Years ago I took a weekend seminar with renowned screenwriting teacher, Bob McKee. The large auditorium was packed. Screenwriters, novelists, children’s authors, and editors of all genres had come to hear McKee talk about the art of writing and storytelling. I could hardly wait for the seminar to start.
McKee walked out on stage and stood for a moment, looking out at the audience. Everyone was silent, waiting for him to begin.
“Writing,” he said finally, his intense gaze scanning the audience, “is not about the words.”
Yes! I thought, someone finally said it! I had always felt that words were merely messengers of a deeper truth concealed behind or beneath them.
Writing, McKee went on to say, is about characters, meaning, and emotional impact.
Recently I rediscovered the truth of McKee’s statement when I sat down to write Little Elfie One, a Christmas sequel to my rhyming Halloween book Little Goblins Ten, which had been published the year before. I love writing in rhyme, and although the new manuscript wasn’t due for several months, I couldn’t wait to get started.
It was easy to slip into the holiday spirit on a raw November morning as I sat down with pen and paper by the glowing wood stove. This was going to be so much fun! But after several hours of scribbling random rhymes, I started to panic. The story was obviously not working. The idea of a Christmas sequel (which was suggested by a fan of the Halloween book) was a huge mistake! Why had I thought I could pull it off?
My husband maintains that panic is part of my writing process. I always panic, he says, and then I figure out a way to make it work. But if he’s right, I have to really truly panic. I can’t say, “Oh, great, I’m panicking – this is just part of my writing process!” Instead I have to honestly believe that what I’m attempting is impossible. Which is exactly how I felt as I sat staring down at the jumble of disconnected rhymes.
This was not part of my writing process! I really could not do this. My editor had mistakenly placed trust in me, I realized with dismay. There would be no Christmas sequel, no story for the artist to illustrate, no holiday book signings.
Having a book contract in hand is a great feeling – unless you can’t deliver. What was I going to do? The words were tripping me up, tying me (and themselves) in knots, obstructing and protesting at every turn. I could see them marching along carrying signs: “Sentences on Strike!” “Equal Pay for Adverbs,” “No Storyline, No Work.”
Storyline! That’s what was missing. In my eagerness to start writing, I’d forgotten all about the story. My Halloween book had a natural storyline in the building excitement of all the monsters getting ready to go trick-or-treating. But the Christmas story required an entirely different narrative.
At that point I crumpled up everything I’d written so far and threw the whole mess into the fire. Then I started working out a plot.
Bob McKee was right – writing is about characters, story, and meaning. For me, it’s also about panic, and tossing out dismal first drafts that serve as crude roadmaps indicating where not to go. (Literally thousands for my forthcoming memoir.) But the truth is, writing is also about the words, just not initially. Once I tossed out the aimless rhymes and got the story going, the words stopped protesting and hopped on for the ride.
Note: A version of this post was originally published on womensmemoirs.com