Tag Archives: Robert McCammon

Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together

For many years, I had a story idea sparked by the Falling Rock warning signs you see placed along mountainous roads. Actually, it was an idea without a story, which is at least one of the reasons I didn’t write it for a long time. It required a few additional elements before the story evolved: reading a novel by Robert McCammon, a specific discussion with my writing group, and discovering a new band with a new flavor of music.

Head East road sign album cover

Album cover for Head East’s self-titled 1978 album

The basic idea went something like this: What if a rock band chose the name Falling Rock, and then their fans started stealing all those warning signs from the roadways of America? A what if can be an interesting place to start, but it doesn’t inherently lead to the elements necessary for story: characters, conflict, and so forth. As a side note, the idea owes something to the classic rock band Head East, whose self-titled album from 1978 had an album cover made to look like a road sign with two arrows pointing in opposite directions and the band’s name spray painted over them; although you might not recognize the band name, you almost certainly know their most famous song, “Never Been Any Reason (Save My Life).”

I started thinking more seriously about how to write my story after reading Robert McCammon’s novel The Five, which came out about two years ago. First of all, McCammon has long been one of my favorite authors; I recommend his books unreservedly. (What, you haven’t read Boy’s Life? Then how did you think you knew what a story was or what it takes to be a writer?)

Robert McCammon, The Five

Cover of Robert McCammon’s novel The Five

In The Five, a small touring band embarks on what might be their last tour together before familial and other obligations pull them in other directions. They’ve each got ulterior motives that prompt them on the journey, and of course they encounter tragedy, heartbreak, and terror. Along the way, something really magical and creative happens. I loved this book—beautifully written and engaging throughout.

What The Five gave me in inspiration for my Falling Rock story was a glimpse into what the life of a small touring band might be like: that constant struggle to do the thing you love—play music—but also needing to make it pay. The novel also helped begin to answer the what if I’d started with. The band in the novel gains notoriety through tragedy such that suddenly they’re a hot ticket. What if, I thought, my band becomes popular because of stolen road signs?

That’s still a situation, an idea, not a story. At that point, I brought up the idea with my writing group. I don’t normally talk about my ideas or what I’m working on before I write them, but in this case I didn’t have a story, and I guess I was afraid I would lose the impetus to write it if a story didn’t come about soon. So, I laid out the idea.

The lesson here is really how important it is to have a suitable group of writing companions that you can work with and share ideas and stories, give and receive criticism and encouragement, whether online or in person. After I described what I was thinking about, my group members saw the potential and immediately started asking the right questions—or more importantly, getting me to ask them.

The biggest question was: Whose story is this? It might seem silly that I hadn’t figured that out—and naturally that was a big stopping point in being able to write it. I’d had a vague sense that it was a story about the band itself (although I hadn’t figured out who the band was). But my writing group got me thinking about other possibilities. Was this a fan’s story? Was it a story about someone stealing the signs? Or someone trying to stop the sign stealing?

By the end of that short conversation, I had plenty of ideas that could develop into a true story, characters to build story around. Because each of the possibilities seemed to have life in it, I began thinking of a fragmented, multicharacter story to use all the ideas. As my former MFA workshop mates could attests, I’ve always had trouble telling just one story at a time.

For a variety of reasons (you know them—work, life, procrastination), it was still a couple of months before I started writing anything. Once I did start writing, I needed a name for my rock band. Initially, I thought the band would be called Falling Rock, but I decided instead that should be the name of their latest CD, which would be designed to look like the road sign. Because the band would be at the center of the story, the reason all the other characters and their stories were swirling around, I wanted a band name that somehow represented that movement, that journey. Unfortunately, Journey was already taken.

My first thought was Voyager, as I knew of no band with that name. I checked online through Spotify, however, and found such an artist. In fact, what I found was a recently released CD titled The Meaning of I with a very striking cover:

Voyager, Meaning of I CD

Cover artwork for Voyager’s The Meaning of I

When I see artwork such as this on an album or CD, I have a good feeling that the music might be something I’d be interested in. I’ve always believed in the old adage, Always judge a book by its cover. But only as it applies to books, or in this case CDs or albums. I’ve been hooked on progressive rock since I first discovered Pink Floyd back in high school, and I’m always on the lookout for new artists to add to my collection. These are the sort of artists that typically makes an artistic statement with their album/CD artwork to complement their music.

Voyager, from Australia, was described as progressive metal, so I figured I’d give them a listen. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Intelligent lyrics combined with a nice vocal style—and a hell of a lot of drums and guitars. Pretty soon, I was listening extensively to all the available Voyager music (they’ve only released four CDs to date, although according to their Facebook fan page they’re working on number five now).

Voyager became a spiritual model for my fictional band, and their music was frequently my inspiration while writing. It’s a rock and roll story, so I wanted to stay in a rock and roll state of mind. And by the way, my band ended up with the name Go Forth Traveller, in case you were wondering.

That’s pretty much it. All the pieces were in place, and I was able to complete this story, “Falling Rock.” Of course, from the beginning I envisioned it as a short story, and that’s what I tried to write. The final result, with four intertwined storylines, came in at about 15,000 words, which is novella range by many definitions, or at any rate a very long short story. And it’s currently out in the world looking for a publication home.

You just never know how a story is going to come together. Sometimes an idea sticks around for ages before it connects with some other piece or pieces and a story develops. Other times, the story forms almost instantaneously. And then there are the stories you think will work that lose momentum altogether and die. It’s all part of the writing life, I suppose. And the writing life is all about searching for the meaning of I.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins