One of my scenes was annoying the heck out of me. Allegedly,
in the scene Jake and Liza would argue, and as a result, useful plot-related
things would develop, and it would be great. But would the scene cooperate with
my grand plan? Oh heck no. On paper, the characters just made faces and then galloped
away from each other like a pair of startled calves.

Me doing story work.

So I opened a blank document and rewrote the scene via dialogue.
Now the kids just insulted each other and then ran away. NOT HELPING.

Then I remembered something Ron Koertge said at my first residency
five years ago – that sometimes he opened a dictionary, chose out five words,
and wrote a scene using these words.
Sounded good, so I got out Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which was at hand, and instead of choosing
five words, I picked a word for every line of dialogue. (Though I wouldn’t use
the super-nerdy words like “inter alia” because geez, these are middle school
kids, not Truman Scholars.)
So I wrote the dialogue again. Wow! Jake and Liza were still
flinging insults, but these insults were more interesting! Though we still didn’t
have, say, a throughline for this scene.
By now (due to all this writing and writing) I had finally
figured out what these two goofballs wanted from this exchange, so I did this
exercise one last time. At last! A dialogue with an actual point! And, even
better, it didn’t look like the same stuff I’d dredged out of my head a million
times before.
Thoreau said it best: “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular
route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week
before my feet wore a path from my door to the pondside; and though it is five
or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear,
that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface
of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths
which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the
world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
Borrowing words from other people is one way to step out of
the ruts, writing-wise.You have to surprise your brain into going in a
direction you don’t expect. (Of course the “ruts of tradition and conformity”
are everywhere – in subject matter, in cliché, in the direction of the story,
in the roles that girls and boys are expected to play in the story, etc. etc.
ad lib. But one subject at a time, please.)
Of course your editor side is all like, “You can’t go around
scrying words all day! You might destroy the direction of your story!”
Dear Muse, please send us Oreos from heaven.
Well, that editor can go stuff it. When I was an undergrad
who hung out with the gamers, I knew a guy who had a bag full of runes that he
liked to pour out and “read” on occasion. “I know it’s not magic,” he said.
“It’s more of a way to figure out what’s going on back there in my unconscious
And scattering a handful of words in front of you to see
where they lead is just like that. Sometimes your deeper mind is up to
something, but your yammering front brain likes to steal the whole show. If you
use all the tricks you can, sometimes you can get the attention of the quiet
gal in the back, and she’ll surprise you with some good stuff.