Going Deep: Working on Your Story and Letting Your Story Work on You


By Carmelinda Blagg, Contributing Editor

We fiction writers often like to think we are in control of the writing process. After all, creating fiction is the active use of our imagination to conjure characters in a situation of conflict, skillfully weaving a story that is believable. It is a conscious, deliberate imagining where we get to have the last word, getting our characters into trouble, getting them out of trouble (maybe), creating chaos or restoring order. We are the ultimate chess master in this game of fictional storytelling.

But are we? And does it really work that way?

Sometimes, yes, of course. I give my characters names. I put them in situations with some obvious constraints, or hassles, or dilemmas. I create some real problems for them. This usually takes a couple of paragraphs, sometimes a couple of pages to establish. But then, once I’ve done that, something subtle happens. The world I’ve created becomes real to me. The characters do too. Sometimes, they come off the page and start following me around. They look over my shoulder when I’m picking out frozen peas at the supermarket, or while I’m gassing up the car or stirring my morning coffee. One of them might begin insisting that, with respect to a line of dialogue, for instance, it would be ridiculous for them to say the words I’m trying to put in their mouths. And all of a sudden, I feel like I’m being led around by the nose. I’m not the one calling the shots anymore.

This is when things can get weird. And a little scary. But also interesting. Especially during those early stages of drafting a story. You start by weaving together – out of seemingly thin air – one sentence then another, then a paragraph, then a page, and suddenly, you are deep into your story. And yet, often, still deeply uncertain about what is going on or what happens next.

This is not a bad thing. To be uncomfortable, mystified, even hopelessly confused, in the course of writing a story is, I have come to believe, really at the heart of ultimately creating a good story, one that has arisen from a struggle that produces something surprising, something real and true that maybe you hadn’t even intended when you started. If you insist on being too much in control, it shows – with writing that is flat and inauthentic, too much in the grips of assuaging the writer’s ego.

This uncertainty is part of the often unsettling psychology of writing.

Norman Mailer called it “the spooky art” – in fact, he titled a book to that effect, a collection of essays about the writing life. From one essay, titled “The Unconscious,” he shares insights gained through his own difficult trials. He came to understand that the unconscious mind of a writer will often come up with its own games of hide and seek.

“Over and over again,” he observes, “I discover that my unconscious is going to disclose to me what it chooses when it chooses. You can, to a limited degree, force it to respond, but that rarely occasions much happiness on either side.”

Every writer who’s been at it long enough understands this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat staring at that blank screen, straining for the next sentence, hoping to nail the elusive trail of my thoughts. I’ve got maybe a half dozen or more pages written, I know my story, I know the setting, the characters – I can feel it all in my bones. But, as I get deeper into it, things start to get slippery or turn blurry. I inevitably reach a point where I’m not sure what comes next, and a terrible uncertainty creeps in. By now, I’ve learned. I step back, go for a walk, have a cup of tea, or pick up those frozen peas at the grocery. Invariably, in the course of pursuing such distractions, wishing to just forget the story, or, at the very least, not to be undone by it, something buoys up – an image, a sentence, an observation, a crisp line of dialogue. It comes suddenly, as if insulted that you would dare to forget it. Then, I find myself rushing back to my desk to get it down.

I’ve reached a grudging trust with this process because it has taught me that the best writing comes from this kind of strangely aloof yet ever watchful biding of one’s time. It’s an engagement of a writer’s psyche following a path she has created, guided by nothing more than fragile hope. But one that, if she sticks with it, can lead her beyond the realm of false epiphanies, unscathed – and equally uninteresting – characters, and endings that come too quick and easy.

Resistance is as natural as momentum when creating stories inhabited by memorable, believable characters. Why? Because it is never easy to make anything believable if, as a writer, you aren’t convinced of it yourself. I hold that to be true as much for realistic fiction as for the most bizarre sci-fi or fantasy.

So, if you get stuck at a particular point in writing a story – and it will happen if what you’re doing is at all worthwhile – you might well take it as a given that something is going on you haven’t figured out yet. Something maybe your unconscious just isn’t ready to give up. That’s okay. Step back. Take a deep breath. Go for a walk. But keep it going, even if it means having your character just build a fence, make a pot of soup, or take a bath. Your story must unfold from all those kitchens and bedrooms, those dingy bars, those backyards or mountaintops, those dark alleys and city high rises you’ve incorporated as the setting of your story. Such things Ron Carlson refers to as the “outer story”; a place that is “…the world of the story, the real concrete elements and places of the story that is composed of all sensory imagery.”

That world, made by the writer convincingly, can serve her in finding her story. As Carlson further observes: “In working with writers, one of the things I’ve been saying a lot in these past years is: solve all your problems through the physical world. That is, if you have a scene that is stalled or muddled, go back into it carefully and write the next thing that happens in real time. Don’t think, but watch instead: occupy.”

Occupy. It’s an interesting notion. And beguilingly simple too. One word that says to the writer, be there, pay attention, watch and listen. And, most importantly, let go, give up the need to control what’s happening.

It’s not the most comfortable place to be, believe me. But, it is where the deepest promise of your story often resides. And it’s often the place where that elusive rascal – the unconscious – can fill your ear with more than you ever thought possible.

Sources cited:

The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer. 2004, Random House Trade Paperback Edition.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story: From the First Glimmer of an Idea to the Final Sentence by Ron Carlson. 2007, Graywolf Press.

Carmelinda Blagg serves as a Contributing Editor for O Dark Thirty. She has published her short fiction in a number of journals, including O-Dark-Thirty, Halfway Down the Stairs, Wanderlust Review, the anthology Best of the Web 2009, and more recently, The Lindenwood Review and Barrelhouse. She received her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. In 2010, she was recipient of an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. Her parents served during World War II; three brothers served in Vietnam and a fourth brother, now a retired Air Force Colonel, served as USAF base commander with the 374th Operations Group, 374th Airlift Wing, Yokota Air Base, Japan.


2016 Pushcart Prize Nominations

The Editorial Board of O-Dark-Thirty is pleased to announce our nominees for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. We’re honored to have published such outstanding fiction, nonfiction, and poetry this year! Hearty congratulations to:


Peter Beckstrom – “Playground Patriots” (Volume 3, #3 – Spring 2015)
Matthew Cricchio – “Chewy” (Volume 3, #4 – Summer 2015)


Lori Imsdahl – “Freak Accidents” (Volume 3, #2 – Winter 2015)
Chris Stowe – “One Summer Night” (Volume 3, #4 – Summer 2015)


Caroline Bock – “Father, Found” (Volume 3, #3 – Spring 2015)
Michael Lancaster – “Salt Ponds” (Volume 3, #4 – Summer 2015)

Pushcart Nominations

We’ve just made our 2014 Pushcart Prize nominations. If you’re not familiar with the Pushcart Prizes, they recognize excellent writing published in small presses. This is our first set of nominations and we chose one piece each of fiction, Jim Beane’s “Liberty” from The Review Volume 2 #1 (print); poetry, Richard O’Brien’s “Ballad of the Ur Wasp” from The Review Volume 1, #2 (print); and Ruth W. Crocker’s “What the Dog Knew” from The Report (web).

Congratulations and best of luck to Richard, Jim, and Ruth.

Size Matters… or Does it?

The fantastic New York Review of Books is turning 50 this year. As part of their celebration, there is this piece about the personals ads which appear in each edition of the review. (Be sure to follow the embedded link to the NPR story, too.) Aside from the inherent charm of the piece, there is a lesson to be learned. Whether you’re writing a novel or a personals ad or simply tweeting about dinner, every word counts.

A Story About O-Dark-Thirty from The Writer Magazine

Here’s an article about our literary journal, O-Dark-Thirty, from The Writer Magazine.


A literary project features the stories of veterans, their families and friends.

Author Beth Garland had heard of the Veterans Writing Project – a nonprofit offering no-cost writing seminars for veterans and family members – so when she saw that VWP planned to launch a literary journal, she sent in her short story Reintegration. “I wanted very much to convey the incredible dignity and bravery that real soldiers and their spouses who are coping with PTSD or severe injuries demonstrate every day,” she says, “while at the same time revealing how human they are.”

Garland is married to a member of 20th Special Forces Group. She believes American pop culture has romanticized the concept of a soldier’s homecoming. As her narrator in Reintegration observes, “You imagined that after he’d grabbed you up in his arms like Richard Gere did Debra Winger in the end scene of An Officer and a Gentleman, you two would speed to the closest motel and rip each other’s clothes off.”

Readers responded to her story, which appeared in the inaugural issue of the journal O-Dark-Thirty, with gratitude. They were “moved by the fact that reunions aren’t always those lovely images of soldiers hugging their families that we often see in the last twenty seconds of the evening news,” Garland says, “that there’s a lot more to it than that, especially for soldiers who are physically and/or emotionally wounded.”

Editor Ron Capps – a soldier for 25 years – launched

O-Dark-Thirty on Veteran’s Day 2012.

“I think it’s critically important to both integrate the writing by our veterans and their family members into the broader stream of American literature,” Capps says, “and to highlight that it is somewhat separate in that it has influences that other works simply don’t.”

Tone, editorial content

Readers will find humor in the pages of O-Dark-Thirty, along with sorrow and pain, trauma and rage. “There is work in our journal that was written by service members who are recovering from posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain Injury and pretty grievous physical injuries, too,” Capps says. “We also have some work from their caregivers, and you can only imagine what they feel.”


The writers in O-Dark-Thirty range from World War II veterans to soldiers on active duty and to support communities around them. One served in Iraq as an Army Scout medic and now works as an actor in Los Angeles. Another, a clinical therapist, is the daughter of a World War II Army veteran.

“We’ve had a few pieces come over the transom that sort of rang all the bells,” Capps says. He offers Jason Davis’s raw and courageous essay, Brian and Me, as an example. “Our nonfiction editor is a former Marine who fought in Fallujah,” Capps says, “and he wrote on Jason’s piece, ‘Please, please, please publish this.’”

He also points to Grady Smith’s short story Al Gomez. “Grady’s story is so subtle and disarming,” Capps says, “you don’t notice what’s happening until you’re thigh deep in it and past the point of no return. It’s masterful.”

Advice for newcomers

Capps seeks submissions that have nothing to do with the military experience. “The broader the range of topics we can present,” he says, “the better.”

He’d also like to see more writing from family members: “If you’re a military family member – spouse, partner, sister, brother, daughter, son, mother, father, grammy, grampa, grandchild – send us your stuff.”

“A journal of writing by veterans, service members and military family members. We seek quality, literary writing on any topic.” Quarterly, $30. Types of work accepted: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction. Reading period: Year-round. Submission format: Mail or submission manager on website. Contact: Ron Capps, Editor. Veterans Writing Project, 6508 Barnaby St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20015. ron@veteranswriting.org. http://o-dark-thirty.org/

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood. She teaches at the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.

Vonnegut on Writing

Here are some ideas from Kurt Vonnegut on writing. Vonnegut was, of course, a soldier in WWII and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, imprisoned in Dresden and survived the Allies’ firebombing of the city. He also taught at the Iowa Workshops and wrote some of the 20th Century’s best novels. Here, he gives us eight pointers on writing a good story.