Monday, June 02, 2008

Writing about the scene

Okay, here's something I do when I'm writing, and I wonder if anyone else does it? I mean, I'm sure they must, but I don't know as I've ever heard anyone admit it.

So some of you, when you have a scene to write, you probably just. . . write it. Yeah? You? Sounds so easy and so obvious. But that doesn't always work out for me. I'll stare at the screen, think a little, decide to google something terribly important, get sidetracked, wallow in time-wasting, then discover it is lunch time -- rather than just write the scene. I just caught myself doing it -- spent about half an hour wikipedia'ing "frost" and "snow" (interesting stuff! ever heard of watermelon snow??) -- and it occured to me to blog about it, i.e. waste even more time.

What I could be doing instead of wasting time, is:

I could write about the scene. Do you ever do that?

It's less scary than actually writing the scene. In my "notes" doc which is always open next to my "manuscript" doc, I start telling myself what I want to have happen in the scene, what things I want to reveal, what the overall tone ought to be, and I try to brainstorm details, and I try to figure out what the characters are thinking and how they're feeling, and what it might lead them to do and say. In short, I try to feel my way inside the scene, try to sort of build it up around me into something that begins to feel real, and I do this in brainstorming mode, saying "maybe this" and "I suppose that" etc.

The consequence of writing about the scene is usually that I discover it, make it real and figure out how to write it. I do wish it were easier though, the whole writerly ordeal. Reading the "Emily" books again, I find myself jealous of her -- jealous of both the fictional character Emily, and the author L.M. Montgomery, who I'm guessing modeled her character after herself in some such essentials. Emily must write. She can't not. She awakens in the night with a story idea, grabs her Jimmy book and starts writing, and keeps writing, enraptured. It's so lovely. I want it to be like that! And there are moments when it is, but not that often. When I was writing Sunday Scribblings stories I would find myself in that fabulous place, because there was no pressure, but writing Silksinger it has only ever come in flashes.

How about you? Do you find that sheer joy, that ease?

It sure sounds nice to me. Sigh. After I write a few more books, perhaps my brain will learn to relax? I hope.

By the way, I am changing so much in this draft of Silksinger, it will be a whole new book when I am through with it! Tomorrow I will backtrack from the middle, where I am now, to write an entirely new Chapter Two. I couldn't quite face the challenge of writing an entirely new Chapter Two at the time I realized it had to be done; I let myself skip over it for a little while. But now I must face it. When I think how much time I spent on the old Chapter Two, I really could cry -- I mean, you'd think I would cry, but in fact I'm not feeling overly sentimental about it. Enough time has passed that, instead of mourning it, I can get excited about what will replace it.

P.S. I did another school visit today and it was fun as always, 4th graders again. 4th graders are delightful. And, I experienced my first attempted theft from the box of claws! The barn owl talon went missing! It was discovered by a teacher in a boy's pocket. I didn't even see who the boy was, but I keep trying to imagine the drama from his perspective, what it might have been like, the split decision to take it, the shame of getting caught with it. I told my mom about it and she reminded me of a story about my niece who, in 1st grade, inexplicably told her teacher that her sister had died. (She is an only child and always has been.) Then, to her utter mortification, her teacher decided to walk out with her after school to offer his condolences to her mother! I can just imagine her trying to persuade him that really, he didn't need to do that -- to no avail. And the horror of it all! I'm trying to think of what some of my own mortifications might have been. I do love, in the Emily books (and the Anne books too), the way L.M. Montgomery makes these dramas of childhood so vivid and huge, the little shames and triumphs.

Okey dokey, off to the night-gym. Tell me, please, if you write about what you're going to write. Tell me, too, if you think this sounds absolutely dreadful, like it would kill all soul and spontaneity in the scene. Curious about your thoughts!


Catalina said...


This post comforts me. I do it. I write (or whatever else) about what I will be doing "later" (but need to be done "immediately" ) but in the long way I think is my brain wanting to "brain storm" first and then settle down and start something and then coming back to do whatever else and then mature ideas and finally do the work (Like just right now...trying to finish a report...and having dancing informations and ideas on my brain and waiting for them to calm down...:)...)

Amber Lough said...

Funny how you wrote about being jealous of Emily. I just finished Emily Climbs last night and nearly had a fit trying to go to sleep. Filled with self-doubt and feeling quite un-writerly, I had to imagine an email to our friend the editor asking for my poorly-written manuscript back--just to fall asleep. Then I woke to E-beth yelling in my ear and I was not a nice mommy until I got my cup of tea. (At least it's not cambric tea, whatever that is.) Now I'm out of Emily books and have to go to the library.

Why, oh why, did I not read these when I was a kid? It might have stirred me to write more frequently.

R.J. Anderson said...

I struggle too with the yearning to write in what Sherwood Smith calls that "white fire" feeling -- where you're passionately caught up in the story and writing as fast as you can to keep up with it. I can't remember the last time it happened to me -- certainly not since I've started writing books for publication, to be sure!

And when I come across people rhapsodizing about how emotionally involved they got in a scene they were writing, how they cried or laughed or stayed up until 2 a.m. until they'd finished it, I feel like there must be something wrong with me for never feeling that way -- and worse, THE READERS WILL KNOW.

Anyway, when I'm really stuck on a scene, I usually just keep beating my head against it until something happens. I've occasionally stopped to make notes on what I'd like to have happen in that scene or chapter, but I don't usually find that it helps that much, except to make me feel that At Least I Am Doing Something. (Maybe I am making the wrong kinds of notes?)

I have a scene in one of my WiPs that I've worked on for hours and hours and it refuses to cooperate. In utter desperation I tried writing the whole conversation as a stage play with the intention of filling in the narration later (Pamela Dean uses this method on a regular basis) but even that didn't work. I can only hope that by the time I get back to working on that particular book, my mental block will have dislodged itself at last.

Q said...

I've never been afraid of writing a scene, but sometimes I don't know exactly what needs to happen in it, so I have trouble. If it's bad enough, I skip the scene and come back to it later when I know what information must come out in that scene.

tone almhjell said...

I wish for it, too! That urgent mode of writing, where I am swept off on a current in a powerful river, and I don't even have to swin. I just let it take me where it must go, emerging from the water at four in the morning with an inspired piece of text.


Instead I google, I make tea, I write blogposts, I read newspapers. And then, after hours, after there's nothing else left to do, after I'm really sick of myself - I write a little. For many years it made me feel as if there was no point in trying to write stories, as if my efforts were just phony since I struggle so.

But hey. I've now written more than a hundred pages, and my story is emerging from the muddy, still, boggy waters surprisingly clean.

I haven't tried the 'write about', but I might just do that and see what happens. I need a little boost today, since my only reader didn't like my technomagical machines, and I've made them instrumental. Of course, my reader doesn't like machines at all, anywhere, but I can't seem to persuade myself to take that into account.

I don't know how I would ever cope with reviews.

Silvia said...

This post really resonates with me. My writing process is very similar.

When you wrote about the Emily books and how she just has to write and keeps writing and how you want to be like that - i wanted to write like that for a long time too. But then I realized that this doesn't work for me.

I write so much in my mind. Entire blog post, stories etc. These daydreams appear on paper when they're ready and this is just how i work.

The way we write is so personal, thank god it is. Wouldn't it be dull otherwise? Anyway. Just go with what works best for you. I know it is hard though sometimes, i still dream about writing the way 'Emily' does from time to time. It would be lovely too.

- Silvia

Jacqui said...

Hi, visiting via Sara. This rang so true to me. And writing about the scene often works for me too -- anything I can do to "trick" myself into writing something just to get started and get over the anxiety of the block.

I heard Judith Viorst talk about her writing. She compared inspiration to the wind that powers a sailboat. Then she said, "When there's no wind, row."

Elise Murphy said...

When I have a great work day and accomplish a lot, I panic the next time I sit down to write. I feel absolutely blank and sure I won't be able to find the thread from last time. I blog, I comment on blogs, I research and then I sit down and do just what you've said - write about the scene until I can feel where I am supposed to be.

I also thoroughly edit the previous days writing in order to sink back into the voices of the characters. Sometimes I purchase itunes music that fits my time period . . . I've been listening to a lot of 1940's music while I write. I also shop ebay for unusual items related to my book (not claws . . . but opera glasses, antique Chinese compasses,, opera gloves, oh, and a fantastic bird claw shaped quill and letter opener.) I consider all of this my "pre-writing."

I have often wished to be the writer that pens long into the night, wakes with an idea and hops from bed. It happens every once in a while. For the most part though, if I'm hungry I eat, if I'm tired, I sleep, and the writing comes after those things.

I love your craft blogs. I feel comforted in knowing so many writers struggle in the same ways.

Anonymous said...

I am one of those people who writes about writing first. I think a lot of it has to do with my insecurities as a writer. I am incredibly tenative about just writing something out of thin air. Instead I have to mull over the idea, writing and rewriting about the characters, about the scenes, about the order, etc.

I remember a professor of mine sharing how there is a friend of his who struggles with creative writing, and so ultimately he ends up writing about the writing process. I don't take it this far, but I guess its one approach to writer's block.

Anonymous said...

I love how you say that you try to feel your way inside the scene. That is exactly how it is. Sometimes the only way I can get back into the story is to write about it first. Writing about it then turns spontaneously into actually writing it but with more truth than when I painfully force myself to write a dead scene.

Writing hasn’t over taken me so much that I wake up in the middle of the night and have to write. I am not sure that I would want that right now, maybe later. But I understand “having to write”. I can be horribly cranky and down right exhausted but if I get a chance to create a little peace of my fictional world or get caught up in one of my characters emotions, or have a sudden flash of insight while writing then awe the rest of my day is more solid and I am happy. So in that sense I have to write.

I need to get on ordering those books. Hearing everyone talk about them makes me anxious to read them.

Kiki Hamilton said...

You crack me up! You have such a way of zinging right to the heart of the matter. I think I'm the only one that has such terrible writing habits and then you describe the process as though you're looking over my shoulder...

I google...I read other people's blogs...I eat cake...I tell myself I'm letting the plot percolate....

still percolating.....

Deirdre said...

This morning I began revisions on a story I've been working on for about 10 years. (Yes, ten) While I didn't write about the scene, I let myself write explanatory sentences just so I can keep my place and have some idea where I might be going.

There hasn't been a lot of revision in my writing - lots of starts and many, many stories filed away unpolished, but few actually finished. This is new and scary because I don't want to wreck the story by fiddling with it too much.

Your posts about writing give me courage. Witnessing your process and seeing the magnificent end result takes some of the edge off my perfectionism - you know, not starting something because it might not be perfect,so therefore, why bother.

And yes, I have those magic moments when the story tells itself and I can't do anything but write and write. It's heaven.

Stephanie Perkins said...

Watermelon Snow?? Cool!!

Oh, I wish I found sheer joy & ease more often when writing! Wouldn't that be dreamy? I often fantasize about plunking down in front of my laptop and whiz whiz whizzing away.

Usually it's more like sludge sludge sludge.

I just try to remember it DOES happen, and that's what makes the whole scary process worthwhile. I LOVE the whiz whiz whiz! And when it happens, I run into my ongoing journal doc (like your "notes" doc -- THANK YOU for the brilliant idea! Best. Thing. Ever!), and tell myself how exciting and wonderful it just was and reassure myself that it will happen again someday.

Then, when I am feeling stuck or scared, I go back and read those encouraging bits (things like, "I'm so proud of you, Stephanie! You can do this, I know you can!!" -- totally embarrassing, but necessary). And it really does help.

Thank you (again & again) for sharing more of your process.

Michele Thornton said...

I do write about the scene, all the time. And it doesn't stifle my creativity. I do allow for that scene to change, and usually that will happen in the dialog for me. The characters just start talking and sometimes, when the moon and stars align just right, things happen that I had NO idea were going to happen. I live for those moments, really.

Michele Thornton said...

I do write about the scene, all the time. And it doesn't stifle my creativity. I do allow for that scene to change, and usually that will happen in the dialog for me. The characters just start talking and sometimes, when the moon and stars align just right, things happen that I had NO idea were going to happen. I live for those moments, really.

Anonymous said...

I tend to just imagine scenes - playing them out in my head, sometimes several different ways, while doing something other than writing...till I get that 'a-ha! That's just what would happen!' feeling and then start writing it. I'm not sure if writing out a description of what I want to happen, would work for me or not - it doesn't sound quite as much fun to me -- though I could see where that method might work for others.

I finally got a copy of 'Emily of New Moon' (still waiting for the other two books in the series). I've only been able to read snippets of it, so far - but I'm really enjoying it. She does such a great job of putting you 'inside Emily's head,' that makes me really want to find out what happens next.

Sustenance Scout said...

Oh my, what a great idea!! I can't believe I've never come across this suggestion before, or maybe I have and I skimmed right by. Thanks, Laini. Love the new ladies, btw! K.

Unknown said...

I think it sounds genius. I am not a writer, although I wish I were. I find myself imagining myself writing this fabulous book someday, but I have no idea what to write about. Knowing how you go about it makes perfect sense to me.

Shannon said...

I too, write about the scenes long before I write them. Once in a long while I will have a moment when a scene comes out of me completely but mostly I have to take notes on it and then let it percolate in my head for awhile.

Since I also work from a very empathic place, I always have to figure out the feelings of the characters and the places before I can write. Sometimes the feelings are clear to me and sometimes not.

I do have notes going already for some of the scenes for the peddler of dreams piece (ever since your first idea/post) and they are coming slowly but surely!

Anonymous said...

I write notes about scenes. I write long histories for characters. I agonize over names for way too long.

But sometimes, after my three little munchkins are asleep, I can pick up some notes and lose myself in the story for hours. I love it until I have to get up a few hours later. I try not to let it happen when my kids are awake because I get so frustrated when the story is there, spilling out on the page as fast as I can write or type and I get interrupted and lose it. So I have a lot of unfinished stories, but my kids are only going to be little for so long. They don't need to have a perpetually frustrated mother.