Tuesday, July 1, 2014


I am sad to see you go, but you did your job well.

Let me explain.  In the novel I just finished, I gave a character a stutter. It wasn't a casual decision. I thought it out deeply, interviewed people, read and researched causes, symptoms and treatments.

I sneaked it in quietly while he was busy failing in love with another character. When he tried to talk to her, he couldn't say her name properly, which set a wrench in the love department.  He also found himself breathing and moaning and stumbling over words until my readers protested with marginal comments like, "Not the stutter again!"

Sweet, sensitive guy that he is, he took it all in stride-- the way he'd accepted the abusive father, dead mother, poverty and general pain I'd already saddled him with.

Overkill, anyone?

I cut back the stutter on the page, tried ingenious ways to make it sexy, played with sounds and words, and created the most tender scene ever when he finally says her name and stumbles over it. But at that moment he and I reached an impasse. He resented the stutter and let me know by suddenly breaking into long speeches without stumbling over a single letter or syllable.

The character he fell in love with had warned the reader (and me) about him from Day One. Everyone else saw only the sweetness in him, but she noticed the icy glint in his eyes, the steel resolve behind the gentle demeanor.

I yielded and watered down the stutter even more until only hints remained and a few oddly pronounced words.

It became ridiculous.

My readers sighed. "We love him except for the stutter."

Then my agent read the book. "About that stutter ..."

Damn damn damn. I knew it. We had a ferocious talk, my character and me. He did not stutter once. "You gave me enough crosses to bear," he said. "You did your work. I'm who I am, I don't need that stutter."

I reread what I'd written-- page by page, word by word-- and they were right, all of them. It's not the stutter itself that was an issue-- it was that I'd imposed it on him as a sort of cosmetic prop that became unnecessary and distracting. But the work I'd done had paid off. He is a complex character with a rich past and a story to tell. In the end he didn't need the stutter, and neither did the book.

I believe surgery was a success. So R.I.P., dear Stutter. Learning about you made me very sensitive to the issue of stuttering. You were a great help in exploring and developing my character, and I'm sorry you couldn't remain in the final manuscript.

But the shadow-stutter is still there in my character's silences and the curious rhythm of his words. He remembers what it was like to feel a monster hand clamp over his mouth and make every syllable torture until he created his own way of talking-- one in which every word matters.

I hope the reader will sense traces of it too, even if it's not on the page. It's all part of the process of creation-- layer upon layer that make up the foundation of a work of art. The colors and streaks of paint you glimpse in a painting, the scratches & scrawls underlying a finished story ... The part that shows we're human and flawed, always struggling to bring our visions into the light.

The part I love most.

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