It has happened to me. It almost certainly has happened to you.
You are writing your latest masterpiece. You’re speeding right along. Your brain is spitting the words into your fingers and your fingers are tapping them onto the screen or onto the paper or whatever is working for you and then all of the lights on your creative dashboard go on signalling that your alternator has given up the ghost. Your metaphorical foot is mashing the pedal to the metal but your entire creative vehicle is losing power and coasting to a stop. What do you do?
The answer is easy. You quit writing. You get up from wherever you do your writing and decide to channel your energies elsewhere for the rest of your life. You grow a garden, clean your house, buy and manage properties, or engage in a different task. Let someone else bang their head against their wall in the slim hope that their stories will show up somewhere and sometime. Thanks! I’m done.
Actually, that’s not what you do.
What I just wrote is an example of a little writing trick which I picked up and modified from the novel Cujo by Stephen King. There is a noteworthy vignette that occurs in the final quarter of that book and which involves Cujo, a large and otherwise sweet St. Bernard dog who contracts rabies, and one of the story’s primary characters. King works the scene for all that it is worth. He rachets up the suspense to eleven and then inserts a bunch of short sentences that resolve the scene and the novel quickly and happily. He follows that with a single sentence which yanks the rug out from under the reader, stating that what he said happened did not happen at all. The story rolls horrifically on from there. The reader intuitively knows all along that King is wolfing, since there are sixty or seventy more pages to go when he supposedly ends the book, but it is a surprise followed by a surprise and sets the reader up for more.
I call this “the Cujo method” and I have been using it frequently while slowly writing a genre-straddling love story with the working title of The Lake Effect. I have not just been swerving out of my creative lane while doing this. Rather, I have drifted across four eastbound lanes, gone over the rumble strip and the highway shoulder, careened through a guard rail, and dropped off of an overpass posterior over teakettle before ultimately landing on a northbound train which will crash unless I can answer an unanswerable riddle (that’s a reference to another King novel).
It was not always thus. I wrote the first three and final six chapters of The Lake Effect months ago, and they’re not bad at all. I surprised myself. The middle of the book, however — no surprise here — has been a stiff-legged march through several quicksand mires. I have managed to pull myself out each time by utilizing the Cujo method.
Here is an example of what I have been doing. One of the pivotal events of The Lake Effect involves a U.S. Army paratrooper who during World War II is involved in the Allied invasion of northern France on June 6, 1945. He jumps without incident but finds when he lands that he has drifted somewhat off-course. He finds himself in a graveyard where he gets the first few hints that he is not where he is supposed to be. His landing also attracts some unwanted attention. The local authorities come looking for him as a result. The owner of a farm adjoining the graveyard is a widow who is still dealing with the unexpected death of her husband. She happens to find the paratrooper before he finds her. They each think that the other is someone else. The authorities, meanwhile, come ever closer.
I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I already knew what was going to happen after several more pages, but I had to jump fence or two to get there. I couldn’t think of a good way to do it. So I utilized the Cujo method and wrote:
She yanked her grandfather’s rifle off of the wall and shot the soldier dead even as he pleaded for his life. The End.
He pulled his Colt .45 pistol out and grimaced as he shot her while her back was turned. He stood over her body and waited for his pursuers to enter the farmhouse, determined to take as many of them as he could before he followed them into hell. The End.
She hid him from the troops in a second, unfinished root cellar that her husband had dug but not completed by the time of his death. Afterward, the two of them surrendered to the passion that had been tugging at them, resulting in a tender moment which became another and then another and yet another. They lived on the farm for the rest of their lives, in conjugal if not lawfully wedded bliss. The End.
That of course is not ultimately what happened. What did happen is that I got the concrete out from between my ears and was able to move forward. I of course removed the whimsy once it had served its purpose and I got rolling again. The preceding three paragraphs will never see the light of day (whoops…wait a minute…). The best part is that while I was typing these alternative premature endings I thought of a plausible way to keep things going that wouldn’t make a reader, agent or editor go “Hmmm.” It took a bit of work to get that just right but at least I had a “that” to get right, which was more than I had when I stepped in the story quicksand. I think it may have had more to do with the act of continuing to slog forward. Erle Stanley Gardner, who was one of the twentieth century’s most popular and most prolific authors, would work the keys on his manual typewriter under his fingers bled, bandage them up, and go for more. That, I think, is how the job ultimately is done. For whatever reason, my method works for me. Maybe it will for you. Something will. You just need to find it. Good luck!
For anyone interested…I listened to the following while writing this:
Hey Ya — Surfer Blood
American Specialties (full album) — Parquet Courts
Heartbreaker — Dionne Warwick
Stayin’ Alive — Bee Gees
Mr. Dyingly Sad — The Critters
Cry to Me — Solomon Burke
Blood and Roses — The Smithereens
Hold On — Alabama Shakes
The Lost Septet (Live) (full album) — Miles Davis
Backsliding Fearlessly — Mott the Hoople
Under Pressure — Queen, David Bowie
Money Talks — AC/DC
Enjoy. Thanks for being here and for letting me be a part of your day.
Media, whether working of not, is courtesy of giphy.com