Writing is like living in a fixer-upper house

“You know those people who buy fixer-upper homes, move into them, and live there while they renovate them? That’s what a story is like. You move into the story, you occupy it like a house, and you live there until it’s completely done.” –Thrity Umrigar

In an earlier post called About Waiting for Inspiration, I noted that serious professional writers work every day rather than sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That post suggested things writers can do to make inspired story ideas more likely.

Likewise, there are things writers can do once they have a story idea that will make it more likely the plot will unfold. Better to let the plot and characters come to mind naturally rather that sitting down, staring at a blank screen, and waiting for something to happen.

I like author Thrity Umrigar’s fixer-upper house analogy. First, it paints a very accurate picture about what goes on during an author’s waking hours while s/he is actively working on a short story or novel. Second, it suggests one reason why authors often stare off in space or seem not to be listening while they’re around others. They’re physically in the room, but mentally they’re conversing with their characters or chasing bad guys through a bad section of town.

Unrigar adds that when you’re committed to a story, “That means you’re thinking about your story all the time, living with it, never letting it wander too far away from you. A story is like a newborn–you have to tend to it, feed it, be aware of it all the time.”

When you’re living in a house white renovating it, you’re on the scene 24/7. You not only notice what needs to be done, but think of new ideas that didn’t occur to you when you first walked in the front door. A story is like that. Authors don’t see every detail of every character, scene, description, and plot twist when they first think of an idea.

When you’re living in a fixer-upper house, it’s easier to see potential traffic flows, floor plan changes, and value-added features than it was while the house was something you might buy. When you see what your fictional characters see–or might see–it becomes more apparent whether they’re moving in the right direction or not, wearing the clothes that suit them, or adding to the prospective reader’s excitement by doing this or that or something else.

Seriously, when you’re committed to a story, it never goes away until you finish it–and maybe, not even then. Like the fixer-upper house that’s ready to sell, you have to resist the urge to tinker after it’s time to send your story or novel off to an agent, magazine, or publisher. It takes self-confidence to know when the story is truly finished and when the fixer-upper house is ready to list with a realtor.

Either way, living in the story and the fixer-upper house is a necessity.


Jock Stewart’s Writing Prompts for ‘Dummies’

My name’s Jock Stewart and I’ve taken over this blog with a guest post for writers who can’t do squat without a writing prompt. Frankly, as a newspaper reporter, I’ve discovered that the best writing prompt in the world comes when the editor says something like, “Hey, Stewart, a dogshit truck tipped over at the corner of Fifth and Main. Write me a front page story without using the word ‘shit’ or making any jokes.”

I know it’s not politically correct to use the word “Dummies.” First, I don’t care. Second, the word adds spunk to the title of this post. Third, I put it in quotes and that means it’s tongue in cheek.

Here are your prompts:

  1. writerpromptsA reporter at a small-town newspaper learns that a dogshit truck tipped over at the corner of Fifth and Main. When he arrives, the truck driver screams, “It’s a Commie plot” before a one-armed man pushes him into a porta-potty that mysteriously slides down hill into the river. When the reporter tells the police what happened, they laugh, and say he’s acting like a fugitive. Possible title: IN A WORLD OF IT
  2. Bob and Monique are kissing on the front porch of Monique’s house after a rather successful date on lovers lane when the porch light goes out. “Oh hell,” shouts Monique, “Daddy’s caught us.” When Bob investigates rather than running like a bat our of hell, he discovers Daddy leaning stone cold dead against the wall in the front hallway with his fingers on the light switch. The police tell Bob he’s a fugitive. Possible title: THE LIGHT THAT FAILED
  3. A man who fell asleep twenty years ago while making out on lover’s lane, wakes up today to discover he’s a father and has five or more kids running around loose acting like he’s a no-account drunk that can’t do any better than sleep his life away in an old Buick on an overgrown road. When he asks, “Who’s your mama,” none of the kids know. Possible title: GETTING LUCKY
  4. A woman who got hit on the head by a baseball from a nearby semi-pro game, gets amnesia and can’t remember the address if the brothel where she believes she was working just a short time ago. The team manager, who claims he can get to first base whenever he wants to, tells the woman she’s not “the type” to be a lady of the evening and is more likely a preacher’s kid. Now she doesn’t know whether to fish or cut bait. Possible title: GET THEE TO A NUNNERY
  5. Two men walk into an abandoned house where absolutely nothing happens. Possible title: BEING AND NOTHINGNESS
  6. An owl and a pussy-Cat go to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. Even though they have money, honey and a five pound note, they hit an iceberg and while the boat is sinking have a dream about Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and a nude scene involving a valuable necklace.  When they’re rescued, police force them to eat mince and slices of quince with a runcible spoon while interrogating them about a jewelry store heist. Possible title: HEARTLESS OF THE OCEAN
  7. Vladimir and Estragon go to a train station to kill a man named Godot, but they can’t find him. They decide the whole mess they’ve gotten themselves into is Carl Jung’s fault and so they start waiting for him. After a while a lady who calls herself Mrs. Freud tells them they’re both crazy. They’re so pissed at her, they offer her an exploding cigar. Possible title: SHOULD A GENTLEMEN OFFER A LADY A TIPARILLO?
  8. A guy has a dream that he’s a robot from the future who’s been sent back in time to kill himself before he can kill himself and change a future that couldn’t possible happen if he’s successful. The police waste lots of bullets without hitting anything. His first act is to decide whether it’s live or it’s Memorex. Possible title: INDETERMINATE

Eight is enough, don’t you think?

–Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter

Secrets – a writer’s stock in trade

I started thinking about secrets after reading author Dora Goss’ post about keeping secrets. Looking at the relationships between men and women, she writes, “It seems to me that there are women men keep secrets from, and women men tell secrets to. Most women, at different points in their lives, occupy both of these positions: secrets are kept from them, and they are told secrets.”

Bloomsbury - adult edition
Bloomsbury – adult edition

In “real life,” I don’t like being told secrets because those who are asked to help hide one thing or another are usually part of the collateral damage when the truth comes out. As a writer, though, I love secrets because every novel begins with the unsaid premise that there are secrets within that the reader must uncover while reading the book.

I liked the imagery in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. For one thing–like so many novels about extraordinary youths–here we had within Hogwarts School a secret room that all the master wizards of the realm could not (or did not) find, open up, and neutralize. To enjoy the story, the reader has to play along with the ruse that wizards many times more powerful and knowledgeable than young Harry Potter really had no clue about the chamber other than as an old myth about the castle.

Putting a Christian spin on the meaning of the chamber of secrets, John Granger sees Harry Potter as “everyman” the chamber as the world, the snake in the chamber as sin, the evil Lord Voldemort as Satan, etc. One can make a strong case for this interpretation in line with many religions and myths.

I tend to see a chamber of secrets as man’s unconscious mind and that like the powerful wizard teachers at Hogwarts, most of us see that part of the psyche as either a myth or–if real–a place too dangerous to visit. Using this view, a writer looks at his or her protagonist as an individual, badly flawed or otherwise, who doesn’t wholly know himself or herself, much less all of his/her capabilities.

When I start writing a story, my aim is always to conceal as much as possible from the reader without appearing to be concealing anything. I drop hints, many of which will only make sense later when the secrets home out. Like stage magicians, writers are presenting for your entertainment an illusion that obscures the mechanics of what’s really going on in front of your face.

A good magician seldom reveals how assistants disappear out of boxes, how rabbits appear in empty hats or how playing cards disappear into oranges, locked safes or the pockets of people sitting out in the audience. Of course, a great book has a climax to it and that’s when the reader finds out everything (maybe) that was happening that wasn’t apparent up to that point.

With the discovery, there is often surprise, but if the author has done his or her job well, there’s also a”but of course” moment of recognition. Later, the reviewers and critics will argue about how the author kept the secrets for so many pages and what those secrets really mean. Once all the reviews, articles and books have been written about the story, everyone will think they know everything.

But they won’t because authors never tell everything not even to the women men tell their secrets to.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Garden of Heaven Trilogy of fantasy novels: “The Seeker,” “The Sailor” and “The Betrayed.”