RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #36

Oops – Wrote Myself Into a Corner

Ever written yourself into a corner? I did. Recently. Here’s how I did it.

One day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter – who was a child at the time – asked me, “Daddy, why are you writing so fast?” And I replied, “Because I want to see how the story turns out!” — Louis L’Amour

I grew up on Louis L’Amour. My father consumed Louis L’Amour books like he did Rolaids as a traveling salesman, Fig Newtons (should they be eaten with the fingers?), Cheez-Its and cigarettes at home. The L’Amour’s that were open on their face, resting on the ugly dark green plaid chair in the den, were to be left alone until they ended up in the magazine basket. Once fallen, they were mine.

I won’t laundry list the authors who have said, in words similar to L’Amour’s, that they “Just write” and go where the story goes. That’s how I write. I write like I’m watching the story unfold. That was all fine and dandy until a story bit me on the ass a week ago when a character said something totally unexpected. Her line made it so that I had to quit hanging scenes of story wallpaper and get on with the damn story. Instead of following my “the story tells itself” mantra I was so shocked by the turn of events that I turned “writerly” myself, and discovered I wasn’t “writerly” enough. I should have closed my eyes and swung for the bleachers when that curveball came off the mound and not been so shell shocked about the fact that I hadn’t seen it coming.

I was utterly unprepared. Ill-prepared. I didn’t have a carryover phrase in the can, or even in mind because I had been so surprised. I mean I had an inkling of who was who, how it would end, but I’d been farting around getting there. In one simple line, a character wrote the end of the story for me. But I couldn’t just jump straight to gunfire and helicopter chases and throwing everyone under the special effects and violence bus. I needed to write, but I had no idea what. I avoided it. I wrote bits from further along. I took stabs at future scenes. I took shelter-in-place naps…

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ― Jodi Picoult

Well. No shit duh.

I wrote. And wrote and overwrote and deleted and kept this thought, tossed that one. In the midst of tangential character and caper chaos no one seemed to know, or wanted to tell me, or readers or even each other what the hell was going on. I started to get off into character headtime to ‘splain, but God knows I hate much head time.

“The more you write, you learn that some of these things are just too damn difficult, and they turn out to be boring when a guy’s just inside his head a lot. For example, in Listening Woman, the second chapter — when I first wrote it, Leaphorn’s alone in the police car, and I go back and arrest a kid and stick him in there with him. Give him some company. It was just a learning process…(head time is) kind of a problem as a read, too, I think. I’m very conscious of the impatience of my reader…(and) that he’s got a limited amount of tolerance for me to screw around with.” – Tony Hillerman

But I had to get the story’s “issues” (call them plot holes if left alone) out in the open if the coming showdown was to make sense. Without telegraphing the conclusion. Without head time. I relinquished control and tuned back into the fact that the story is always better at telling itself than I am. Set up the characters, let them do their thing. Don’t get so waffled when they surprise me.

This is not easy, people. If it is, shame on you. I leave you with this gem.

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” — Richard Bach



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Published by

Phil Huston


10 thoughts on “RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #36”

  1. Quote: “the story is always better at telling itself than I am.” I’m not a writer but I do write. In my writing world, the characters have a great deal of leeway but I also have much to say. I remain “God” in the background, not just the typist in the foreground with characters doing as they please. Characters like to ignore the fact that they are performing in a temp production. They’d be happy re-enacting a “Perils of Pauline” endless scenario. When I write in the margin: “Keep that up and you’re fired” they start behaving.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I also have much to say keeps them puppets to the author’s agenda, though. Like Punch and Judy in a morality play. I figure if I put people in a room I want them to be, not act. Probably because they can say whatever needs saying better than I.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. If I’m stuck with a story I leave it for a few months and work on something else. I actually left ‘Examining Kitchen Cupboards’ about two years before I went back to it. The time away works!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The greats have the luxury of being great.
    The rest of us need a least a compass, a pocketknife and the desire to see the other side of the mountain, or the next sunrise.

    I’ve written so many dead-ends I feel like life in DOS Adventure, in that twisty-twirly-maze-of-passages. Or was it the Turny-mazey-passage-of-tunnels? Or the…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I resemble that incomplete mark. I made filler dog food yesterday. Ground beef and rice. Looked good. It was “done.” But God it was bland. I have a hard drive full of that. Off the stove, but amateur chef land. Why I wrote this one. Stories are smarter than we are, and we are often not up to the task. However the Bach line is true of all.

      Liked by 2 people

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