Who Is Buster McElroy?

In The Things We Cannot Keep, three brothers reconnect when the oldest one is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction that happened two decades ago. At the insistence of the youngest brother, they go on a camping trip hoping to recapture the magic of the camping excursions from their youth, but things quickly go awry when the weight of their tattered family proves too much. Buster McElroy is the middle brother, a somewhat unreliable narrator who is opinionated, confrontational, and more than mildly provocative.

Now in his 40s, Buster came of age in the chaos leading up to his brother’s conviction and hardened into the cynical critic that he is in the aftermath of his brother’s incarceration. He lacks the empathy that often betrays his younger brother and leaves no kind words in his wake. In the story, he’s the one that changes the most after the unfortunate events unfold following his brother’s release, but he’d refuse to admit it.

To a writer, characters are real people, maybe not in the flesh-and-blood sense, but they are very real in every other way. My characters tend to emerge, not as fully-formed persons in their own right, but as ones that evolve over time. It’s much like when you first meet someone and they introduce themselves in an often-superficial sense, but as you talk to them and learn more, you get a better idea of who they are. As you spend more and more time with them, you learn more about them, and the picture of their personalities develops like old-fashioned film coming to life under the sheen of chemicals in a dark room.

Buster is no different. When I first came up with the idea for this novel (it’s only a concept at this point), he was more defined by his birth order than any singular character trait he possessed because at that point he had none. Slowly, as the story idea turned over in my mind, he became the narrator. Then, he became the skeptical voice that resonated throughout the story. Then, I started thinking “What would Buster say?” whenever I thought of a new twist in the tale. Before I knew it, I had a fully-formed novel outline bustling around in my brain and Buster was the driving force.

For my main characters, I like to write the story of their lives before I write the novel that surrounds them. This gives me reference material as the actual novel unfolds and helps me keep them in character during the inevitable gyrations of novel development. It’s too easy to introduce inconsistencies over the months-long process of developing the first draft, and even later, during rewrites, characters can fall off the wagon if you don’t have a strong idea of who they are.

So who is Buster McElroy? He’s the narrator of The Things We Cannot Keep. He’s a provocative, somewhat unreliable narrator who cajoles the other characters in ways that exploit their weaknesses. He’s an unrepentant critic of everyone whose steadfast opinions color the world around him in ways that blind him. He’s also still evolving as a character, but one thing is certain. The events that unfold over the course of the novel will change him. For better or for worse has yet to be determined.

A Labor of Love

I recently finished reading John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, which is another excellent book from the author featuring eccentric, young characters facing a challenge that ultimately plays out over the course of the story. Green’s books are reliably good, and although I’m not the demographic he targets, I enjoy a well-told story. Green thoroughly develops his characters such that they come alive for the reader, and then, he surrounds them with an intriguing plot. There’s a lot to admire in his writing.

After I finished the book, I turned to the acknowledgments, as I always do when I finish a novel, and read through what the author had to say to those who helped him through the writing of this book. I was surprised to learn that he spent six years writing the book. While Green isn’t as prolific as Stephen King, he has released six books in the last 13 years starting with Looking for Alaska to this most recent book. He’s averaged about a book every three years since his first release. Given the time it takes to write a good book, every three years is about right.

But six years. That struck me as a long time for an established author who writes reliably good novels. I’d love to chat with him about why it took so long, not because I’m being critical, but because I want to understand the creative process he went through. Quite frankly, it’s comforting in some way that even big-name authors plod through their work. It’s proof that the creative process is not a nice walk down a breezy lane on a cool, spring day. Sometimes, it’s a slog through a rainstorm in knee-deep mud.

If anything I can sympathize. I’ve been working on my current novel for almost two years (it will be two years in July), and I don’t feel I’m close to finishing. I’m on my third full re-write. There have been moments where I’ve wanted to throw it in the virtual trash bin and work on something else. Some mornings, I look at my manuscript and just write a blog post or a short story instead. My motivation waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. There are moments of pure inspiration that drive me to write two thousand words in a single sitting, and then there are moments, where I’m lucky if I can get two hundred coherent words to fit on the page. I’d change the title of the book to The Neverending Story if it didn’t sound like a flashback to the 1980s.

Nevertheless, I keep plodding along. This book may never go anywhere, but I’ll be damned if I don’t finish it. I have to see if it works. It may not, but I want to give it a chance even if it takes another two years. Then, I will work on something else.