So I’m working on this novel and I come to a point where I get stuck.
(Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)
Here’s the gist of the scene that’s tripping me up: the protagonist’s wife, Helen, is meeting with a well-respected Muslim architect for a business lunch at an Algerian-American cafe. She needs to get him to agree to build a mock Auschwitz in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. He doesn’t want to because he finds the idea of replicating an extent structure to be a waste of his artistic talent.
(Like I said, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)
What was tripping me up about this scene last Saturday was…well…I wasn’t quite sure what was tripping me up, but whatever it was sure did the trick because I couldn’t type one sentence without the words feeling forced and mechanical. Now usually when I get stuck, it means that I haven’t laid enough pipe in the previous scene and so I need to go back to the previous scene and examine what’s missing from it and only then I can move on. I guess it’s the house of cards theory of writing.
And so, I studiously examined the previous scene…and found nothing to be inherently wonky (aside of typical first draft mediocrity). This brought me back to square one, and I hate square one. I hate squares in general. Huey Lewis can suck it.
Regardless, my problem remained, and my writing would be at a standstill until I solved it. But how? I wasn’t even sure what the nature of the problem was (and unlike Gregory House, I don’t believe in reckless experimentation as a means of problem-solving – yeah, you heard me, I said it).
So I did what almost everyone does when confronted with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: I quit.
Well, OK, not permanently. But I stepped away from my desk and went over to my sister’s apartment (she lives a few blocks from me) and spent some quality time with my fourteen-month-old nephew (who referred to me as either “dork” or “duck” – both accurate). We all went for a nice walk and then I returned to my apartment and I took a brief nap and I woke up and I returned to my computer and I still hadn’t surmounted my barrier but I did remember a tried-and-true way that these mysterious barriers had been surmounted in the past.
I did research.
God, I love research. Don’t you? I think maybe half of the enjoyment I get out of writing is the research I do to prepare for it (even if the research is about Auschwitz and “enjoyment” is the wrong word). I grew up with my head buried in books and now I spend a great deal of time with my head buried in the internet. There’s so much to learn and I am, in anything, a very curious boy. For me, the process has always been Write What You Want to Know.
I delved into articles and recipes on Algerian cuisine (for the cafe scene). This led me to Algerian culture, which led me to the history of the Ottoman Empire, which led me to Turkish immigration, which led me to…well, you get the picture. My point is, before long I was minimizing my internet browser and maximizing my Word document and the scene that had seemed impossible was now being formed.
I hadn’t been able to write it before because I lacked the verisimilitude of its setting. My internal bullshit detector had (thankfully) prevented me from lying on the page. Once I had the details I needed, the scene itself zipped out of my fingers at a brisk 75 WPM (via hunt-and-peck, yo) and before long I was even typing the first few sentences of the next scene (which is an old Hemingway trick – never end a day’s work without first leading into tomorrow’s).
Was this a typical day of writing for me? Well, pretty much. I try to do 1,000 words/24 hrs. and I do most of my writing at night. This has been my routine for years, and circumstances sometimes bounce it around a bit, but overall it has remained the same (with the addition, of course, the appropriate chocolate candy or beverage on hand to goose the imagination if need be).
As a bonus of sorts, I’ve uploaded the seven-page scene here from Saturday's Song that I wrote this past, well, Saturday, so you can see the end result. Bear in mind that it’s very much a first draft but sometimes when discussing matters such as these, it’s good to have illustrations handy...if only for verisimilitude.