Observation for Fiction Writing – Lift Your Head!

Observation signI’m in the Phoenix airport, waiting on a flight (what else would I be doing there?) and it seems like the perfect time for a blog entry. It also seems like the perfect time for a nap, but I’m thinking of you, dear reader, so here we go.

Today I am reminded of the importance of observation. Airports are great places for watching people and planes are great places for chatting with total strangers, should you have a chatty seatmate.

I am a sort of shy, introverted person – which probably explains why I choose to spend so much of my free time alone in a room or coffee shop, pecking at a keyboard, so usually when I have a chatty seatmate on a flight I try to bring the flow of small talk to an end as quickly as politely possible.

But this day was different. My seatmate on the flight I just left was a little blonde woman with sloping shoulders from bad posture and a shortage of front teeth. Her expression mixed depression with confusion, so, ungenerous swine that I am, I leaped to categorize her as a nut.

She began to chat and I was all ready to go into shut-her-down mode when I thought, wait a minute. Maybe there’s a character to observe here, or something to learn. So I chatted back.

It turned out she was travelling to her mother’s home in Ohio because said mother had just passed away. She had pulled herself together on short notice and hopped on a plane. So there’s your depression. She hadn’t flown since 9/11, she said. So there’s your confusion. Then she talked about job troubles and moving west from Atlanta, her brother’s shortcomings in handling the situation with their mother, living in Rio de Janero as a teenager and working for a Denmark-based company, to name a few. How much I would have missed if I had blown her off!

It just goes to show you that it’s important to lift your head up from the keyboard on a regular basis and observe – heck, even engage with – the great big world. And I don’t mean just people – birds, buildings, grass, rocks, storefronts, flowers, garbage, everything – is waiting to plant its seed in your creative little brain. I’ve been neglecting to do this and I’m glad I broke loose of my blinders today.

I also like to think I gave a grieving woman somebody to talk to when she needed it. I hope so, anyway.

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Fiction Writing in a Hurry… or Not

HurrySometimes I get in a hurry…

Eleven-thirty!

Okay, time for writing break. (Most people know this as lunchtime.)

Wait, the boss has sent an instant message. He’s a good guy, I want to do a good job for him. Stop. Think. Write reply. Done.

Eleven-thirty-two! Omigod. Two precious minutes flushed.

Grab laptop, thumbdrive, shove them into the briefcase. Stupid laptop won’t go. Shoooooovvve! There.

Eleven-thirty-three. Crud.

Speed-walk to the elevator. Punch the down button over and over to make it come faster.

Get on the elevator, press the P1 button to parking over and over to descend more quickly.

Trot to the car, throw in the briefcase, realize I have forgotten my reading glasses. Screw it, I’ll squint.

Peel out and make the five-minute trip to the library or coffee shop. Why do I change location? Too much distraction at the office, what with the demands of gainful employment.

Eleven-forty!

Pray one of the two tables at the library is unoccupied.

Luck! First table is free. Sit. Rip laptop from briefcase.

Where is the stupid thumbdrive? It should be in this pocket, but it’s not.

Root, root, root in briefcase, find thumbdrive somehow enfolded in checkbook. Arg.

Hand are now shaking from a combination of morning caffeine and hurry-stress. Some difficulty plugging in thumbdrive. Come on, stupid laptop, boot, boot, drat you, boot.

Need to do a free-write to focus. No, forget it.

Look at the last sentence written. Do no further review. Just start writing.

See Craig write. See Craig write fast.

See Craig get stuck. Is this right? What happens here? Crud.

Open up the novel plan and check. I have wasted five minutes on a tangent, and not a good one either. See Craig delete text.

Eleven fifty-five!

Write stuff. Hate it all. Repeat.

Alarm dings. Time to return to the office!

Peel, dash, elevator, desk, reboot stupid laptop, have brief lottery fantasy, back to work.

Sometimes, I take my time…

Eleven-thirty! Time for writing break.

Wait, the boss has sent an instant message. He’s a good guy, I want to do a good job for him. Stop. Think. Write reply. Done.

Eleven-thirty-two. No problem. I’ll just do what I can do today. Persistence will win my battle.

Pack the laptop in the briefcase, taking three seconds to reach in and jiggle things a bit so the PC slides in. Put the thumbdrive in my pocket.

Stroll to the elevator, press the button once. Smile and nod to passers-by.

Down to the car, off to the library. Wave to the librarian and sit down at the table. Unpack, boot up. While the laptop starts, take minute for breathing meditation.

Check the novel plan to see what’s on tap for today. Reread a few pages from the previous day’s work to get grounded. Free-write for a couple of minute to get the gears greased.

Linger over the first words, letting today’s pace come out on its own. From there, write as quickly as possible without rushing, pausing to look up once in a while.

The alarm dings. Look over today’s production. Not bad, either for quality or quantity.

Back to the office. Smile as I open that first email, because I’m a good worker.

And I get to be a writer, too.

So… which do you choose?

Fiction Writing Lessons: “Afraid” by Jack Kilborn (J. A. Konrath)

book cover for novel afraidI’ve just finished reading Afraid, by J. A. Konrath, writing as Jack Kilborn. It’s a corking yarn that I’d classify as light horror reading, if there can be such a thing. I managed to cull a few writing lessons from the book, which I will now share for you edification.

Straightforward plot. Afraid proves that a novel doesn’t have to be super complicated to be effective. A group of five psychos-turned-by-science-into-super-soldiers arrives in a remote small town. The psychos perpetrate some seriously unsavory hijinks on the townsfolk, thus bringing themselves into conflict with the good guys. The good guys, a few townspeople with the luck and pluck to fight back, eventually win the day, but not before weathering some of the most harrowing abuse imaginable. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but not much.

Lesson: Don’t make your plot any more complicated than it has to be (but don’t make it any less so, either).

Well-defined characters.  I’ve read things in which the characters are very hard to tell apart. Konrath/Kilborn avoids this by giving each character distinguishing characteristics both physical and psychological. The sheriff is old, near retirement, and nursing a lifelong grudge against his brother. The primary female character is a pretty blonde who works hard to support her son, to whom she is totally devoted. The largest member of the psycho squad is seven feet tall, built like a Sherman tank, and has the IQ of a walnut. These characteristics and more are often drawn with action and dialogue, rather than outright description.

Lesson: Distinguish your characters physically and psychologically, and do it with action and dialogue as much as possible.

Vivid imagery. Afraid delivers a lot of its horror with vivid images of terrible acts you might never have even thought of. The straight descriptions, which are necessary, are mixed in with related action and the combination often hits you right in the gut. Notice in the following example how physical descriptions, character actions and internal dialogue combine to hammer home the horror Note: If you don’t like horrific images, don’t read the excerpt.

Something hit Fran in the chest, bringing her back to the present, making her flinch. It clung to her shirt. Warm and wet, like a towel. What was it? What had he thrown at her? She shook her shoulders, but it didn’t move. Fran needed to let go of the shelf, needed to release her hands so she could knock off whatever— The flashlight came on, pointing at her. Fran looked at her chest and saw something red and rubbery and shredded hanging there. Something wearing Al’s walrus mustache. And then the light went off. Fran screamed. She screamed and screamed and then her paralysis broke and her hands opened up and she batted Al’s face off herself, arms flailing out as if she were being attacked by a swarm of bees. (Konrath, J.A.; Kilborn, Jack (2012-09-30). Afraid – A Novel of Terror (p. 41-43).  . Kindle Edition.)

Lesson: Use multiple techniques to build imagery that hits home.

In brief, some other lessons from Afraid are:

Use suspense by pressuring the good guys. Things keep getting worse and worse for the good guys and the bad guys keep popping up even when you think they are done for.

Save the day in an interesting way.Yes, amid all these crazy soldiers and suffering townsfolk and bravery and bloodshed and stuff, there’s a monkey running around and he turns out to be the key to salvation (almost… heh, heh, heh…).

Add a touch of romance. Two of the good guys fall in love, or close to it, during all the mayhem. Their existing, suppressed feelings for each other are galvanized by the crisis.

Put in a kid. Few things elicit sympathy like a good kid who is having a hard time but doing his or her best to cope. There’s a boy in Afraid who manages to be admirable without being depicted as a short adult.

Sacrifice. In the end, the sheriff sacrifices himself to complete the salvation of the other good guys and end the psycho-soldier threat. It’s a poignant touch that makes the book’s conclusion memorable.

Half-Baked Planning

Half baked bread loaves being put into an ovenNote: In case you care, I have removed the rough draft of Thin Spots from Wattpad. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Having made it more than halfway through the draft of novel number one, despite having many other demands on my time, has made me a holy-rolling believer in planning your novel before you start writing it. I have my little setup of manuscript, scene sketches and fix sheet all constructed and waiting for me every time I sit down at the keyboard. The manuscript says “start here.” I look at my scene sketch and I start there. When I run across something that will need cleaning up later, I note it on the fix sheet.

Planning is a beautiful thing, but, I wonder, can you do too much?

I just finished writing a chapter that’s long, rambling and weak. It’s a prime candidate for the rewrite operating table, and I think the problem is Stebbins, a gladiator who shows up earlier in the story. Because Stebbins wasn’t there.

It’s a battle scene. Colin (the lead) winds up there unexpectedly and hides, because he’s injured. Then he comes out of hiding and meets… not Stebbins, but another guy named Calley. See, I was writing along, Colin came into the open and all at once Stebbins, who was not scheduled to appear, popped into my head. I could see Colin spotting his friend, being amazed and overjoyed.

This vision of the Colin-Stebbins reunion was powerful and required some consideration. If I went with it, Stebbins’ role in the planned story would change drastically. It would also greatly hork up Calley’s planned role. And I liked my plan. It was a good plan, and it was already there.

To stick with the plan or change things–that was the question.

My point here – and I do have one, as Ellen Degeneres says – is that I was in the midst of a good problem. Making decisions like this one lies at, or at least near, the heart of the fictioneer’s craft. It’s also a huge part of the fun.

If I had planned each scene in the novel down to the last pinhead, I’d be far less likely to land in such a delightfully uncomfortable spot. I’d be much too wed to the plan due to all the trouble I had put into it. I’d also find it much easier take the already mapped out path of least resistance.

Instead, since I have a plan that’s more general in nature, I get to make writing decisions on the fly. I am creating and solving fiction problems all the time, while at the same time not constantly trying to figure out the next big milestone in the story.

So, yes, for me, at this point as a nascent novelist, half-baked planning is best. I have the broad brush strokes. It’s filling in the detail along the way that keeps me turned on.

What’s your stand on planning? A lot or a little? In-between? Let me know in a comment.

Filling the Gaps in Your Story

A canyon between two steep cliffsNote: If you’re interested in seeing how the draft of Thin Spots is coming along, you can check it out on Wattpad. Thanks!

A simplification of Newton’s first law of motion, from our friends at Wikipedia, states: “An object continues to do whatever it happens to be doing unless a force is exerted upon it.” The same can be said of your novel. If your novel is moving nicely forward (which I hope it is), it will continue to do so unless something comes along to stop it or shove it off in another direction.

While there are plenty of things that can stop or re-direct your novel, the one I’m thinking of today is what I call gaps. These are gaps in your knowledge, plot or other novel elements that crop up as you’re writing, regardless of the amount of planning you’ve done. For example, you might be writing a scene that occurs in the vicinity of the Hoover dam and discover that, though you’ve read about the dam itself, you know nothing about the countryside or the roads. Gap! Or, let’s say you’re composing away and suddenly realize that if Uncle Slappy has the knife in the chapter your currently crafting, it had to show up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag several chapters prior. Gap!

Whatever you do when you encounter a gap, you don’t want to let it stop your progress and you don’t want to let it re-direct you to the extent that you go off to work on something else. You can avoid that sad fate if you have a way to handle gaps already in hand when you start your project. I have a couple of ways I’m fond of; no doubt there are more.

One gap-handler I like is the in-line notation. This allows you to go with the flow when you hit a gap and still provides you an opportunity for patch-up later. As you hit a gap, you simply note the problem in brackets and keep right on going. For example: “Uncle Slappy pulled the magic knife from between the sofa cushions and [for Unc Slap to have knife now, knife must be in Ant Kiz purse way before now] brandished it like a sidekick in a B-grade swashbuckler.” This is not my idea; I picked it up from some writing book a long time ago and have used it with some success.

Another method, and my current favorite, is to keep a document called “Fixes.” I use a word processing file for this, but you could use a card file, or a legal pad, or the wall—whatever makes your cork float. I keep the document open while I’m writing and when I hit a gap make an entry there. For example: “For the scene ‘Uncle Slappy Cuts Up’ be sure the knife shows up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag some scenes prior.” I like this method because I don’t have to go combing through the manuscript later to find the fixes.

That’s all there is to it. Happy gap-crossing!

Fear: The Writing Killer

Faucet handle with fear written on itAh, Halloween night—that smorgasbord of creepy creatures, cute kids and sugar, sugar, sugar. And then there’s All Saint’s Day, following immediately on Halloween’s heels, belching out its loads of kids who’ve been up too late, walked too far and eaten way too many Butterfinger Minis. It’s this post-ween, All Saint’s Day hangover that puts me in mind of this week’s topic:

Fear!

Many of us writer-types and other creative folks know it.

Fear is self-doubt. Sylvia Plath said “The worst enemy to creativity is selfdoubt.” Nothing is more demoralizing than believing at the outset that your work isn’t going to be any good. After all, if it’s going to be lousy, why bother? If you’re a writer or any other sort of artist, you’re always wading into unknown waters with nobody to help you. Confidence, or at least recklessness, is something you need, or you’ll just dither at the edge of that water, never getting anywhere.

Fear is writing for something outside yourself—approval, for example. You can’t be afraid that writing just to write isn’t worthwhile. To sustain the effort required to complete a novel, or even a short story, you need to enjoy the process for its own sake. If you’re writing to make Mama proud, to make money, to attain fame, you’re likely to peter out.  I’m not saying that Mama’s pride, money and fame are intrinsically bad, I’m just saying they don’t come first. The writing comes first and all these other things follow in its wake – you hope

Fear is the blank page, paper or electronic. I often think of the Robert Benchley essay in which he writes “The” on a blank page one morning, screws around for the rest of the day, then at quitting time writes “hell with it” there and goes home. That blank space, waiting for your words to bring it to life, is an intimidating creature, but you’ve got to at least put “The” on it to get started. Better yet, free write (or write a guest post for me… I could use the help).

Fear is the inability to say “no” enough to enable your writing. We’re all so important, aren’t we? The world will surely come to an end if we refuse a party or a volunteer assignment. Maybe it won’t, though. There are plenty of kind ways to say no—just Google “how to say no.” I tried it and got about 400,000,000 results. If you don’t say “no” enough to make time for your writing, guess what won’t get done? The world will keep spinning without you; your friends and family will live. Try it.

Fear is the inability to say “yes” to your writing, to give yourself permission to do it. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m putting my priorities in the wrong place. Shouldn’t I be working harder at my job? Shouldn’t I volunteer more at my church or my son’s school? Aren’t these things worthier of my time than writing fiction? All I can say is, while I could certainly contribute in other areas, I don’t feel called to them. I feel called to write and to make art. Your calling comes from God, or the universe, or from your innermost being—whatever you name it, the call has to be answered or you’ll simply wither, and that’s no good for anybody. Take it from someone who withered for years before answering—take that call.

I’d be interested to know what fears try to douse your creative spark and how you deal with them. Please feel free to leave a comment here or send me a Twitter message at @coolcarsoncraig. Thanks, and happy fictioneering.

9 Ideas for Resolving A Character Crisis

Chinese character for crisis. Danger plus Opportunity.The adventure in novel-writing continues. This week I finished part two of four, which was great. Unfortunately, this accomplishment is overshadowed by a minor literary crisis I ran into last week, courtesy of my writing group.

My writing group is terrific—we read each other’s stuff, mark it up and tell each other what we think is right and wrong about a piece in a straightforward, but supportive way. One of the folks observed that he didn’t see any particular reason to like, or root for, my main character. The others tended to agree.

Why, he asked, should I like this guy?

I couldn’t answer. Minor literary crisis! So what are some steps I can take?

I’m thinking out loud here. Here’s what I’ve come up with, in no particular order because, honestly, I don’t know in what order to do these things yet.

  • Look at pictures. I can get on Google Images, Flickr, etc. and look for photos of guys who strike me as Colin-like. Seeing an image might spark some ideas.
  • List characteristics. A while back, I completed a list of characteristics for Colin. I can review that. I can also write another one.
  • Try situations. One thing that works for me is to put the character into a random situation—standing in line at the grocery store, taking a shower, fighting a zombie—whatever comes to mind. Something about dreaming up the situation and seeing how the character reacts seems to break loose my intuitive knowledge about him.
  • Think about reasons a person is liked. I’m trying to make this guy likable, or at least supportable. What do people like? What makes a person interesting and attractive? How do some of those things fit in with the person I think Colin is?
  • Research. I have some favorite how-to resources. I’ll go back to them and see what advice they have.
  • Stare at the ceiling. I wrote a post about this not long ago. Sometimes just letting the mind wander around a creative problem on its own will produce solutions, or at least hints.
  • Enlist the universe. There’s a whole interconnected web of being of which I am a part (setting aside metaphysical questions of who or what “I” really am). Through prayer and meditation I can bring the subtle power of that whole thing to bear on the problem. I know this isn’t for everybody, but it works for me.
  • Let go. It’s all to easy for me to get something like this between my teeth and shake it like a terrier. Then I’ll shake it some more, and then some more until my head pops off. By that time, I can’t see the problem or the solution for all the worry in the way. If I can remember to relax and allow this to happen, rather than trying to make it happen, I’ll be a lot farther along.
  • See the opportunity. I do have a little crisis here, but I can already see how rewriting Colin’s first section or two might enable me to solve some story problems that have cropped up down the line. I’m reminded of the old cliché about the Chinese character for “crisis” being a combination of the symbols for “danger” and—you guessed it—“opportunity.” So there’s hope for me yet! And for my main character.

10 Bogus Reasons for Not Writing Your Novel

No ExcusesWhen I look through the wonder that is the Amazon Kindle store and other online literary emporia, I’m flabbergasted by the number of novels out there. After I’ve been flabbergasted for a while, I have a cup o’ joe to calm down a bit. Then I start thinking about something else—the number of novels that aren’t there, but could be. These poor little guys are in people’s heads as concepts, in desk drawers as partially-finished manuscripts to be picked up one day, in city dumps or recycling centers where they were tossed by folks who just gave up.

Do you have a novel that’s languishing for lack of attention? You have your reasons for neglecting it, of course… but maybe they’re bogus! Check this list and see if any bogus reasons are yours.

10. You Don’t Have Talent. If you’ve got the yen to write a novel at all, it’s a sign you have some kind of talent. Maybe it’s a talent for pretty prose, or artful plotting, or just sitting back and letting rip with a good yarn. But you won’t know until you try, will you? Talent needs to be developed. If you have that urge to novelate, the ability to generate that emotion is your talent. Nurture that by writing and it may develop into more and greater talents.

9. Your Story Ideas Aren’t Good Enough. Good enough for who? If your ideas are good enough to keep you entertained while you’re writing, that’s all you need. Nothing will sustain you through the long course of a novel like enthusiasm for the project for its own sake. And who is telling you the ideas don’t cut it? Some long-dead teacher? A parent? Tell these ghosts in your head, “Thank you for your opinion. I embrace it and now I let it go, because you are just a ghost in my head, and I can have a big glass of wine when I’m done and you can’t—ha, ha, ha!” And then write.

8. It’s Self-Indulgent. We’re so often taught that doing something for ourselves is selfish and bad, especially if it doesn’t result in money or a mowed lawn or something. Let me remind you that the seventh habit of highly effective people (Stephen Covey) is to Sharpen the Saw; that is, to get away from the grind and do something that enriches your brain. That’s what writing does. Besides, if writing makes you happier, isn’t that good for everybody around you? You bet it is.

7. You Need a Certain Environment. Okay, I know we’re all tired of hearing about her, but J.K. Rowling wrote at least the first Harry Potter book in several Edinburgh cafes . I know one author who, when her three kids were all tiny, would lock herself in the bathroom, put her pad on the toilet seat and write while the three little ones were banging on the door. If you try, you can write almost anywhere; maybe not as much or as well as you like, but you can do it.

6. You Have Writer’s Block. I believe that writer’s block is real. It’s happened to me, in a small way, when I tried to write everything beautifully the first time around, or when I tried to write for somebody else. It’s also happened to me when I didn’t have an adequate plan for what I was writing. If I have a plan, I don’t write myself into a corner and get blocked trying to figure out how to write myself out. Once I gave up perfection, started writing to please myself, and started planning everything, my blocks went away.

5. Your Novels Always Flame Out. We’re back to planning again. Your novels flame out because they have no plan, so they get out of control and crash into the trackless wastes of Not-Written-Land. As a seat-of-the-pants, non-planning writer, I have flamed out on at least three novels. These days, I use a plan and I am farther along that I’ve ever gotten before. What’s more, I’m confident I’ll finish. Make that flight plan, gang, and you won’t crash.

4. A Novel is Too Big. I wholeheartedly agree. A novel is too big for any sane human to take it on. All those characters, settings, events, details… it boggles the mind. But what if you only had to write one page? You can do that, right? That’s how a novel is written: one page at a time. The pages add up and become your novel. It’s almost as miraculous as compound interest.

3. It’s too Hard to Get Published. I agree with this one, too, if you’re talking about traditional publishing. Not only do you have to write a great novel, you have to hope it gets to the agent or editor when he or she is in the right frame of mind for your kind of story. That could be five minutes of every day. But all is not lost, because now you can e-publish yourself for minimal cost. Yes, you have to do the marketing yourself, but you’d probably wind up doing most of that anyway. And the royalties are light-years better.

2. You Don’t Have Time. True, time is limited for most of us. We have jobs. We have families. But how much time is “time”? You could probably plan a beat on a beat sheet, or write a summary paragraph for a scene, or a piece of a scene itself, in ten minutes. Writing in dribs and drabs like this certainly makes the work go more slowly, but if you put the time in, the work will also go forward. There’s no hurry.

And the number one bogus reason for not writing your novel is:

1. You’ll Do It When…  If you look around on the internet you can find a novelty item that’s a round disc with the non-word “tuit” on it. Get one of these and then you’ll be able to do all those things you were going to do when you finally got a round tuit. We want to wait until we’re retired, or when the kids are out of diapers—until all the conditions are right before we jump into the novel. Why? Did you wait until everything was perfect to go to college? To try your first beer? To ask that cute girl or guy on a date? To get your first… well, never mind. The point is, we do lots of huge things in life without waiting around. You can do the same with your novel. Start now! Life is short. Who knows, tomorrow you might get run over by a muscle car and end up in a coma. Like the hero of my novel, which I am writing… now.

Good News about Ideas

Galaxy“Where do your ideas come from?”

I understand that this is often a question writers who do workshops get asked when they are giving said workshops, but it seems to me a question asked by somebody who can’t think of anything else to say. Either that, or by someone who doesn’t get a lot of ideas.

There is nothing wrong with asking a question because you couldn’t think of anyting else—at least you’re participating. And there’s nothing wrong with not getting a lot of ideas—God made all kinds of people and fewer-idea people are usually much better suited to making the practical elements of the world succeed than us creative types.

I guess it seems like a silly idea to me because I have a brain that generates lots of ideas from out of nowhere. Quite often I can just sit down at the page, start to noodle around and something comes out that, with some work, will be a story idea.

I don’t read the papers or watch TV for ideas. I have never used writing prompts, except in a class. I don’t brainstorm or mind-map.

There’s no formal process I use. If I were to put it in physical terms, ideas seem to form in my brain stem and then work their way up into the frontal lobes. From there, they fall out onto a piece of paper.

I saw a show about guitarists the other day in which Jimmy Page said ideas just come from “the creative spark.” That’s a pretty good way of putting it.

Of course, I have had some advantages that have made me a good, idea-generating writer.

I had a lousy childhood that’s tremendously helpful, because it’s given me this odd neurotic psychological energy that transforms old pain into new ideas. The same goes for a difficult adolescence and early adulthood.

I have an introverted personality, so I don’t talk a lot, and yet I want to say many things, so a lot of that ends up in writing ideas and actual writing. Introverts also are comfortable doing the sort of staring into space that often gives birth to new notions.

I’m well into middle age, so I’ve gotten enough perspective and help by now to realize that every idea doesn’t have to be great or even good; that helps them flow more freely.

So, I’m neurotic, too quiet for most purposes and old. Who would have guessed all those things would have given me a better idea fountain and made me a better writer? Funny how all that stuff that might have been so bad has turned to good.

I am grateful to a beneficent universe. I think I’ll go stare into it for a while.

Writing a Stubborn Scene

Writing the Stubborn Scene

This week I had a struggle with a scene in my nascent novel, Thin Spots. It’s a pivotal point in the plot, where the hero finds out he’s not just a soul trapped in Hell by mistake; rather, he has a comatose body on Earth to which he can return. There’s a lot of information to be presented and I figured the best way to do it was in dialogue between the hero, Colin Davis, and the angel who screwed up and landed him in Hell, a character named Sakamiel.

As usual when I struggle with a portion of the book, I learned some things to share in this space.

Be prepared to retrofit. For this expositional scene to make sense, I had to go back and plug some events into a couple of preceding scenes. For instance, Sakamiel gives Colin the news that his body is in a coma back on Earth and that there’s a chance he can return to it. How would old Sak know all this? As things originally stood, he couldn’t, so I altered a previous scene to show Sakamiel’s boss relaying the coma story to him and I altered another to indicate that Sakamiel was doing research that would uncover facts about Colin’s being able to reunite with his body.

Outline for clarity. I didn’t just want to convey information in this scene. I wanted to show that the information had set Colin on a new course of action. That meant I had to arrange the dialogue so it built from the least arresting matters to the most arresting and ended with Colin’s making a decision. I tried simply writing the dialogue a couple of times, but it just rambled. To tighten things up, I made a bulleted list of the points I wanted to make and then arranged them in the most interesting sequence. It was a miniature beat sheet just for this chunk of dialogue. Once that was done, I was able to write the scene to my satisfaction.

Keep going… and retrofit again, if necessary! The day after writing draft one of this post, I started work on the scene after this troublesome one. Lo and behold, I discovered that to make the subsequent scene work the way I wanted it to, I would have to go back and rejigger the stubborn scene yet again! So, with a little carping, I backed up and did the work. Thank goodness I did—both scenes are better than they would have been otherwise.

Let go of perfection. I keep learning this lesson over and over again. Even with all the effort I’ve described, the scene still doesn’t quite ring like it ought to. I was very tempted to keep working on it until it was just right, but then I remembered the old mantra “don’t get it right, just get it written.” The scene is good enough as it is and I will be revisiting it during the rewrite anyway, so it’s time to move on. The niggling pursuit of perfection slows you down, leads to writer’s block and, most important, sucks the fun out of everything! So I’m letting this puppy go for now and happily moving on.

If you’re interested in reading this scene, keep an eye on the Friday excerpts; it’ll be coming up in several weeks.