life. My parents never shielded us kids from death. If someone we knew died, we went to the visitation or funeral. When our pets kicked it, we were on hand to bury them. My favorite bottle calf had to be butchered so we could eat it–I think I’ve had time to realize that when someone dies they’re not here anymore. No, I’m freaking out because I’m about to effectively push the delete button on a truly good guy for no other reason than moving the plot forward.
Clarence has to die. There’s no way around it. It’s all been leading up to this. And so I’m a murderer for the greater good of my story.