Discover more from First Draft
A look that says it all
I hope you’re all well! For those of you in the NYC area: THIS Sunday, 3/12, from 3:00–4:30 p.m., I’ll be reading and chatting with Margot Douaihy, author of SCORCHED GRACE, at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division. If you’re interested, I’d love to see you there! For those who can’t make it, it will also be live-streamed.
This week, as I continue to make my way through notes on my novel-in-progress, I’m getting down to the final details — filling in those last necessary bits of shading that will bring the characters and their story to life.
In many ways this is my favorite part of the writing process — the opportunity to paint with my smallest brush, to refine every clumsy move I’ve made up to this point. It satisfies my writer soul on a deep level.
But it also forces me to challenge a mistaken idea I developed early on as a writer, and one that I haven’t easily been able to let go of. I’m so afraid to spoon-feed my readers that instead of telling them what I want them to know, I hold back, using subtlety to a fault so that it comes across as coy at best and frustrating at worst.
As I go through this final edit, shading and refining, I’m trying to find the tricky balance between holding back and telling too much. I find myself circling my sentences curiously but cautiously, looking for the kernel of what needs to be expressed and hoping to draw it out just enough. Am I succeeding? Who knows? But the effort feels so worthwhile.
A few days ago, I was circling and circling and I remembered something from a Star Trek: Picard episode I watched recently. In season 2, episode 2, an omnipotent and allow-powerful alien named Q — Picard’s fremesis from The Next Generation — returns. As usual, he announces his presence by yanking Picard out of his reality at a crucial moment in the plot and into another, less favorable, one. As ever, Picard is not happy to see him, and the two go at it in a stunning performance that only these two men are capable of, given their history together and the fact that they’re now more seasoned and tempered actors.
Both the dialogue and their delivery of it are gripping and unsettling — Picard desperate to know what Q is up to this time and begging him to reverse whatever he’s done. Q equivocating and pontificating, blaming Picard for the faults of humanity. Picard asks him to cut to the chase, and Q delivers a scathing rebuke, telling him, “The chase is cut, Picard. The chase is bleeding, the chase is dying in your arms. And I am but a suture in the wound.”
But the strongest moment of the scene, and the reason why I’m telling you about it, happens in silence, directly following Q’s line. For a moment his expression darkens, and then he recoils as if disturbed or frightened by his own words. It’s at once subtle and impossible to miss, especially as the camera lingers on a close-up of his face, and then Picard’s. “Are you? . . . Q, you are not well,” Picard finally says. Q says nothing in return, but the answer hangs between them.
I’ve been thinking about this short exchange for days — not only because it was such fun to watch these actors at the full height of their talent but because I want to use it as a model for how to approach filling in at least some of the remaining details of my novel. Q’s momentary but powerful reaction, which changed the entire mood of the scene (briefly cooling Picard’s anger into tenderness and making me gasp audibly), has inspired me to look for places where a gesture or expression or simple word can say everything and nothing. Where the right line of dialogue left unanswered — “Q, you are not well” — can tell the reader all they need to know in the moment.
What I’ve been reminded of from watching this scene (too many times) is that saying more is not always a matter of filling in dialogue or exposition with a ton of words. If you’ve done your job and laid the groundwork well, as in the case of Picard and Q, you can allow the spaces in between what’s said or not said to do the work.
This week, I’m going to look more closely at those in-between moments and allow myself to linger for a while in the tension or discomfort or euphoria, to see what more can be revealed there. I’m excited to see how it goes.
Meanwhile, write well and prosper, and I hope to see some of your faces in NYC on Sunday!
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