January 17, 2004

scribbling ahead

Thursday was Not A Good Day. It was one of those days when every lane of traffic you switch to immediately becomes the slow lane, when the question you ask when you drop off your kid's application in the magnet school office gets exactly the opposite answer you wanted (needed) to hear, when you have to drive past every tree trimming operation and construction zone from downtown to Santa Monica because youíre still too chickenshit to take the freeway (and on that kind of a day, better you donít try), when you scrape the still-new car up against the curb with an EEE! and a Ow! when you try and park in the teeny tiny straight-up-the-45-degree-angle-hill spot and sure enough, now the rear passenger side hubcap has a nice display of scratch marks, and most of all when you get the car door open to grab your backpack and computer bag only to find Ė no computer bag. No computer.

Yeah. I wasnít too pleased. I also discovered something interesting about myself. I can write longhand when necessity requires it, but I canít write longhand story notes in my little spiral bound notebook. I need room, you see. I need to be unfettered, I need sprawl.

Or maybe I just need something less pretty so I can tear the sheet off and crumple it up, Iím not really sure.

Anyway. Two hours in the cafť, no writing. Then off to pick Damian up at school, except that the floor time session Iíd thought was cancelled was actually on (the therapist now recovered from her prior high fever) and I had two more hours to fill. With, yes, thatís right, you got it. No computer.

Which is when I discovered the legal pad corollary. I can in fact write story notes in a legal pad. Maybe even easier than on the computer, which I tend to think of as an extension of my brain.

It may have turned out for the best (well, except for the endless drive, the hubcap scratches, and the oppressive magnet school system rules). Iím at a stage in my novel where Iím writing blind. And thatís uncomfortable. In my experience it leads to writing crap. Back in high school, I wrote a short story and got stuck because I had no idea where it was going. I ended up inserting a random act of senseless violence because my characters were bored and so was I and, well, it was there. What a sticky gluey morass of a story that was. Then in college I wrote some stories with a little more idea of plot, mostly a few vague phrases. And that was enough to get from A to Z in a sort of fumbling, ass-backward way though not without some alcohol-fueled liberation of inhibition. Which is when I stopped writing fiction and turned to screenwriting. Structure, that badly needed structure, became my best friend.

Now I always need at least some sort of knowledge of the terrain and definitely the ending. As Iíve said before, I donít have an exact map with this novel, no detailed outline delineating the story from prelude to inciting incident to midpoint to climax to tag and every scene and sequence in between. Iíve done that on scripts but this is a different beast altogether. Larger, for one thing. And more Ė well, for lack of a better word, more intuitive. I donít always know what Iím going to write. I take tangents that come back to the main action or that become the main action. Things evolve. And yet it still has a structure and I hope a fairly tight one. Contradictory? Yes, I know it is. Itís nevertheless the way this novel is working, and I like it but at the same time it feels very much like walking along a path where the scenery is fascinating and involving but at any moment I may find the dirt give way underfoot and Iíll be stepping out into nothing. Blank grey nothing.

Whenever that happens, I plot. I sort out what needs to happen in the next thirty to fifty pages, I lay out scenes and sequences I think would have impact and also bring the story the next step along, I take a peek at the freaky-scary everything-changes section coming up in the third act and write a few notes about it that probably contradict the notes I wrote last time and the time before. I may even take another gander at the ending, though I usually leave that alone since I know the flavor of it and thatís enough for now.

It works for me, this half-outline method. It gives me the confidence to continue, even if continuing means dumping what Iíve just plotted and writing blind after all. Because the very act of plotting means thinking about what needs to happen. Having that almost subterranean awareness gives my writing mind something to chew on as it creates the reality. And often enough I do use the outlined ideas and thatís even better.

That freaky-scary everything-changes section? Coming up soon. Extremely soon. And itís making me nervous. So Thursday, sitting there in the late afternoon in the school conference room, in the very seat the administrator proclaimed from at Damianís last two IEP (Individual Education Plan) meetings, I scribbled on a yellow legal pad and scrubbed much of my previous tentative scratchings about that dark void of a section.

The problem with the section was always that it felt like a different novel to me. The setting changes, the dynamic changes, I thought Iíd therefore need to invent a new plot overlay to give the emotions some action. But how to do that without making the material feel grafted on as an afterthought when it should be the very heart of the book? This Thursday I had an answer. Maybe it was the air in that room, the molecules charged with people discussing and debating and deciding, but I saw the rest of my story and it works neatly and comfortably within the parameters Iíve already set up. I donít need to invent a new overlay, I donít really even need to move the action to a new city Ė at least, not entirely. People can buy plane tickets. They can go back and forth. This works. Modern technology is a wondrous thing. I can do what I need to do while keeping the current story very much intact. And thatís a tremendous relief. I may well ditch half of what I scribbled; I expect I will, but itís given me what I needed. A new structure to hang the rest of the story on.

Maybe I should leave my computer at home more often.

Posted by Tamar at January 17, 2004 09:52 PM

Yeah, I've definitely found that working by hand is different and in many ways better than writing by computer. Because when you're typing away, you don't have to *think* -- if you make a mistake, if you write the wrong word, well, just backup and write something new. Whereas if you write by hand, there are a few extra precious seconds between thinking of something and managing to get it on paper, enough time to stop and say, Nope, what I really mean is...

Twenty years ago Sandy Lerner said, "I blame the word processor for _Godel, Escher, Bach_." Today I feel exactly the same way, only I'd use as my example screenplays.

Posted by: Diane Patterson at January 17, 2004 10:39 PM