Tuesday, June 19, 2012

last chance to see

Yesterday I wrote a scene for Chapter 14 of the work-in-progress novel. The scene, as written, was essentially just a plot point: I had two characters interact to move the clock forward and say a few important lines of dialogue. I knew when I was writing it that it wasn’t brilliant. In fact, I thought of it as a placeholder that I’d revise later. It’s sort of a skeleton of a scene, really: there’s a location, a man and a woman, and a realization. That’s plenty enough for a good scene, but for some reason it lay flat on the page. It had no life of its own, this scene. Ironically, I have one character say to another, “Are we supposed to be having an emotional scene now?” Within the scene, the other character says, “No.” But in fact they are supposed to be having an emotional scene just then. I just didn’t remember what emotion it was supposed to be, or what the dramatic purpose or the narrative purpose of the scene was.

Luckily, I remembered this morning that this scene is actually the last place in the entire novel where the reader will get inside the Catherine Lark character’s head. This is the last available space on the page for me to make what happens to the character in the final-chapter-to-come credible and meaningful. This is the last chance I have to pull together all the threads of symbolism and theme and foreshadowing for Catherine’s story, and by gosh I’d best take those threads in hand and give a good hard tug, hadn’t I? Yes, I had better. So I keep going back into the scene and expanding things, adding moments, placing objects into the set and reblocking the action and it’s getting better as I go along, and by “better” I mean “more meaningful in terms of the story.” Anyway, the thing I must keep in mind while working over this particular scene is that it is the most important scene in the last third of the book so really, I’d better make it count. (The second most important scene in the last third of the book comes at the end of the next chapter, but it’s all physical action and will take care of itself. Really it will.)

I’ve done a lot of writing in this fashion while building this first draft. I begin writing scenes and while I know that the central action or image is important to the story, I don’t quite know why it’s important until I’ve written a fair bit, and then I have to stop, go back and reorganize scenes while still writing them, a couple of times writing new beginnings to scenes or chapters that are quite long and stitching them into place. Since I write longhand, in notebooks, you can imagine the mess this creates.

I’m still not sure if the idea I have for today’s session of going back into the scene-in-progress is the right idea, if it does what needs to be done in order to justify the outcome of the Catherine character’s story. It seems to fit in some way and I’m trying not to think too much about the mechanics of the story, the working of the plot or theme. I’m trying to just work my way through by feeling my way along, trusting my intuition more than my ideas about tripartite form and causal narratives. So we’ll see. I of course blame Davin Malasarn for this attempt at intuitive writing. If the book is unsuccessful, you all know whose fault it is.

Anyway, I was writing scenes as if this was a plot-driven novel, where the characters matter less than the action. I should remember to write scenes as if this is a character-driven novel, where the actual action is almost beside the point because the internal action is what counts. The scene in question takes place in the kitchen of an apartment, but it could just as easily happen in a park, in a restaurant, on a bus or at a shopping mall. The interaction between the characters matters and I have to remain focused on that, not on how many chairs are at the kitchen table (3) or what color the walls are (blue) or what’s on the radio (a baseball game, bottom of the third). None of that matters; it’s all just an arbitrary setting for the real action. Know what the real action is, kids. It’s not always physical. And know why that real action matters. You know: basic stuff that’s easy to forget in the dash toward the end of a first draft. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m still writing, not just finishing up.

Also, it’s true that I mistrust my own endings when they don’t end in death. Death is such a nice, clean way to end a story. Life is so much messier and entails greater risk for the novelist. Just like in the real world, I suppose. Hey, look: accidental trite philosophy!


  1. Scott, I have a feeling I'll be happy to "take the blame" for this book. And, having seen some of your journals, I really doubt that they are that messy. Good luck with the revisions! I like how you opened up what you need to cover for us.

  2. "Ironically, I have one character say to another, “Are we supposed to be having an emotional scene now?” Within the scene, the other character says, “No.” But in fact they are supposed to be having an emotional scene just then."

    That's very meta. Are you going to leave that in?

  3. I think it works, so yes. One of the themes I'm playing with in this book is that other people are essentially always strangers, that we all have hidden inner lives and keep a lot of secrets. So the character who says "no" does want to be having an emotional scene just then. The two main characters are just extras in each other's stories, there are letters the reader doesn't get to read, there are clues about bad thoughts and deeds that are shown to the readers but the players don't catch the significance of them, etc. Lots of fun, for me anyway. I didn't plan it this way; it's just how I seem to be writing it. I blame Nabokov, a little bit.