Bad Writing: When Your Scene Is About What It Seems to Be About

I recently shut down a writing forum I was involved with. I gathered up some of my longer posts (usually responses to questions) and I’ll be sharing them here. They may not be precisely on topic (Resistance) but they have value. Or, you can skip them.

Subtext is the most important part of storytelling.

When we let the listener or reader finish the story, it’s their story now, and everyone wins.

For instance, take a simple joke, like “What’s the difference between a surgeon and God? God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.”

The initial microsecond response is “What? Of course not. So what? Do surgeons think they’re—” Boom.

As Robert McKee, said “If your scene is about what it appears to be about, you’re in trouble.”

Bill and Sara Coming Apart

Subtext requires setup. If you go into the following scene knowing that Bill and Sara have an unhappy marriage, we’ve seen Sara eyeing another man, and we’ve seen Bill stocking up on sleeping pills, it’s not about the words at all:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m tired.”

She didn’t look up. “Then go to bed.”

He flicked a glance her way, then stood.

“I just didn’t want you to be alone.”

Now she looked up.

“Being alone doesn’t make me lonely. I’m fine. You look tired. You should rest.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at the slippers she’d bought him on their honeymoon.

“I think I will.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, and slowly climbed the stairs to the spare room where he slept these days.

Pressing the last few pieces into place, Sara looked at the puzzle, then shoved it off the table into the box, put the lid on, and turned to look out the window into the darkness.

If this were about a happy couple, it’d be banal to the point of nausea. Build some setup, and it’s a different scene, which is not in any way about the words but about the subtext.

Off the top of my head again, that scene, written as a beginning hack would have written it:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m really depressed and it feels like you don’t care.”

As usual, Sara ignored him. Her attention was elsewhere.

He watched her, hoping she’d try to stop him.

“I need you to love me, Sara.”

Now she looked up.

“You’ve had what you needed all along. Now I’m going for what I need.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at his slippers. She’d bought them on their honeymoon, when she used to love him.

“I can’t do this anymore. And I’m not going to.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, then slowly climbed the stairs. He hadn’t shared a bed with Sara in a long time, so he’d been sleeping in the spare room.

Sara thought, I’m through with him, just like I’m through with this puzzle.

Besides for being even worse writing, there’s almost nothing here but a bit of shoe leather or staging that’s worth keeping.

Yes, just as a pure pantser can find story structure, foreshadowing, etc. by rewriting their entire book 14 times, one could do it this way. It would require rethinking every single word of dialog, finding ways to not say the vital stuff, the way Coltrane or Parker might play every note except the melody.

I think knowing in advance where I plan to go makes for a more efficient trip, without taking the spontaneous fun out of it.

How My Writing Process Saved the Day, and How it Can Save Yours

More about planning and process: a guest post over at Bane of Your Resistance. Drop by and say hello, and watch for details about the process (new and improved over my previous version, I might add) in next week’s guest post.

Let’s Build a House! (Why Planning will Make Your Writing Life Better)

Fair warning: if you are committed to the spontaneous pantsing version of writing, please don’t read this. You won’t benefit, I won’t benefit. If you’re open to having assumptions challenged, read on. To the end. Don’t read the first 80% and quit or you won’t get the point.

What is a House?

Though wildly different around the world, all houses share certain characteristics. Let’s explore the ins and outs.

  1. Roof — Without a covering, it’s a yard, not a house.
  2. Floor — It may be dirt, but it’s not water or air. If your residents are standing in a pool up to their waist, or swinging in hammocks 30′ aboveground, you’ve built something other than a house.
  3. Privacy — Roof but no walls = carport or equivalent.
  4. Toilet — Yes, in some parts of the world this is not inside the house. If you live in one of those places, you may dispute this requirement.
  5. Services — Electricity. Running water. Drains. See above note for quibbles.
  6. Egress — Without a door suitable for us humans to enter through, it’s not a house, it’s something else.
  7. Lighting — Even if it’s windows and skylights, there’s a way for light to come in.

You may dispute any of these if you choose to live in the house yourself.

If you plan to sell the house, or even sell time using the house (called “renting”) I defy you to leave any of these out and still succeed.

build-a-house
… more … “Let’s Build a House! (Why Planning will Make Your Writing Life Better)”

How I Write

Or, more accurately, how I begin the process of moving toward my books.

Planning is a left-brain process. Creativity has to have a healthy dose of right brain. You need both. The apocryphal Hemingwayesque “write drunk, edit sober.”

many-books

Here’s a very short version of my story-generating process, which thus far has given me good results blending left and right, analytical and creative: … more … “How I Write”

Longer Books Through Better Planning

Anodyne-cover-2015Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Twitterific writing links a couple weeks back led me to Ryan Lanz writing about stretching your word count.

In a moment of weakness, worried that Anodyne is too short, I followed it.

Expecting smarmy tricks, I found solid advice, which if implemented properly and with good motives is, what’s the phrase I’m looking for . . . oh yes; Good Stuff.

The 5 stretches listed by Lanz:

… more … “Longer Books Through Better Planning”

Outlining My Feelings On Outlining

outlineA new list member asked about outlining; how to, more than why to (or why not to.)

Below is an enormous excerpt from my cute little book Getting Your Book Out of the Someday Box. While it describes my nonfiction writing process, it’s really an information-gathering-and-sorting process, which, in a way, is what outlining is about.

If this raises more questions than it answers, as I fear it will, ask and ye shall receive.

… more … “Outlining My Feelings On Outlining”

Gathering Structural Support

I’m gathering resources to create some kind of structure checklist for my writing and wanted to share 3 useful lists and concepts I’ve encountered the past week.

structural support

… more … “Gathering Structural Support”

Coming About; or, Aiming the Boat in a Different Direction

Cap'n Fiona on the Star of India with Mommy and DaddySomeone described the method of steering a sailboat called “tacking” as first sailing in a direction to the left of where you want to go, and then sailing in a direction to the right of where you want to go. The process of shifting from left to right is called “coming about.”

Get on a sailboat and everyplace you want to go is against the wind. Forces external to the boat, such as wind and currents and other boats, cause you to adjust your heading, even if you haven’t changed your destination. That’s also a possibility: discovering that the beach you’re heading for is crowded, but over that way is an open spot you’d prefer.

Same with any business venture.

… more … “Coming About; or, Aiming the Boat in a Different Direction”

Goodreads: Making the Decisions

GoodreadsOnward with our experimental Goodreads giveaways. Yes, plural.

Here are the questions we raised in the last post:

When?
The sooner the better. A 1-week giveaway as soon as I can set it up, then a 1-week break, and another 1-week giveaway, to maximize the benefits of being on the “new giveaways” list and the “ending soon” list.
How many copies to give away?
One. This is an experiment. I see no value in spending more than the minimum until we learn something. The experiment with Story Cartel reminds me that even the perfect tool might not be perfect for me.

… more … “Goodreads: Making the Decisions”