How to Get a Scene from Brain to Paper

Different writers have difficulty with different parts of the writing process. Some hate fiddling with background information. Others despise revising. Others can’t stand outlining. Me? I have the most trouble with drafting. By “drafting,” what I mean is this whole “get the story down on paper” part of writing. It’s not that I have trouble coming up with new material, or that I don’t know where the story is going, it’s just that I have trouble getting what’s in my head down onto paper. GIVEAWAY: Kat is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: justsaymoo won.)
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Different writers have difficulty with different parts of the writing process. Some hate fiddling with background information. Others despise revising. Others can’t stand outlining. Me? I have the most trouble with drafting.

By “drafting,” what I mean is this whole “get the story down on paper” part of writing. It’s not that I have trouble coming up with new material, or that I don’t know where the story is going, it’s just that I have trouble getting what’s in my head down onto paper.

GIVEAWAY: Kat is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: justsaymoo won.)

whats-left-of-me-novel
kat-zhang-author-writer

Guest column by Kat Zhang. Kat is an avid traveler, and after
a childhood spent living in one book after another, she now builds
stories for other people to visit. An English major at Vanderbilt
University, she spends her free time performing Spoken Word
poetry, raiding local bookstores, and plotting where to travel next.
WHAT'S LEFT OF ME–about a girl with two souls–is her first novel
and was released by HarperCollins on 9/18/2012. The sequel,
Once We Were, comes out 9/17/2013. She is represented by
Emmanuelle Morgen of Stonesong. Find her on Twitter.

Let’s say I have a scene that I need to write. In my head, the scene will be a combination of things like this:

Screen shot 2013-03-01 at 9.38.03 PM

As you can see, it’s rather a mess.

Rather than try to do anything with that mess, sometimes I’ll just sit and stare angrily at the screen, which ultimately turns into checking my email, or tweeting, or watching random videos on youtube. None of which really help get that mess get down onto the paper—or up onto the screen, if one’s being picky.

So I’ve come up with a way of coaxing scenes out bit by bit, which is actually a little similar to how someone might approach a painting. First, the rough sketch. For the very beginning of the scene depicted by the jumble of images and words above, this sketch might look a bit like this:

We entered the store, and he went straight to the ice cream counter. The girl in front of him in line gave him a weird look, which he brushed off with a shrug. I joined him at the end of the line.

“What are you going to get?” I said.

“Vanilla,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s boring, isn’t it?”

“To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas.”

So, I’ve got a basic set-up. Guy and girl enter ice cream shop. They talk about ice cream. Nothing great, but it’s better than that blank page I was staring at a moment ago. Usually, if I’m really having trouble with a scene, or if I’m just not super interested in writing it, but I need to get it down in order to get to future stuff, I’ll write it kind of like this.

(See a list of writers conferences -- most of which have agents present taking pitches.)

But after I get the sketch down, it’s time to go back and add a little color to it (some sensory detail, a little more “voice”)…and maybe straighten some of those lines:

He rushed ahead of me into the ice cream shop, but held the door open with the very tips of his fingers just long enough for me to get through, as well. The bell hanging the in doorway dinged. I took in the small, round tables, the delicate-looking chairs.

When I turned again, he was no longer there. Automatically, my eyes sought the end of the line. Sure enough, there he was, one hand pressed against the glass display case, grinning like Christmas had come in July. The girl ahead of him drew away a little. I didn’t blame her. If I didn’t know better, I’d be a little scared of that crazy ass smile, too.

“What are you going to get?” I slipped into line after him before someone else could take the spot. The display case was cold, raising goose bumps on my skin.

His eyes roamed the tubs of brightly-colored ice creams.“Vanilla,” he said.

All this fuss, and he picked vanilla.

“That’s boring, isn’t it?”

He huffed. “To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas.”

(What are overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels?)

It’s hard to say what a third revision—or layering—of this scene piece would look like without knowing my plans for the story as a whole (which, honestly, don’t exist since I’m making this up on the spot). But my “notes” in the scene’s jumbled image do say “reveal old relationship” and “Character 1 (which I’m going to say is Girl) opens up a bit,” so let’s assume that the “old relationship” was the fact that she dated Guy’s best friend a year back and it ended really badly, and she’s suspicious he’s been sent to spy on her by his friend or something.

(In this scene, Guy needs a proper name, so let’s go with Liam)

Liam rushed ahead of me into the ice cream shop, but held the door open with the very tips of his fingers just long enough for me to get through, as well. The bell hanging the in doorway dinged; his sneakers squeaked against the scuffed white tiles.

I tried to remember if he’d ever held doors for me back when Bobby and I were dating, but it was hard to recall. Most likely, he never would have needed to. Bobby had always been there to open doors, pull out chairs, hold my books, fetch me a drink. He’d been the world’s most considerate boyfriend—until one day, he hadn’t been.

I glanced away from Liam just long enough to take in the ice cream shop—the small, round tables, the delicate-looking chairs. Whatever Liam had said, this was not a “Hey, let’s go grab a cone!” kind of place. This was a eat-ice-cream-in-non-disposable-silver-bowls kind of place. This was a Date kind of place.

…or a place to lull your best friend’s ex into compliance.

When I turned around again, Liam was no longer there. I blinked, searching the store, and found him already standing at the end of the line, one hand pressed against the glass display case, grinning like Christmas had come in July. The girl ahead of him drew away a little. I didn’t blame her. If I didn’t know better, I’d be a little scared of that crazy ass smile, too.

“What are you going to get?” I slipped into line after him before someone else could take the spot. The display case was cold, raising goose bumps on my skin.

He didn’t bother looking up, his eyes roaming the tubs of brightly-colored ice creams. If Bobby really was looking for revenge, he should have pick a smarter friend. I wasn’t sure if Liam had the intellectual capacity to pull off a—a whatever this might be.

“Vanilla,” he said.

All this fuss, and he picked vanilla.

“That’s boring, isn’t it?” I said.

He huffed. “To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas.”

So, there’s that! There would be revising after this step, of course, but for a first draft to show to critique partners and such, I’d be pretty happy with a scene written like this.

Hope you enjoyed seeing how a scene might evolve from a jumbled mess in my head to actual words on the paper. And I hope it might help you work through a particularly nasty writer’s block next time it happens!

GIVEAWAY: Kat is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: justsaymoo won.)

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