I read an interesting blog today by Mike Knowles on the Do Some Damage blogspot. Mike is a successful Canadian crime fiction author, and he hit on a subject which I suspect has troubled many authors from time to time. Without putting any pink ribbons on it, it’s writer’s block.
He writes “without a net”, that is, with no organized outline or detailed plan. He pretty much wings it, and it works well for him. Every once in a while, though, he finds himself and his characters with their backs against the wall, plotwise. With no outs.
Eventually, Mike hacks his way out of the thicket, usually in an unlikely place–the shower, while walking his dog, etc–and goes on to finish the novel. But I wondered if he ever had to really put a novel completely aside because he just couldn’t find the escape hatch from his writer’s block dungeon.
Well, like Mike, I also “write without a net”. I don’t use an outline, because I can’t plan the story that far in advance, so I begin writing on the slimmest of premises. I have a novel coming out next year, a noir tale called The Take, which was inspired by two lines of a song. That’s all I had to go on when I started writing it. Another one began when I saw a guy in a bar one night trying in vain to impress a girl. The one I’m working on now started from an opening line. As soon as I wrote it, I had no idea what the second line would be.
But in every case, I soldiered on, transforming these fragile ideas into full-blown novels. Well, in almost every case.
There was one project which started off as a slam-bang idea. I sat down to write it fifteen years ago. A guy is killed by people who want the contents of a small box he is hiding. His widow takes her son and the box and immediately splits town, fearing she and her son will be the next to die. Many years later, she dies, and the son, who is now an adult, finally learns the terrible secret of what’s in the box. He also learns the killers haven’t given up and have located him. He then begins the dual task of trying to deal with the contents of the box and avoiding his pursuers.
Sounds good, right? Well, I got about 100 pages in and I just broke apart like a bug hitting a windshield. Suddenly, nothing came to me, I was completely stalled out, unable to write even one more line. Weeks went by. Nothing. I was so discouraged, because I loved the idea. But after endless hours of staring at a blank screen, I got nowhere. Then, I got some flimsy idea for another book, so I started that one, putting this one aside.
Years went by. Every so often, I would dig around in boxes, and on two or three occasions, I actually saw the 100-page printout of that aborted novel. A twinge of remorse shot through me every time I saw it, as I realized that such a good idea had gone down the drain.
Okay, so now I’m working on my current novel, you know, the one I started from just an opening line. I’m rolling along, but when I get 20,000 words in, I start to run out of gas. I feel the sputtering and I know that I will be at a complete standstill in very short order. I beg the characters to guide me out of this corner I’ve painted myself into, until…until…
Until I think, why not have the girl who was killed be the granddaughter of a guy who was killed in the same fashion many years ago? And they were both killed because…the killers wanted the contents of a small box the grandfather was guarding at the time of his murder. Bingo! His widow takes her son and splits town. Her son has two daughters, one is killed, the other teams up with a central character who has been dragged into this and…and…
Well, you get the idea. The fifteen-year-old idea was resuscitated, and is now kicking ass! And the end is in sight.