Er, warning, there are spoilers in this for a book I haven’t actually written and may never be completed. Just as a friendly note.
There’s a saying about writing that I think originated with National Novel Writing Month: if you don’t know what happens next, or if you have a writing block, make ninjas attack.
It’s not actually a bad way to go about things in the theoretical. I’ve used it several times — not literally with ninjas, mind you, but similar. Attacks, bombs, someone bursting into the room with sudden horrible news. The immediacy of a new and dangerous threat is a great way to drive action along. I have a tendency to write a lot of talking heads or a lot of contemplation as I try to move from one scene to another, so send in the ninjas is a constant theme in the back of my head.
Take Pirate Country, for instance. Pirate Country is a sequel I intended to write for The Dead Isle, one that I planned in my head even before Dead Isle was finished.
I’ve been fascinated by Jean Lafitte ever since I first encountered his stories during a stay on Galveston Island, off the coast of Texas; he was a pirate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and it’s rumored that he buried treasure somewhere along the coast of either Louisiana or Texas. He spied and fought for America in the War of 1812, and for a while he had his own country on the coastline of the US: Barataria, which has always enchanted me. I wrote it into The Dead Isle because the idea of a country run by pirates was just too good to resist, and I made Purva a Baratarian by heritage so that I could write a sequel where she went home: Pirate Country.
I’ve been playing around with it now, because I finished The Dead Isle‘s rewrites a month early and I’m a bit compulsive about always having writing projects to hand. It opens with Jack Baker back in Australia, saying his final goodbyes before he and Purva depart for Barataria. They’re attending a farewell party thrown for them by the Harrison Automobile company, and I had to get some necessary exposition in during the conversation between Jack and James Harrison (who was a real person) and then the conversation just…stopped. If it were actually happening, there would be an awkward pause while the participants shuffled their feet.
But I hate awkward pauses and I don’t like writing small talk so, instead, I set off a bomb.
Which was good for about four thousand words, and turned the time period between the farewell party and the launching of the airship into a thrilling exercise in espionage!
You have to be careful when you send in the ninjas, and not make it an excuse for sloppy writing: you have to have at least a vague idea of where you’re going and exhaust other avenues before you make something exciting happen, because if something exciting happened every time you hit a wall your heroes would be traumatised into catatonia by the end.
But, just occasionally, a fictional bomb is a very useful device.
Well, we seen Colonel Jackson come a-walkin’ down the street
A-talkin’ to a pirate by the name of Jean Lafitte;
He gave Jean a drink that he brung from Tennessee,
And the pirate said he’d help us drive the British to the sea…
— The Battle Of New Orleans, Jimmie Driftwood