When my latest manuscript became stuck at a comma, I had writer’s block for over a week. When that happens, I typically work another project. Yet, I had nothing.
There’s a website called Yahoo! Answers which I occasionally visit for inspiration. It’s a quasi-social networking site in the sense that you create a profile, accumulate points and associate with other users. However, as the name implies, one visits the forum to answer questions posed by others and you may present your own as well.
There are many categories to browse and one of my favorites is “Books and Authors.” Having written nothing for at least eight days, I got my juices flowing by posting lengthy responses to inquiries concerning fiction. That’s when I discovered writing prompts posted by a member who offered a “Best Answer” award for the most imaginative reply. The challenge was worthwhile and I opted to write a short story based on the prompt “I never would have walked through the door.”
At once I opened my laptop and began typing. Mind you, this was a Saturday and I was suffering from a severe cold and a pounding headache. On that clear afternoon, I wanted to toss around a baseball with my eleven year old son; but, he was playing with his buddies. My wife took mercy on me and suspended her “honey do” list for the day and my teenage daughter and her friends were buying clothes at the local mall. That left me few opportunities to procrastinate. In lieu of working on my novel, I put my head down and tackled the task at hand.
My character germinated from a voice in my head that didn’t like to use the word “I” at the beginning of a sentence. By opening with the phrase “Should have been out the door hours ago,” I constructed a young man in his early twenties living in the American south. The name I chose for him is Carl. He’s not an unfriendly guy and he’s often confused – mostly about women. His most embarrassing moments come from not knowing the rules about dating and asking out girls. Also, he harbors deep bitterness which stems from his expulsion from college.
Carl moves in with a new girlfriend whom he meets at his job and he is perplexed when she drifts from him emotionally. Their relationship is defined by a lack of intimacy and he decides to cheat on her. At a garage sale he flirts with a teenage girl who sells him seat covers. Her mother notices their inappropriate banter and chases him away.
Without the sense to avoid this young, underage teen, they make contact through email and arrange a meeting. It is Carl’s eagerness for companionship, albeit with a senior in high school, and his own immaturity which leads him to the ultimate tragedy in this story.
Wearing my editor’s hat, I scrutinized my first draft. At two-thousand, seven hundred words it was adequate to tell the tale. Yet, Carl was not redeemed and there appeared to be no immediate consequences for his actions. He set himself up for failure, committed a horrible crime and walked away nursing a minor wound.
My first impulse was to end the story differently and stray from the “I never would have walked through the door” premise. Yet, I believe there’s enough evidence for the reader to recognize that he’s not off the hook. The idea that he escapes justice is only in his mind. Anyone who has ever watched an episode of “Law and Order” on TV should know that the world’s worst investigator would be able to link Carl to his victim through her emails.
Perhaps I got more from this prompt than a break from writer’s block and a short story. I’ve reexamined my philosophy about redemption and accepted that bad characters may face the mere possibility of justice in the final scene. Plus, I now believe that the salvation of a character is not always essential or possible. In the end, the writer’s question on Yahoo! Answers served its purpose and I was able to produce a tale which led to the suggested conclusion. My other manuscript has buzzed back to life and has become my sole focus again. Except for this space, no one will ever read about Carl and his malevolent deed.
-Photo by Michael J. Kannengieser