Two new characters showed up and said they decided to be in my short story

Yogi Berra once said, (and I’m paraphrasing rather than looking it up) If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.

I’ve inserted this clip art to make the post look easier to read.

This is the case when I write. I just read in the latest issue of Poets & Writers Magazine that author Richard Powers creates what amounts to a huge outline and treatise before he begins writing a novel. Far be it from me to criticize his approach because whatever he’s doing is resulting in great work.

Yet it gives me the willies. It reminds me of the research papers we did in high school where we had to turn in our note cards and outlines along with the papers. I always prepared that crap after I was done with the paper because none of it helped me write the paper. It doesn’t help me write stories now.

I think that I would miss a lot of opportunities if I created a synopsis and outline before I wrote anything. Just yesterday, I was writing with no roadmap and two new characters showed up. With my usual tact, I said, “who the hell are you?”

The ghost, whose name is Slappy, said who he is is none of my business and that I’ll discover whatever I need to know as the story unfolds. Shauna was more politically correct. Referring to my muse, she said, “Siobhan sent me. I’m supposed to play the role of a graduate student on an internship at the haunted theatre in your story.” I guessed that Slappy was there to help out with the haunting.

So far, they’ve worked out well. But, if I’d had an outline, my receptionist Gypsy Rose Lee would have turned them away at the front door. The story wouldn’t have been as much fun to write, and none of my adoring readers would have said, “How do you think up characters like this?” I would lie–because that’s what writers are expected to do–and say “my imagination.” In reality, I don’t think them up. They show up.

If you’re a planner, my approach will drive you insane. It might have already driven me insane though, typically, I’ll be the last to know. Meanwhile, I like surprises. They make writing a story as much fun as reading a story because I never know what’s going to happen next.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Florida Folk Magic Stories,” a collection of my three magical realism novels, “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and “Lena.”

Sometimes writer’s block gives you a chance to figure things out in your work in progress

I knew before life got derailed in April and May with unexpected trips to the hospital for unplanned surgeries, that a new character was about to appear in my work in progress, a guy named Rutherford “Rudy” Flowers. I also knew he was going to show up in the next scene in the book.

But after the surgeries–and a reasonable recovery period–I couldn’t write that scene. Uh oh, writer’s block. I even knew what critical piece of information he planned to tell my protagonist. But still, I hadn’t figured out the character, and that meant–well, the writer’s block.

Wikipedia photo.
Wikipedia photo.

This is a potential problem for those of us who write with no outlines and with no nailed-down sequences of events in mind for our novels and short stories. Every once in a while, something is supposed to happen. We don’t know why, and we can’t move until some of that why comes to mind.

When this happens to me–as it just did–I tinker around the edges of the book without writing anything. Since it’s set in the 1950s, I can always go more research into slang, clothing, events, foods and products of the time period. Some of what I learn actually comes in handy. This tinkering, though, ultimately unlocks my writers block. It’s odd, I know, but research often brings things to light that I wasn’t looking for, things that turn out to be vital to the story.

If you believe in muses–and I do–it’s almost as though the muse has put a hex on my being able to open the Word file with the story in it until I figure out there’s something I need to know before I go back to it. Now that I’ve found that something, I see there were clues to it all over the place that I just wasn’t noticing. Now I know who Rudy Flowers is and how vital he and his mother are to the story.

Writer’s block is usually aggravating, especially when your publisher is waiting for you to hand in the manuscript. I’ve never been able to force myself out of writer’s block like those writers and teachers who say it’s better to sit down and write anything at all rather than to write nothing. I’m better off writing nothing (not counting blogs and tweets) than trying to force a story to happen when the words aren’t there.

If you’re a writer, how do you face writer’s block and finally get back to work? As for me, I’m back to my story because the muse has come home.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Emily’s Stories.”

 

Unfolding a novel out of cluttered thoughts

Let’s say you have an idea for a story in which a 21st century man walks across Florida in search of the fountain of youth.

If you’re an organized person, you might rush to your computer, open a DOCX file and start creating an outline. If you’re a disorganized person, you might wander the blue highways of Florida for a few years and see what kinds of ideas come to mind. Maybe you’ll even find the fountain of youth.

We'd all be better writers if high school English teachers taught us the value of hunches.
We’d all be better writers if high school English teachers taught us the value of hunches.

I don’t advocate either approach. Outlines tend to restrict the story before it has time to take shape–that is, everything you don’t put in the outline tends not to be considered. Wandering tends to be addictive and pretty soon the story gets put off for a year or two and then a year of two more.

You’ve heard people say: “I was just thinking about Uncle Nat when he called up” and “My wife and I were wondering why we don’t see any red barns and then suddenly we begin seeing them everywhere.”

Whether you want to call it creating your own reality, fate, destiny or the focus of your awareness, thinking or researching one thing tends to draw similar things to mind. If you’re allowing your story to unfold, these similar things can add a lot to the plot, theme, characters and settings.

For example, while working on my upcoming novella about a conjure woman, I began finding multiple references linking conjure and the blues. I like the blues and so I looked further (trying not to wander and become distracted with my research) and found that many blues songs refer to conjure women or being “tricked” (hexed) or needing some good gambling MOJO.

These ideas enhanced the plot of my novella because blues songs and a juke joint became part of the story. Had I outlined the story in advance, covering the major ideas I had for it, I might not have found how well the blues fit what I needed to do.

Many writers I know tell me that when they research a subject–and don’t get in a hurry about it–the research leads them from one thing to another thing and suddenly (as though it’s destiny) they find something very crucial to their story. How? I don’t know. But the “how” doesn’t matter. The results are what matter.

If you’re writing a novel about a modern day Ponce de León, reading about the historic person who purportedly sought the fountain of youth might generate ideas. Where in Florida did he go? Look at those places and keep your mind open for landforms, local legends, and perhaps a little history about the kinds of people who have lived there.

This might look like a waste of time because, after all, most of us were told in our high school English classes to start themes, book reports, term papers, etc. with many hours of work on an outline. Sooner or later, you might want to do this. When it comes to fiction, later (and possibly never) are better than sooner.

Let’s say the story you want to write has been nagging you to write it. Part of “writing it” is finding it. When it unfolds naturally, then you’ll probably end up writing the story you really wanted to write even though you didn’t know you wanted to write it the way it turned out when the idea first came to mind.

Writing that outline first has about as much chance of resulting in a good story as a marriage has of working out when you marry somebody during the first date before you know who they are.

Malcolm

EScover2014Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Emily’s Stories,” a three-story set about a young girl who allows her intuition to guide her so that she can solve problems her practical-minded parents can’t solve.