my writing day
27 June 2002

Writing a script is writing for a specific target audience, whether indie or mainstream. Writing a script is writing within a defined framework -- the three act structure, the inevitable belly-of-the-whale scene, the whole shebang as taught by countless screenwriting gurus who unfortunately have the ear of Hollywood, making it incredibly difficult to color outside of the lines. But even aside from these artificial and ultimately unnecessary limitations, writing a script is writing the bones of the story, letting the imagination and a hoped-for crew of forty fill in the rest, but writing bones that will stand up straight, hold the weight. Ultimately, writing a script is like writing with your hands tied behind your back, tapping the keyboard with your nose.

Writing a novel feels like someone just untied my hands, unlocked my toolbox, gave me one of those Crayola boxes with 64 crayons all laid out in every conceivable shade, and said, "Here you go, now play."

Writing a novel is, need I say, a little intimidating after so many years and so many scripts. There’s safety in a defined format, after all. Safety in knowledge, too. Safety and security. A novel has a definite rise and fall, true. And most if not all the tools I’ve developed through my script writing still apply, though twisted slightly to the left, thrown slightly off kilter. That’s the trick of it, finding my way through the new form while taking what works from the old.

I had a good writing day today. Four and a half pages in one and a half hours. It flowed well, it felt right and good and I had that shiver of pleasure I get when it’s working. But that makes writing sound so easy when really it’s not. I’d like to try to capture what it’s really like, the nitty-gritty of it, while I can remember. A work in progress, this bit of Chapter Two that I inhabited today.

I started with an outline. Not a given, I know several writers who would rather fly without that net, but I need it. I need to know where I’m headed, need that mapped shape in my head even if the terrain under my wingspan turns out to be completely altered when I get there, filled with sudden mountain ranges that require a hasty itinerary revamping, else I slam into the treacherous rocky hills head first.

Which is pretty much what happened today. Chapter Two and I’m already reworking, albeit on a micro level. I took one look at today's outlined sequence and held my nose. It stank. It was too too. I was trying to establish that these two people, my main characters, were once madly, wildly, idiotically in love, so I cooked up a mushy memory that worked great in outline form, especially when contrasted with the current day estrangement. Only problem? I’d already done it in Chapter One. It’s not a memory exactly but the contrast between fantasy love and everyday reality? Yup. Did it. Check. Move on to the next scene, would’ja?

But a book has a pace, its own internal sense of what sort of thing should come next. And this one needed a moment in between, preferably a moment that illuminates a piece of the past. Not too much, it’s far too soon for a backstory dump (not recommended in any case but more palatable further into the story when you care more). But I needed to go into the past without the sugar coating. Find some real moment with a sting hidden in the story to make it more ambiguous, more ambivalent. A friend told me this recently, that you come at drama from a sideways angle in fiction where in movies, you often attack it head on. There’s truth to this, though in fact I think my scripts would probably have benefited from more multi-shaded moments too. But a script shows images, an accretion of moments. A novel shows inner and outer, can linger on a scent, can wrap you in a single moment and extend it for pages. So something too simple, too dramatic, well, it hits you over the head coming and going and then runs after you and bonks you again for good measure.

So my first task of the day: twist the memory so it isn’t about the mushy love stuff, but is instead about some underlying fear in the past that’s come up again now in the present. I thought, I fiddled, I found something I think works.

Second task: find a way into the memory that isn’t too obvious. If the strongest image in the memory is of two people swimming in the ocean at sunset (it’s not, incidentally – I’m not quite that corny), then for god’s sake don’t have your character see a gorgeous sunset or hear the sound of the ocean surf and remember back to that magical day. That’s what I mean by too too. Just too. So I found a different way in, something small, something more personal, something that starts the memory but doesn’t have to dominate.

Third task: Figure out the pre-memory stuff. More than just a segue, this interstitial material. It has to matter too. It should give a glimpse of the life they live now. It should ideally set up the events that occur immediately post-memory, placing people in their assigned locales, setting up their given moods. Concrete issues like who takes what car where and why exactly is it that they’re not in the same car at the same time, again? But also bigger issues like who else works with the main two and can we get to know these other people without hitting us over the head with capsule summaries of their personalities? And why does he (the main He) feel the way he does, or at least, how exactly does he feel?

I solved the first issue with a shower. That’s where she is, what she’s up to, why she’s alone in this moment. But what is she thinking in the shower? It can’t relate directly to the memory coming up, that would be too too. It can’t even be too sensual, my automatic instinct when describing hot water beating down on a naked woman’s back. Full-on sensual waits for later in the story. I thought maybe of having her think about small daily things: who's going to walk the dogs, what are they going to have for dinner, has the mortgage been paid yet. That sort of thing. But honestly. Sure, it captures a very real mindset, but how many writers can make that interesting, can make you care? Especially when thus far you’ve spent very little time in this person’s head.

I was out of ideas. So I wrote. Just wrote, to see what would happen. And lo and behold, this woman, my character, had some very real concerns about her body and about her career. Which came naturally out of the flow of water over her body and I hope wasn’t too expositional (but if it was I’ll trim it down later) and felt right for that moment, with (I think) just the right dose of self-revelation, not too dramatic but not too mundane and not too close to the heart of the story, not quite yet. And if you read it, you’d think "Sure, that’s interesting," and turn the page. If you think anything, which ideally you don't because ideally you're swept into the story and not yet thinking much at all. Seamless writing takes a lot of thought. God knows I don’t always hit it, but when I do it’s so sweet. (And subject to disavowal when I rewrite. I could hate everything I loved today. Just thought I should add that for the record and to cover my ass in case my future self comes back and sneers.)

So. The first moment of the chapter over, complete with an unexpected character discovery. One content writer. On to the next. Switch characters, see what the guy is up to. Oh, it seems he’s talking to one of their coworkers. Good. That’s what he should be doing. Oh, but wait. He’s saying rather too much, isn’t he? And oh, that other guy shouldn’t be saying all that either, that’s coming out too Oprah-confessional. Gick. Highlight-delete. This one isn’t even worth saving for the "bits and bites" file. Okay, so they don’t talk past a few pleasantries. What then? Just two men walking. And then this shared thing, a wonderful unspoken moment passes between them. In a way it says what all that confessional ickiness was supposed to, but by inference. Happy shiver. Moving on.

And so it goes. Writing this novel feels like part careful analysis, part instinct. A constant brainstorm-and-discard-and-let-go-and-try-again-and-oh-where-did-that-come-from?

Today was a good writing day. They’re not all like that.

Speaking of writing, this seems an opportune time to say thanks for this. An unexpected pleasure. Truly.

last // home // next

current log / Damian essay archive / other essays archive / what's all this, then?

copyright 2002 Tamar