From The Writers' Room Featuring Tremontaine

When Having Trouble with a Scene

I want to take this opportunity to apologize to my collaborators for the terror I regularly put them through.

Tessa, Karen, Paul, and Racheline are deeply, deeply responsible writers and would no sooner think of turning in an unfinished draft than they would, I don’t know, eat a baby.

I, on the other hand, think babies are delicious, especially medium-well. Which means that I turn in unfinished drafts far more often than I know I wish I did, and far more often than I’m quite certain they wish I did.

Part of the problem is that, when I’m having trouble with a scene, I end up just leaving a lot of place markers in the text—essentially, my drafts are filled with “WRITE THIS PART LATER.” Mostly, I do this when I know that a sentence or paragraph calls for something that will be difficult for me to think of, and rather than stop in my tracks for ten minutes to come up with something, I’ll just leave a blank space, keep writing, and come back to it later. The problem for my collaborators is that my idea of “later” is often very, very generous.

There are two kinds of things I tend to replace with place markers, and both of them have to do with detail.

The first is visual detail. I’m an incredibly non-visual person—like, when I’m reading, I never, ever care what anybody is wearing or what anything looks like, so when I write I have to force myself to put that stuff in. It’s really hard for me to think of, though, so rather than stop in my tracks for ten minutes to figure out how to describe the damn fabric of the damn dress I just leave space to do it later. This is essentially postponing misery.

The second thing I tend to replace with place markers is individual words or phrases that I know the rhythm of the sentence calls for but that I can’t come up with in the moment.

The combination of these two things means that, for example, my first draft of this episode contained the following paragraphs:

[Aunt1] looked to Noom for support, and Kaab was thankful that it came only with reluctance. “I’ve been around for an inspection or two in my time, and I’ve never seen one start without an [adjective] feast.”

They knelt with Chuleb on rush mats in the [description of courtyard behind Kaab’s house], the [something about plants], the [something about the water feature], the [something about Muscovy ducks]. For this discussion, at least, Kaab had put on her [some warm thing]. If she was going to have to have a fight, she might as well be warm while she did it.

Kaab understood the aunts’ concern; she really did. And part of her wanted to take their advice. [Something about Kaab feeling tiny in Saabim’s shoes.] But, [Kinwiniik epithet], the [some symbol of recent mourning] were still [something]. The thought of swallowing [food] and [food] while drinking the Inspector’s health with [drink] turned her stomach. “You want to have a welcome feast before Ixsaabim has completed her journey to the houses beneath the earth?” She looked around to each of the aunts. “Do you think she’ll smile when she gets there to see how we’ve [verb]?” None of the aunts said anything. “Do you believe the Inspector will think more of us for neglecting our [noun] to the woman whose wisdom guided our people in this land for a generation?”

The fighting dogs had moved to beneath a [something] tree. The smaller one was truly putting up a valiant fight.

“It’s not that,” said [Aunt1]. “But the Inspector . . . he’s [something]. [Something]?”

 

Where are you, Little Butterfly? thought Kaab. What do you see around you in the house of dreams? What visions is Ixchel granting you? [Some line about how she’s incredulous that she actually likes this baby.] A string of drool moved slowly down Peapem’s wrinkled, wrinkled face.

And she thought of Citlali, too, of [paragraph of regret about what had happened in the Tullan Empire.]

She thought of Ixmoe and Ixsaabim, and all the women into whose shoes she had stepped, however unwillingly. [Something to wrap this up.]

And, my favorite, in the Rafe/Reza scene:

“These sons,” said Rafe, “then go to the University to solidify that thinking and to learn to disapprove of anyone who dares suggest any other approach.”
“Dire indeed.”
[Somehow or other this conversation gets interesting and I stop wanting to kill myself rather than write more of it.]

The problem then becomes that, since the shape of the scene is more or less done, I figure, oh, whatever, I’ll just fill in the details later.

I continue to think “I’ll fill in the details later.” When the deadline seems so often to arrive before “later” does, this is what I force my collaborators to read, which can’t be fun.

I suppose I’m posting this in the spirit of holding myself accountable to them. I can’t promise to stop doing this completely. But I can promise to try to move “later” a little bit earlier.

  • Sarah Smith

    Joel, I’m a complete convert. This is the only way to write. [Some form of manic praise to be decided later.]

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