Writer’s Cramp

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Writer’s Cramp

I don’t think I’ve ever truly had writer’s block, except when writing checks to various credit card companies. But I do occasionally suffer from writer’s fatigue, when I reach a point in one of my thrillers or mysteries when I’m stumped over how to proceed.

That is because I typically have a general plot idea, and then just write to see what happens. I usually start with a gruesome killing and end with an even more gruesome killing. (I sometimes write the ending early on in the process!) But I often get bogged down in the middle and have trouble moving some of the players around and binding the two parts together.

I’m tempted to bump someone else off along the way and, occasionally, that does the trick. It works best if the book has a lot of characters, especially those I call “Star Trek extras” after the poor schmucks on the TV show who had a minute of air time before being eaten or vaporized. (Get John Scalzi’s great Redshirts sci-fi novel to see what I mean.) My doomed schmucks are usually no-name thugs working for some crime king. (I actually did vaporize a character once, and am currently having another partially eaten; they are the exceptions that prove the rule.)

But some of my books have few characters, and it does no good to kill someone off in the middle when he or she is needed at the end, either to help solve a crime or to be gruesomely killed.  

So, rather than force the issue by adding superfluous scenes that don’t have much to do with the evolving plot, I drop everything and pick up books written by others. As readers of my rants may remember, I addressed this topic in a long-ago column entitled “Readers Make Writers.” (I mention this mainly so that my editors don’t use the same headline; that’s why they're paid the big bucks.)

In the past few weeks, I have been bingeing on both fiction and nonfiction. I read, or tried to read, five novels and two nonfiction works. I am sad to report that three of my fiction choices were dreadful. So dreadful, in fact, that I will not name them. They were written by wildly successful mainstream thriller authors who were once among my favorites! Household names, really, whose early books were turned by Hollywood into great films.

I would gladly accuse myself of sour grapes but for the fact that many reviewers agree with me and, in fact, outdo me in excoriation. Several said that although they once revered the authors, they would never read them again. My goodness! The only excuse for these novels, some reviewers posited, is that publishers are banking on the belief that the reading public will buy anything these famous and prolific authors put out.

(I am often guilty of doing that, although in this case, thank the Lord, I got my books from the library. Yes, Virginia, despite my Amazon-centricity, I spend a lot of time in the stacks.)

The other two novels I read, however, were superior. I can’t say enough about All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This beautiful book about a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives are entwined in occupied France during World War II deservedly won this year’s Pulitzer Prize. Although termed a “literary novel” — whatever that is — it has more genuine thrills than most “thrillers” out there.

Speaking of thrillers, the other novel I loved was Thomas Perry’s Metzger’s Dog. Often laugh-out-loud funny, as its protagonists (including an endearing Los Angeles robbery crew, the C.I.A., and drug lords) chase each other’s tails, this 1983 winner is considered a classic in the crime caper genre. Metzger, by the way, is a cat.

In the nonfiction realm, I was fascinated by David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. I knew hardly anything about the famous brothers; now I believe I know everything and can finally appreciate their genius. That, by the way, is McCullough’s genius!

I also did not know much about Rio de Janeiro. Still don’t know enough, but Juliana Barbassa’s engrossing Dancing with the Devil in the City of God is a great place to start anyone’s education, especially with the 2016 Summer Olympics looming.

Barbassa, the Associated Press Rio de Janeiro correspondent from 2010 through 2013, is an expert in Brazilian current affairs, and her book, featuring interviews and vignettes of everyone from prostitutes to the city’s movers and shakers, is extremely well written and superbly evocative.

Why read both fiction and nonfiction when in the writing doldrums? Because good writing is good writing. The more you are exposed to it, no matter what form it takes, the better writer you can become. If anything, nonfiction authors who transform immutable facts and events into fascinating reading may be even better inspirations than novelists.  

Lawrence De Maria was a Pulitzer-nominated reporter at the New York Times who now writes thrillers and mysteries available on Amazon.com. His next Alton Rhode mystery, which already has dead bodies in the beginning and end, will be out just as soon as he finishes the middle. His current books can be found at St. Austin's Press.

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