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Author who writes for a living and lives for writing. // WOMB: a novel in utero (Merge Publishing 2017) // TRACKS: A Novel in Stories (Atticus Books 2011) // FLIGHTLESS GOOSE, a storybook for children (Writers Lair Books 2008) // www.EricDGoodman.com

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Letting Characters Decide

Last month at Loyola College, I had the pleasure of seeing bestselling author Alice McDermott in person for the fourth time. The last time we met and talked about our fiction was at November’s National Book Festival.

At the Loyola event, McDermott read from her latest novel, After This, and spoke to an audience of fans, readers, and writers about her work and the craft of writing.

She explained that although she writes fiction, she writes from experience. “Writers like to say that they write from their imagination because that sounds harder,” she said. She’s not literally writing about herself or her family, but she is writing from her experience, observations, and the world she knows. “Our thoughts come from our experience. The way we use words is part of our experience.”

McDermott said that she never writes from an outline or with a set destination in mind. She writes from the hearts and minds of her characters and allows them and their relationships to evolve and drive the story. “If I’m not surprised by what my characters are doing, I stop writing.”

An emotive writer approaches writing like a reader, wanting to be surprised. McDermott’s characters make choices based on who they are; the choices are not made by her as the author. She compares this method to the great clockmaker theory: the author creates the world, but once it’s set in motion, it has to follow the established rules.

“When writing fiction, you’re constantly eliminating choices. As soon as you’ve written that first sentence, you’ve eliminated a million choices. Each sentence eliminates more.”

Alice McDermott has won the National Book Award and has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. Her characters seem to be making good choices for her.

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