Brian Ames, a Missouri writer, is the author of four story collections and a novel. His work appeared in Glimmer Train Stories Nos. 41 and 46. Pocol Press recently published "As Many Hands as God", his latest story collection. "I had been turning about in my head the idea of a group of stories about how the Creator, by the actions of faith and love, through people, makes its presence known," Ames says. "The title came from a line in a poem by Pacific Northwest poet Kathryn Rantala. Her line seemed perfect, first, for a story about a wife's faithfulness, and then as the work evolved, for this project." www.tendollardog.com
Crossing the Blank Page Fearlessly with a Roll of the Polyhedral Gambling Apparatus
An eager learner doesn't have to read too deeply in the literature to find advice about overcoming writer's block. Most of it boils down to exercising a sort of donkey-like willpower that results in the bond between an author's backside and his or her chair. Spend enough time in front of a blank page with the smallest kernel of an idea, and it will eventually come into full bloom on your monitor (or, acknowledging the purists, that sheet of onionskin wrapped around your typewriter's platen). I even departed one workshop with a complimentary bottle of paste labeled "Bum-Glue," guaranteed to fuse me in place and bring the Muse skipping merrily through the right-hand lobe of my cerebrum.
No despair. Blockage, from my many unscientific surveys of fellow scribes, is nearly universal. "The writer is one who, embarking on a task, does not know what to do," said the late Donald Barthelme, reporter, author, editor and co-founder of Fiction magazine.
Putting on the full armor and throwing myself headlong into this fight, I have a fun exercise I like to use—as enjoyable in the preparation as in the execution. It works for fleshing out characters, writing scenes, crafting dialogue, developing back-story, determining which details of flora and fauna your landscape may require, and a host of other nuances of our craft. All that is needed is a blank sheet of paper (shouldn't be hard to find!), one of a pair of dice (isn't every act of writing an act of gambling as well?), and a magazine (I used a recent issue of The Economist) to get thoughts flowing. Please see the example.
I chose the subject matter of six articles in the magazine to select content for the "context" column. Skimming the magazine further, and letting my thoughts roam a little—sometimes to the practical, sometimes to the unlikely, sometimes to whimsy—I filled in the other cells of the matrix. I selected six character descriptions for protagonists and antagonists, and a "complication." I filled one of the columns arbitrarily with "genres"—boundaries by which we should, of course, never find ourselves confined but could serve as possible launch points for our exercise.
Then I proposed a "MacGuffin," that term popularized by Hitchcock and in some definitions used to denote the not-so-important contrivance for which the protagonist and antagonist vie against the milieu of the real story. (A note on these: I agree with advice I once heard that every story needs one. Beowulf and Unferõ compete for Hroõgar's approval even as the vastly more urgent horror of Grendel looms. Dostoyevsky's Idiot just wants to keep from accidentally smashing his hostess's vase; she'd presumably like to see it remain intact as well, but for different reasons. And SciFi is rife with the BDO ["Big Dumb Object"], that device of unknown, often extraterrestrial origin, with a power knob whose settings read from "Vague" to "Deus ex Machina." We connect with readers by giving voice to our common yearning for MacGuffae of all varieties… and the very human struggle to get ours before our "adversary" gets his.)
Take that PGA ("Polyhedral Gambling Apparatus") and roll it six times, once for each column. Follow the route that wends across the matrix suggested by each successive roll. Using the example below, your assignment may be, then, to write a story, scene, dialogue, backdrop, whatever, in the Western genre concerning the competition for a coat of many colors between a deaf cable installer and a corrupt sheriff. This against the land-, mind- or dreamscape of harvest-time – with the twist of a laboratory explosion thrown in. All the result of successive die rolls of 4, 2, 5, 6, 1 and 5.
Corny? Okay. Artificial? Fine. Random? Admittedly. Somehow mechanistic—even Teutonic—in its methodology? Unarguably. Undignified? Lighten up. Don't take all of this so seriously. (Wasn't it Vonnegut who said all the great story lines are practical jokes that people fall for over and over again?)
Effective? I dare say.
Give it a test drive. I have always found it, at minimum, to produce a new, exciting universe that can nurture any idea I have about what I might like to convey in my writing.
And it sure beats all that paste gumming up my upholstery and the left-hand lobe of my gluteus max!
Glimmer Train has been discovering, publishing, and paying emerging writers since 1990.
One of the most respected short-story journals in print, Glimmer Train is represented in recent editions of the Pushcart Prize,
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