Writing Ugly

Writing Ugly

The Mystery Morgue: May 2004

Mystery Morgue

Libby Fischer Hellmann channels a lifetime of writing into her fiction. Her amateur sleuth series, featuring Chicago single mom and video producer Ellie Foreman made its debut in 2002 with An Eye for Murderand was followed seven months later with A Picture of Guilt. The third in the series, An Image of Death, was released this year. An Eye for Murder was nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First in 2003. It also won the Readers’ Choice Best First Award at the Love is Murder Mystery Conference the same year.Libby has published numerous short stories in American and British publications. Three new short stories will be released in the coming year: “A Berlin Story,” in the MWA Show Business is Murder anthology, “Common Scents” (Blondes in Trouble anthology) and “House Rules,” in the IACW Las Vegas anthology edited by Michael Connelly.

When she’s not writing fiction, Libby writes and produces videos. She also coaches individuals and groups in presentation skills, speech delivery, and media interviews (Fischer Hellmann Communications).

Here, she explains how to “write ugly,” and why that is, indeed, a very good thing.

The Plan

I will rise early, around six, especially now that it gets light so early. I will brew a cup of coffee, boot up the computer, and write a full page before I take my daughter to school. I will swim laps or work out, then come home and write another page. I will eat lunch, take a break, make my work calls (I freelance as a communications trainer) and write another page. I will pick up my daughter, spend the afternoon and evening with her, or do some promotion work. As I prepare for bed, I’ll think about the phrases and words that eluded me during the day, confident they will bubble up from my unconscious as I drift off to sleep.

The Reality

I oversleep because I read Lehane, Burke, Paretsky et al well past midnight. I’m cranky and tired. My daughter is late too, and I miss lap time at the pool. It’s too late for exercise class as well, so I come home, boot up the computer, and stare at the screen. I re-read what I’ve written the day before and delete half of it. I stare at the screen some more, but nothing comes. I think of all the other things that I’d rather be doing right now: laundry, gardening, running for President. I stare at the screen some more. Eventually it’s time to pick up my daughter, make a food run, and start dinner. As I’m peeling potatoes or mixing a salad, with MTV or the Simpsons blasting from the other room, I despair of ever writing anything remotely clever or appealing.

The Solution

What works for me isn’t so much a routine as much as an attitude. I find writing to be a challenging, almost overwhelming, experience. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The process of actually coming up with words, putting them into an attractive order, and—oh yes—telling a story that is compelling, authentic, and a page turner, seems impossible.

What isn’t impossible, though, is editing. For me editing is one of the most satisfying tasks there is. Taking a sentence—reworking it, playing with it, and making it “sing”—brings me a good deal of satisfaction. It’s a challenge I can take on. Sometimes it’s even fun.

So the trick I play is to convince myself I’m always editing. Believe it or not, it generally works. I can scroll through my manuscript, stop at any point I wish, and usually find a way to say it better. And better yet again. Until the umpteenth revision.

In fact, the only time it doesn’t work is when it’s time to lay down a first draft. Which, you might say, brings us back to the starting line. How does a person who finds writing difficult write the first draft so that the editor in her can revise and beautify it later?

What I’ve learned—and am still learning—is to grant myself permission to “write ugly.” Put another way—in fact, author Annie Lamott said it best in her excellent writing manual Bird by Bird—a writer’s objective is to write a “shitty” (her words) first draft. Nothing more. It doesn’t have to be poetry. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. It doesn’t even have to be in complete sentences. The object is to get something—anything—down on paper. For obvious reasons, the editor in me applauds that concept: I certainly can’t edit a blank page.

When I’m writing ugly, sometimes I write stream of consciousness. Other times I simply write phrases. Occasionally I record just one adjective or verb that might work in the passage. I write drivel. I write silly. I write non-sequiturs. But once in a great while, after writing a paragraph or a page or even two pages, I get to something that’s—well—not bad. So I keep it.

The point is to give myself permission to write ugly. To suspend judgment. I’m going to revisit that prose many times before I’m finished. But I need a template. A starting point. Writing ugly helps me find that template. Perhaps it can help you.