During the fall/fall addition of my freshman year of college, the introductory Poli Sci course my parents thought I should take was full and I landed my first creative writing seminar. . Specifically, I landed at a conference table next to Jim. By way of introduction, he held up his most recent book. I was amazed to be in the middle of a real novelist, to see that he was drinking cranberry juice from the vending machine, that he had freckles on his forehead and that he breathed the same air as me. .
My love of novels has always been fierce, but growing up in Plano, Texas, the creators of these novels might as well have lived on another planet. I had come to campus hoping to get a job at the Centers for Disease Control. Instead, I caught the fiction bug and didn’t want a cure.
I modeled my early writings and my budding sense of what a writer is on Jim. I started drinking cranberry juice from a vending machine. I already had freckles. Jim was and is a character-driven writer, a character-driven teacher, for whom plot analysis as part of the craft always felt a bit weak. The message was: if your characters are alive, they find the story for you. But my characters fumbled in the dark, and I left school four years later with a novel full of fascinating eccentrics who never did anything.
I brought my manuscript with me when I moved to New York after college. Now that I knew a little about how to write, I thought I should learn how writing becomes books. I got my first job in a publishing house, where I worked on other people’s novels. In my spare time, I started submitting mine. Five years later, I had racked up 76 rejections and had just been accepted into a graduate fiction writing program in California, when a fellow assistant waved me over to his cubicle.
She knew someone who knew someone who was looking to fill a writing position under a pseudonym: A male writer had started a mainstream young adult series, and he was too busy to finish it. They wanted someone to use their alias, adopt their characters and their voice. I spoke with the voice of male writers since I wrote – in fact, I had not learned to Stop speak with the voice of male writers. Let’s face it: I was speaking with Jim’s voice.
Wouldn’t taking on an already existing protagonist feel like sleeping with a stranger before you had a chance to flirt?
My favorite part of my job at the publishing house was writing the flap for the inside cover of a book, which requires taking on the style and pacing of a story in order to sell it. I suspected that this pseudonymous side hustle would engage the same skill set but in a longer format. Plus, I was about to live on a graduate student allowance. I couldn’t pass up seven thousand dollars.
But I still didn’t know how to write a book where something happened. And the series that I would write had to be plot-heavy. So a few weeks before leaving New York, I recruited a screenwriter friend. We spread a blanket in Central Park, popped some cheap Prosecco, and as the sun went down over the Hudson, she taught me the rhythms of the story – the three-act structure, the B story. , the atrocious Dark Night of the Soul.
I wondered: what about the character? Wouldn’t taking on an already existing protagonist feel like sleeping with a stranger before you had a chance to flirt? With my newfound knowledge of the plot, I figured I could bring my character to the party for the climactic scene… but how would I know how she felt to be there? Doesn’t that make all the difference?
What I’ve learned is that it makes more sense to treat characters as if they’re already fully formed. Even now, when I’m writing a new novel, I’m not trying to build someone from scratch. I meet my characters in res media, get to know souls already alive in a world. I don’t always like them, but I’ve learned that it’s not up to me to change them. This is the work of history.
Meanwhile, I entered college, where I heard new evidence that the conspiracy is for hacks. In my spare time, I hacked my plot-rich pseudonymous series. I studied the previous male writer’s style and looked for places where I could change it – first a little, then a little more, then a lot. I infused the supporting characters with new vigor, giving them the ability to alter the fate of the series.
I told my students how beautiful and enlightening the plot can be.
The deadlines were so crazy – two weeks for 70,000 words – that I had no time to think about theories of identity and authorship. I typed fast and free wherever I could: at the bowling alley where my grad student friends hung out, by the pool at my rented farmhouse in northern California, in the back of my boyfriend’s Chrysler on the way for his work in a winery. I fell in love with the story structure, the plot mechanics. I found that my plots generated character, instead of the other way around.
When I taught my first undergraduate creative writing seminar, I had my own novel to show my students, even though its cover had someone else’s name on it. It wasn’t going to win any awards, but I was proud of what writing this book had taught me. I told my fresh-faced students that I was losing confidence in my character. If character was anything, it was an alchemical function of plot. I told them how beautiful and enlightening the plot can be. The plot separates fiction from life. The plot is long and lively.
And somewhere during my crash course in business novel writing – a year and four pseudonymous books later – I had the idea for a story of my own. It didn’t start with characters, but I knew they were there, wanting to flirt.
My new novel is about a novelist who writes best-selling romance books under a female pseudonym. It’s about the women he writes and the women he writes for. It’s about the editor whose dreams are rearranged when she learns her author‘s true identity. It’s about finding your voice with fiction, always my favorite lie.
by Lauren Kate By any other name is available anywhere that sells books.