I Give You Permission To Suck
So I’m writing a delicate scene tonight – one between an eight-year-old with serious problems and her callous mentor trying to figure out what’s wrong.
And it’s one of those really tough scenes, because not only is nobody quite saying what’s on their mind, but the eight-year-old girl isn’t quite sure what her problems are. And neither am I! Because I am a gardener writer, who makes up shit as he goes along, I’m squinting at the page and discovering what’s wrong with this girl as she does.
It’s a tough job. I’ve been writing this scene for three days, and only gotten 1500 words in. (But it’s a critical scene, so that’s okay to take the time to get it right. In the Save The Cat! parlance, this is the Theme Stated scene.) And only today did I realize I had a fatal error:
The eight-year-old girl was talking like a fifteen-year-old kid. Her dialogue was too worldly, her vocabulary too broad. It didn’t ring true.
And I noted that and kept fucking going.
When I was a less-good writer, I would have seen that flaw as a full-stop flaw to fix ASAP. I would have stopped to rewrite those clunky-sounding exchanges, and probably worked on some of the bad scene-blocking and descriptions, and polished shit that was unimportant.
The thing is, that fifteen-year-old dialogue was serving its purpose: it was getting me into the little girl’s head. Maybe she was speaking beyond her years, but emotionally? I was understanding who she was. Maybe she was saying it in a way that wasn’t quite in character, but the problems she was expressing were honest and raw and perfect.
Going back to mop up some imperfect dialogue would have taken me out of this little girl’s head, and the rest of the scene would have been subtly wrong because I’d lost the thread of What is this little girl thinking? and some essential magic would have been lost. Or worse, I would have polished a lot of dialogue to perfection, then discovered that it was the wrong dialogue, and had to delete it when I’d discovered that what she’d said sounded exactly like an eight-year-old but still wasn’t what this eight-year-old would have said.
As it is, what I have is a scene with good bones: the way this little girl evades questions, then quietly creeps up to admit her errors around the edges, is absolutely correct. I had to write her like a fifteen-year-old to do this, and that’s great: that’s why it’s a draft. It can suck.
Too many writers don’t get that. Sometimes, capturing the vibrancy of a scene is more important than anything else you can do. You often don’t know what a scene is really about until you finish it, and trying to repair something before you even know what’s wrong is in error. You see that with the poor schmucks who’ve been writing and rewriting the first three chapters of their novel forever, never getting to the end, convinced that the novel can’t proceed until this opening is perfect.
But perfect for what? Opening chapters only serve a function as part of a larger machine. You don’t know what the opening chapters are really trying to do until you’ve written “THE END” and seen where all this is leading. A novel is so complex and organic that you’ve got to let it breathe a little even if you’ve got the whole thing plotted from beginning to end.
Part of “It’s a draft, it can suck” involves knowing what you can fix in post. I can fix dialogue that rings false. I can fix a white-roomed scene without enough description. I can fix flat prose.
What I can’t fix, at least not easily, is a scene where the characters aren’t reacting to each other organically, surprisingly, confrontationally. For me, part of the reason I write well is that I know all the things I can not worry about now, and focus in on the scene aspects that need to click. Once the characters are alive on the page, I can desuckify everything else housing those alive characters, make them pop. That’s what the next draft is for.
And so I’ll speed through this novel, and finish it, knowing just how awful many aspects of this chapter are. But I’ll get around to those. The important part of the chapter, the muscle affixed to bone, is tight. And that’s all I need.