Humor from the Attic: Out, Damned Dust Bunny! Out, I Say!

While I work on my resume, I’m digging up writing that’s been sleeping with the dust bunnies. The following piece was published in ByLine Magazine in June 2005.

I hated the title that the editor chose, “In Defense of Freefall.” But my title wasn’t any better, “Caution: Outline Route Plot Pile-up Ahead.” LOL! I just added the LOL.

A side note: the magazine ceased publishing several years ago. I swear I had nothing to do with it!

I’m not going to read the piece because I’ll revise it.

Free-fallImage via WikipediaIn Defense of Freefall

I ALWAYS STAY WITHIN THE yellow lines when driving, comforted by the boundaries that maintain order. Yet, when writing. I steer clear of an outline and speed ahead, not knowing which direction I will follow next.

For me, plotting out a novel takes the fun and adventure out of writing by stifling stream-of-conscience thought—the exhilarating sensation of freefalling off the desktop. Nothing pumps me up more than to start a story with only a rough idea of plot and a limited knowledge of character. After meeting the potential characters, we huddle by the computer with my fingers positioned above the keys. I am poised to capture every nuance and snippet of dialogue they utter.

To prevent the dialogue and thoughts from becoming muddled. I must discipline my characters from time to time. Usually. I find it necessary to seat the idle players in another area of my office. I don’t mind the whispering and note passing as long as I can concentrate on one active character at a time, beginning with the protagonist.

On occasion, an unruly secondary character will interrupt, crassly announcing a “bathroom break.” I know he wants attention because the bathroom is just down the hall. If, upon his return, I still cannot quiet him, I am forced to leave my seat and placate him with a snack or drink. Frequently, I have to appease him afterwards by jotting down his background notes on a pad.

Quirky behavior is difficult to handle and yet tolerable, unlike the rudeness displayed by the antagonist. While the protagonist enjoys the spotlight, the antagonist often shouts out tiresome insults, which ultimately causes a conflict between the two characters. The antagonist should consider himself lucky.

I only put up with his bad behavior because his actions move the plot forward. Sometimes I have to stop the main characters from trying to kill each other. I diffuse the situation by promising the antagonist that if he is patient, he will have an opportunity to take out the protagonist at the end of the book. This calms the villain but makes the hero very nervous.

In the background, some minor characters cheer the protagonist on, while others shout out wrong directions or offer useless information that impedes her progress. This causes the heroine to make mistakes, leaving herself vulnerable to the antagonist’s threats. When she looks worn out and frazzled. I pull her from the story and let her rest before her next scene.

At this point, the antagonist takes a turn at the desktop and creates havoc in the story. I watch helplessly as he plants the murder weapon underneath the backseat of the protagonist’s car, then calls in an anonymous tip to the police.

A hush falls over the office. I sense the other characters’ excitement and apprehension. It doesn’t appear the hero will escape this time. I tap a character on the shoulder and say, “You’re next,” hoping he will run interference for the protagonist. But, to my surprise, another character jumps up instead and pushes the story in a direction I had not foreseen. This does not thrill the protagonist, but energizes the rest of us.

Since my characters and I spend hours together, we need the infusion of fresh plot elements to keep us invigorated and the story moving ahead at a rapid pace. An outline would inhibit this spontaneous flow of ideas. When I once framed out a novel, the characters became bored and restless. They meandered from scene-to-scene, taking frequent breaks instead of completing a turn. Soon after, the plot stagnated and my writing faltered.

During that misadventure, I never heard whispering among the characters while they waited for a turn—a sign that something was terribly wrong. So I encouraged a disgruntled character to blow up the outline and hijack the plot. I lost several secondary characters in the process. The others complained and threatened to strike.

To avoid a walkout, I did what any great creative director would have done. I promised them a better part in the sequel.

Lauren Salkin works as a traffic manager for a parenting magazine. She writes essays, short stories and is working on a suspense novel.

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13 Comments Humor from the Attic: Out, Damned Dust Bunny! Out, I Say!

  1. Sandee

    You have a twisted sense of humor for a puppet master. What you think happens. I like how you did this.

    Have a terrific day. 🙂

  2. ReformingGeek

    Love it. I was starting to feel sorry for your developing characters.

    Maybe you could appease them with cookies.

  3. Ryhen

    Pretty intense drama and action you got there. I'm quite sure the magazine ceased publishing because of the editor. He/she clearly doesn't know how to appreciate a good title. 😉

  4. Lauren

    LOL Ryhen. I've been thinking. Maybe I should look up the old gang. I miss hearing the characters arguing in my head.

  5. cardiogirl

    Love that the characters are true to form — prima donnas — who can be placated with the thought of a part in the sequel.


  6. Leeuna

    This is an excellent article. I can see why they published it.

    I also had a couple articles and a few poems published in Byline Magazine back in the early 90s. I liked that magazine. It was a great tool for writers. I loved that it was a magazine especially for and about the writing craft.

    Back when I wrote for them I had no idea I would someday be blog buddies with a fellow Byline writer. (Of course blogs hadn't been invented yet either) This is so cool. My last name was McNeese back then, in case you might have read something I wrote.

  7. Lauren

    Leeuna: Thanks. That's too funny about ByLine. Unfortunately, I only have the June 2005 issue. Would love to see your ByLine stuff.

    I met Marcia Preston at a Mystery Writer's Conference in NYC years ago when I was actively pitching my suspense novel. She had won an award for her novel. Had a nice chat with Marcia and her husband.

    Also met Mary Higgins Clark. She held my hand as we spoke (trying to pry open my fingers wrapped around a cracker). We talked for about five minutes. At least it seemed like five minutes. Probably clocked in at about 1:35 seconds.

  8. Lauren

    Thanks CG. Yes, characters can be like children at times, impatient and cranky. I'm sorry I ever agreed to work with them. Now I'm stuck in a binding contract.


    Hi Lauren,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Your humor always makes me crack a smile. I also find your writing tips quite helpful, as my own novel efforts often get suspended by character bickering. Good luck getting the resume together, that is a big enough job in itself!

  10. Lauren

    Snee: Character bickering is so time-intensive. I hate it when they storm off the page. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. I should take my own advice. I finally finished tweaking the resume yesterday. What a job that was.


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