Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to Write Like a Me

by Josh

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 waimgress 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 frophotom 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 byrek 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.


John Darrin said...

1. I also love research and often feel guilty that I'm spending too much time at it and procrastinating on the actual writing.

2. Writing for me is all about thinking. I probably spend four to six hours thinking about scenes and characters and plots and storylines for every hour I spend writing them.

3. The link to your seven pages doesn't work and now I'm frustrated because I won't be able to read it and you've ruined my whole day and I won't be able to write a word and my family will starve. I hope you're happy.

Meredith Cole said...

I loved getting a peek at your typical day!

Writers get stuck all the time. It's our dirty little secret. The trick is to find a way to get going again. Research, taking a walk, taking a shower -- all these strategies work for me. But you're right -- it's usually about the story.

Jenna said...

I generally find that the introduction of a man with a gun helps the manuscript to move forward, whatever the problem with the scene may be. That or another dead body.

Why would someone want to replicate Auschwitz in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey? I want to read this scene now. Make it work, Josh!

Sophie Littlefield said...

OK this is why I have to stop reading these damn blog posts. I read the following: "So I’m working on this novel and I come to a point where I get stuck.Here’s the gist of the scene that’s tripping me up:"

- and I"m like yeah! yeah! me too me too!

- except what follows for me is "the hero and heroine? they're like, running from something? something really f'ing bad? And then something dramatic happens that addresses her whole arc thing and plus makes you like him more cause he was such a jerk in that last chapter, and there should probably be some flames or blood..."

Going back to bed now.

Joshua Corin said...

John, Jennie, I think the link should work now. I think. Maybe?

Thanks, Meredith. And yeah, it's often about the story. Or the characters. Or the setting. Arg - so many things to juggle!

Sophie, you make me laugh and I can always use a laugh =) Thank you.

Terry Stonecrop said...

The link worked.Your research paid off. Nice scene there.

I love research too. Like you, I go off on tangents. They always pay off in some way. It's probably a good thing to do when you're stuck, actually. I'll keep that one in mind.

Cut little kid, btw:)

Shane Gericke said...

"A mocha-hued metrosexual
whose top-half was a midnight blue Hugo Boss suit over a crisp white shirt and whose bottom
half was a pair of professionally ragged Levi’s tucked into black boots."

Hey, he's wearing an author uniform, Guy Division.

Fascinating hook, Josh. I wanna read more about this, too. Why
Auschwitz? Why the Pine Barrens? (And what exactly are the Pine Barrens, anyway?) And why is the architect such a dick? The woman on the bluff gave him free reign to build any kinda place he wanted ... and he turned it down. I want to know more about him. And if maybe Sophie can use one of her ball gags and spreaders to teach him manners for the nice lady ...

Excellent blog.

Kathryn Lilley said...

Love discovering this blog and your WIP! You did a good job building up the atmosphere of the cafe. Undoubtedly I missed some previous section of the story that explains the architect's behavior, which seems designed to keep him from getting any work, ever. The subject the two characters are discussing--putting a replica of a death camp in Jersey--deserves to be handled in an emotionally convincing way, and I'm assuming the characters, and you, will get there eventually.
Very entertaining! I'll be checking in for another visit soon.

Mysti Lou said...


Nice resolution! I wondered why a Muslim man and a Jewish lady were in conflict over something as abstract as originality -- nice way to bring it back to the core of the characters (and make me understand what kind of person he is that originality could be an issue!)...


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks for posting the scene, Josh.

The architect is, of course, right. I wouldn't be happy to have him owing me money with that kind of attitude, but if he's being hired to build art, then he does need a vision.

Loved the piece at the end, although I'd expand the story where she explains and wins. And let us see what the Rosh Hashannah dish tastes like as a contrast to the byrek.

Or something.

It's brilliant and I can't wait to see the rest, but you already knew that.

Am sick and going back to bed as I have to go to NYC at 4 am tomorrow (why?).

Shane Gericke said...

Rebecca, wave hello when you pass over O'Hare. I'll be waving from my deck in the suburban subdivision that looks like none of the others around here :-)

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Will do, Shane! I'll be in the plane that looks nothing like the other ones. I'm sure we'll hook up. :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Brilliant, Josh. Just brilliant. Loved the scene, loved the resolution, loved the post! And reading about what you go through makes me feel a whole lot better--I'm not alone. :)

And I do EXACTLY what you do when I'm stuck, or just when I need to wind myself up for a full day of writing (like today) ... I research. I climb into the past and pull the lid over my head. I surround myself with pieces of it, play the music before I sit down, and finally--as the finishing touch--put on my writing fedora, which is an old, beat up brown Champ from the 40s.

I cannot wait to read your book!!!! (so hurry up and finish it, damn it!) ;)