Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sunday Guest Blogger: Stephen D. Rogers

John here. It’s a pleasure to introduce Stephen D. Rogers. He is the author of SHOT TO DEATH and more than six hundred stories and poems. He's the head writer at Crime Scene (where viewers solve interactive mysteries) and a popular writing instructor. For more information, you can visit his website, www.stephendrogers.com.


DEFEAT THE BLANK PAGE

It never fails. Readers talk to me about the stories they've enjoyed, and writers focus on my output: more than six hundred published pieces and counting. And then one day I realized that what the writers found compelling was not that I'd written so much, but that I'd faced down that
many blank pages.

A novelist might only stare at that blank page once a year, the rest of the time simply continuing what's already been started, but a prolific short story writer can spend a lot of time looking into the void.

So here's how I do it without losing my mind. Assuming I haven't.

Step one. Don't. Instead of staring at the blank page, just write something. Anything.

Step two. Milk it. Your subconscious handed you a gift. Examine that gift from all possible angles. What story is contained in that sentence? How did that first line not only defeat the blank page but tell you everything you need to know about the story you're about to write?

Step three. Write the story, sell the story, and mentally cast the Hollywood blockbuster that's only a call away.

As illustration (of steps one and two anyway), the first line of what became the story "Bourne Again": I watched the cars speeding around the rotary, paid special attention to ones that veered off to head over the canal.

Realizing I had some free time, I picked up a pad of paper and wrote that line. Where did the line come from? I haven't a clue, but then we don't really need to know the answer to that question, not to write the story.

So now it's time to milk that line. When I examine a line, I look for three things: characters, plot, and geography.

I'll start with geography since it seems central. There's the rotary, the canal, and -- by implication of heading over the canal -- a bridge. If the ending of the story is to be contained in the beginning, the story has to unfold within that geography, or within a tenth of a mile at
highway speeds.

(For those who aren't familiar with Cape Cod, Bourne is one of the two towns that straddle the Cape Cod canal. While there are rotaries on both sides of the Bourne Bridge, the
one on the Cape side is the one usually referred to as the Bourne rotary.)

What does that first line tell me about the characters? An unnamed "I" is watching cars, waiting for a certain one. He's a private eye. Character two is the driver the PI is watching for. A third character (like the bridge) is implied, the client. As Spouse 1 and Spouse 2 exist only be inference, they will not be of great significance. The story is going to be about events working on the PI.

Now it's time to consider plot. Already we know the shape of the story. We know it occurs within the space contained by the rotary and the bridge, and we know something will
happen that will affect the PI in a significant way (or else this wouldn't be a story).

"Veered." You don't veer on course, always off. So the driver can either keep going around or around the rotary or veer off course.

What else can we gleam from that first sentence? There are blanks. We don't see the driver; we don't see the bridge; we don't see the water. Therefore, the story can't end until we see the driver on the bridge and jumping into the water.

And there, in a nutshell, is a complete story laid bare by milking a first line that was dashed off in order to defeat a blank page.

Now you try.

6 comments:

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I'll post first so that nobody is struck dumb by the blank comment section. :)

Stephen

peter_may said...

I have never faced the problem of the blank page, Stephen? Why? Because I have always found something much more pressing to do - like blanco-ing my tennis shoes.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Peter,

But if you never defeat the blank page, it will remain powerful and alive, waiting to strike when you least expect it.

And what does "blancoing" mean?

Stephen

peter_may said...

Actually, the first page always has two words on it - Chapter One. So it's never blank. I write 3000 words a day and stop on word 3000, even in the middle of a sentence, so I always know what I'm going to write next. And blanco is that white liquid stuff they used to use to re-whiten the canvas of dirty tennis shoes. Something that always takes precedence in my life above writing!

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Peter,

Sounds like a great approach.

And the writing thing, too.

Stephen

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