I have a lot of writing reference books in my library—A LOT of writing reference books—and I’m rather picky when it comes to adding another one. But after reading Jordan E. Rosenfeld’s Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, I happily made room in the easy-access “favorites” section of my bookshelf. This is one of those rare a how-to books that not only makes me feel sharper as an editor, it inspires me to dive back into the creative phase of the process, not to mention the humor and flowing prose made it a true pleasure to read. The book is a great resource not just for scene-building but for all the fundamentals of good writing, with checklists, or “muse points,” to help make characters more compelling and plots--even if you write literary fiction!—into the foundation of a page-turner. Beginners will get lots of new information, while veterans (I guess I qualify?) will benefit from stepping back and examining why they do what they do from instinct. This book is invaluable for the editing phase of novel writing—remember, each scene has to earn its place--and I know I’ll be referring to it often!
I’ve asked Jordan to answer a few questions about her book, her writing process and, naturally, her favorite seductive foods.
DGS: Appropriately, your book opens with a compelling scene where Stephanie, an exuberant salsa dance teacher, inspires you to move your body with a grace and energy you didn’t know you possessed. It turns out Stephanie also teaches writing and was the first person to teach you how to write a scene. I love how you express the writer’s task in a way that pulls your all-important first scene together beautifully: “To write well, you must take the readers in hand and teach them how to move to your beat, or follow a mystery, or care about two lovers whose relationship is coming apart at the seams. Your reader must be able to enter your story as if it were the auditorium of a theater, or an empty dance floor with strange music playing.” Did Stephanie teach you any other lessons that you could pass on to aspiring writers?
JR: Well, Stephanie (who sadly passed away a few years ago at the unfair age of 51) was a very unique character—as a person and writer. I was actually quite intimidated by her at first because she was SO confident and bold and sort of devil-may-care. I’d say what she taught me most was not to try to be like any other writer—in other words, we often see a style or a success story and think, “I’ll do that…” in pursuit of success and ignore our own voices. She taught me to proudly claim your own voice and style even if it seems “hard to sell.”
In your chapter on “The Senses” you mention that one of your pet peeves is a lack of scenes with characters eating. I am on a one-writer campaign to redress this balance and I totally agree with you that “taste provides great moments of potential conflict and intimacy.” Do you have favorite “tasting” scenes from your own work or the work of favorite authors you’d like to share as an illustration?
JR: First I love that you’re on a campaign to redress this balance! Fantastic. In my own work I tend to favor using the preparation of food, actually, more often than the tasting of it—I like kitchen scenes. So much potential for drama—fire! Knives! Hot sauce! Family dysfunction! But in my novel The Night Oracle, my character falls for a bartender who likes to mix creative cocktails and even though she’s not a big drinker, she tastes these drinks of his because she’s drawn to him and I felt it was important that she find his creations both unusual and alluring. The absolute most wonderful food scene I’ve ever read is in a book called How to Cook a Tart, by Nina Killham. The main character is a woman in her 40s—a juicy, shameless chef who believes in flavor over diet—and this teenage boy starts to fall in love with her. But rather than giving in to his advances, she cooks him a meal he will never forget—it’s like she makes love to him with food—and then sends him on his way. Oh, what a great scene!
What challenges did you face in writing a “meta” how-to-write book as compared to writing fiction? Was there any chapter that was particularly easy to write or particularly difficult?
JR: Ironically, I find I’m actually rather good at “meta” how-to, because I’m such a know-it-all. I edit manuscripts for a living, as well, so I’m used to being a bit bossy that way. However, it started out easy and got harder and harder because I did come up against a number of ideas where I thought “What do I really know about this? And how can I effectively show what I mean?” The challenge with how-to writing is that you can’t just generally talk about your subject, you have to illustrate and give directions. My editor was constantly asking me, “So what’s the take-away lesson for the reader?” And I’d slap myself on the forehead and try to figure that out.
The hardest chapter, I think, was 23, Your Protagonist’s Emotional Thread. I couldn’t figure out, at first, how to demonstrate the idea that in order for a character to be successful they must be changing and developing scene by scene. In general, the hardest part of writing this book was that I couldn’t just rely upon my basic craft knowledge; I had to constantly bring back the topic to the scene itself.
One of the many riches of this book are the wonderful quotes and examples of great writers’ work. One of my favorites is Paul Auster’s “Every novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader and it is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.” Whew, that’s a real reminder of the power of fiction! Another favorite is Leora Skolkin-Smith’s discussion of the magic of Alice Munro’s work. How long did it take to research and assemble your examples?
JR: Fortunately I was able to pull examples as I went (and it took me a good year to write the book because I did it slowly)—I didn’t have to assemble them in advance. For every chapter where I needed examples I would literally hit the library and check out books I had already read that I knew were in line with the topic. Or, if necessary, I’d buy them from the bookstore where I worked part time (I spent a lot of time just skimming books I’d read). In fact, as an aside, one day I checked out like 20 books at the library and the librarian says, “Are you really going to read all of those?” And I said, “No, I already have!” Needless to say she gave me a weird look. The epigraph quotes were actually harder to find than other examples because I wanted them to really capture the essence of the chapter. The Auster quote is one of my favorites now; I read it to students when I teach workshops as a reminder of that very important truth. I was otherwise really, really fortunate to have some great author contacts and friends willing to give me those “scene-stealer” analyses of fiction they’d read.
In Chapter 17, “Action Scenes,” you write “The American action movie has changed the way people think about action, and not necessarily for the better…actions can be smaller and more personal…” Do you think Hollywood has had a detrimental effect on the expectations of agents, publishers and readers in the current market?
JR: I don’t know if it’s fair to place all the blame on Hollywood for the changing expectations of agents/publishers and readers, but it has definitely had an impact. I think many people now want books to do what movies do, which, to me, means to bypass acts of imagination—after all, when we read, even if there are specific visual details, our minds have to flesh them into being and no two readers will envision the same. I think this has spiked the sales of commercial fiction and put yet another nail into the already heavy literary fiction coffin. I also think that the internet/TV are as much to blame as movies—especially the internet where everything is available instantly. We’re becoming a literal, visual culture that likes shortcuts. Books don’t allow for shortcuts (unless you speed read) so naturally agents/ editors are paying attention to what sells.
I can see myself referring to Make a Scene again and again as I write. Do you refer to it when you write fiction? Is there any particular section you look to most? Or would recommend to a beginning writer to focus on?
JR: I do actually refer to my own book—to refresh myself when I’m stuck somewhere in my own writing (and often I barely remember writing it). For beginning writers I think the first two parts of the book, “Architecture of a Scene” and “Core Elements” are really crucial, especially if the scene is still a murky concept. I wrote this book because I realized that I’d written for a long time before I understood what a scene was, and it wasn’t until I began to actively write scenes that my fiction became sharper, for lack of a better word, a symptom I see often in my clients’ writing. I also recommend the final part of the book, creatively called “Other Scene Considerations,” to new writers. The Scene Types section is going to be more useful to the intermediate and advanced writer.
Describe your dream writing project (marketability doesn’t matter here)—and what is next for you as a writer?
JR: Hmmm. I’ve been really attracted to this crossover fiction often called “fantastic” or “surreal” fiction in which reality gets played with, though the writing is still relatively literary, and it doesn’t get shelved as “fantasy.” Everything I’ve been writing in the last couple years seems to be dipping into this, and though I’ve had a couple good attempts—my agent tried to sell one of my novels and we came really close, but no cigar—I feel I haven’t landed the right concept yet. My dream project is to find that story, write it impeccably well and sell it J So that will also hopefully be my next project. I’m trying to finish the draft of another novel I wrote a year ago that does have fantastic elements, but it’s sort of kicking my butt. For non-fiction, I’d love to be paid to do the kinds of interviews I do for Writer’s Digest magazine but for much bigger money and far more often, and it can extend beyond just authors. Essentially I want Terry Gross’s job, of NPR’s “Fresh Air”—but in print rather than on the radio. I love interviewing people.
Actually, I could probably use some tips from you on that, too! Finally, I can’t let an interview go by on “Sex, Food, and Writing,” without asking you to describe a perfect meal that would be guaranteed to seduce you—at least into an intimate discussion of the writing life by candlelight, if you have other commitments that don’t allow for more....
JR: Truth be told, I’m not a foodie though I love to eat. And I’m a grazer rather than a big ole’ meal type of eater. But the kind of food that would seduce me into a heated conversation about writing and life (being a happily married girl) might involve a salad of warm goat cheese, beautifully ripe sliced apricots and almonds, fresh spinach and balsamic vinegar with freshly baked bread and creamy butter on the side. I’m far more likely to swoon over a dessert though—caramel ice cream with ripe raspberries and dark chocolate shavings or something…
Mmmm, I just bought a new Cuisinart ice cream maker and have several good ice cream cookbooks in my library. If I find a good caramel ice cream recipe, I owe you a great big dish for this delicious conversation! Thanks for stopping by, Jordan, and best of luck with your future projects.