Thursday, March 15, 2012

When in Doubt Change Scenes

Like many writers I have a tendency to get so enthralled with a story that I write furiously until, suddenly, I run out of things to say and I find myself completely confused as to where I was headed with this. I have never been the sort of writer who prepares heavy, tight outlines. If I knew exactly what was going to happen all the time I'd lose interest in my stories. Writing to see what happens next is both exciting to do and makes for exciting stories – with the proper amount of rewriting and editing, I think. Most of my favorite writers tend to write this way.

I remember hearing Stephen King telling a story that has stayed with me for years. He was driving through a rural part of Maine when he noticed some small problem with his car so when he got to the next service station he pulled in and told them what was happening. A mechanic took a look at it and assured him it wasn't a problem but he needed a little time to fix it. While he was waiting King walked around the back of the station and saw that there was a river running behind it. He sat down on a rock and began thinking about what would happen if he were to fall in the river and be washed down stream without anyone noticing. The longer he thought about it, the more intrigued he became. Later he began writing about it and the next thing he knew he had a book started. This is how much of the most interesting writing happens.

Back in November when someone on a Facebook page started talking about the old PA Dutch tradition of Belsnickel I had a Stephen-King Moment and wound up writing The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood. It wound up being very popular as a single novella but it lead me to think more about the setting, characters and traditions of my home town and that has been growing and growing and growing. I now have 6 stories for this collection: The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall, Peeper Baumgratz and the Sister's Snowplow, The Confession of Genny Franck, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, The Day the Viaduct Blew Down, A Long Day's Journey Into Light I'm working on a seventh, The Great Dumpling War and Dance Competition, with more planned.

However, one of the challenges to writing this way is that sometimes you write yourself into a corner – or at least a wall – and then there seems to be nowhere to go. That happened with the Dumpling story and for several days I've been wandering around doing other things, annoyed with myself for not knowing what to do next. Then I remembered another of the Great Writing Mantras that has served me well throughout my writing life: “When in Doubt, Change Scenes.” It almost always works and makes the story so much more interesting. So why do I forget it all the time?

Writing is a process of world building and, as such, you always have the option to introduce a new dimension to your world. It is rare that if I stop the scene that seems to have stopped by itself anyway, and switch to a new POV or take up some different action that everything does not become exciting again. Plus it helps to avoid the old what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation narrative (“...and then we did this and then we did that and then we...”) One of the joys of this project is that there are so many quirky characters that there is always an interesting place to go.

So, I'm starting a new scene this afternoon and am very eager to see what will happen. One of the things I love most about writing is the movie-in-my-mind that reveals itself as I write. Sometimes one of the characters will just take over and, though my fingers are doing the typing, somebody else is at the helm. That's when I can hardly wait to get to work.

Thanks for reading.

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