book promotion, inspiration, wise-guy animals in pants, world-building, writing technique

You settle for the book you get – James Baldwin

Sly’s path across Europe. Hardly any stretch of this journey was planned. One thing led to another. Clockwise from Virgin Mary: Pedro, a runaway duke. An abused bear in a circus. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Sha-Sha, Queen Elizabeth’s pet monkey. Queen Elizabeth. John Dee, her royal astrologer. A rat, in the Prussian town of Hameln. A crackpot frog who believes he’s an enchanted prince.


From a piece on Joan Didion by David L. Ulin:

“. . .  even the most apparently intentional career is a matter of serendipity. We get ideas and they stick, or they do not. “You never get the book you wanted,” James Baldwin once observed, “you settle for the book you get.” We set out to write something and end up with something else.”

I know that’s true for me. I’m haphazard in my goals for my characters, in the way I tell their stories, in the way I present the material. I meander through my plots. My telling is full of ‘by the way’ and, ‘that reminds me’. I elaborate on points extraneous to the action, but so much fun I want to get them, in comical footnotes.

My writing style is a reflection of the way I’ve lived my life. I could call it ‘Half-assed’. Many of my relatives would agree with that. I could call it ‘Anything Goes’. That puts it in a better light. I’ll stick with Anything Goes.

Plotting a way forward is not for me. I know from experience, a few pages down the road I’m going to change my mind about something major, so why bother trying to outline? I add a new character to fill a short-term need, then fall in love with him and have to give him more to do so I can keep him around.

Gato, who I wrote about recently for Showcase, is a fine example. I needed him on my ship for a specific reason. Then I found it useful to imply he’s in the employ of Francis Walsingham, the head of Elizabeth’s spy network. He’s a career criminal, a Spaniard pulled out of an English prison to keep an eye on the Spanish captain of the Santa Clara, a merchant trader sailing a regular route from Spain to the low countries. He gathers intelligence on Spanish build-up in the south and sells it up north, and on English intentions and sells it to Madrid.

At the end of book two, Gato, as a result of an incident on a beach outside La Rochelle, heads back to England. What I’m going to do with him up there, I haven’t a clue. I don’t have to deal with that for a good while. I have time for ideas to fester in my brain. I’m going to pull some yuks out of him one way or another.

I smile to think a reader, having finished The Rogue Decamps, well along in book two, having a feel for the way I operate, learning there are seven books in the series, will share my glee: How many loopy malcontents does she have in store for me?

I’ve made bunches of disastrous decisions in my life. You can bet Gato’s going to do the same. Everybody in my story makes poor decisions. Entertainingly poor, that’s my one and only goal.

Nobody in my tale is satisfied with what they have. They all want something else.

Gato wants to be seen as a gentleman. His aristocratic captain wants to have the lifestyle of his affluent cousins in Madrid; he’s the poor relation. My runaway ten-year-old duke wants to join a circus, where he feels safe for the first time in his life. My archbishop, slated for the church from an early age (he’s the late king’s illegitimate son), wants to be a playwright in Paris. So it goes.

I would have preferred to have lived life without the crisis after crisis I’ve been through. I wasn’t capable of it, due to some mental instability I freely admit to. Calm and collected I’ve never been. I’ve lurched through life as I lurch through my plots: sad circumstances strung together that I eventually manage to sculpt into a semi-presentable narrative.

Plots are overrated. I want atmosphere. I want style. I want to sink into the world I’m reading about, make myself at home in it. I want to care about the characters. Bring them to life for me or you’ve lost me.

Plot is way down on my list. I’m glad to find folks on Youtube who agree with me. Chris Via, this guy Sherd, of Sherds Tube, and, I’m sure, many others. I’m going to track them down, pick their brains, be amused, and be inspired. Better Than Food, this guy is fabulous also.

There’s a community on Youtube I knew nothing about until Rick Harsch posted his piece on social media. Thank you, Rick. I’m watching your channel as well.

I love the this-and-that of life. That’s what interests me. Hell, that’s what fascinates me.

Maybe it’s a coping strategy, a way to live with the horrible choices I’ve made. Some of that was the result of being a loner and an introvert. Until I met my husband twenty years ago, I’d lived life without a safety net. It’s warped me.

I’m a warped human being. I’ve long been aware of it. I’ve finally made it work for me, with Sly. And Maisie. And Miss Spider. And a host of other lovely loony-tunes.

Screw normal. Me and my kooks and creeps are fine without it.


12 thoughts on “You settle for the book you get – James Baldwin

  1. Wow! that is so true. “We set out to write something and end up with something else.” Thanks for digging up that insight, Mimi.

    And thank you for your own insight, that a book, like life, is not planned. Both come into existence again and again in their changing circumstances.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    You rock, Mimi.

    Your narrative reminds me of my friend Bill, a fine writer and jazz drummer who lost his income stream, and imagine how long ago that was, when Disco became the rage. Bill is a pantser in life and tries to be a plotter with his writing, which means that except for some fine short stories, he never completes anything. A pantser in life should be a pantser in writing. Bill has been through a number of adventures that some would call ruinous. He’s had a tough time but he’s not ruined yet.

    You write, “Plots are overrated. I want atmosphere. I want style. I want to sink into the world I’m reading about, make myself at home in it. I want to care about the characters. Bring them to life for me or you’ve lost me.” Yes. It’s not the plot that keeps people reading. It’s the writing.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Unexpected hijack of your thread, Mimi. But I think you’ll approve.

    Yesterday, I received this message.

    I wanted to let you know that David passed today. You were one of his most cherished friends. Thank you.

    I haven’t seen David since 1967. Lately, we’ve communicated by email so he could help me with Code Blue and Little Deaths, my WiP about three medics during the Vietnam War. Now I’m the last of the three main characters. Guess I’ll triple down on my efforts to finish this book.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I’ve had a couple of bad days here. I’m worn out. I’d given up hope of getting something together for Showcase, but I finally managed (sort of). I’d meant to write about John Dee. I’m not up to it yet.

    A poster for The Canary Murder Case came together very quickly. Then I spent a whole day on one hat for the facing page, containing two cigarette-girl outfits for Peachie, the character Maisie played in that film. (In the silent. The head of Paramount, furious with her, had her written out of the talkie.)

    The year was 1929. The industry changed in an instant. The conversion to sound meant that no silent had a chance to succeed financially. Canary was hastily dubbed.

    Shulberg needed her back (she was in Paris) to reshoot her scenes, and to do publicity (she was very popular with moviegoers) for an awkward re-do in which Louise Brooks also refused to participate.

    The talkie got poor reviews. Maisie and Lulu gone – they were both big stars – William Powell had his chance to shine. His smooth-as-silk detective teamed with his smooth-as-silk vocals wowed everyone, critics included. Canary was the start of his elevation to moviedom glory.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    I suppose most here (hell, most anywhere) are staunch plotters.

    Guess what? Ninety percent of the book pundits I’ve listened to on YouTube are literary lovers: characterization and style come first, plot is way down in the list of methods and means.

    One lady on a panel of ‘experts’ said she writes story-driven (genre) fiction because she has a devoted fan base and she prefers to meet their expectations. That would be the one reason I see for constructing pedal-to-the-metal plots. There is definitely an audience for them. I have no fan base with expectations. I can write what I want to. And I do.

    Those panels, discussions, etc. – I have a chance to acquire the literary education I never got. My big problem: where to find the time to read at least a good portion of the titles discussed.

    Who needs a degree in literature/creative writing? We have YouTube.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Book pundits 😁 I had to look that up to see what it meant today. I’d forgotten what culture clusters around books. Amazing. Writers, editors and publishers are only salient points in a sea of readers who review, teach and even form groups around “literature.” I can think of no part of human culture untouched by books.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I just had a glimpse into the hard work that you do in researching your stories, Mimi. I’m currently working on two WiPs, one from memory, so research is minimal. But Bob vs the Aliens is a collection of short stories occurring against the background of a collapsing civilization. So, I need a feel for how that happens.

    Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, seems to be a textbook in this field of study. Who knew it was a field of study? But it is and absorbing some of it is illuminating:

    “Collapse does not usually mean cataclysm: The process takes place over two or three human lifetimes. A number of indicators suggest that a society is entering such an episode: overproduction of elites, intensified social conflict, diminishing returns on investment across the whole range of assets, increasingly severe shortages of key resources and materials, conflicts over access to resources between groups and states, large-scale migration, and increasingly severe environmental degradation. One common feature is widespread epidemics. Another is famines, caused as much by interruptions to the food supply and distribution system as by natural events.”

    That’s the background for the world that Bob and his alien friend, Old Spice, adventure in. But it doesn’t require that I actually learn a new field of study at all. I just gotta look at the world around me.

    Liked by 4 people

    • mimispeike says:

      “I just gotta look at the world around me.”

      That’s for damn sure.

      You’re right about the work of research. I could make up stuff about Dee. Who would know? Who would care? Except me, of course.

      But he was such a lovely screwball that I’m positive what I make up wouldn’t compare to the reality. I want to milk all the crazy out of him that’s there to be milked.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    I see another piece of advice, from Annie Dilliard: “Use your weirdness.” (In your wriiting.) I decided that forty years ago. What else did I have to draw on?

    I’m a life-long outsider. By a miracle of miracles, I found my brilliant, wonderful husband. I’ve told him many times: my meeting him is the only evidence I accept for the existence of God.

    He always replies: which god? As a young man, he studied religions. He was a searcher. He was an altar boy in the Catholic church!

    He worked his way through that nonsense. He’s an atheist, as I am. I’ve never found a man I’m more in harmony with.

    Liked by 3 people

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