Shop Talk: Patience In Writing Scenes

I’ve been thinking and writing in scenes this week, which brings back memories of Jack Cady.

Once upon a time, before I was published, I became aware that I rushed through scenes, sketching them out like line drawings, with little detail, and never entirely completing them. I decided to take a class in writing the short story. Surely that’s where I’d learn to take my time with each sentence. Jack Cady was teaching it, a writer I’d never read, but it was at a convenient time and place, so I registered. I’ll always be grateful for that leap of faith.

The class met once a week. For the first week he told us to work on one paragraph, a scene, the same paragraph/scene for an hour each day, deepening it, adding detail, thinking about what else we might say about it, what else it could do. And we couldn’t go beyond a page with it, double spaced. At first I thought I’d go mad. But by the end of the week I had learned patience. I’d learned how to embody the scene, be there, experience it, visually, intellectually, emotionally, kinetically. I looked forward to that hour each day.

I’ve been working on a particular, important scene this week (it’s much longer than a page, but I’m also working on it far longer than 1 hour a day), putting it together, sitting back, thinking about how to enrich it, bring it to life. I’ve trashed it a few times and begun again. At first I’d forgotten to set the scene, give my characters a landscape in which to move about, so it was all dialogue. Clever dialogue floating out in space. Little of that dialogue is left, but it’s there in a subtext in my mind. And now my characters are moving about in an environment just detailed enough that a reader can envision it but not get sidetracked by it. Lots of balancing work.

I get high on writing like this. I’m in a wonderful, peaceful space all day. Deep engagement. It’s tough to give myself this space when a deadline looms. But I know that rushing through the scenes isn’t going to help the manuscript. When I’m rushing, I start writing what EM Forster called story: “The king died, and then the queen died.” But a novel calls for a plot, which, according to Forster is: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” Now the why is in there, the heart of the matter.

That’s my problem with Anne Lamott’s theory of the first draft—write anything, just get it down. In theory I agree with this and I really really wish I could work like that. ( I am an Anne Lamott fan.) But when I use that approach I create scenes so sketchily written that on rereading weeks or months later I am left guessing at their significance. I need to go quite deeply into each scene before I move on, fleshing it out sufficiently so that on the next round I see what I was after. Thanks, Jack.

Jack Cady ’s gone now, but his teaching lives on in all the writers who studied with him. More of his gems later.

3 Comments on “Shop Talk: Patience In Writing Scenes

  1. Such an analysis of individual scenes must give a greater depth and richness to the work. My tentative forays into writing (something I haven’t done for some years now) would suggest the approach is fine if you are not constrained by time; either from a publisher or the pace of present day expectations. To write a novel based on, say, the present unrest in Libya, one could not afford the luxury of in depth analysis. My own poor novels took on average two years to finish, by which time modern life has moved on a decade (what was once a CD now needs an MP3 player). With historical work there seems to be more leeway which might, arguably, produce more thought provoking writing with greater detail of characterisation, plot and scene. Unfortunately this does not hold true of all historical writers who rely on thin plots and two dimensional characters. I do not, obviously, include you within this category and I hold you in the company of C.J. Samson, C.S. Forester and Lindsey Davies (you will note the broad spectrum of historical interest). However, my point (yes I’ve finally arrived) would be that while you have the ability and time to hone your work, for your readers’ sakes, please continue … but bring back Owen and Lucie soon please.


    • Your mention of Lindsey Davis reminded me of two events she and I did together years ago, in Canterbury and Windsor. We worked well together. It was at the Windsor event that I met the character I’m planning to blog about soon–the one who told me that no archer would think like Owen, they just don’t. I told him I wasn’t writing Everyman, that had already been done. But his comment inspired a talk I gave at Cornell on how oddly some people think of their fellow men in the distant past.

      I agree that publishers don’t give us the time we’d like to work deeply on our books. My contracts give me 1 year for a crime novel, 2 years for a mainstream historical (the Emma Campion books), but I actually don’t have nearly that much time because of revisions, publicity, etc etc. And that’s actually why I don’t play the whole thing out in a sloppy first draft to see what I have. I don’t feel I have the time to go back and discover I haven’t a clue what I was thinking on that particular page.


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