Saturday, January 2, 2010

Writing the Cool Parts.

I wanted to share a bit more about how much I sucked as a writer when I started out. Now, to be fair, I was thirteen. That was when I started trying to write novels. Do I even have to say I was bad? Well, yes, I do, because three of the most talented writers I've ever met at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference were sixteen or seventeen years old when I first heard their work. Heard their work, fell out of my chair, and wanted to invent a time machine so I could travel back to high school and slap myself. So young writers can be damn good. I, however, was not.

Anyway, I wasn't one of those young "read literature, write like a genius" kids. I was one of those "read science fiction, keep re-writing Star Wars" kids. If they had had (1) the Internet, and (2) fanfiction, I'd be living in my parents' basement today playing World of Warcraft. And my parents don't even have a basement. Awkward!

I do remember the fun of writing back then, even when what I was writing was bad. Heck, blowing up imaginary planets is fun! Those were the Cool Parts. The planet-blowings-up, the after-parties, the shouting orders when the aliens came home and found your ship there in the rubble and were not happy and started shooting. All Cool Parts.

In between the Cool Parts, however...

I have a vivid memory of being troubled about how to get a character to walk out a door. Seriously, I had to get this guy out of a chair, walk him across a room, and get him through the door. And this was a major problem for me. How to go from one Cool Part (significant story moment) to the next?

Elmore Leonard has weighed in on this. He has famously said that he leaves out the parts that readers skip. Hollywood adores him for this, as do I. But I want to turn this on its head a bit, because it's important.

You can't leave everything out.

I can't remember why it was so important that I show my character walking through a door. I know if I were writing a screenplay, I would leave it out. Audiences are great at filling in that kind of elision. Novels have more complicated issues of pace. Sometimes someone needs to leave the room, and the reader needs to see it happen.

So what have I learned over the years? In fiction, if a scene isn't a Cool Part, make it cool. How? Write it cool.

When you can write the non-cool parts so well that the reader won't skip them, well then folks, then you're pretty damn good.


Andrew said...


Followed over from a link on nakedpastor's post about his 'inner atheist'. []

More than anything, just wanted to say thanks for your comment. This seemed like the most appropriate spot to write a comment, since I thought the writing of your comment was 'cool'.

I'm more of a "born-Christian, then moved into reality" type, but even so I find that how I express myself still has those trappings of belief. Since you are a writer, do you find it tricky in selecting ideas/analogies/images that may come pre-saturated with religious meanings? I know there's an abundance of themes out there with no religious ties, but I guess I'm just wondering if you consciously worry about this sort of thing in terms of your own writing?

The heavily religious, in my opinion, don't seem to recognize the weight of such comments as "I love my life because it is all I will ever have." They need some other kind of anchor of comfort, or meaning, even if it means weighting certain things so heavily that their entire worldview depends upon their 'truthfulness'.

The nakedpastor comment was refreshing in the midst of the other dialogues going on, so just wanted to contact you and say thanks.


Lorelei Armstrong said...

Very kind! Thank you so much. I wasn't sure if I'd be flamed to cinders or what might happen. I'm pleased to find some thoughtful folks.

It's funny you should mention the use of religious imagery/metaphor/etc. in writing. I'm halfway through my new novel, and it's basically a re-working of Dante's Divine Comedy, but with the order reversed and a thirteen-year-old boy in the lead. So you could say I'm not shying away! I'll also confess that I changed the order because I found Dante's heaven so dull. Bright lights, pretty colors, and nice music? Pass. Afraid I'm coming up with a fairly unrecognizable heaven, but I suppose that much is to be expected.

I think I've also stepped on the Buddhists' toes along the way, but I'm not too worried that they'll picket the house.


Andrew said...


Interesting that your lead is thirteen. That's pretty close to the time I started my 'fall' from the wonderful ignorant bliss of childhood ('saved' and 'irresponsible' and life was really cool), to a strange but growing adolescence, to then end up smack in the reality of responsibility beyond belief.

To be fair to Dante though, I think his real agenda was the inferno, and having obsessive fun with numerology. His genius and commentary shine through the inferno at least, in my opinion.

Since your boy is ending up in hell... is there an upswing? Does he make it out, or is this more of a leading-to-epiphany type thing?