Writing a silk purse from a sow’s ear


For my kind of extreme plotter, you might think everything would be planned down to the last jot and tittle – before writing.

It seems that way for some scenes I’ve written – I know exactly what I’m doing when I go in, and then I do it, polish a bit, and get out – and we’re done.

Because having the content and the outline and the knowledge of where a scene will go can make it easier to see what fits and what doesn’t, as I go.

Unfortunately, they’re the minority of my scenes.

Another set of scenes takes more work because there is a lot to include, and the correct path through all the necessary points can take me a while to organize.

And then there’s 32.2.

The sow’s ear of the title.

Oddly enough, a scene for which I had plenty of content.

But it came out of my head very oddly, as almost a single long piece of dialogue, a phone call no less, with the banter between Kary and her best friend writing itself as I eavesdropped.

Very realistic – I could SEE them talking, SEE the little connections, the friendship, the gentle poking when one person thinks they know better what the other needs, a scene you might overhear at brunch, or in a park, or while watching the children on the swings at the playground…

And it was wrong

Very wrong.

Boring – to me!

And I could see a reader doing the thing writers dread: skimming. Skipping ahead to see where the meat starts again. Not seeing the content because it was in the form of a dialogue between two women.

Just getting to the realization of what was the problem took me days.

Because there was nothing obviously wrong, and I write dialogue all the time, and it wasn’t particularly bad.

Good dialogue doesn’t guarantee great scenes

Almost a thousand words of good, realistic but compressed dialog.

You hate to give that up – and it took quite a bit of practice to be able to do that in the first place, create dialogue that gives the reader necessary knowledge in the form of a story.

I almost did what I never do: let it stand, leave it to the beta reader, move on and come back to it later, live with what I knew was highly imperfect (in my standards) because I had no idea what was going on that produced it.

But I did know:

The brain fog was thick on the ground and I couldn’t see over, through, or around it.

And this is what I produce when I can’t think: ‘almost’ writing.

It depended too much on the reader’s previous knowledge.

There was not enough scene-setting.

And it repeated things the reader already knew – a capital sin if done in any quantity: do NOT give readers an excuse to start skipping!

I bit the bullet, lowered the dose of a medication I thought might be the culprit for the recent fog increase (it was), waited for a couple of days until, thankfully, the head cleared.

Then I took all of the scene except for the initial paragraph, and put it in another file in the Scrivener project, fully prepared to dump the whole thing if necessary.

And I was able to get back to work – because I was darned lucky.

My greatest fear in life is that I will reach one of these points, know something is wrong, and never more be able to do what I’ve been doing to analyze, understand, and, fingers-crossed, improve what I’ve written, from the first gasp to the final zinger.

I’ve had this happen before to a smaller extent – I had to learn to write every kind of scene (and there are more kinds, I’m sure) – and since I’m still writing, have emerged every time.

But brain fog is more insidious than exhaustion, and you can’t just rest it away.

Brain fog scares me

It alters my essential self.

This time I found the cause, and it was something I could change. There are consequences, of course – in this case more physical pain – but I have other alternatives for physical pain, even if I’m trying not to use them (to spare liver and kidneys from having to disassemble those molecules and get rid of them); in the worst case, I can just tough it out, do some of the physical things such as stretches or (in non-pandemic times) immerse myself in the therapy pool’s warm water, wait until it passes if it has a specific cause…

Do not recommend your favorite remedy for brain fog – thanks, but I’ve tried an awful lot of things over the years that didn’t work, and I don’t have the stomach to try more. Assuming you even have one – brain fog is a particularly difficult ‘symptom’ to treat because it is so vague and amorphous and non-specific.

It’s a Catch-22: you need to be able to think to work yourself out of brain fog, and you can’t think until you’ve worked yourself out of brain fog.

Sometimes the passage of time helps.

Sometimes the disappearance of a physical illness, or its successful treatment or management, helps.

Sometimes – the scary part – you’ve lost that part of yourself and it isn’t coming back.

And sometimes you figure it out.

Once that cleared

I took a hard look at what I had been ‘creating,’ that conversation that repeated things unnecessarily.

And I got to work.

I went back to process: I’ve detailed my Left Brain righT method before; I still use it, tweaked a bit but usually to add a detail, not change something already there, seven-and-a-half years later.

Step by step I followed my own prompts for considering, choosing, refining – including much smaller amounts of that big chunk of realistic dialogue – listening to the bits as I locked them in (to make sure the language flows), defining the structure, doing the work I call writing fiction, and little by little, 32.2 emerged from the shadows of a disaster.

It started doing what it was supposed to do, and I got less scared.

Until the next time.


20 thoughts on “Writing a silk purse from a sow’s ear

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Ditto – and all my online writer friends write something different from what I write – but we all understand some of the pressures and occasionally the solutions.

      It’s great! If I’ve missed something that might help, it will eventually come up that way – along with someone who’s solved that problem already.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. joey

    Sometimes things get stuck and I stick em harder, by, you know, putting a pin it them, so to speak. Time does wonders for reveries and epiphanies. Eventually most things will click without too much work. Write around til I get there or whatever. You’re much more dedicated, and thus, published, so whatever you do, it seems to work out.
    I associate brain fog with being sick and so rest is what clears brain fog for me, but not like, “oh I had a nap and now I’m fine” so I can’t even begin to fathom brain fog as a constant. Most unnerving and infuriating, I’m sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      After 31 years, you look for any little help that gives you a period of time with your old brain.

      I can’t work when I can’t work, which makes the time when I can valuable. I kick myself when I find I’ve wasted some of it, but then get on with using what’s left.

      There are bootmarks on my rear!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. marianallen

    I, too, come to a halt when something isn’t right, or when I have to stop a really think a bit through. My recourse for brain fog is something you already do: strategic naps. I can wake from a good nap with the realization that THIS is the problem spot, THIS is the kind of work I need to do on it, and THIS is how I need to approach the problem.


  3. acflory

    No remedies for brain fog, just a lot of sympathy for your predicament. In the past, problems such as you’ve just described would give me writer’s block for months. Like you, I’ve learned to listen to that little voice that says ‘this isn’t /right/’, but the fear remains. And yes, writing is ‘work’.
    I’m glad you found the problem, and its solution. Never give up. -hugs-

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I would have preferred not to give up some pain relief for the fob to disappear, but we can’t have what we want, now, can we? Then everyone might be a writer.

      If it’s not right, some people send it off to beta readers, others to their editor. Me, I just sit with it until I can see what’s wrong (I ask myself lots of questions and answer them in writing).

      The subconscious kicks it out eventually – but that brain fog just brings the whole process to a halt. I don’t even think much subconscious processing is going on – I don’t emerge from fog with a Eureka! moment – just the ability to go back to work.

      But so far, so good. I’ll take that.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. acflory

        I’m like you, I have to get it right before I can more on. Sometimes there’s a Eureka! moment, sometimes there’s just a rush of relief. But whatever it takes, the writing is the thing. 🙂


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Most readers won’t analyze WHY, but may avoid other books from that writer. Given comparable indie pricing (and it is – way too much), they’d rather have the better quality writing, which comes to be associated with a name (if there is enough materials out there – this is where I fail so far), and can still disappoint, but will be chosen first.

          If you go against price (as I do), or genre (ditto), you’re gambling that your very specific kind of writing and readers cannot go to the authors you are technically competing with. Jane Eyre is not replicable, nor is Rebecca, nor The Thorn Birds, nor On The Beach…

          Liked by 3 people

        2. acflory

          Yes. I’ve only just realised that most popular scifi is plot driven because most scifi is read by guys. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the people who did enjoy Innerscape were/are women. So I know exactly what you mean about going against genre. It is an almighty risk but…we’re not really writing for the money or the adulation, are we? These stories are our legacy, the children of our minds so they have to measure up to our standards, not anyone else’s.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          That’s where you’re wrong: money and adulation are my goals. Legacy or not, Charlotte Bronte did not benefit enough from Jane Eyre – I wish she had.

          GWTW is the legacy of MM – it made her money she did very many good things with, including supporting the education of Black doctors at Moorhouse College (details dragged from memory).

          In our world, money can improve people’s lives (mine is okay, but doesn’t give me the funds for real philanthropy).

          I have been aiming for a single thing for almost twenty years, and it will take at least another five. I want Pride’s Children finished – and I want it widely read.

          Liked by 2 people

        4. acflory

          Wow…I want to change the world too, but doing it via money has never been part of my mindset, perhaps because I’ve never believed it was possible, not for me at least. I hope you achieve your dream, Alicia. With your drive, you really could make a difference.

          Liked by 1 person

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