I have never literally painted myself into a corner, although last summer I nearly stained myself into one while refinishing our deck. Figuratively, on the other hand, I have painted myself into a corner more than once. When my wife Julie and I bought our first home in 1996, when I was 25, the very adult burden of mortgage payments soon made me feel painted into a financial corner in that I sensed a near future of towering stacks of bills along with cribs full of babies (which we wanted) plus their costs (which we could do without).
The upshot of this pressure cooker situation is that I wanted to keep my home and family but shrug off my job in sales that was making me feel more trapped than the mortgage, the bills and the babies in the offing. Fifteen years later, after following a circuitous route through retail sales, copywriting, screenwriting, a home-based business, at-home fathering and now teaching, I’d say I made the right career decision. Yet the fact remains that painting one’s self into a corner means creating sticky situations that must somehow be gotten out of – often by paying a steep price.
In writing, sticky situations are inevitable. Writing a novel, a process requiring thousands, maybe millions of decisions – regarding word choice, sentence structure, plot, theme, character development and so on – is too complicated to allow for anything approximating perfection. If you whittle away at a story for more than a chapter or two, you will increasingly find yourself going the wrong way down one way streets, screaming toward dead ends and paddling your canoe into throttling, swampy byways – to mix a handful of metaphors for your supercilious reading pleasure.
Most writers with any experience maintain an uneasy intimacy with these dangers. It makes us skittish, gun shy. Every time we start a story or come to a crossroads in plotting, we second guess where a story or character choice might eventually lead us.
Please, ye gods of story, have mercy on me! Save me from painting myself into a story corner!
Our knowledge and experience can get the better of us. What should take fifteen minutes to write takes a weekend instead, because of second guessing. Sometimes you have to just go for it. And that is what I am attempting to psyche myself up for with this blog post. You see, I need to get moving with my new YA comic novel idea, Fail Freaks. But my notes and my mental notes lack a number of crucial story elements such as an overarching goal for my protagonist, named Frank, and an antagonist to oppose him.
Last night, frustrated with my poor progress in these areas, I posted the following on Facebook:
“I’m trying to figure out exactly what kind of Young Adult novel I want to write. I’ve got the title (Fail Freaks) and a rough notion of where I want to go. Please help me by suggesting any and all ideas to fill in the blank in this log line:
A fourteen-year-old boy named Frank becomes an online celebrity after he posts a failed prom proposal that goes viral. Once a slew of copycat “prom fail videos” from around the country turn Epic Failing into an internet meme, the boy rallies a handful of new virtual friends and _____________________.
(For reference, I originally thought of the following to fill in the blank: “forms a Fail Consulting business known as Fail Freaks.” But this doesn’t seem right. Which is why I’m asking for help!)”
I got a couple of interesting responses:
My friend Tom Dalesandro said:
“And forms Fail Freaks, an online support group to help others succeed. Your main character uses his new fame to help others with whatever help they need in getting success. Dating, jobs, etc …… How to get ahead with Fail Freaks.”
And my friend Susan Lonnett said:
“The girl who turned him down for prom suddenly reconsiders (now that he is YouTube famous) and tries to win his attention back with an elaborate flash mob which fails, and he is vindicated!”
Excellent ideas, and I might just use them or some portion of them. Still, I’m undecided. Wisdom suggests that I settle these matters before hacking away at the jungle of pages that awaits me. “An error in the beginning is an error indeed,” sayeth Aquinas.
But there comes a time when you’d be wise to notice that your thinking and planning are taking too long. You need to start writing. You can tie up the loose ends later. Maybe you will paint yourself into a corner. Maybe you’ll get paint on your shoes, very sticky. Oh, well. It’s not in fact the end of the world.
So tonight that’s what I’m gonna do. Start writing.
Look out Chapter One, I’ve got my brush and my roller and my virtual pen and I’m comin’ for ya – ready or not!
(Photo by: Joan Charlotte Matelli)
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.