His Quiet Agent: When the characters write themselves
His Quiet Agent (formally The Agency) was an accident of a book. Not to say I accidentally wrote a book, but rather that the book I thought I was writing became something completely different. Currently it’s my best reviewed book (with one exception of one dude from Canada) which is nice but also makes me a little uncomfortable. Several people have commented on how nice it is to see ace and demi characters who aren’t “fixed” and have an HEA. Others are commenting about how romantic it is and how touched they are by it. And I feel like such an impostor.
When I started The Agency, six years ago I figured I was writing just another bog standard, 50k, MM, romance. I’d have two characters, they’d meet, screw, fall in love, live happily ever after. Done. Should have taken six months instead of six years. But for some reason the damn thing just wouldn’t get written. It was years before I could even settle on a name for Arthur. Martin was always Martin.
In Arthur’s first incarnation he was social, outgoing, and popular. Not characteristics I know how to write and he came across as a bit of a dick. I continued to pick away at the story for years, outlining, writing scenes, deleting scenes, restructuring. Still thinking I was writing a 50k category type romance I talked over the issue with the person sitting next to me at the Friday of the 2016 RWNZ conference. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who. I’m bad with names and a bit face blind but they said, “what if John (place holder name) is socially awkward instead”?
Well, you should write what you know, and it helped. I deleted literally everything I had written in the previous years and started from scratch. Arthur became Arthur so I could make a Merlin and Arthur joke (literally that was the whole reason), and he became a raging ball of insecurities because Write What You Know. But even with that I wasn’t writing what I thought I was writing.
Long ago and far away I thought I would grow up to be an actor. I suck at it but that doesn’t mean I didn’t go through years of acting classes many of them in Method acting. For those who aren’t familiar it basically means knowing every tiny little thing about the character you are playing. It means knowing what they had for breakfast last Thursday and the name of their childhood dog even though none of that is in the script. I am an awful actor, but I am on many levels a Method writer. I know a lot about my characters. They often exist in my head as fully formed people before I have a story for them. Characters waiting for their moment on the stage, clambering for their time on the page.
Martin however was different. He was there in my head in his almost black suit, a little too skinny, saying nothing, and seeing everything. You know you’re a writer when you’re pissed the voices in your head aren’t talking to you. But still I pushed on. Had the Meet Cute, First connections, sort of first date. Arthur was starting to flow but Martin was quiet, giving me nothing about his past, who he was, why he did what he did.
“But you’re the Author, don’t you just decide those things?”
Oh, I wish it worked that way. I can start a character one way but any attempt to force it just comes out bad. Did you read Empty Nests? Draft one James was a girl. Gabe was white. Characters change.
The few times Martin did speak up was when I hit a point in the outlining or writing where I thought there should be a sex scene. There was going to be one after the movie date, one after the funeral, one right at the end, but every time I got to a point where it seemed natural for them to just lean in and kiss Martin would say No. I actually did write in one sex scene and it was awful. I mean it was beyond bad. I didn’t even get all the way through it before I just deleted the whole chapter. So, I ended my outline with Martin and Arthur sitting on Martin’s floor then took a step back.
What I had outlined and half written was not what I had even remotely planned on. Stylistically it was different than anything else I’d done and the characters were a vastly different than my previous ones as well. Quieter, more introspective, more careful with themselves and others.
Writers talk to the imaginary people in their heads all the time. That’s how we make stories. Sometimes they are long conversations, sometimes they go like this.
Me: So, sex?
Martin: No, thank you.
Me: Can I at least find out what you like on your pizza?!
For the record I love Martin. I think he’s my favourite if most frustrating person to ever crawl out of my head and onto a page. Not that Martin would ever crawl. He’s got too much dignity for that.
For a lot of writers, myself included, sex scenes can be an easy short hand. They are at stage X in the relationship and you know that because they’re boinking. Not this time. Time to write another draft, this one with story hour and cooking lessons and angsty voice mail left at three in the morning. Not the story I was planning to tell in 2011.
His Quiet Agent was rejected by publishers for not being a romance or romantic. I had a panic attack the day it went live. No one will read it, everyone will hate it, this will kill my career, I’ll have to change my name and go back to writing rejected spec scripts.
People are reading it. People are loving it and responding to it and I feel like such a fraud because these characters very much wrote themselves and told their own stories. I was simply allowed to peak into their lives and take a few notes before presenting it to you. And for everyone asking for a sequel, the 33 thousand words you just read took six years, give me a little time to see if I can get the guys talking again.