The Landscape of No Ideas

It’s been quite a while since my last blog. I’d started out with such good intentions… Ah, the best laid plans. What happened to the time? Well, a new book happened, that’s what. It had already been in the works when I started this blog, but I was in hiatus from the book, a really attractive word meaning a pause or gap in the process. To be frank, I was stuck – not sure where to go next. So, there was lots of free time for, among other things, blogging. 

And now here I am again, with time on my hands, having finally sent the manuscript off. Now, there is only the interminable waiting game. Waiting to hear from an editor or agent should never be active waiting as in sitting there twiddling your thumbs. But I’ve already said all this in an earlier blog, you can find below, called, “What have You Got to Lose?”


            I began this latest manuscript on January 23, 2018, so it took two years and six days to finish, followed by two weeks for one final copy edit before pushing the send button. I start a file folder with each new book (I’m still a paper kind of guy, having begun my career when typewriters were still a thing.) When I have that good feeling that whatever it is I’m working on is actually going to happen, I grab a file folder, note the date and keep tabs on the process as well as the changing title of said manuscript, not to mention the fluctuating names of the main characters. My protagonist this time around began life with the unlikely moniker of Axel Concord Calum Tait. That became Abner Tate in time. And the book went from being called The Door to Yesterday to Reunion Beach. That’s the title it went to my editor as, in any case; if it gets accepted, that could change. It’s out of my hands right now and I’m in this sort of nice kind of place: a landscape of no ideas. 

            When I mentioned this to my nephew, JW-Jones, a blues player and writer himself, he asked, perceptively, how long I’d be happy looking out over a landscape of no ideas. It’s a good question.

I can truthfully say I haven’t an idea in my head, right now, beyond what I’m going to cook for dinner. And it’s actually kind of pleasant, a relief. Worrying about the fates of a cast of imaginary people is endlessly engaging and diverting when you’re in the thick of it but also frustrating, especially when the characters get cantankerous – start asking too many questions. Sometimes you find yourself at war with your plot or you get swept away on a tide of really interesting research and end up in some other novel altogether different than the one you started out writing, which requires a laborious swim back to more recognizable shores. From this vantage point it all seems somewhat… well, silly. Silly and tedious. Come to think of it, it seems an awful lot like hard work!   

Having no ideas means better sleep at night. When I’m writing a novel – especially in the first rough draft – my nights are filled with what-ifs. A good image would be wandering around in the dark on a construction site with no flashlight. Lying all around you are these building materials for a new edifice – your next creation – but it’s night and there’s no order to what’s lying where, so it’s pretty stressful, even dangerous. There are planks with nails in them, hard-edged girders, muddy holes. And in order to really feel in contact with it all, of course, you’re not wearing work gloves, helmet or safety boots. 

There are those special nights when the moon breaks through the cloud cover and you begin to get the first shadowy sense of how this higgledy-piggledy mess might get put together. 


Not so much. 

I actually hate first drafts. Oh, I love the rush of the new idea taking shape, but, to switch metaphors, it can be like a virus that seems to rapidly take over your mind, proliferating at a mad rate, until it’s eating up your whole consciousness. 

To return to my earlier metaphor of the construction site, The Landscape of No Ideas is, by comparison, empty, serene; there’s nothing to trip over. It’s not exactly barren; that would suggest that nothing could ever grow there. It’s just that there’s nothing much to see, right now. Nothing much to do, except go check out Alison Roman’s latest cook book, maybe. Scroll through music videos of Jacob Collier on YouTube. Download yet another crossword from the Washington Post. Or write a blog.   

So, in answer to your question, J-Dub, how long will I be happy having no ideas? Maybe another day or so…

Because my brain craves the hurly burly of turning wondering into words. Does that begin to explain the obsession? I’ve got questions, see. And there are some that matter deeply to me. I guess that’s it: every book I’ve written has behind it some big question I couldn’t answer succinctly – not smart enough. So I have to commit to the long-write, the puzzling out, the narrative structure of Story in order to unravel the mystery.  

I understand the world in terms of Story. 

I can watch the news, listen to a debate, examine a graph, interpret an equation all to some limited degree of understanding. But it’s only in the grappling with Story that I grasp the big things that seem to matter the most. 

You can’t push the river, according to a Chinese proverb. So I find myself standing by its edge: watching, waiting. Because there is something, after all, in this landscape of no ideas: the constancy of the river. What piece of flotsam might float by? If I cast my line into it, what might I snag? If I put together a boat, somehow, out of twigs or logs or birch bark — or even just paper — where will the river take me?   

Who is this?


I’m off to Toronto next week for the Arthur Ellis Awards Gala. It’s an annual event held by the Crime Writers of Canada, celebrating the best mystery books of the past year in several categories including “Best Juvenile or YA Crime Book.” I’ve been lucky enough to win in that category twice before, for The Boy in the Burning House, in 2000, and Blink and Caution in 2012. I’m up against some stiff competition this year, including Linwood Barclay, a favourite thriller writer of mine. Escape is Barclay’s first foray into juvenile crime fiction. The list also includesMichelle Barker for The House of One Thousand Eyes, Kevin Sands for Call of the Wraith, and E. R. Yatscoff for the Rumrunner’s Boy. My own short-listed book is The Ruinous Sweep. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

My own connection to the CWC goes back almost to the very beginning. Long before I won an “Arthur” I had an intimate relationship with him, shall we say. But before I go into that, let me tell you about the man whose name appears on the trophy. Arthur Ellis was the nom de travail of Canada’s hangman, when we used to do that kind of thing. Which, you might be surprised to know was as recently as 1962. On December eleventh of that year two men were hung for two different murders at the Don Jail in Toronto. I guess that would be a busy day in the life of a hangman. The whole idea gives me the shakes. Canada still had a hangman on the payroll until 1976, when parliament voted to abolish the death penalty and only by a slim margin, 130-124. Scary to think about.

So how did Arthur and I become acquainted? Well, I never met the man – not as far as I know, anyway. After all, Arthur Ellis wasn’t his real name. Maybe he was that weird guy next door, the one who never got around to telling you what he did for a living? Anyway, my fellow crime writers entrusted me with the job of coming up with a suitable trophy for crime writing. The British Crime Writers had their “Silver Dagger,” the Yanks had their “Edgar,” named after Mr. Poe. And we had “Arthur.” When I started thinking of what awards were supposed to be, I thought of the Oscar and that endless parade of winners clutching the prize as they blubbered their thankyous. For one precious moment, I figured, a prize is a kind of stage prop. It needed to look good in somebody’s hand as well as on their mantel. So I thought, why not get a stage designer to come up with one? And I knew just the guy. Peter Blais was, at the time, an artist/actor/designer and just an all-around creative guy. Full disclosure, he beat me in an art competition in grade five. When we met again a million years later, I forgave him for winning; we were performing in a show together and, man, did he have a wicked sense of humour. He got it! He knew the kind of thing I wanted. Here’s the CWC’s first president, Tony Aspler, describing the wooden statuette that Peter Blais came up with: “a condemned man on a gibbet whose arms and legs flail when you pull the string – considered by some to be in execrable taste.” You bet! But a lot more fun than most prizes. I’m hoping I’ll get another chance to pull that string on May 23rd!