Tag Archives | scenes

The Benefits of Writing Crap (A Reminder)

DeskbytheseaLast weekend, I was at my desk.

I had just started a new chapter.  (I'm almost to the halfway point in my WIP, so I'm well into the dreaded muddle of the middle.)  And I was throwing horrible combinations of words at the page.   Really, when I say horrible, I mean horrible.

Feeling a little, um, less than happy with my work, I took a break to check email.  And, wouldn't you know it, there was a message from some publisher or another trumpeting an author's "masterful literary debut."  Which made my shoulders sag and my chin drop to my chest.

Because of course, I immediately started comparing myself.  And what I was writing was not masterful, in any way, shape or form, as we used to say.  I imagined the process of the author of this masterful debut.  No doubt, she wrote beside a window, looking out at the sea, with gentle ocean breezes ruffling her hair.  Which was styled, unlike mine, since I still hadn't showered.  And her desk was clean, unlike mine, the surface of which hasn't seen daylight in months.  And most especially, no doubt every word this author wrote was a gem.

Unlike my horrible combinations of words.

I went to that imaginary scene of this masterful debut author writing despite the fact that I know better.  (Exhibit A: the gazillion articles I've written about this over the years on this blog) I know that this author went through a process, just like me, and that she no doubt despaired over her Shitty First Drafts (not to mention subsequent drafts) as well.  

But my mind went there anyway. (For some reason, I'm particularly prone to thinking this about female English novelists.  Maybe because they always seem so accomplished and efficient? And also, Isabel Allende, whose fingertips seem to produce incredible novels like clockwork.)

And so I was forced to remind myself that writing is a process.  And that process does not start with perfectly formed sentences, despite what my runaway imagination was telling me.  And so, I reminded myself:

–When writing a first draft, you're laying down the spine of the story.   Because you most likely do not yet fully understand the spine of the story, your scenes will not spring, full formed onto the page. Rather, they will of necessity be somewhat sketchy.

–Not only are you figuring out the spine of the story, you're still deciphering the story itself.  Yeah, so you think you know how its going to go–and then that new character walks on.  Or your heroine says something that takes the chapter in a whole new direction.  This is why we write first drafts–to let the story have a life of its own.

You'll figure out things about the story only when you get some distance from it.  For instance, last night I met with my writer's group and reviewed an earlier chapter from my WIP.  And realized that there is a thematic element I need to weave in through subsequent chapters.  This is what God made second drafts for.

–A first draft gives you something to go on in the future.  Because you will rewrite this draft.  And you'll rewrite it again after the first time. 

So, don't rush the process.  (And I'm talking to myself as much as to you.)  At the same time, I think its important to acknowledge that writing "masterful literary debuts" does not have to take years.  (For instance, the above-mentioned Isabel Allende started her latest book, Ripper in January of 2012 and it is available now.  Given the glacial pace that legacy publishing moves at, she wrote that baby–nearly 500 pages of it–fast.)

And remember: writing crap is good.  Writing crap is glorious.  Writing crap will get you where you want to be.

So….what about you?  Do you have to remind yourself to write crap?  To let the words be awful on the page?  Or are you one of those rare breeds who polishes every word of the draft before you move on?

As a reminder, my short story Blue Sky is up on Amazon.  (I'm trying to get to making a new book page, on this blog, stay tuned for that one of these days.) It's a quick read, and just 99 cents!

23

When to Write in Scene

Reading a manuscript yesterday, I was reminded that, while most writing teachers (myself included) insist advocate that students write in scene, there are also instances when you should not write in scene.

Sometimes writers dramatize events that don't warrant a full scene.  And then the writing just seems flabby.  Not much is happening, but there's a full-blown scene written.  I believe this is a subtle reason that many manuscripts fail.

But how are you supposed to know when to write a scene, then, for God's sake?

I have a couple of answers that should be helpful.

The first is a tidbit from an author and writing teacher whose name I've forgotten. Here it is:

Fast is slow and slow is fast.

What does this mean?  It means that if you would experience the event slowly in real time, write about it fast (i.e., in narrative, which can be used to compress time).  So, for instance, if your character spends a lazy Sunday morning reading the New York Times, dispatch that in a sentence or so.  It it not an event that warrants a scene.  On the other hand, maybe that character steps outside and notices her husband trapped under a car when the jack collapsed.  In a split second, she races to the vehicle and lifts it from him in a rush of adrenaline.  This is an event that you want to slow down and linger over, writing every sensory detail in a full blown scene.

Make sense?

The other helpful tidbit is actually several tidbits, or, a list of guidelines as to when to use scenes.  This has been bouncing around in my mind for years, after reading it somewhere and putting it into use, but I also saw it recently in a discusssion of Sandra Scofield's book on writing scenes, called The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer.

Here are three reasons a scene should exist:

1.  To advance the plot

2.  To reveal character

3.  To set up something that will re-occur later

Of the three, I think the first two are the strongest, though certainly the last has its merits as well.  What do you think?  How do you choose which events to put in scene and which to write in narrative?  Any tips for how to write in scene?

4

Saturday Writing Tip: Scenes

This morning while writing Morning Pages I had a brainstorm for a new series of Saturday posts.  Short and sweet, offering one writing tip.

This, my friends, is the inaugural post, on scenes.

Scenes dramatize writing.  They bring it to life on the page.  Scenes have dialogues, interiority, description and movement.    I know, you know all this.  Here's something else:

Scenes need to have rising or falling action.

Too many writers start and end scenes at the same place.  And by, at the same place I generally mean emotionally.  If the scene starts with your character happy, end it with him angry.  Or vice-versa. Or whatever works in the context of your story. 

This is a simplistic way of getting you to look at scenes as a whole, self-contained package.  They need to have a beginning, middle and end.  Each scene needs to have a purpose, preferably several purposes: to advance the action, to reveal character, to show setting.

To really get down and dirty with the concept of scenes, read books on screenplay structure.  Screenplays must have scenes that are tightly contained and structured.  You'll learn a lot from the genre.

Please comment.  Do you love writing scenes or do you struggle with them?

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Study scenes.  Read about them and apply what you've learned to your own work–even if you're writing non-fiction.

Don't forget to sign up for my newsletter to stay up to date on everything that's happening here! 

4

Deconstructing

I'm working on the final (ha!) rewrite of my novel, coming up on part two.  I did a lot of thinking and making notes before I started this rewrite, which included many Great Ideas, and most of that affected part one.  Why?  Because it was character stuff.  I worked on figuring out how characters reacted to each other so that their throughlines were nice and straight and sturdy, not weak and floppy.  I got really clear on character motivation.  And so I breezed right through the rewriting of part one. 

Its a damned good rewrite if I do say so myself.  At one point as I was working on it I thought, this is the rewrite where I actually know what I'm doing, what I'm trying to accomplish.  The previous four (yes, four, which is really not all that many) were more of the take a deep breath and dive in variety, which just speaks once again to the value of writing as a process.  Sometimes you just gotta go with it and trust.

Now I am to part two and the hard work begins.  I didn't take many notes or have many Great Ideas for this one.  Because this is where the set up is long over and the weaving in begins.  I-yi-yi.  I-yi-yi again.  I think everything is there it just needs to be rearranged some. 

Which is where the deconstructing begins.  This morning I took index cards and went through every chapter in question, five of them, and wrote down every scene.   By this I mean every little discreet event of action, ie Emma Jean calls Riley and they argue (which could cover two pages) or Aunt Cleo and Bob arrive from Portland.  I felt I needed to do this because in the dense chapters I couldn't remember what all happened.  Plus they've been rearranged a few times already.

Committing scenes to cards really helped me get in my head what I have and where, exactly, it is.  I've deconstructed part two and committed it to sepearate little pieces, like disassembling a puzzle.  Now my plan is to throw all the cards up in the air and put them in order according to where they land.

Kidding.  My plan is to lay them out on the bed or on the floor (if the Big Scary Beast Pug and the Demon Feline will stay away from them) and play with them, like that old kid's game Memory, where you match two like cards.  Being able to see how the scenes currently flow should give me some good ideas on how to make them flow better.  The truth is, I already got a lot of ideas as to how to do this just in the process of deconstructing.  So I have high hopes for the rest of the process.

0

Twitter: The Art of Writing Tweets

Twitter is, of course, the social networking rage.  Seems like everyone from corporations to small businesses to solopreneurs to politicians are tweeting.  And with good reason, I some people find it addictive.

There are posts galore on how to best use Twitter to promote yourself or your business, how to not waste time on Twitter, (yeah, right), how to save the world using Twitter (I'm making that one up, but Barack Obama did use it to help get himself elected).

But what about the tweet as a creative art form?  A mini-essay?  Yes, I know that it is hard to consider writing something creative in 140 characters or less.   However, once you start using Twitter a lot you begin to mold yourself to its limitations–and find creative ways to work within them.  Ah, of such restraints are genres formed.

I've been thinking about this over the past couple days as I've found myself tweeting a lot.  I'm really a moderate tweeter.  As of this writing, I have only 800 tweets (there are people who have thousands) and about that many followers.  But the more I tweet, the more I get addicted to it into it, and the more I get into it the more I learn about the art of being succinct.

Not only that, but while being succinct, one can also express deep thoughts and tell mini-stories.  Here are my how-tos for the art of writing tweets:

1.  Cut all extraneous words
.  So this:  "I went to see my mother tonight and she had what looked like a really bad meal" becomes this: "Saw mother tonight, she had bad meal."  Now I have room to describe the bad meal, or say something of related interest.

2.  Create tweets that stand alone but are part of a larger whole
.  I've been experimenting with this one.  Sometimes when I get back from doing something away from the computer (gasp! It does happen upon occasion)I'll write a series of posts about my activities.  Each post links to the other, but each post stands alone and makes sense if that is all you read.

3.  Use good, active verbs.  Amazing how the rules of good writing cut across all genres.  I'm guilty of not paying enough attention to this one.

4.  Express it differently.
  We don't want to hear that you just walked in the door to the coffee shop.  We want to learn what is going on in that specific coffee shop at the moment you walk in the door.  I'm probably more interested in your reaction to the painting on the wall then how much you need caffeine.  I've heard the latter a million times, the former can come only from you.

5.  Find the telling detail.  This is, of course, intimately related to #4.  What is the one detail of the coffee shop that brings the whole scene alive?  If you can do it in your creative writing, and I feel certain you can, you can do it on Twitter.  As a matter of fact, writing tweets is probably damn good practice for any kind of writing.

Which gives me an excuse to keep using it as much as I want.

8

Overcoming Flat Scenes: Rising and Falling Action

This is the third post in a series on scenes, and specifically, flat scenes. You can find part one of the series here, and part two, here.

What is a flat scene?  It is one in which the emotional tenor is the
same all the way through.  For instance your heroine may start out the
scene depressed and end it depressed.  Or your hero may begin the scene
happy and end it happy.  A flat scene can also be flat by virtue of the fact that there are no turning points  in it.  A turning point is when a character acts on a goal (or call it an objective, if you want) and is either successful or unsuccessful.  Since you want to create as much conflict as possible for your characters, odds are good that you will be torturing them by making them unsuccessful.  Then they have to try another way to achieve their goal.  Or if they are successful at achieving their goal, that goal creates other, unforeseen problems.

But I digress. 

A scene turns when it ends at a different place than it began, and I don't mean just physically.  If your character begins the scene unhappy, creates a goal to change that unhappiness and achieves the goal, she might end the scene happy.  And thus the scene has turned.  There has been rising action, from sadness to achieving the goal, and then happiness.

Or if your character begins the scene unhappy, works on a goal that fails, she might end the scene devastating, destroyed, completely ruined.  The scene has turned.  That would be a case of falling action.  Now she must pick herself up and figure out what to do next. 

Rust Hills talks about the end of the last chance to change as a turning point in short stories.  If the character has a chance to change and takes it, that makes a story.  But there's also a classic short story structure in which the character has a chance to change that is his last, and doesn't take it.  And that is a story, too.  Both options create turning points.

In a flat scene, there is no turning point, no chance to change, no last chance to change.  Your characters begin and end in the same emotional terrain. 

How to avoid this?  The easiest way (and I say that facetiously, because there is no easy in writing) is to start each scene with a goal.  This can be as simple as creating a desire for a character.  Then put obstacles in the way to achieving it.  This is exactly what we do when designing a plot, and if you do it for each scene, you'll have a strong structure for your novel (and by the way, all this talk of scene applies to creative non-fiction, also).  If you suspect your scene is flat, ask yourself what your character's goal is for the scene and see if that doesn't give you a spine to hang the action on.

Bear in mind that each scene is like a mini-story, a hologram of the big picture, if you will.  Don't go off creating scenes willy-nilly just for the sheer joy of it.  Your beautifully crafted scenes must relate to the plot.

Remember, death to all flat scenes.  Make them rise, make them fall, make them turn and twirl and dance.  Your novel will thank you for it.

1