My friend Diane Chamberlain made a terrifying discovery this week. Somehow, through no fault of her own, one of her minor characters, Sam, began showing up in the strangest places in her novel. At the beginning of sentences instead of the word “but.” In scenes with other characters, when he suddenly played all the roles. Imagine scenes, as Diane explains them, in which Sam is talking to Sam who is talking to Sam.
Now, this is not funny. In fact, that moment when our word processors decide to write our novels their way is a writer’s worst nightmare.
Don’t ask me why, but I woke up in the middle of the night and tried to imagine Diane explaining this to others. How was she going to tell Microsoft etc. that Word had gone over to the dark side? I envisoned that first conversation, with a technician on a continent far, far away.
Diane: “Hello? I’m worried about Microsoft–“
Techie: “I can assure you, there is never anything to worry about when it comes to Microsoft. Do not believe the ads. Microsoft has no competition, and Apple is nothing more than an upstart, I know this very well. Yes, Microsoft is indeed trying to take over the planet, but when it does, everything will be much, much superior to what you see–“
Diane: “No, Microsoft Word is my problem. I was writing, and suddenly this guy named Sam showed up–“
Techie: “We can do many things here, but we can not control who shows up when you are writing. This you must control yourself.”
Diane: “But I need Sam to–“
Techie: “One moment, then, I will look at our list of support staff and see if we have this Sam. Perhaps he can help you again, as he helped you before.”
Or how about trying to explain this event to her editor?
Diane: “You won’t believe what happened to me. I’m trying hard to make sure it doesn’t keep happening, but I just don’t know. I have this minor character named Sam. Remember him from my proposal? Suddenly Sam’s all over the manuscript–“
Editor: “Well, that happens sometimes. All writers get bored with their major story, and secondary characters suddenly look like more fun to write about. Just don’t give into the temptation.”
Diane: “That’s not exactly what happened. Sam just started appearing everywhere.”
Editor: “Yes, I realize characters can take over if you let them. Here’s an idea. Save Sam’s story for another novel. Maybe you ought to do a sequel with Sam as the main guy on stage. How does that sound?”
Diane: “Not much chance of that. I would strangle him.”
And finally, with her writer buddy (moi) who spent a year training as a Gestalt therapist.
Diane: “You aren’t going to believe what happened to me. I looked back at the chapters I’ve written, and Sam was suddenly everywhere! Instead of the names of other characters. Instead of conjunctions–“
Emilie: “That’s worrisome. Who’s Sam?”
Diane: “He’s just a minor character.”
Emilie: “He doesn’t sound minor to me, Diane. If you’ve been typing in his name everywhere he must represent something important in your life.”
Diane: “I haven’t been typing it. My Word program–“
Emilie: “I see. Let’s just go with this a little further. Why don’t you put Sam in the empty chair next to you. Do you see him there? Now, tell Sam whatever you want to tell him. He can’t answer back. Just let him know exactly how you feel about him.”
Diane: “For somebody who seems perfectly bright, you can be so clueless!”
Emilie: “Okay, I know this can be hard. I won’t take that personally. Let’s try it this way, then. You be Sam. Describe yourself this way: I am Sam. I am a man who likes–“
Diane: “I’m hanging up now. I have to change a million Sam’s back to the names they were supposed to be.”
Emilie: “I’m so glad to hear you’re ready. That’s a big step. Just remember, I’m always here to help you. Call anytime.”
In April and May, look for reissues of two of Diane’s classics, Summer’s Child and The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes. You’ll be glad you did. Oh, and don’t look for any future books with Sam as a character. I think he’s been permanently banned.