February 09, 2004

clunky writing

I took most of last week off from writing. Dan has had some time between episodes (his last one was already cut and locked, his next one hasn’t started shooting yet) and so we spent the time together. Saw a movie in the theater (wow), had a leisurely lunch another day. We played. It was fun. And when I sat down this afternoon to write, I realized I'd forgotten how.

Yes, I had one of those bad writing days. One filled with at least three false starts and a lot more head scratching and finely honed procrastination techniques.

The problem was this: the scene I had to write involved the two main characters coming together after a night apart and a painful secret revealed. The obvious choice was to have them talk about the painful secret, but they’d already done that to the extent I think these two people could, and besides, a conversation delineating the pain and anger? Too on the nose, subtext made text. Inelegant writing. (Also known as False Start Number One.)

So here they were and here I was, none of us sure what to do. I wrote a bit of shoe leather (so named after what it usually involves, people walking from one place to another. “He went here and then he went there and then he took the bus downtown to the Canal Street stop.” Yawn. Interstitial material the eye glides over while waiting for the story to resume. Best not to write in the first place.) This wasn’t your typical shoe leather, admittedly. Two people moving around each other in tense silence. But still. Not quite right. It felt like I was gliding on the surface of the story. It felt flat. False Start Number Two.

Well, okay. Maybe there should be some sex involved. Check gut: should they have sex? Gut says not a terrible idea. People do strange things under pressure. So I started to move the characters toward sex. This I can do. I have a goal, a plan, actual story material to write.

Then why did it come out sounding like a bad romance novel clinch? Somehow the mechanics of people getting undressed, fumbling to touch each other, responding physically, it’s too easy to fall into standard cadences as you write, to fit into how you’d expect something like that to read. Or maybe as a reader it’s too easy to make assumptions when you read certain phrases, I’m not sure. But I do know that it didn’t work for this moment in the story. That was False Start Number Three. And probably Number Four and maybe even Number Five, as I fumbled with words to undress my characters from within.

I kept writing, though. Trying different things. Deleting just about everything. I ended up jumping ahead, writing truly from within. Let’s say you write “I kissed him.” That’s plot, that’s what happened. If you write instead “The experience felt like a dream of something that was happening to someone else,” then you start to separate from the nuts and bolts of the action and you can play with time and emotion. At which point it’s easy to avoid the clichés of a clinch, the expected sequence of events, and so you can write something that goes where you need it to go and feels like part of the story you’re telling.

When I get stuck like I did today, I often find myself resorting to standard prose. Something that sounds an awful lot like what I’ve read before, and not in a National Book Award finalist either. There’s a kind of writing that’s easy to do but, well, pedestrian. So when I find myself writing like that, it means I have to take another path, find another way to present the same bit of plot. Because the way you tell it affects the story itself. And that may be the hardest thing to master as a writer.

Posted by Tamar at February 9, 2004 10:35 PM

I'm so glad to hear that people who write religiously have these moments. I'm still thinking about your entry a few days ago when you described how you feel when you sit down to write...I've had that feeling, but not for a long time now.

BTW, I'm glad to hear that Dan has more episodes coming up. The ones he's cut have been my favorites so far...

Posted by: Rachel at February 10, 2004 07:30 AM

Nothing to do with the entry, but on Saturday I saw a certain episode of a certain teen drama.

"Danny boy!" :)

Posted by: David at February 10, 2004 02:10 PM

Rachel, God yes, I think every writer on the planet has those moments. Writing is hard.

David, heh. I'd forgotten about that. (The Danny boy ref, I mean, not the acting stint.)

Posted by: Tamar at February 12, 2004 11:10 AM