Tag Archives: humor

Writing Without a Map: In Which I End Up Exactly Where I’m Supposed to Be

Downtown Griffin, GA by Amber Rhea

Setting out to write a novel is a lot like setting out on a roadtrip. Everyone does it differently. Some people collect maps and make plans, some have only a destination in mind, others don’t even know that much. For them, it’s the journey that matters, destination left up to the whim of chance.

My husband is a planner. Yesterday morning, when we decided we were going to drive an hour and a half south of Atlanta to one of those wild animal safari parks (where zebras and bison slobber on your windshield), he printed off pages of directions, complete with three different maps in varying levels of detail. Having navigated four weeks of Europe with nothing but Rick Steve’s guidebook and a keen sense of direction, I laughed at his lack of faith and tossed the maps on the floor with the Egg McMuffin wrappers.

“It’s just one road the entire way,” I told him. “Stay on I-85 until you hit LaGrange.”

Forty minutes later, after dissecting the themes of both Breaking Bad and There Will Be Blood, my husband asked what exit we were looking for. And, because my sense of direction is good but apparently not good enough, I immediately started getting a Really Bad Feeling About This.

Two minutes later, we’re pulling off the highway.

“You were supposed to navigate!” he said, frantically pulling up Google Maps on his phone.

“You were supposed to stay on I-85!”

We weren’t on I-85. Not even close. According to Google, it was going to take us another hour and a half to get to the animal park, cutting through what appeared to be a glitch: no roads, no towns, just a massive wedge of nothing between where we were and where we were supposed to be.

(To be fair, staying on I-85 involved taking an exit somewhere near the airport. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to tell him that.)


This sort of thing happens to me a lot–and not just whenever my husband and I decide to get into a car together. As of late, my subconscious has been leading me down some pretty strange streets.

Writers may know what I’m talking about: make a plan, and prepare yourself to go waaaaay off-course. It’s almost like daring your writer-subconscious. “I’ll show you,” you think in your more lucid moments, while your subconscious is muttering, “We’ll see about that.”

I learned to trust my writer-subconscious a long time ago. It knows what’s up.

Most of the time, when I stare at the screen and nothing comes out, it’s because I have nowhere to go, and sure enough, the more I force it, the more we go wandering around in confused little plot circles. And when words pour like crazy, leading me further and further from my nice neat list of bulleted points, I know better than to try and yank it back on track. I’ve been sucking up stories for almost twenty-seven years now, so I’d like to think there’s a part of my brain that knows what it’s doing.

(Hopefully not connected to the part of my brain that knows where it’s going–because if our little roadtrip is any indication, that part needs some work.)

For some time now I’ve been trying to understand what’s been going on with WIP as of late, and a roadtrip is an excellent metaphor. Since 2007 this thing has squirted out of me in various forms and genres, all centered on one guy who lands himself in prison for a terrible, terrible crime. I don’t know why this guy fascinates me but I keep coming back to him, even when it doesn’t seem healthy or make a lick of sense.

Together, we’ve walked some strange roads, but none so strange as the ones we’ve walked this past year. For all of my plans, my notebooks full of dialogue, plot points, and description, I would never have planned on coming here, never in my wildest dreams thought my subconscious would bring me right back where I started: a fictional version of my hometown in all its illogical, country-fried glory.


Five minutes after my husband and I found ourselves tragically, hopelessly, and unapologetically lost, we ended up in Griffin, Georgia–a town I am sure you will recognize as the filming location of Sundance Channel’s Rectifymy favorite and arguably the best show of 2013 (which is saying a lot cos this year’s been great for television).

And I never would have gone there of my own volition because it’s way out in the middle of freaking nowhere.

Rectify is about Daniel Holden, a man released from Death Row after 20 years due to some murky DNA evidence, and his return to the southern town of his childhood raises questions about guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness that I recognized the moment it started–same as I recognized the town where it was filmed.

“Oh my god, that’s the graveyard where they beat the crap out of him,” I said, in much the same tone I used in the presence of Shakespeare’s birthplace and Hadrian’s Wall. “I can’t believe it’s right there beside the road.”

And, about two minutes later: “Look at that! That’s the cute little street, with the bookstore and Susan’s beauty parlor. Did they even do any set dressing? It looks exactly like the show.”

And so on, with the gas station where Daniel buys Smart Water and wonders if it actually makes people smart, and the creek, ten minutes outside of town, where Hannah was murdered. “Creeks kinda all look the same, you know,” my husband tried to reason, but I knew better. This was definitely the creek.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up here, in a town even more rural than mine, what it’d be like to come back after twenty years and try to find your bearings. We moved to North Georgia when I was eight. I’ve never felt like I really belonged. Maybe bringing my characters home helps me define not only who they are, but who I’ve become, as well.

Ray McKinnon, creator of Rectify, might understand. He grew up in Adel, South Georgia, a place probably not so different from the fictional Paulie he created for the show. And like all good Southern Gothic towns, the Paulie of Rectify is a character that exerts a will all its own.

For years I’d tried to set my story of guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness in a town that looked like everywhere but could only come up with a hazy shade of nowhere. It wasn’t until I committed to a real place–a place real enough to me, at least–that my story finally started to come around.

How important is setting to your stories? According to agent and author Donald Maass, a setting with character is an essential quality of breakout fiction. How much of your settings comes from personal experience, and how important is personal experience to your writing in general?



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You Stole My Story

(Disclaimer: I now illuminate the sarcasm warning, the spoiler warning, and feel the need to assure you that I love Gillian Flynn because clearly, girl’s got some good ideas. Author Bashing is never excusable.)


Alright Gillian that’s enough.

Stop reading my notes.

Stop reading my thoughts.

And for goodness’ sake. . . stop stealing my stories!

*breathes menacingly for thirty seconds*

I was fine with your repeated mentions of the Death Penalty. Ditto the sociopath framing someone for murder. That’s what sociopaths do, right? Heck, I just finished watching Hannibal, that great NBC show about Dr. Lecter and his pet FBI Special Agent Will Graham, and, not to give anything way, but. . . that’s what sociopaths do. Bad things they can blame on others. So you’re fine there.

I was also okay with the creepy southern towns and abandoned buildings, the Flannery O’Connor vibe, distant mothers and challenging views of women. All very reasonable things that do not upset me.

But I just got to the part in Dark Places were Diondra rubs her belly and says the baby’s kicking. That she’s pregnant. That her teenage boyfriend impregnated her, moments after he’s accused of molesting 10-year-olds and hours before he’s arrested for grisly grisly murder that ruins his life.

What gives, eh? I just wrote that, like, last week. After working it out in my head for years.

It’s bad enough that your structure is dangerously close to my structure (which now I probably have to change, no thanks to you), with those chapters alternating between the day of the murders and present-day characters working to solve them. Whose idea was that, anyway? I thought I was being pretty clever with that. Printz Award clever? Perhaps, but now we’ll never know, will we?


That was the opening hook, the setup for the rest of the novel, my entire main character. And now you stole it. You stole my story. You stole my freaking teenage pregnancy you story-stealing, incredibly talented author-person you.

(At least I still have graffiti and Led Zeppelin. If you take those, so help me, I’m gonna go John Shooter on you. And don’t. . . don’t touch the Death Penalty. I see you eyeing it. Death Penalty’s mine. You coulda had your chance, but you put Kansas in a moratorium so there. Chance blown.)

But, really? The chapters alternating between past and present, explaining all the circumstantial evidence they used to put him away? Brilliant. If a little hard to get through and somewhat suspense-deflating. Same problem I’ve been having, so it’s good to know maybe it’s not just me.

(You no-good-story-stealing-teenage-pregnancy-ripping-idea-sucking-incredibly-talented-author-person you.)

And I’m only halfway through Dark Places. Who knows what else of mine you’ve got in there? Been kinda fun discovering it all.

(Again Disclaimer: I mean this solely in good fun and don’t plan on going John Shooter on anyone. It’s actually kinda cool she’s got some of the same ideas as me–just sucks cause she got to them first!)

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Gift Idea!

Essential gift for families and friends of writers everywhere!

From the description:

Melia wants to be a writer just like her mom. She’s not exactly sure what a writer does, though. She sees her mom staring at the typewriter and then she sees her opening up boxes of books. But what comes in between?

Exactly what I would like to know, Melia. Exactly what I would like to know.

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Packages Shaped Like Kindles!

Someone’s dear sweet husband just bought her a Kindle. It’s nowhere near our anniversary.

AND he made sure he was in his boxers when the UPS guy rang so I’d have to get it, expecting another one of his quality handcrafted heirloom wardrobe essentials. (The guy at the leasing office knows us so well he just rolls his eyes when we come in and gets up to go rustle up our missed packages.)

It’s sparkly and new, waaay lighter than I expected, like something I’m probably going to sit on and break without even realizing it. We snuggled on the couch while I set it up, got used to the navigation, marveled at how they make adult Etch A Sketches now and we somehow got duped into buying one. I scrolled through the list of free books, downloaded a couple, flipped the pages back and forth just to see the liquid paper molecules rearrange themselves like magic, and giggled more than was necessary.

Fifteen minutes later, I was back on my Chrome Book.

“Why aren’t you reading your Kindle?” my husband asked. Continue reading

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Short Fiction: More Wine, Polyphemus?

(Note: I wrote this in an attempt to convince potential employers I am capable of adapting within the Fantasy genre. They requested Alice in Wonderland. I couldn’t stomach the thought of that, so this is what they got. Although they assured me they liked it, someone else got the job. So it goes.)

So the Greek Hero and the Cyclops enter a bar, except the bar is really a cave, and when the Cyclops is done with his wine, he is going to eat the Hero. The Hero holds up the wineskin.

“More wine, Polyphemus?”

The Cyclops holds out his ivory bowl. “Yes, please do.”

The Hero tops him off, and the sheep in the back of the cave bleat. Perhaps they, being sheep, understand what men do not.

The Cyclops downs it in one go, wiping the dark droplets that cling to his beard. “Hmm, good wine. Very good wine. I have never tasted such wine.”

The Hero holds his bowl, the wine untouched. “And you are not likely to ever again. This is special wine, of my own private vintage.” It sloshes as he chuckles. “You are not likely to have such wine ever again.”

“We have good wine,” the Cyclops tells the Hero, accepting another pour, eying the dark font as it travels from skin to bowl. “The cyclops, that is. Our grapes hang heavy from the vine even though we pay no heed to your silly-assed gods. Think we give sacrifice to Zeus? Think you wrong! Zeus is a fool to expect homage from us.” His words drown for a moment in the sweet, undiluted wine. “Hmm. But this is a bit of ambrosia and nectar.”

In the back of the cave, the Hero’s men watch. Crouched behind the beast’s flocks and pens and jars of curdled milk, they wait, clutching their well-crafted weapons.

The Hero sets aside his bowl and stretches, rubbing the tight muscles of his thigh. “What a shame it is, to drink with such a capable companion and then. . . . Ah, but never mind that, my friend. We shall not think of it. More wine?” Continue reading


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