Sunday, September 12, 2010

Let the Blood Flow, But Clean It Up

I quoted Rod Serling (pictured), creator of the great television show of the early 1960’s The Twilight Zone, on my Facebook status update the other day. “Writing is the easiest thing in the world. I go into my study, put paper into the typewriter, and bleed.” That was wrong. Serling himself was quoting that grand ol’ source Anonymous when he said it.

I believe it, though.

Anyone who has isolated himself or herself in a study alone trying to achieve that psychic connection with a reader by means of words on paper can understand the sentiment. We do bleed because part of ourselves winds up on the page if we’ve done it right. And that applies to all writers, not just fiction.

The power of the writer comes from the spilt blood.

Up to a point.

The problem with some, myself included, is that we bleed onto the page, but don’t see fit to clean it up. And this has been a HUGE lesson for me to learn. We want the reader to see the blood we’ve spilt. To cry the same tears. To laugh at the same situations. To think those great truths we espouse. But readers, myself included, want what’s underneath. The blood hides that from view.

What I’ve learned from watching Rod Serling and others is that, while it is important that I, as a writer, find my stories compelling enough to make me laugh and cry and think, that’s not enough. My job is to create stories that make the reader laugh, cry and think regardless of how I feel about it. And while the former is a great starting place, the latter can only be achieved when I emotionally divorce myself from the story and give it lovingly to the reader.

I clean off the blood I spilt.

An example is a particular airport scene from my novel Catch a Falling Star that breaks my heart every time I read it. I had trouble getting through reading it out loud with my compadres in The Writerie. My voice hitched and squeaked and hesitated and oh were those tears so close. I choked them back gallantly. That had to be brilliant work. Had to be. I sat in that chair melting and kinda liked it, to tell the truth. Both Kathy and Glenna said, essentially, “cut the scene. It doesn’t work.” They didn’t actually say that. They said they needed more of a reason for the scene to exist. I hemmed and hawed about writing scenes from England that will justify it, blah, blah, blah. Ariel Gore and a couple of the Wayward Writers said the same thing asking, “Why is this scene even here?”

My answer was simple and, I thought, compelling. That brilliant scene of mine (‘cause it had to be brilliant) showed the changing nature of the relationship between father and daughter.

Okay. Fair enough, but ultimately it was ...

Hogwash. Bovine excrement! I’m trying not to write the word bullshit. Can you tell? But it was bull with a capital SHIT.

The scene featured me bleeding all over the damn page and not cleaning it up for the reader. So, quoting Morales from that wonderful musical A Chorus Line, “I dug right down to the bottom of my soul,” and ... deep breath ... discovered that I really wanted the reader to cry when s/he read it. Not to learn more about the characters, not to find out what’s happening next. I wanted the reader to see the blood that I shed writing it and wallow in it just like I did. THAT’S why it didn’t work.

We may wallow in our own blood, but we really don’t want to wallow in anyone else’s.

So the idea then, is to bleed on the page (fine), then clean it off in the rewrite to allow the story underneath to shine. To expose it to the light of the reader’s mind and imagination. To let it been seen and allow the reader to make what s/he wants. The story has to be for the reader, otherwise it’s nothing more than intellectual or emotion masturbation. I’ve been unforgivably guilty of the latter, probably for a long time.

Those of you who know the theatre will recall a classic warning to actors, “You don’t cry until the audience does.” The same should go for the writer (me) in the rewrites. Anything else is self-indulgence, and I’m so damn tired of it I could ... bleed. It’s taken a few weeks for all of this to sink in, but that scene has to go. Period. Lucky 13 has to be my gift to the reader. Not blood to wade through.

I’ve said it before. I will do whatever it takes to tell the best and cleanest story I can to get published.

I studied with Steve Berry in Fiji. He preached writing tight. I’m interpreting that from now on to mean, don’t let the blood show. Get every spot out of the story so that the reader can see all of it. From start to finish.

I wish Rod Serling had lived to write a blog. I would have followed it religiously. The closest thing we have are interviews and some film where he leads an informal seminar on writing for television. He is eloquent and well-spoken, but maintains a respect for the young people in the seminar. It’s divided into a number of parts on YouTube. Check them out.

I can’t say I know a lot of television writers. I’ve met a few, worked with a couple. But to my mind Rod Serling was the very best of television writers. His early work followed by his episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery took television to places it had never been and rarely has been since. He tackled real issues in entertaining ways, including human equality, governmental abuse, and war. He also had a preoccupation with death as both of his father and grandfather died of heart issues in their early fifties.

In 1975, Serling had two major heart attacks within a couple of weeks. The doctors decided that open heart surgery was in order, risky though it was back then. During the surgery, Serling suffered a third heart attack and died. He was fifty years old.

Looking back at some of those old tales he penned for television like Patterns, Requiem For a Heavyweight, The Comedian, (each won him an Emmy) plus the many episodes from the shows, maybe we did see a little into Serling’s psyche.

But the blood never showed.

Last Sunday, I weighed in at 271, down two pounds from the previous week and fourteen from August 1st. I feel better, more in control. I’m continuing on with Catch a Falling Star these coming days.

I’ll let you know next week how I did.


  1. LOL@ bull with a capital SHIT.

    Sounds like this has been a summer of learning for you Rocky. You seem to be embracing so many changes with grace and style.
    Points to you. Can't be easy.

    And bleeding hurts..

  2. Ah me dear friend, we haven't chosen the easy path, have we? I'm proud of you for your learning. Just know, I'll always be there to help you clean up some of the blood. xoxo