• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself

I’ve been working on this motherfucking screenplay all vacation. The elaborate outline bears little resemblance to what I’m doing. Yes, I’m going rogue, veering from the well-plotted piece of shit outline that seemed so brilliant  five months ago when I first wrote it. Does this ever happen to you? You walk away for a day which becomes a week which becomes a month which becomes half a year. Why do I always get the runs when I write? It isn’t that exciting. I never stopped thinking about these characters. The idea is that each one has a secret of some kind and that secret deforms them in some way. But I’m not an idea based writer. I come to everything through character. What I learned from the big deal producer who toyed with my first script like a cat with a dead mouse is that character is not best revealed through dialogue. Characters have to act. So what I’m trying to do now is scrutinize every scene, to make sure it has some inherent action, or moves the story forward.

How do you scrutinize your own work. How do you pound the shit out of it?

41 Responses

  1. I let my characters lead and I follow. If I try to tell them where to go, they get mad and give me the silent treatment. I’ve discovered in all of my novels that they are the boss of me.

  2. The more I try to ignore it, the more I obsess. The manuscript is always shit until I back off and allow the obsessing to takes over.

  3. I write draft after draft after draft after draft. I stick with the crappy endings until something better comes along. It usually does eventually, but only because a character has become more clear, more specific, etc.
    This last book, I had a pretty good 300 page manuscript, and then when to Robert McKee’s Story Seminar and had some huge revelations about why the book wasn’t quite right. But I had all the characters fully developed, and I’m telling you, thinking about plot and ideas with a fully-developed manuscript in my hands was amazing. Kind of eye-opening for me.

    I did have plenty of plot in the that initial manuscript, but I was mixing genres in an odd way, and setting the reader up for something that was a bit off given what I was doing.

    Okay, that was long. But you made me think.

  4. Every time I open the scene in progress, I read through what I wrote and clean it up. Sometimes I pick up logic fails or stumble into plot holes that way. So I go back and put in little insert X here and this needs work because of Y in chapter whatever flags for later. Or I color an offending or unnecessary text for removal (or scrutiny).

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the third chapter of my WIP has to go . . . it’s a good chapter, it establishes the two MC’s previous working relationship and mutual trust, it shows their abilities and some of their current hang-ups, and it’s a lovely little caper . . . but it doesn’t move the plot forward at all–it puts it on hold.

    But the scene is staying on death row (in red font) until I finish up. I’m hoping I can cannibalize it or something. i know I have to kill my darlings, but there’s no sense in letting the corpse go to waste.

  5. after the first draft, i analyze the story. i use index cards for each scene and write down:
    1. length (pages)
    2. what happens
    3. who is in it and what happens to them (internal and external)
    4. key image(s) or foreshadowing

    these index cards have helped me like you would not believe. i’m better organized and coherent in my thoughts about the story. also, i seem to be able to visualize the story through these cards and frequently rearrange them to see what happens.

    then i take each scene and enter text into wordle and create a word cloud. this is key because the character who carries the scene should have his/her name in immense font inside the word cloud. if his/her name isn’t huge, i know i’ve lost the scene to details or another character.

    after all this, i edit the crap out of the story.

  6. i kill my manuscript with post it notes. some pages have so many on it that you can’t see the page; they’re like a quilt tucking my manuscript in for the night (or nights or week or month or however long it takes me to come back and make whatever change i’ve marked on the gazillion brief pale yellow squares of paper).

    i also bruise it over and over again with a yellow highlighter. every word that rubs me wrong, every phrase that i think sounds drab or boring or trite, every time i think, “that needs more funny” gets a yellow highlighter mark.

    • I love post-its and highlighters. The printouts of my first drafts are more note than text.

      I even have a big post it on the rim of my laptop screen (yeah, I know) that says, “Murder the nurse in Chapter two.” I guess that’s kind of the flip side to “needs more funny”?

  7. The part I need to work on is not scrutinizing so much as *finishing* the shitty first draft–that’s where I’m stuck 90% of the time. In Crapsville or on Rue de Merde, if you will, and boy do I (rue the merde, I mean).

    But enough about poo.

    Oh ha ha ha blargh.

    Been told by several well published literary writers/editors that I’m a pretty good critic — and I believe them. Occasionally this critic stuff extends to my own work too. Once I’ve detached a bit I can edit pretty ruthlessly.

    Plot? Oh yeah, that. Not my strong suit.

    Okay, so, the woman walked into the bar and considered ordering a pineapple juice even though she preferred other kinds of juice. A man entered the bar and thought about smoking, but it wasn’t allowed and also he had resolved to quit. The man kissed the woman on the ambiguous cheek and took a swig of her ambiguous juice. The kiss stung or tickled, and for good reason–the man’s braces had caught on one of the stitches left in her cheek after a recent operation to remove a birthmark (that was not at all like the one in the Hawthorne story).

    Suddenly she remembered that she had to get home to feed her cats (also there was a lot of good stuff on television that night).

    … and like that.

    Am working on plot though. Writing a mystery with one hand and a funny self-help book with the other. BOTH have plots that, you know, unfold and shit.

    So glad you’re back! This shop is like a swift kick in the tuchus! And that I sorely need.

  8. “Why do I always get the runs when I write? It isn’t that exciting.”

    Just snorted coffee through my nose. Thanks.

    Pounding the shit out of my own writing usually begins with pounding the shit out of me. When my world stops (no more taking of showers, paying bills, returning client emails, and cleaning the toilet bowl) and I’m revising like mad because I have to, then I know I’m getting close.

  9. Movies and books. Apples and oranges. When I write I books, I have the luxury of internal dialogue and can reveal character through dialogue. In movies, unless you want to bore the shit out of everybody, characters gotta do something and they betteR

    P.S. Everybody go see THE KING’S SPEECH.

  10. I stare off into space for long periods of time.

    And I’ve also never finished drafts… I write three-quarters of a draft, get an idea of where it’s really heading, and then start a new draft with that idea in mind.

    I don’t know if this is really the best idea though.

  11. I read each chapter on its own and demand:

    “Why the hell do YOU need to be in this book?!?!”
    “What do YOU bring to this party?”

    Those pages better have some damned good answers if they want to live.

  12. An editor once pounded me hard enough that I could see that what I was resisting on the page was also something I resisted in my own life. I paid attention to that.

    • It’s so weird how that works.Cool and frightening.

    • Yes. That’s why writing is so challenging–you can only go as far as you’ve gone, in a way. And sometimes your imagination outstrips your emotional knowledge? would you call it? Or maybe it’s called the runs.

  13. My novel’s character driven and it’s so easy for me to get lost in the characters and lose track of the old traditional conflict-climax-resolution thing. When I reached the point over the holidays of being ready to quit this last revision, I gave it one more shot by listing the story arc of my three main characters. If the tension didn’t keep rising, I found the scene where it stopped and either fixed it or dumped its sorry ass. Then I made sure each character’s arc connected. It was all very left brain and it didn’t at all quiet the voices saying what a pointless exercise it was since the writing itself sucked. But surprise: it worked.

  14. Gotta pretend I’m someone else. Instead of me readfing the story, the characters have to look at me. Will it make sense to anyone? Why? What would the avid, critical readers I know think of the plot, pacing, dialogue and characters?

    I start out writing for me, putting everything down and letting the story take its course. Then I look back in puzzlement (too confused for anger) and wonder what the hell I was thinking. If I wanna write for me, I’ll keep a friggin’ diary. How can this be improved? Edit this, rework that, change this, start here instead of at that other place. Like a hidden southwestern canyon formed by wind and time, eventually I’ll have something I like but with no guarantee anyone else will see.

  15. Imagine your worst enemy reading it. Make her care about the characters, even if she hates the writer.

  16. Sorry to be indelicate, but if you still go shit-spray upon returning to your characters after a fortnight, that’s all you really need, right?

  17. August. Please tell me you’re not going to sit this one out. Throw a hankie to the huddled masses, won’t you?

    • I’ve got nothing. I don’t walk away for a day or week or month. I can’t afford to. The well runs dry and I keep digging, filling the bucket with dirt.

      This is why self-loathing is part of the process. What we write is more purely _us_ than anything else, and the largest part of writing is tearing that down–which is also more purely us than anything else. I hate every sentence, then every paragraph, then every page and chapter. I hate that I chose one viewpoint over another. I hate how I ended a scene, and I really hate that I interrupted the pristine clarity of the empty page by beginning one. And I hack and despise my way toward the least-awful arrangement possible in the least amount of time.

      Time is the key. I’m not writing for posterity, and I’m not writing for critical acclaim. I’m writing for a paycheck. So I scrutinize my work in the light of the cash register.

      I’m not sure if Betsy means ‘action’ or ‘conflict.’ I’m not sure if a screenplay is the best place to explore a story through character. I’m not sure what this is: “The idea is that each one has a secret of some kind and that secret deforms them in some way.” If I were writing that, I’d make the secrets and the deformations literal, like daemons in the Golden Compass. That sounds like money to me, instead of another story about wounded people hurting each other.

      And in good news: my agent just called. He likes it. Why this put me in a foul mood, I don’t know.

      Now it’s your turn, g.

      • I couldn’t see through the darkness yesterday but it’s clearing today so I can do the happy thing for you. That’s great news, August!

      • Badass. How do I love thee …

        I know nothing about writing, and now that I see all this note-taking and highlighting and the index cards and the relentless thoughtful angst, I feel I should be eating worms in the garden.

        However. I’ve had an offer for my two smutty novels so in theory I should be able to describe the path from point A to point B. (Point B being a finished book and nothing, believe you me, more than that. I achieved these masterpieces of lit-ra-choor by forcing my poor bewildered characters to put on the red light and shake that shimmy.) The problem is, I wasn’t really paying attention. I just kept thinking and writing.

        I write every day because I literally cannot understand where the words and ideas are coming from. And, you know, when it’s raining and you’re thirsty it’s a good idea to hold your cup out for the stray drops. It’s really all I’m capable of at this point.

        Oddly, I’ve noticed that when I’m on the last edits, working on cadence, I get physically seasick from the rhythm of the words. This can’t be good.

        I’m glad your agent likes the new project. I’d hate to go all Joan of Arc on your behalf and end my days with my hair on fire, screaming, “August is GOD!”

      • The index cards make me unspeakable jealous. If only I could wrangle index cards, I’d be twice the writer I am.

        What are your smutty novels? My single problem with Betsy’s blog is that we commenters don’t self-promote enough. We admit all our filthy sins except those. I wanna see someone flogging her merchandise instead of flaying her back.

        I like your blog.

      • People mention books all the time. I don’t want ro read blatant self-promotion except Betsy’s but if someone gets a few words in that intrigue me, I’ll look at their site. I’ve ordered at least three books by regular posters.

      • Jesus. A visit from August. Luckily I was just on my knees spit-shining your altar.

        I’ll drop a line here when the books are ready to go, but honestly it feels like I’d be lowering myself into the shark tank. Some poor soul did that a while back and the water was red all day.

  18. I have a rule (one of many): when in need you find out who your friends are – the ones who shut up and help and get dirty. When writing, I try to apply the shut-up-and-help-and-get-dirty rule to the main characters.

  19. This might help.

  20. I just keep going back and back (time permitting).

    For screenplays, I start every scene by trying to paint a picture, no dialogue. If I can’t get the idea across, then I build-out with talk, always tamping down, because dialogue swallows up limited lines of space faster than scene description.

    Mac Shane’s bio of Ray Chandler has good stuff on this since so many of those novels became films and because his subject helped create the mid-century form that still holds sway.

    Bonne Chance.

  21. I don’t have a clue about how to construct a screenplay. I’d like to read one though.

    I don’t use a lot of dialogue. It’s hard to insert huge blocks and retain the rhythm of my story especially when I want the reader caught up in the action. Outside of a quick line I usually only use it (internal and external) when I want the audience to slow down, contemplate and take in the details of a scene. Aw, it’s hard to explain.

    For the record, I spent a better part of yesterday dealing with a customs broker and Homeland Security and it put me a foul mood. But it’s not an excuse for being a turd. I hope I didn’t chase you off, Don.

  22. I heard you speak at Tin House and was impressed and have finally stumbled on your site and am still impressed. I like how you invite conversation on your blog.

    I have two thoughts about rewriting. One is looking closely at the word “revision.” Re. Vision. To re-envision, to see something new. Too often the task is mischaracterized as one of editing, of cutting & pasting.

    Second, I look for broad statements in an early draft and put them on the witness stand, interrogate them. For example, in a story I stated that a character liked being invisible. I declared that statement a hostile witness, broke it down, and realized: she wanted, desperately, to be seen. Someone special had, once, truly seen her, but now shunned her. So she pretended to want to be invisible.

  23. I print the pages for a scene out and lay them across my card table, then I sing-song and/or monotone the lines. Contrived lines jump off the page for me when sing-songed (sing-sunged?) for a reason I have never understood.

    This is utterly useless information, I know. I’m just hoping someone else can explain why it works.

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