Took the week off from work, and I’m using that time to focus on my next story, with new characters. I “retired” Wade Stuart (but you can, of course, still read about him in A Simple Murder here), and have been working on the closest thing to “Southern fiction” I’ve ever written. And it’s taken a long time to get here.
A few years ago, I took a course at the local community college that ended up having a huge effect on my approach to writing. My instructor, Robert Bausch, is a gifted teacher and storyteller. So much so that I took the course several times, just so I could continue to study under Bob’s eye. The structure of the class was pretty standard — the students write (fiction and/or poetry), which is then critiqued by others (aloud). It can be brutal, but if you have a thick skin and really want to learn, it can also be a process that really helps you hone the craft of writing.
Bob talked a lot about writing about characters, as opposed to plot. At first, I didn’t gewt it — of course you write about characters. But you have to have a plot, right? You have to come up with a plot for your characters to operate within. But Bob taught a different style — create the character first, then let him/her tell you the story. Whoa. That was different. To me, anyway. So, I started trying to do that. And I found that writing to a plot, which I had done for years, makes the writer a puppet master of sorts — I devised the story and moved the characters around in it to achieve the results. So, the story itself suffered, and the characters suddenly didn’t seem as lifelike as I thought. Because I wasn’t really letting them tell their stories.
So, I set out to create a character and came up with a small boy, Sam, who was going fishing with his father on a summer day in Mississippi.
Eventually, I had a short story, which the class critiqued. It was a lukewarm reception, which wasn’t that unusual — and better than some of the more incisive critiques the class handed out. So, I kept “pushing it around,” as Bob would say. A few months later, I submitted it to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference for the upcoming session in Vermont. To my surprise, it was accepted.
BLWC ran on a similar format as Bob’s class. There’s a whole other story there, but the upshot is that the story fared pretty well, and I got some priceless criticism from my instructor, Tom Franklin (who just happened to be the writer-in-residence at Ole Miss at the the time).
When I returned to Virginia, I discussed the conference with Bob and he arranged for me to meet with a colleague of his, a publishing vet who worked in New York. He read the story and told me that if it were a novel, he’d read it.
I was a little surprised at that — it was a short story, and I really didn’t think I had much more than that. Certainly not a novel. But I pushed it around some more. I already had a couple of characters: Sam, and his father, Winston. So, I began to wonder what happened to Sam when he grew up.
From there, came the story that I’m working on now, one with a whole bunch of characters. And the difference? Writing to characters is a lot like hearing the same story from several different people — they all saw or experienced the same thing, but each saw it a little differently. It’s like being in a room with half a dozen people, all trying to give you their version of what happened. Put them all together, and you have one story. That story, for the moment, is titled, “Deep Blood.” Look for more about it here in the coming weeks.
Of course, the trick is knowing when the story is done. I’m still working on that.
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