Writer’s Block

I recently read an article about writer’s block, and nodded as I read through the various suggestions to overcome it. The problem is, I don’t think I’ve ever had real writer’s block as it was described in that and several other articles. I’ve never felt the blank wall closing in on me, the paucity of the well of ideas, the cold empty feeling of not knowing what to do next, the inability to move forward in any way. I do, however, have moments when I don’t like the ideas I’ve come up with, I know they’re not going to work, and I can’t think of something better. I may not call it writer’s block, but I have something in my brain that’s not working.

Carl Jung believed in the all-powerful unconscious to create art in its many forms. 

“The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.” (Collected Works 15, paragraph 115) https://jungiancenter.org/speaking-in-primordial-images-part-1-jung-on-creativity-and-the-creative-process/#_ftn2

I don’t think of myself as a Jungian, but I do think that the unconscious plays a role. When the ideas that seem obvious to me also feel unsatisfactory, I set the work aside and do something else, such as write a blog post, outline a different story, read. I let the obvious and unworkable material evaporate and hope something better will come along. And eventually it does.

John Cleese, a man who seems to exude creativity in everything he does once said that he never takes the first idea. If you clap onto the first idea that comes to you, you miss something better. You have to be willing to wait until the dross fades and the pure rises to the surface.

Sometimes I try out the less perfect ideas and use them as a bridge to the next scene or chapter, which I’ve already sensed is a good piece. After a while, the problem with the “bridge” scene becomes obvious and I can rework or remove it. 

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from another writer was to take my time, don’t rush it, let the story grow organically. If that means setting it aside for a few hours or a few days, do it. The mode of expression is different but the idea lines up with letting the unconscious do its work.

It doesn’t take much to spark a story idea, but it does take more thinking to get the feel of the entire story, who the characters are and how they will interact, the setting and how it affects the characters and the plot, and the tone or mood of the whole thing.

In my experience the writer’s block occurs when I push forward too hard, before I’ve let the story develop. When ideas start popping (yes, like the first signs of popcorn popping), then I settle down to write it out, knowing that I’ll have to stop at a later point and wait for the rest of it to show up. A moment of writer’s block is telling me something, and I’ve learned to listen. 

Pandemic Dilemma

Last year about this time I began work on a new novel, making random notes on the main character, the obstacles thrown in her path, snatches of dialogue that came to me while I was out walking, and minor characters who might be interesting. This stage of the process is fun and always interesting. But there was one aspect that I couldn’t decide about. 

We were in the middle of the pandemic. Should I include that fact as part of contemporary life, or write as though there was no pandemic, no masking, no social distancing, no crowding in hospitals, and no arguments over masks. I couldn’t make a decision. If I mentioned the pandemic and all that it entails, would the restrictions of the pandemic play a role in the mystery, or could it remain in the background? (A ludicrous idea, all things considered.) If I didn’t mention it, I’d have to be clear the novel wasn’t set in 2020 or 2021—or even 2022. I waffled for weeks. At last, I went on FB and posed the question there. Should I or shouldn’t I mention the virus? The responses ranged along with the passions of the commentator.

Some writers suggested mentioning some aspects that wouldn’t interfere with the plot. This is honest and pragmatic, but as I watched the pandemic evolve, I wondered how long it would be possible to curate features of the pandemic. Others made a case for maintaining realism, depicting life and circumstances as they are and how they affect individuals in crisis, which is an honest take on a difficult problem, and probably harder to execute in practice than express in theory. And then there were the writers who were adamantly opposed to any mention of Covid-19, mainly because it would date the story and limit its appeal. I’m not sure if I agree with this or not. When I pick up a mystery, I generally know when it was published, and if not I check the date. Unless the writer is clear about the time period being different from the present, I assume the story is contemporaneous with the writer. So, yes, mentioning the pandemic would definitely date the story to a specific period, which we think is going to be a limited period. 

Every story is dated in some way. Cell phones, automobiles, DVDs, 45s stacked on a record player, or Polo coats, pedal pushers (not cropped pants), and jeans with the hems rolled up tell us where we are in time. 

In the end I still had to make a choice. We writers face choices every day even though we may not think of our work that way. We can’t get from one sentence to the next without choosing a series of words to carry a particular idea, which could change in the middle of the predicate. Still, my new novel was taking shape, and I had to decide if that shape would include masks and talk about Covid-19. Would I use the details of this disease and its spread, the restrictions on gatherings and the dangers of the illness, to move the mystery along, or would it stay in the background? Could it remain in the background? That became the key question. 

The issue boiled down to what I wanted to write about. If I included the pandemic and all its attendant issues, I had to make significant changes to the mystery, and in the end I didn’t want to do that. I decided to omit any mention of the pandemic, and I did so believing that this health crisis would pass and life would return to normal. I’m not sure I believe that anymore, but the decision was made and the novel written. It’s now in the hands of my agent. 

But now I’m starting another one, and the question is once again before me. And I still don’t know the answer. But once again, I’m probably not going to include any mention of the pandemic. If you have decided differently, I’d like to hear about your experience.

The First Line

In every creative writing class the instructor is sure to note at some point the importance of the first line. These few words should grab the reader, and lead her into the rest of the story. We all know the classic first lines by Tolstoy and Chekhov and Chandler and Christie, but those don’t really help us with writing our own. I didn’t always recognize the brilliance of some first lines, which made coming up with my own even harder.

At first the issue seemed to be to write something intriguing. For the first book in the Mellingham series, I wrote and rewrote the first line along with the first chapter, writing, in the end, three first chapters and stacking them one in front of the other. In the end I was persuaded to cut most of them, and I ended up with what I thought was a pretty good first line for Murder in Mellingham. “It had been some time since Lee Handel had ventured out willingly on a social occasion, but his wife, Hannah, had reassured him that this party would be safe.” This line sets the stage for the evening to come but not much else. That line introduced the first of seven titles in the Mellingham series.

The first line of Under the Eye of Kali, the first in the Anita Ray series, was even less connected with the story to follow, but it set the scene nicely. “Guests from various foreign countries began filling up the Hotel Delite dining room, taking every seat at the main table—this was a small hotel, only eight rooms, with the owner’s, Meena Nayar’s, suite on the top floor, and that of her niece, Anita Ray, above a separate garage.” This was the first of four books, with a fifth one waiting on my desk.

You would think by the time I came to write my thirteenth book that I would have mastered the art of the first line, but you’d be wrong. Below the Tree Line opens with what I regard as a terrific line, but it isn’t necessarily the best first line for a mystery novel. But I didn’t come to this conclusion until recently. Below the Tree Line opens with this: “On the third night Felicity lifted the shotgun from its place in the cabinet, and this time she loaded it.” There isn’t much wrong with this line as it stands, but it doesn’t tell you as much as you might think about what’s coming next.

After publishing dozens of shorts stories and thirteen novels, I tried a new approach in creating the perfect first line. I don’t know if the result is perfect, but I established a definition of that first sentence that works for me. I now consider the first line as the apex of a pyramid, and the story is within that pyramid. Whatever happens must be traceable back directly to the first line. This by itself means extraneous scenes, extra characters, digressions into backstory, or a humorous or romantic subplot that is more filler than mystery, are all to be excluded.

In my current novel, now with my agent, I rewrote and reworked the first line more than a dozen times until I had something that, like a math or drawing compass whose points never deviate as they draw the circle, could embrace the entire story, holding each part in tight, streamlining and smoothing the narrative. This, then, is the first line of So Comes the Reckoning: “The first time Renee watched a man die, she was eleven years old, kneeling beside him as he lay on the ground.”

As I wrote the 82,000 word story I kept that first line in front of me and asked myself repeatedly, Is what I’m writing now linked to that statement? If not, why not? It was hard to find myself jettisoning entire chapters because I seemed to think they were needed but could find no connection to the first line and its implications. Why was she there? Why was this a first time? Why did she not, as an eleven-year-old child, run away or at least stand apart? The implications of those words kept me on track.

Since then I have come to appreciate the difference between a good snappy sentence and a good first line to a particular novel. They are not necessarily the same. The challenge is to combine them in such a way that the story unfolds from those opening words. It’s an ongoing challenge.

The Other Reason I Write

This is an exciting time. Crime Spell Books has just announced the list of stories and writers that will appear in its first Best New England Crime Stories anthology. This is the nineteenth such anthology after Level Best Books announced it was discontinuing the series last year.

Last fall two of my colleagues and I agreed that the cessation of the annual anthology by Level Best books was a sad end for a publication we all loved and two of us had worked on. Leslie Wheeler and I had been editors and Ang Pompano had published stories in the anthologies. But I had another reason for being disappointed.

I was one of the original founders of Level Best Books, along with Kate Flora and Skye Alexander. There’s something wonderful in creating something that lives after you—and doesn’t need you to prosper. That was the Level Best Books anthology.

In 2003, when we began, print-on-demand hadn’t yet taken hold and become the easy, accessible (and cheap) process that it is today. As the first editors, we chose paper, dealt with printers and shipping, and hand delivered books to bookstores and events. We advertised and promoted. And that came after reading and selecting stories, editing and proofreading. And back then proofreading meant reading the printed text against the paper manuscript, looking for errors in composition and type setting, not in the writing of the story. The process is so much easier today that any writer can put together a collection of stories and publish it digitally and through POD with or without technical help.

Creating this new anthology satisfied something in me that I don’t usually find elsewhere. I love the process of making something. Yes, I write stories and novels, and have a number of both out circulating with editors. I cannot imagine a life without writing, and indeed I’ve never had one without it since I was a teenager. But the finishing process has its own special appeal—there’s a tactile pleasure in putting together the front matter and back matter, arranging the parts felicitously. I get some of the same pleasure from matting and framing a photograph for the few times I’ve done an exhibit of my work. That form of satisfaction is probably why I do needlepoint and embroidery, and used to sew all the time. Sometimes I arrange tools and equipment in the garage or cellar for their appearance rather than practical reasons. I may end up a sculptor making assemblages or found art pieces. I love using my hands. But I’ll still be writing.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to share with all of you those aspects of my writing self that don’t often come out. I talk so much about writing—how to do this or that—that I sometimes forget that each of us who writes has more going on and other ways of being creative and finding a sense of accomplishment than the one part we talk about on line. The beginning of the resurrected anthology is one of them for me. So while all the writers are celebrating having their stories in the new anthology, which I fully understand, I’m celebrating making another object that will satisfy another part of me.

So where do I get my ideas?

One of the questions I have come to almost dread is the standard one about where I get my ideas for a story or a novel. The question is frustrating because no one really knows where an idea of any sort comes from. These things pop into our heads and we either play with them or toss them. But this morning I was trying to recall a thought about a particular memory that had been nagging at me. And that got me thinking about story ideas.

Some of my story ideas are not story ideas at all but arrive first as an experience I’ve heard about or undergone and can’t quite shake. One day, while still employed in social services, I was working quietly in my office when a conversation beyond my door caught my attention. A woman waiting to see her social worker had gotten into a conversation with the volunteer on the desk, and they were exchanging information on what happens after you’ve been convicted, served time, and are released. The man explained that the County House of Correction bus took you back to where you were originally picked up, usually right outside the courthouse. As he pointed out, you were wearing the clothes you had on when you were picked up. In his case, he was wearing shorts and was sentenced to six months. He was released when it was January and snowing. The woman said the situation was different for women. No one provided transportation for women. She got a voucher for a bus or train ticket and had to walk to the station. Two stories grew out of this overheard conversation.

I had seen the navy blue bus before, along with the man checking off names, and never really thought about it. Now I did. In “Kenny Orslow Shows Up on Time” (Mystery Weekly February 2020), a young man is convicted of buying drugs and shows up at the bus stop at the appointed time, but he’s not on the list and the officer won’t let him on. Kenny is now homeless and stranded—and desperate. I had a lot of fun with this story.

The second story grew out of the differences between how the men and women were treated. In “Francetta Repays Her Debt to Society” (AHMM October 2014) a young woman is released from prison but no one is there to meet her. While away, her boyfriend died and she has nowhere to go. She makes her way back to her hometown and arrives at her cousin’s apartment. The cousin is cool and then surprisingly friendly.

The overheard conversation took place in the early 2000s, but it stuck in my imagination for years until I figured out what to do with it. Another odd bit of information came to me more than thirty years ago. A college student drowned in a snow-covered reservoir. The chief of police attributed the accidental death to the student being from the Midwest and not recognizing that the flat expanse was not a field or pasture but a body of water. That comment stuck in my head for years until it emerged in “The Pledge” (AHMM July/August 2020).

Years and years ago I came across a poster of cartoon faces (like the smiley face) showing a range of emotions, with titles underneath—rows of little round faces each with a different expression. This had been developed as an aid for autistic children learning coping skills. This made me wonder how a person otherwise capable could manage in a world where human interaction seemed so opaque. That question lingered in the back of my mind for years (probably decades) until I finally got an idea, which appeared in “Picture This” (Saturday Evening Post, online edition Friday, April 30, 2021).

When one of these factoids, or odd bits of information, comes to me, I don’t think, Oh, there’s a story here. I just remember it because it seems so peculiar, so different from my regular life. Most of my short stories and novels grow out of this kind of tidbit. Right now I have a few of these rattling around in my brain and I’m not sure what to do with them. One involves a man probably in his sixties. He parked his pickup out front of my house and knocked on the door. He wanted to know if I would trade some of the apples in my tree for a bucket of his—he had several buckets in his truck. I agreed because, why not? While he harvested what he wanted (“Please, take more. I can’t use them all.”) he told me about all the fruit trees in Salem that were on public land and therefore whatever they produced was free for the taking. He’d been harvesting, hence the filled buckets in his pickup. I know he’ll end up in a story but I can’t say when.

Meanwhile I’ve been working on a story about an inept hustler who learns damaging information about a friend and tries to use it as leverage with a drug dealer. The idea came from an interview with one of the guards at the Stewart Gardner Museum. A reporter tracked him down in a shabby apartment in a small town and told him some people thought he was in on the robbery. His comeback? “Would I be living here if I had been?” We’ll see where that one goes.

So when someone asks me where my ideas come from, the answer is, Well, it’s complicated. Mostly from life.