Parking areas around open air shopping malls these days in our part of Northeast Texas are carefully constructed mazes with cul-de-sacs, small dead pockets with only two or three slots stuck into a grassy area, and long winding loops leading back to the main entrance and exits.
I firmly believe they are designed by intent to raise my blood pressure.
Adding to the fun of trying to find a space and wishing the slots were angled instead of perpendicular to the lanes are those pesky little speed bumps that aren’t much for my pickup, but can drag the oil pan off of low-slung vehicles.
Personally, I feel it would be easier to drive into a lot reminiscent of amusement park waiting lanes. I’m sure you’re all familiar with them. Walk up to the entrance, turn left and walk alllll the way to the end, reach the post, and slog alllll the way back and reverse direction ad nauseum until it’s your turn to get on and ride of 90 seconds.
It would be preferable to creeping up and down a parking lot until you find a slot and then having someone whip in ahead of you, resulting in red faces and manic fury.
Why am I talking about parking lots and queues on a writing blog? Well, pour another cup of coffee brothers and sisters, and let me explain how my mind works.
These traffic swirls, eddies, and seldom clot-free lots are reminiscent of the plots in my books. They start with a good, simple idea that should be straightforward from Point A to Point B.
Those who follow these blogs know I don’t outline, so the story’s progression is always an adventure for everyone concerned. I begin with a general idea, and hope the plot advances properly until the supporting characters appear at the right time take their places and guide the story. The first act usually comes together as everyone behaves themselves and sets a hopefully simple course.
It never does.
For some reason, my subplots grow like dandelions and as in the case of the project I’m working on at this writing, and I find myself turning left and right to keep up. Right now, I have a protagonist in a traditional western chased by three different bands of antagonists I didn’t anticipate.
Act II is usually difficult for me. Now at 30,000+ words into the manuscript, the loose ends that have been waving around for the bulk of that work in progress are starting to come together, and by Act III and 60,000 words, it should a fun downhill slide to the end.
But this time everything slowed at 75,000 words.
That’s unusual for me. This part usually writes itself as fast as polished steel, so I wondered why.
My characters are doing what’s necessary. For some authors, a stall in the plot is indicative of problems with character motivation. Some writers learning the trade place their protagonists in a place they shouldn’t be, forcing their creations to do something against their personalities or characteristics.
If you’re stalled because of those issues, the best thing to do is simply highlight those pages and hit Delete.
Good lord, Rev! We worked hard on those pages, sometimes sitting for days in front of the computer and staring out the window for eight hours at a time, and you want to send them into an electronic abyss!!!???
Fine then, maybe you can’t put ‘em into a shallow grave yet. Highlight, cut, and paste them in a fresh new separate document for later review, or when you’ve had a couple of cocktails and find the courage to finally hit the Big D key.
But I’m not stalled for that reason.
So I stopped, re-read all 300+ pages and realized I’d drifted away from my protagonist’s main strength. He doesn’t run. When cornered, or angered, he attacks. I’d drifted away from the one thing that makes Cap Whitlatch who he is.
We pause here for a brief recollection that directly ties into my solution and came to light while I was talking to my brother about an event that occurred back in 1976.
Feel free to pour another cup of coffee as I tell you about that night when…
…driving home from a friend’s house at two in the morning, a muscle car full of angry young men took offense at something I still don’t understand. They pulled up beside me at a light and the two on my side opened their doors and charged me. One had a tire iron, and the other carried a hammer.
Greatly outnumbered and shocked by the unprovoked attack, I hit the gas on my old ’69 Galaxie 500. The big 390-cubic-inch engine roared and I ran the light in a cloud of white tire smoke. They followed and tried to run me off the road several times for the next five miles. With no weapons of my own (and that was the last time that happened) I had few choices. There was no police station nearby and though I’d just left the house of a friend who was an officer, it as well before the days of cell phones.
I couldn’t run to my apartment, because it would still be me against four. I had no friends who lived nearby to offer assistance, but I had one ace in the hole. My old man, a veteran of the Japanese theater in WWII, lived close and slept with his windows open, with a double-barrel twelve-gauge always by the bed.
Using evasive driving skills taught to me by the aforementioned police officer friend, and relying on sharp 22-year-old reflexes, I stomped the gas as if trying to make a run for it. Just as I expected, the driver responded and soon we were running parallel at 80-miles-an-hour.
Nerves jangling, I hit the brakes at the last minute and whipped a hard right into Dad’s neighborhood.
Fast acceleration on my part, another quick left and a power slide to the curb in front of the Old Man’s little frame house. Tires squalling, I was out of the car in a flash. “Dad!”
A light sleeper, his voice came through the dark screen. “What’s wrong, son?”
“I need help.”
The muscle car rounded the corner and slid to a stop behind my Ford. The driver popped open his door and emerged with a makeshift weapon in his hand I couldn’t identify in the dark. The other three were out and coming for me as well.
Scared, furious, and finally cornered, I saw red and charged. “The driver’s mine!”
At that time I weighed in at maybe 135 pounds, but it was mad talking, even though that old boy was half again my size and looked as if he lifted baby elephants for fun.
From the corner of my eye I saw the Old Man step onto the porch in his drawers, but the twin bores of that big shotgun pointing at the other three was enough to make ‘em all stop. Fists doubled, I was heading for the driver when he turned and shouted.
They jumped into the car, reversed, and spun out of there.
Lowering the shotgun, the Old Man watched the taillights disappear. “What was that all about?”
I was suddenly weak. “I have no idea.”
We went inside, drank a pot of Mom’s coffee at the kitchen table and wondered why those guys wanted to harm me. I still don’t know to this day, but the story doesn’t end there.
My paternal grandfather was a rural constable upon whom I based Ned Parker in my Red River mysteries. The Old Man told him what had transpired before I saw Grandpa again, and when I did, the old lawman gave me a wry grin and some great country wisdom.
“It don’t do to run a dog up on his own porch, does it?”
Remembering what happened that night gave me the conclusion to this stalled work in progress. Cal Whitlatch is on the porch (read here a rough western town) and he’s no longer running. He’s turned to fight.
Now those three subplot threads are coming together and I once again have control of what’s happening. Instead of wandering through that maze, looking for…something…the story is now clear. With that, I’m on the downhill slide to a whiz bang ending.
So here are a couple of final points.
Don’t force your characters into a situation or place they shouldn’t be. They’ll either dig in their heels, or wander around lost and confused as you put ineffective and listless words on the page.
Don’t lose your initial thread. It’s okay for the plot to veer (in that parking lot), if you come back to the final trail at the end.
It’s all right to stop, reverse, and find your way again through that maze.
It’s okay to either move stalled works to a new page for later review, or to delete them and start over. It might hurt, but you’ll get over it.
Writing something outside of that stuttering project, like this post, can jumpstart your subconscious to find the plot trail again, too.
I hope I’ve led you out of that confusing and frustrating parking lot in this ridiculously long post.