Jesse stood in front of the vacant office door reading an old safety bulletin. It had long ago turned yellow from the warm, dry air inside the mill. He strained to read the writing—now faded light gray with age—but he could only make out a few words. He had a lot of things he needed to be getting to—unimagined adventures awaited him if he would only turn around start walking. Instead, he remained frozen, day after day, inside the dusty brick building, staring at the door with the brittle piece of paper tacked to it.
It wasn’t his fault— he was, after all, imbued with sufficient courage for the task, thanks to me. He would do whatever I told him to do; but I wouldn’t let him move. More accurately—I couldn’t let him move. I knew where he was going when he left the building—I knew where he was going for the rest of his day—but right now he was stuck there reading about the virtues of steel-toed boots, and I was getting desperate to get him on the move again.
In the delivery ward that is writing fiction, I’ve brought a depressing number of stillborn tales into the world. Once the spark of an idea lands in the dry tinder of my creativity, I rush to encourage the baby ember to grow by getting it down paper—or its modern equivalent. If you’ve ever built a fire then you know to have kindling wood close at hand in order to grow the flame once the burning ember has done its job. If you find yourself lacking kindling at the crucial moment you’ll never see more than a little flame that recedes as fast as it appears. My fictional stories were the same way: the main characters plunged headlong into the plot only to find after a couple of chapters that there was no more wood to keep the blaze alive before they faded into the cold darkness of my desktop miscellaneous folder. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t encourage the little flames to grow and the plots flickered briefly before going out in a wispy tendril of smoke.
When the idea for The Lark came to me, it stood out in my mind because of its completeness. For once it wasn’t just a segment of the story but the entire story. I may not have had all of the little details that kick the plot-can down the road—and in some cases I still don’t—but the major story points were there; it was certainly enough to get started with confidence. When I began writing, everything went down smoothly in the beginning. The ideas fell easily from my head to my hands before being transplanted onto my monitor to read and tinker with. I had more than enough material for the first two chapters with plenty left over that I planned to work in during future edits.
I knew the part of the story where my main character explores the empty steel mill would require a lot of environment description—even if I maintained a spartan descriptive narrative—and I hunkered down for the long haul of relating a larger-than-life place. I studied turn of the century steel mills by watching grainy videos and reading articles authored by enthusiastic members of the steel milling community. I studied old pictures and described what I saw in them out loud, alone in my garage writing space. Because it was my story I also knew that some antagonistic event would set off a chain reaction, culminating with young Jesse leaving the mill. But what I didn’t know—and what was keeping Jesse frozen in place—was what that event looked like.
When I realized that I was stuck I was heartbroken. Things had been going well for me and I was further into a story than I had ever been before. Now poor Jesse was reading a safety bulletin on steel-toed boots and it looked as if he were doomed to spend eternity in literary purgatory as a result of my hubris. I had to get him away from the door and moving. I made several forays into unknown territory—writing sloppy prompts and shaky plot turns. They all ran on for several paragraphs before either crumbling under the weight of their own incoherency or becoming watery story lines that threatened to put poor Jesse—and the reader—to sleep. Each attempt was the word-craft version of beating a square peg into a round hole; they didn’t work and Jesse’s legs were wearing out. I attempted to dilute the story, trying in vain to stretch the plausibility thin enough for Jesse to get the hell out of there and onto something more interesting. But the flimsy structure wouldn’t support his weight and he went tumbling back to the bulletin on the door.
In an effort to come up with a solution by viewing my story problem in the periphery, I decided to work on other things. My blog is an invaluable tool in this regard. I’m most comfortable when I’m writing, so a dead-halt such as this one would otherwise have sidelined me if not for Ten Lines In. When I can’t—or don’t want to—work on my book I turn to my blog and its seemingly endless supply of inspiration. I trusted Jesse to be there when I came back and I turned my full attention to my site and to adding the type of content that I always intended to have—content like this essay. After a couple of days working on smaller projects not only did Jesse pop back into my head unexpectedly, but I saw with perfect clarity why he was on his way at long last. I sat down and at first the words flew by, then—when I looked up at last—the pages had flown by. It seemed as if even fictional Jesse wasn’t immune to Newton’s first law, and once finally on the march the story carried forward under its own momentum. Now that I’m again able to relax and split my time between both the book and the blog, I plan to work on Ten Lines In more than I originally expected to when I created the site. My sincere hope is that the quality of the book and the blog both continue to improve—and more people continue to enjoy them.