Writers: How to know when you’ve got your groove back

Some manuscripts have a meh quality to them. That’s not good. If you’re bored with it, the publisher will also be bored along with prospective readers. Take two aspirin or a double Scotch and go back to it in a few days. If it’s still meh, get rid of it, at least let it set for a while and go on to something else.

But some manuscripts sing. That’s the first clue about getting your groove back. Then more stuff begins to happen:

  • You’re reading a compelling novel like Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and here come your characters right in the middle of it, talking the dialogue right out of the book (You got a girl? Shit no. You sound like you’ve had some bad experiences. Who aint? You fool with them and that’s the kind you’ll have.)
  • You’re watching one of the final episodes of “How to Get Away with Murder” and after Annalise Keating says, “Prayers are for the weak–I’ll stick to beating your ass in court,” one of your characters blurts out “Say which?” and you find yourself writing dialogue for your book while people on the show are getting away with murder.
  • Taylor Swift is singing “The Man” and you get it mixed up with Burl Ives’ “The Big Rock Candy Mountain because your story is pushing on your hand like the dog that’s not getting petted.
  • You’re ready for a good night’s sleep, turn out the lights, the cat snuggles in close and purs outs a lullaby, and ten minutes later you realize your seeing scenes from your story rolling through your mind’s eye like big trucks on a long-haul highway.”
  • Your spouse and/or significant other says, “Do you want sex,” and you say, “No, I’m busy, but thanks for asking.”

Storywise, you got it bad and that ain’t good because you won’t have your life back until you finish your book. The groove’s got you.


Where do writers go when they write?

When I’m working on a novel, I’m not really here in the real world. That’s what my wife tells me.

I’m variously not present, not listening, forgetful, zoned out, in limbo, or in a cocoon.  When I emerge—hopefully with a completed manuscript for a book that will no doubt soar to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list—I hear what I’ve missed:

  • The neighborhood was taken over by rogue ground squirrels.
  • Iran and Iraq both filled out the paperwork to become U.S. states.
  • Jennifer Lopez appeared at the front door in her new snakeskin blouse and miniskirt and asked if Malcolm could go library and museum hopping with her.
  • All the known planets lined up, creating some interesting birth charts and a few more predictions about the end of the world and/or the end of good taste.

My wife is always the first to know when I type the words THE END on a major draft of a manuscript. I’m like a man who’s just come home from the war, amnesia or prison. And trust me, I have a lot of catching up to do.

Meanwhile, as I typed the words THE END on the manuscript for my newest Glacier National Park novel, Sarabande, today I felt like a child on Christmas morning. Those are very exciting words for an author even though they don’t mean the book, much less the work, is done.

They are a new beginning. The manuscript is fine-tuned. An editor takes a serious look at it, weeding out all the misspelled words, punctuation glitches and any inconsistencies the author hasn’t discovered yet. Cover artwork and release dates are discussed.  And, as I wondered when The Sun Singer and Garden of Heaven were in their about-to-emerge-from-the-cocoon status, I thought how will readers react?

After an author lives inside his story for a while, missing J. Lo’s visit to the front door and the ground squirrels romping through the yard, he hopes readers will also enjoy losing themselves in the story as soon as it appears as an e-book and a paperback.

I don’t put a warning label on it, though. You’re on your own recognizance. If you zone out and miss exciting international events or important wedding anniveraries and birthdays, don’t call me. I’ll be zoned out in another universe.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released Bears; Where they Fought: Life in Glacier Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley, a glimpse at the dramatic history of the most beautiful place on Earth. A Natural Wonderland… Amazing Animals… Early Pioneers…Native Peoples… A Great Flood… Kinnickinnick… Adventures… The Great Northern Railway.

“Give a month at least to this precious reserve.  The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and will make you truly immortal. — John Muir, “Our National Parks,” 1901