What’s a Scene Sequence?

RIP Bosco

I finally found time to write my scene today…it’s been growing in my mind and I’ve been scribbling notes, but the move has really interrupted normal time here. I’d say it was fine, but I miss my words and my blogging friends, so really, it’s not exactly fine. But eventually it will be. I had to plan this morning’s writing sprint around so many other moving type things, but mostly packing. We still didn’t get our A/C fixed (next week!) so I need to consider the weather. Lucky for me, it’s been more like fall than summer. But we are due for another meltingly hot week coming later. I’m 66, I can’t pack and sweat at the same time.

Ironic I know. We are moving to Florida in August and I’m complaining about Michigan heat. Al and I have talked about if this is some kind of sign. But we do have a little home in Florida, so it’s somewhere to go, even if we decide not to stay there. I think we’ll stay. That’s the plan. Our way of working is to have a plan but be flexible. So while our little condo is in St. Pete, our stuff (for me, books; for Al, tools, for both of us, a few pieces of treasured furniture) is mostly in storage here in Michigan. Because the little St Pete condo has all we need, but not all we want. We will be looking for a new place once we get down there…well, maybe we’ll take a long road trip first, from Florida to Seattle. I have not seen my grandkids in almost two years!

Next weekend, we are going to see Ben, who lives with his parents and dog Sunny in northern Michigan, right at the tip of the lower peninsula. It’s about four and a half hours from here, so we see Ben more than our Seattle grandchildren. We are planning to see them all every summer once we relocate to our new (yet to be found) perfect home. Next weekend, we will miss Bosco, who was my first granddog and came before any grandchildren or other granddogs, passed on to dog heaven a few days ago. I’m glad Ben has Sunny. This is a first dog death in the family. It’s hard. Dogs are so loyal and cuddly. We will miss you, Bosco.

I really did mean this post to be about scene sequences, but you see how life is happening at warp speed just now. At first, I had the idea for a scene: Jane spying on four guys playing poker. One of them, she is sure, is the murderer. But then I thought, oh I need to set that scene up a couple different ways first. Sort of lay the foundation. Build the tension slow. Which is why I have three scenes, not one. And they are called a “scene sequence” because they all relate to Jane trying to catch a killer. The first thing I had to do was watch a YouTube video on poker as I knew nothing about it. Then, long overdue, I had to research Florida shrubbery. And after about five hours, I had my new scenes.

I read them over. They’re rough. They need work. But that’s what revision is for.

Contained Chaos Ensues

We sold our home in three days; lucky for me I didn’t have to keep the place pristine for very long. The buyers are a lovely couple who have agreed to let us stay until mid-August, so I think maybe amid the chaos I may continue to try to write my novel. Or at least fit in one more scene before we split town. It works to my benefit to keep my writing tools close to hand until the very end. People who are 66 years old, or at least some of them, accumulate a lot of stuff, which they, or okay I, nonchalantly decide I don’t want most of anyway. Ha!

The two or three boxes of books has turned into six and those are just the ones going into storage until we find our next good home, which will be big enough to hold these things that just won’t fit into our little St. Pete getaway. So into a storage unit most of it goes. Into the car we shall pack our usual assortment of clothing, minus winter coats and boots and sweaters. Those we will leave for the Estate Sale ladies to deal with, as they have ensured me they are very happy to do. They even sell unopened food. These Estate Sale gals have made the moving process much easier. Whatever we don’t want, they’ll sell. Whatever they can’t sell, they’ll donate. And then they’ll clean the house for the new owners. We’ll already be gone.

That I have the luck to be able to write a few more times in between the sorting and boxing owes much to these ladies. Meanwhile this big scene in Jane.2 has been growing, shooting out pretty flowers inside. I know I need to write it now. Or soon. For sure before we leave this place for good. Yes I’ll miss my writing room, but I’ll miss my family and friends more! As for missing a room, I do mostly write on a chair with my laptop, which I can do almost anywhere. This “ardent coral” room is for all the else, some of it practical like a printer and paper clips, most of it inspirational, like my books. I knew I was going to keep the complete collections of my favorite authors of fiction: Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, Erica Jong, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Sara Lewis and Margaret Atwood.

Turns out, I forgot my favorite non-fiction writer: Anne LaBastille. And my lone male short story writer: Raymond Carver. He comes along with Alice Munro and Carol Shields. Then there are the poets and the Zen philosophers. But I ruthlessly cut myself off with one box there. Oh and I had to add Laurie Colwin, who died way too young. She wrote fiction and two cookbooks. Her stories were a big deal to me back in the day. I want to revisit her.

Except for the writing books, those I’m using as research for this book (here’s a hint: Frida Kahlo) will wedge into the loaded southbound vehicle with Al and I and our electronics. The few other favorite “How to Write” books, several of them by script doctor/screenwriter Linda Seger, I will store for use on the next book.

We are taking this a step at a time and I may be nuts to think I can actually write a book while relocating twice. Well, maybe only once. We are thinking we will stay in our little jewel in St Pete six months or maybe a year. Al is my guiding star with this as he knows all about the economics of the housing market these days. I couldn’t do this without him, but then I don’t think I would have ever been able to write a book without him. All you need is love. And books.

Creative Dilemma Solved

After I finished my most recent manuscript, I spent a fair amount of time worrying that a new book idea was not presenting itself for my consideration. Usually I have to beat back the ideas before I’m halfway through writing the current one. I scribble notes and I see my main character and I know what she wants. I catch glimpses of the whole, and they fill me with excited anticipation.

That’s the way it’s always been but it didn’t happen like that this time. This time I had to sit in my writing room and just start somewhere. I thought maybe a short story. One member of my writing group wrote a whole book of stories while waiting for the next novel idea to appear. And it worked. He’s writing a longer piece now. Maybe it will be a novella, he says.

I can write a story. Even if it’s crap, I can do it. I’ve done it plenty of times before. I primed the pump by reading the best mystery short stories published in 2015. Some of them, although they were good, did not seem at all like mystery stories, but then what do I know? Maybe it would be easier that way. Not to have any of the rules that kind of had my creative side in jail. Just go for it.

When I sat down that first day to write, I had something on my mind. It was personal. So I ranted for a couple of pages. Caring about your conflict is excellent. Then I spent a few days thinking about how I’d resolve things. It felt imperative to solve this problem, which as I said, started out as a personal kind of rant. In fact I thought it was too personal. Then my friend read it and said “Why don’t you change the gender? That way it’s not you.”

Wow did that open up a world of possibilities. I basically wrote that story in two sessions over a week or so. After I changed the personal part of it, and allowed my imagination free choice, it all came together in a very satisfying way. Nothing about it was real anymore, which was a relief, because it had started out as something so private and not something I was inclined to share. I’ll share now, because I hate when people write but remain obscure.

So here’s the story behind the story. My husband has a hard time getting rid of things. Our basement is a hoarder’s paradise. We moved a few years ago and for a long time if we needed anything we’d go down there and find something that worked. But now, it’s just stuff we don’t need. Like the 15 year old sofa bed my husband kept insisting we take to Florida for our new place there. It’s a nice piece of furniture. I chose it. But it’s not practical to move an old sofa to Florida.

That was the conflict. He was holding on to the old, I wanted to let go and seek the new. In the story I made the female in the marriage the one who held on to stuff. My friend suggested lots of Christmas trees. I threw that in there. So that crabby rant of mine turned into a husband mulling over the many ways his wife irritated the hell out of him. He’s mad because she’s working late (again) and he has to microwave a frozen dinner. The microwave won’t work, but there’s another one in the basement. He goes down the stairs.

Then I switched to the female pov. She’s doing her best in a bad situation. Caught in the storm from hell, she can’t get home. She can’t get in touch with her husband, either. She’s too exhausted to worry so hears nothing until early in the morning when a police detective comes to her hotel room to inform her that her husband has died of electrical shock. She discloses to the detective that her husband had wired the basement himself. So, suicide by DYI.

That was the plot. Of course the plot is not the whole story. There’s character and dialogue and description and tension and subtext. I really liked the female character. I thought she might be good for the Florida setting I wanted to use in a new series of amateur sleuth mysteries. I’d had the setting idea for almost a year, but no characters. No plot. No juice to get me going into the other stuff. Now I had her.

Instead of immediately leaping into the new book, I wrote another story. I got this idea from watching Out of Sight, a movie based on an Elmore Leonard short story starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. I’d seen it before but I wanted to watch it again. I knew my husband would like it. Elmore Leonard was the inspiration for my Detroit crime novel, so I thought, you know, maybe he’d help me again.

In the film, George Clooney was a charming criminal. I thought it would be fun to try to do that. So I thought about it for awhile and then I wrote that short story in another couple of days. It doesn’t have as tidy of an ending as the first story, but that’s okay, by the end of that story I knew my character (I named him George) could be the secondary character my main character plays off. He’d be perfect. And there was another female character in his story who could easily come into play.

This morning I figured out the first scene and the inciting incident, the thing that sets the plot in motion. And that is good enough for me. I am ready to write my next book. The short stories are pretty much my characters’ back stories. At least for now. If you’re looking for story ideas, find a location or a character or both. Then write a backstory. I think both of my short stories together were probably 20 pages. And no actual husbands were killed in the writing of those pages.

Glorious Messes

It’s been several weeks since I sent my manuscript in to my editor and in those weeks I’ve been doing some self-care with great results. I’m continuing to eat a plant-based whole food diet, which pleases my body and eases my mind. Yeah, I know. Weird that what you eat can affect your mental state, but that’s exactly what’s happened here.

As happy as I am with this turn my life has taken, I’m also conscious of deliberately filling the well. Reading books about and watching documentaries on the lives of other creative people, whether film, biography or memoir, is one way I recharge after writing a difficult book. Every book I’ve written has had its problems, but this last one almost broke my brain.

Yes, now that it’s over (until the edits come in) it was worth it.

One reason I’m so attracted to the lives of poets, musicians and authors is because I love getting glimpses into their creative processes. As I listen, watch, and read about these other creative types, I search for inspiration and insight into my own way of writing. Maybe I’ll pick up a trick or two, maybe I’ll uncover a danger zone from which I need to steer clear. Probably both.

I’ve delved into the lives of creative folks for decades. The sparks I’ve come away with have been like somebody up the ladder taking my hand and giving me a tug along the path. Looking into other artist’s lives is the most refreshing and invigorating thing I can do when my own work has emptied me out. Sometimes I find inspiration in unexpected places.

In the last few days I’ve been reading Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot along with a strange book on David Bowie’s life. It’s strange because it’s a compilation of long quotes, snippets of interviews, and the author’s own inserts, so there are like a zillion authors. This pastiche is not particularly elegant, but it’s interesting. You get all these views on who Bowie was and how his personas and processes evolved through several decades.

Then I saw documentaries on the Stooges and Bowie mixed in with the reading. I’m not a huge fan of Bowie’s music or even his various incarnations, but I’ve always found him interesting. He was somebody who obviously cared deeply about crafting those personas and the music that went with each of his many stages as a performer. I was a fan of the Stooges. In my teenage delusion, I thought I Wanna Be Your Dog was romantic.

If I’d thought more deeply about it then, I would have realized what I really liked was the guitar shred in the opening bars, the dissonance of the cowbell beat, and the way Iggy did a kind of spoken word singing. He was a poet. That’s what attracted me, not the idea of being anybody’s dog.

In the Stooges doc, elder statesman Iggy came across as just so smart and not at all like someone who stage dived and rubbed peanut butter on his belly in concert. Just by coincidence, reading David Bowie: A Life, I found out that the only reason Iggy is still relevant is because David literally gave him a hand up–more like grabbed him with both arms and hoisted him into writing Lust for Life. Bowie used his money and influence and artistry to usher Iggy into his next act.

What I’ve learned this time in my deep dive is that creative lives are not smooth and shiny, but more like glorious messes. And this, above all else, is somehow a strange comfort to me.

Crisis of the Writing Soul

When I cut 140 pages of my most recent manuscript, I had a crisis that led to a startling revelation. I’d been revising for awhile and knew the problem with the manuscript was a really boring subplot. At first, unwilling to do the necessary radical surgery, I tried to fix it. Much cutting and pasting later, I realized I was mostly deleting those subplot scenes while layering in a new point of view character.

Excited about the new character and what she brought to the story, I decided to chuck the rest of the draft. It had been helpful to write, but trying to fix it was becoming tedious. I gathered up my courage and cut. I didn’t trash those pages, I just put them in their own document. I knew I couldn’t use them, but saving them felt less radical than sending them to hell where they belonged.

The next day I had a crisis of the writing soul. I wondered if maybe the whole book had been a mistake. If it was simply one of those manuscripts that didn’t quite come together and should thus be abandoned. The idea of abandoning a story I’d grown quite attached to made me miserable. I was scared. Unsure. Defeated? Not quite. I couldn’t give up. I had to try a little longer.

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I had a deadline. It was a firm deadline if I wanted a book out in 2016, and I did. That I wanted it so much was a revelation.  Writing has always been a vital part of my life, but why, now, did it feel so much bigger? Why did my life, in the day-to-day sense, seem like a huge blank without writing and publishing? That writing has taken on such importance  is a scary thing to admit, but there it is. Writing and I had a nice friendship for a really long time. Now writing wants my soul. Without realizing, I already handed it over.

I love my family and friends. But my current situation is this: my family are, for the most part, unavailable in real time. My kids live across the country and my husband works every day, even weekends. I see him maybe two or three hours a day. I see my kids maybe two or three times a year. Maybe once or twice a week, I have lunch with friends. I volunteer a bit. I cook dinner and do the homemaker thing. Lunch and shopping and cooking and cleaning and being a Good Wife take maybe half my time. The other half, now that I don’t teach, is invested in writing.

Once I realized and accepted that writing is the joy that takes the biggest chunk of my time, I felt a bigger responsibility toward it. Like, I can not let it down. I cannot let the opportunity to publish this book this year pass. Even if it doesn’t happen, I need to know I did my part to make it so.

The crisis was not about giving up, but more wondering if I had it in me to pull off this particular book this particular time. And the only way to know was to try. So I did. I took it bird by bird and rewrote that long section of the book. I finished a few days ago. Yesterday I read the completed manuscript. It was good. I will meet my deadline. Crisis averted.

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PS After four months of intense work, I’m due for a break. Happy to say my husband agrees and we’re leaving snowy Michigan for a nice, long vacation in sunny Florida. I’ll even being seeing my son, who will be there for work! Will post a new entry (maybe I’ll hear from my editor) when I return.