Riding the Whirlwind of Story

Poet and teacher Natalie Diaz says that stories are energy and I believe her.

While I’m hard-pressed to find anything that is not energy, energy takes many forms, manifesting at varying rates of vibration. You must be receptive to it, though, as a writer or a reader or as some random person minding his/her business who suddenly gets swept away by the chance meeting with a tsunami of story.

When I’m thinking about writing a story, I delay and delay and delay because I know that once I commit to that story, the whirlwind begins, has no mercy, is ubiquitous, steals sleep and sanity and every unguarded thought. But all that is one of the joys of writing, it’s like surfing, skiing, skydiving and the best sex you’ve every had.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that when story energy appears, I ride it with little (if any) knowledge about where the whirlwind is going. Today, while I was more or less innocently minding my own business, a new character appeared in my novel in progress. “Who are you and where the hell did you come from?”

“I’m Julia Hughes Adams from uptown Manhattan and apparently got pulled away from the comforts of Harlem into the Florida Panhandle through an unkind wormhole in space.”

“I feel your pain,” I said.

“I doubt it, white boy,” she said.

Long ago, I stopped trying to answer the question of how the hell do these things happen? There’s no point in asking though I suspect the answer has to do with quantum entanglement.

I’ve learned the hard way that writers have to open themselves up to these story whirlwinds if they want to write stuff that’s any good, that resonates with people, that has the guts to injure readers where they need to be injured and restored anew.

The whole shebang is similar to getting really stoned and/or really drunk and letting whatever happens happen. Sure, you might end up in jail; if you do, that adds depth to your story. Whatever happens, you’ll probably embarrass yourself, but–to put it bluntly–you need to stop giving a rat’s ass about such things even though it might tick off your parents or spouse.

Let the story be what it wants to be. Or else.

Malcolm

 

Writer’s Resource: Army Field Manuals

United States Army Field Manuals are published by the United States Army‘s Army Publishing Directorate. As of 27 July 2007, some 542 field manuals were in use.[1] They contain detailed information and how-tos for procedures important to soldiers serving in the field.  – Wikipedia

These manuals are a wonder for writers researching multiple subjects whether writing about war/battles or not. I’ve used the first aid manuals for years because they show the basic techniques that can be applied in the field by non-medical personnel. If one of your characters breaks a leg, for example, the field manual shows you what first aid to use.

The manuals can be found in a variety of places, some for sale on Amazon, others are various free sites. Click on the word “Wikipedia” after the quote above for an overview. One handy downloading source (various formats) can be found at the US Military Manual Collection website. There’s quite a list here.

There’s good stuff (e.g. Sniper Training) for writers doing novels about battles and black ops.  For general writing, there’s Map Reading and Land Navigation (very good: used this in ROTC and Scouting), Basic Cold Weather Manual, Carpentry, Welding, Diving.

Maybe you’ll find something here that helps your research.

Malcolm

Click on my name and you’ll find my Facebook Author’s Profile. Every day, I fill it with links to book reviews, author interviews, and publishing information.

Do all your characters sound like you?

When creative writing students turn in their first short story or dialogue exercise, the teacher’s response is frequently, “All of your characters sound like you.”

The writer had certain points to communicate via dialogue and distributed them amongst the characters as though their manner of speaking is interchangeable. Or, as the teacher might say, “You should be able to tell which character is talking by what they say and how they say it.”

Several student responses are likely: (1) A dozen synonyms for said. (Yes, there’s a difference between “he said,” “he yelled,” and “he whispered.”) But they don’t help if the words that are said don’t sound any different in tone, structure, word choice, accent, and focus than the three other people in the conversation. (2) The student thinks up a list of eccentric phrases and distributes these amongst the characters, rather like dealing out cards, so that EVERYONE TALKS FUNNY. The teacher is likely to say, “The people sound like they just escaped from a carnival freakshow.”

One of the hardest things for a writer to do is getting to know his/her characters so well that the way they talk arises naturally out of the person. People talk differently because they are different. The writer’s at a disadvantage here if s/he hasn’t spent any time listening to how “real people” express themselves. Some use slang, some have accents, others speak in short sentences while a few speak in paragraphs. Children sound like children and are influenced by fad words from school or (in modern times) words from texting. Older people may use terms from 40-50 years ago that young people may never have heard, as in “You ain’t got no gumption.”

One way to figure all this out is by reading the works of authors who write great dialogue. TV viewers and critics used to say “‘The West Wing’ has great dialogue.” Listen to a few of these shows and figure out what Aaron Sorkin did to make his characters’ dialogue memorable. Here again, the characters all had their issues, likes and dislikes, fears, joys, etc., so what they said fit who they were.

Resist the urge to pepper conversations with small talk. That slows down the story even if it does sound just like a conversation you heard in a store or on the subway. You are advancing the plot, not shooting the breeze. Read your words aloud. So they sound like they’re words to be read or words to be spoken?

If you look up “writing dialogue” online, you’ll find some decent advice that’s almost as good a learning by reading well-written novels.

Malcolm

 

What the hell was I thinking?

“Romance novels are big business. According to the Romance Writers of America®, the romance fiction industry is worth $1.08 billion dollars a year,* which makes it about a third larger than the inspirational book industry, and about the size of the mystery novel genre and science fiction/fantasy genre markets combined. Romance novels regularly top the major bestseller lists (New York Times, Publishers Weekly and USA Today), and have a large, dedicated audience of readers.”

– Valerie Peterson in “What You Need to Know About Romance Genre Fiction”

Learning About TaleFlick

The trouble started when a writer friend told me her novel was listed on TaleFlick and perhaps I’d consider voting for it. TaleFlick tries to bring novels to the attention of Hollywood through reader votes, one per person. After voting for my friend’s novel, I entered one of my own, Conjure Woman’s Cat.

What the Hell Was I Thinking?

The answers to this question vary from, (a) I was drunk, (b) I mixed up pot with oregano when I made spaghetti sauce that day, (c) Mindless Vanity, (d) Magical thinking that Hollywood needed this story, (e) An illogical belief that an anti-KKK novel set in the 1950s could possibly compete against–wait for it–Romance.

Getting My Ass Kicked

If I’d known that a romance novel with a title similar to a famous Hollywood movie, one categorized on Amazon as Erotic Thrillers, Romantic Erotica, Erotic Suspense, was in the running, would have waited a few weeks before signing up for another contest.

At this moment (2:33 p. m. ET, 2/13/20202) this week’s contest has 1 day, 4 hours, and 25 minutes left to run. Double Identity has 1,850 votes; Conjure Woman’s Cat has 15 votes. So it’s close, what with the vote counts from outlying precincts being somewhat slow to come in.

In general, though, I should know better than to fight romance with magical realism. So, lesson learned. My next book’s going to begin with an orgy on page one that lasts as long as the readers can stand it. No doubt, it will be banned in Boston.

Malcolm

 

 

 

The usual Sunday potpourri

  • We had a bit of Northwest Georgia snow for a while yesterday, thick enough to cover the yards and mess up your hair if you walked out into it with a camera. It all melted away by mid-afternoon.
  • My novel Conjure Woman’s Cat will be among those listed on TaleFlick this coming week. According to their web site, “TaleFlick Discovery is a weekly contest that allows the public to vote on which stories they want to see adapted to the screen. Fans can now be involved earlier in the filmmaking process than ever before.” Personally, if Conjure Woman’s Cat became a movie, I’d like to see Viola Davis in the lead role of Eulalie–not that anyone would ask me for casting advice.
  • In spite of my criticism about the amount of backstory in Cemetery Road, I enjoyed reading the novel. The small-town alliances and secrets make for a very complex story that’s even hard for a man returning to his old hometown to figure out. Suffice it to say, there is great depth in the characters and enough lies to cover almost everything that happens.
  • I’m actually writing again, at work on a novel that might be considered a sequel of sorts to the three Florida Folk Magic novels set in the Florida Panhandle in the 1950s. It’s fun while I’m writing and frustrating while I’m researching the specifics from hospital care and to dishwashing soap promotions of the era.
  • My website will expire on the 20th of this month. I’m sad to see it go, but it’s no longer financially viable. I’ve deleted most of the information on it, leaving a home page with links to my writing. I’m happy to say that a fair number of people visited this site every month. Thank you.
  • My eyes are starting to glaze over about the American Dirt controversy. I see most of the complaints about the novel as a spurious tempest in a teapot.

Malcolm

Backstory adds depth while slowing down the primary action

Greg Iles Cemetery Road is a compelling thriller; I’ll stipulate that’s an early opinion inasmuch as I haven’t reached the half-way point yet.

The protagonist, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Marshall McEwan, returns to the small town where he grew up because his father is in ill health and his newspaper business is failing. (I would have used a different name since this one is too close to Marshall McLuhan, the famous media expert and philosopher). Marshall’s old friend is murdered and thus begins the current-day primary plot of the novel.

Having lived in a small town, I understand what Iles is doing when he shows how interconnected people are, including those who leave for the big city and then return. There are many kinds of loyalties and associations (including a former love interest) that make solving the murder about as tricky and running through a minefield.

The book has great depth in the development of its characters and is a page-turner when Marshall and others are up against entrenched and hostile movers and shakers who consider that murder to be a benefit to their business interests. The problems begin when the backstory segments get too lengthy; for example, Marshall was a reporter in Iraq, embedded with a group run by another long-time friend. But, my view is that when a description of what happened in Iraq runs to 16 pages, the backstory has run amok.

Suddenly, we’re in a different novel while the main story is put on hold. I think the Iraq relationship of two primary characters could have been explained in several paragraphs rather than taking us on such a long diversion. And, this is not the only time such a diversion happens. My cynical side says that without these diversions, the story would be pretty slim if it stuck to solving the murder.

I don’t know how things end up, of course. So, isn’t a review, but an an example of the problems of using too much backstory.

Malcolm

Do you read the acknowledgements sections of novels

I skip the acknowledgement section unless I’m reading a book that posits an alternative history or a modern take on a real history because I want to know what parts of such books are true. Otherwise, acknowledgements seem like sucking up:

A big thank you to my wife who decided not to divorce me when she discovered this book was likely to make us rich.

No greater editorial team exists that can top Tom, Julie, Wes, Jim, and Sandra at BIG ASS PUBLISHERS, LTD. Without them, I’d still be selling used cemetery plots.

A special thanks to the intensely personal help of the girls at Nevada’s Rising Sin Gentlemen’s Club who showed me the ins and out of selling sex. 

Bob and Mary, if you’re still married when this book is published, thank you for taking me into your home and showing me your illegal gun collection. Wow, we could launch a revolution. I’ve changed your names here so the FEDS won’t be able to find you.

Frankly, I don’t want to read all this smarmy stuff. I guess it’s there only for one’s spouse, Tom, Julie, Wes, Jim, Sandra, Bob, Mary, and the ladies of the evening at one’s writer’s get-a-way location.

On the other hand, I’m intrigued by short and sweet:

For Zeke, who knows where all the bodies are buried.

For Emily, who only cheated on her husband once during the Vermont Writer’s Conference last year (Thanks for last night.)

For my wife (who still thinks my pseudonym is “Stephen King”).

Now those are the kinds of sentiments that tempt me to look for more of an author’s books.

How about you. Do you read the acknowledgements?

–Malcolm

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