By J.D. Rhoades
We spend some time here talking about the pressures, the challenges, and the frustrations of the writing life. True, it ain’t all beer and skittles. But, to be fair, there’s right much in the way of skittles. And lord, is there ever beer. Along with that, there are moments that feel so good, they remind me why I still do this. Here’s one.
I sat down one day last week to write a scene for my current WIP. This book is probably the one I’ve done the most extensive outlining and pre-planning for, so I knew what I wanted to do in the scene and how it advanced the story. There’s a bit of exposition, a bit of revelation, where the main character (a female FBI agent) is getting a teasing glimpse of exactly how big and how mean the monster is that she’s up against.
As originally conceived, the scene presented some challenges; it takes the form of an interview the agent and her partner are doing with the CEO of a big pharmaceutical corporation.
Two people interviewing a corporate suit and his lawyer runs a severe risk of being a boring info-dump: lots of talking, lots of exposition while the reader’s interest begins to wither and die. I sat and stared at the page for a long time, wondering how to keep that from happening. I started. I stopped. I checked my e-mail and Facebook. I went back to the document. I started again. I stopped. I picked up the guitar and played a bit. I petted the dog who was squirming around under the desk, trying to get my attention. I shooed the dog out and sat down again.
And suddenly, as I began writing the CEO’s lines, something happened. I could see him. I could see how he looked, how he spoke, even a particular annoying mannerism he has that illustrates that he’s brilliant, but highly eccentric. His dialogue began to write itself. And as it did, the character of the partner also began to emerge. Previously, I’d known a couple of things about him: he’s big, he’s more than a little intimidating, and being FBI, he’s a little too cocky for what he’s about to go up against. But he didn’t have a face, nor did he have much of a personailty.
But as the scene went on, he shouldered his way in and took a bigger role in the interrogation. Suddenly there were dimensions to him I hadn’t seen previously. He’s actually a lot smarter than he looks, but he knows when playing the dumb jock can work for him, especially when dealing with an brilliant, eccentric nerd who likes to feel superior to someone who looks exactly like the kind of guy who used to harass him in grade school.
When it was over, two characters that originally were just shadows in my mind were living and breathing and sparring with each other. I knew them. I knew what they looked like, I knew their respective backstories. Give me a couple of minutes, and I can tell you what they had for lunch.
Damn, it’s fun when that happens. It doesn’t actually feel like I’m the one creating. It feels like people are leaping fully formed out of my head, like Athena. I actually leaned back and went “where the hell did THAT come from?”
In moments like that, all the rejection, all the frustration, all the exasperation with this ridiculous busness seems very remote, and you remember why you do this.
So, writers and non-writers: Tell me about the moments that remind you of why you do what you do.
I love it when characters rewrite their parts when you’re not looking. I do plan and outline, but once I start actually writing, all bets are off. I have a character in my current WIP, the mother of a girl Charlie Fox is being tasked to protect. She started out as a very stiff matriarchal figure, but she’s suddenly developed a wicked sense of humour and I have no idea where it came from.
And those always seem to be the bits that work the best, don’t they?
One of my favorite quotes is from the Sondheim musical Sunday In The Park With George which deals with the artistic process of Georges Seurat as he paints his masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon On the Island of La Grand Jatte where Georges is painting while singing the song ‘Finishing the Hat’ about, well, finishing the hat (one little part of the much larger whole). At the end of the song he sings:
"Look, I made a hat where there never was a hat"
That, to me, is what the artistic process is all about…
It never fails. Just when I think I am almost truly done with my WIP and I only need to tweak it a bit–a very important plot twist will reveal itself. At first I’m annoyed and want to ignore the new information because it will mean more revision. But then I recognize it for the magical gift it is and get to work.
I’m just getting started on my next book. I was slow to start because something just didn’t feel right. Then two weeks ago the husband and I ran off to Jamaica for the weekend. I didn’t have my book on my laptop and wasn’t planning to do any work. And then when I was lying on my beach chair, gazing at the white sand and water, I suddenly realized that I had been completely wrong about what happened. An entirely different story fell in place. Amazing stuff we carry around in those brains of ours, huh?
I love those moments. Sometimes it feels like I’m using a Ouija Board instead of a computer.
Well, you just made me think of a much-needed twist in my WIP while I was sitting here with my coffee, salting my toast, so thank you for that Dusty.
Sometimes I think we forget that the real pleasure doesn’t come from the recognition or from seeing our books in the shelves. The real pleasure comes from the magic that occurs when we write. There’s nothing more satisfying than observing the evolution of STORY from NOTHING. We can plan and plan and plan, but we can’t predict what that spark of whatever-the-fuck-it-is will do. I also had a potentially dry info-dump scene in my last book, with two police officers, two FBI agents and my protagonist. It’s like thirteen pages of exposition. And the exact same thing happened – the ancillary characters came forward and made the scene. The subtext moved things along. And an FBI agent I hadn’t originally thought to include in the scene ended up bringing some levity.
I also love what has become my "third pass process," where I tweak each sentence in an effort to bring a little poetry to the prose. When I dig through the thesaurus to find alternative ways to say a simple thought, while still keeping it simple.
And, Peter, "Give us more to see…."
And, Cornelia…"salting" your toast? Is that for real?
Yeah, Cornelia, is that a sign of distraction or do you actually put salt on your toast?
Peter: I totally need to get that song.
Alafair: that’s another type of fun moment…the type where you’re not really thinking about or working on your WIP at all and suddenly everything falls into place.
Zoe: fun, ain’t it?
I love it when I’m doing revisions and it’s been a while since I read the story and I surprise myself with something the character says, or a certain phrase or turn of events. It’s that "man, I can write!" feeling which unfortunately only comes along once in a while, but often enough to keep me slogging through the tough days.
I’m a novice writer, so I remember several moments (Stephen: hitting it perfectly for me) where I went, it’s real! It’s real, when they said the characters take over it really happens. Sometimes you are writing and it’s like you’re channeling or something. The most memorable was last November during nanowrimo, partly because I think I was unconscious during some of the writing. I’d drag my ass home at 8 or 9, get the computer going and wonder what the heck I was going to write for the next 1600 words so i could make my daily quota. At the end of one night I was jumping up and down, completely in love with a character that seemed to come out of the fog and be a whole person. I totally loved him and have no idea where he came from, how I named him…I am still excited about that. It’s like exercising. You practice and practice and all of a sudden, whatever that physical thing is you were trying to do, happens. Same with writing, you are writing away, maybe 1,000 words and then they start to flow a little easier, you gain some clarity as to where the story is going and pretty soon you are bouncing in your seat and saying hallelujah and the cat is wondering what he did.
Yes, it’s the hallelujah of writing that drives us all.
J.D. Such an upbeat post. (Wait. Is this still February? Am I on the Murderati blog?)
So good on "hump day" to hear of epiphanies !!
THIS is a moment that reminds me of why I do what I do……..READ. You are all so talented and surprisingly human. Writing and writing away in your other-worlds but with all of the anxieties and self-doubts that we mortals face.
I read your books and think , "How does he DO that?". Writing is so fucking hard. I know. I tried it once. Now I know why I am a READER! You all make it seem so easy.
Thanks for sharing, J.D. Inspirational.
Thank YOU for an upbeat post! Wow. I was really starting to feel even more blue.
I love what you describe. I also love when I sit down with just a tiny idea and a whole story blooms. That happened recently with a story that I wanted to write from a refrigerator’s perspective. It’s only about 1500 words long, but it was really fun to write . . .
Dusty, you made me smile. Because I cannot wait for this book, so I’m glad you’re cracking away at it.
I had just that sort of moment yesterday, where a character approaches her home to see her mom on her porch. I knew they were going to have to talk, and there is major conflict, but I’d been circling that scene like a rabid dog without an opening, and suddenly, bam, it was there.
I love it when that happens.
Oh, I love those moments. I had one a week back.
I’d been stuck for a while (I tend to go into stories knowing points A, M, and Z and figure things out as I go) and must’ve erased the first sentence a dozen times, because each time I got stuck. Finally, I just went, "Okay, what random element did I throw in earlier that I haven’t used yet?"
That random element was a minor character, in an earlier conversation, making a very off-hand comment about various complications ‘making things work out well’. In fact, I’d had several minor characters make variations on that remark, to my confusion. So, I asked myself what the crud they were planning, and now that all the crud had really hit the fan, what they were going to do.
Out came a thousand words, an incredible scene, and a bombshell of a revelation I hadn’t even thought of but worked SO WELL. I just sat back and whistled, loved it, and spent the next three days trying to figure out what the crud just happened. Moments like that are why I’m still writing.
I remember with my second book I had a character of a homeless guy who was just a walk on. One chapter and he’d be gone. But then suddenly he began to take on life and substance before me and the next thing I knew he was a major supporting character who plays an important part throughout the story.
Love it when that happens.
By the way, the beginning of your post — where you talked about a boring expository scene — reminded me of an old screenwriting trick. Whenever you have a lot of exposition, make sure the characters are doing something interesting as they talk. That they’re in movement, somehow. It makes a scene more interesting.
Shows like Law and Order use this all the time. Ever notice how nearly every witness being questioned is in the middle of doing his job and moving around, shuffling papers and whatnot as he/she answers the cops’ questions?
Anyway, glad the scene and characters took life for you. That’s always a great bonus.
doncha just love AHA! moments? thank you, Dusty, for sharing yours.
it’s like getting a postcard from Atlantis..holy shit! it’s really there!
so, Cornelia, is the salt on the toast a personal or regional thingie? I’m glad I’m not the only one questioning it. go kosher salt all the way..it’s flaked and the flavor gives the toungue a reason to party.tend to use less because it’s in the flavor not the amount.
"Damn, it’s fun when that happens. It doesn’t actually feel like I’m the one creating. It feels like people are leaping fully formed out of my head, like Athena."
Yep, it _is_ fun and you nailed my favourite part of the writing life, bang on. I can blather about technique and craft and other writerly stuff all day (’cause it’s fun too), but really, talk, no matter how wise or pithy, is just talk and how that magic happens is just a crazy, addicting mystery!
Thanks for the encouraging post!
Dusty, I LOVE this – I love that you’re back in the groove, and love that you shared it with us. I for one say MORE!!!
Having those transcendental moments are what it’s all about for me. Every time I open one of my books, I get that bizarre – where did that come from? feeling.
Anonymous gets quote of the day:
>>>J.D. Such an upbeat post. (Wait. Is this still February? Am I on the Murderati blog?)<<<<
Best laugh of the week.
I live for that "It’s alive" moment, thank God my characters can write better than I can.
But also I just reread a half-draft of something I put away just before Christmas and I had that equally wonderful "Who the hell wrote this?" moment. Great stuff. Can’t for the life of me remember doing it.
What a great post! Beer and skittles and . . . salted toast? (Cornelia, you need to come back here and explain yourself.)
Seriously, reading this gave me shivers — the kind where you realize someone else has articulated a feeling you thought maybe no one else shared. And then to hear others come over and second it. Sort of validates the craziness. Absolutely, I’ve read over scenes where my characters do or say things that I don’t remember writing and I think, "Who told them to say that? How did they DO that? I have no idea how to do that." And it feels like magic. The only thing better is when someone else reads it and they tell you things about it that you didn’t know or hadn’t seen and you realize you’ve touched a chord and made it resonate with… something special. That keeps me going.
This also reminds me of something Neil Gaiman wrote in this post [http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008_01_01_archive.html] back in January of 2008 — yes, I had to search forever to find it, since I could only remember part of it:
It’s as if there’s a ghost-story behind the text and nobody knows it’s there but me.
Still on Chapter Seven of The Graveyard Book, but I’m well into the last half of the chapter, and it no longer feels like I’m walking towards the horizon, with the horizon retreating as I advance… I’ve written about eleven easy pages today, and cannot wait to get back to it. If I’m still awake and writing I may pull an all-nighter.
It barely feels like I’m writing it. Mostly it feels like I’m the first one reading it.
"..the first one reading it." That phrase, that description of how it feels sometimes just stuck with me. Like this post will. I feel quite confident that someday, a couple years from now, I’ll be quoting bits of your post on some other blog. 😉
May the rest of your story flow as smoothly. Can’t wait to be among those who are the second (third? fourth?) to read it.
OK Brett. The Battle of the Blog Comments continues……the fans are restless ,…they had been disappointed in your past performance but at the last games you made a valiant comeback with the help of your sponsors………there is no shame in not being as cute as Zoë………you can do this…..GO FOR THE GOLD, DUDE……. !!! Britannia cannot rule forever!
(Cue Star-Spangled Banner and crowd "hhhhharraaaaarrrrrhhhh")
Hey Anon, last time I looked the USA was waaaaay ahead of us in the ruling the world stakes.
And who started making this a competition? I thought Murderati was a team game?
Mind you, I do have one of those No Fear T-shirts that says ‘Does Not Play Well With Others’…
Ah Zoë…..No competition, Lass…..just frat boy raz to get the Brettster out of his funk……he was being so silly with his "nobody loves me and I never get any comments and I think I should quit the blog" whine. (such a cop out, Brett! we ain’t gonna let you off THAT easy, Dude……you ALL would love to shirk your post day duties cuz it is just one more deadline….but hey…YOU opened this box, Pandorati !!)
Team Murderati gives their readers so many reasons to wake up in the morning……..you must all remember that………
(Yeeeesh……..It’s so always about YOU…. )
Mea culpa ;-]