“Writing fiction is...about passion and endurance, a combination of desire and grunt work often at odds with each other.”
Maureen Howard

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

13 Ways of Procrastinating on a Short Story
Mon 2011-01-31 20:12:13 (in context)
  • 0 words (if poetry, lines) long

The short story I'm currently avoiding working on occurs in a very strange conceptual overlap. Writers do that, and poets; I'm convinced it's a universal part of creativity. Totally unconnected thoughts get their wires crossed, thanks to that unruly and involuntary associative quality of imagination, and the resulting circuit does things that the electronic components manufacturers never dreamed of and would probably get superstitious about.

It starts with a recent homework prompt from Melanie Tem's writing group. (I seem to have mentioned this before.) She shared an anecdote concerning a writer she knew who'd been working on the same novel for years. He'd constantly get within sight of the end, then tear it all up and rewrite from the beginning. It's not all that uncommon; how many of us progress from incremental rewrite to incremental rewrite without ever finishing the first draft? But the prompt was, "Why can't they finish the book? What would happen if they did?"

Then a friend alerted me to an anthology I ought to be submitting to, and its theme dovetailed nicely with the prompt. Clearly, if the book ever ceases to be in a constant state of construction, something nasty will escape and do terrible things.

And of course that thought led to the famous Winchester Mystery House, which Mrs. Winchester kept in a constant state of construction for, so legend has it, a fairly similar reason. More or less. Meanwhile, flailing around for some sort of structure, I considered conversations between the writer and a psychologist, the latter cluelessly offering irrelevant professional insights on writer's block. Kind of like Richard Matheson's short story "Person to Person," in which the shrink tries to convince the narrator that the phone in his head is just an invention of a troubled subconscious mind. It isn't, of course.

So far, so good. One thought leading in an orderly and explainable fashion to the next. What I don't get is why the poem "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" popped into my head as an alternative structural frame.

Then while I was mulling all that over, the uncanny blackbird die-off in Arkansas happened.

So there you go. Lots of weird ideas and not a word written. As author Kit Whitfield put it, I've got mostly ideas about a story but not much in the way of ideas for a story. I don't have a good handle on the main character, I don't know what they write, I can't really see where they live and work, and I can't decide on the supernatural mechanics involved in trapping an infernal monster inside an unfinished novel manuscript.

But I've printed out the poem and hung it over my desk, and I've read some literary criticism about it. I've done some research on the Winchester House and the fallen blackbirds. I've got ideas toward the structure of the story, ideas like "Thirteen small scenes, each somehow connected with a poem stanza and having a blackbird in it somewhere if only in a very minor way. The last scene should involve the bird die-off and a day that dawns directly onto evening because of the snow." Structural clues like that often makes the difference between thinking in futile circles and actually writing something that goes somewhere. It's how "And On the Seventh Day" finally got written all those years ago; once I knew that there should be seven scenes, one for each of the days of the week in an oblique parallel to Genesis 1, I could write the story.

And I think tomorrow I'll be dusting off the typewriter. It worked last time, after all.