Recently I was listening to a fellow writer talk about writing that is a bit foreign to me: academic papers. Foreign? No. It's actually more of a horrendous memory. What a nightmare college writing was for me. Outlining for essays was stressful and dry. I always felt like I didn't know what I was doing; as if there was a method but no one taught it to me and it made me CRAZY.
What I think never occurred to me then and is a no-brainer now is a truth test this writer reminded me of: Would anyone care about the paper you're writing? Would anyone care about the thesis, the idea?
DING DING DING DING
Had I for a minute thought about that back in 1918 when I was in college, I bet the whole experience would have relaxed me more. It would have appealed to the writer I really am. Not necessarily a people pleaser but certainly someone who wants to think what I've put on paper has captured the attention of my reader.
The "who cares" of it goes for ALL writing: Scripts, novels, poems, songs, personal essays, articles, you name it. You have to believe someone other than you would be interested. Yet if you're only asking yourself and you're the one who came up with the idea, you're not necessarily the best arbiter of the truth. Therefore...
Bounce. Blake Snyder, The Save The Cat writer who's guruism is respected by serious TV and film writers worldwide used to suggest basically pitching your idea to people on line at Starbucks. Your screenplay idea -- the secret idea that you protected within an inch of your life lest someone else got to the wizard behind the curtain before you - was about to be blurted out to a guy staring at his phone with the attention span of a hungover gnat. If you can't while in line get someone interested in your idea, if their eyes glaze over while you tell them the hook that made you take a cold shower when you thought of it, you gotta ask yourself, am I trying too hard? Is this a good egg? Maybe no one will care. And if that's the conclusion, don't panic. Realize that's valuable information.
Full disclosure, I don't think I ever pitched a screenplay or pilot idea to anyone in line anywhere. But I did go to my tough friends - the honest people who had no interest in anything but my success with all my best concepts. I'd bounce my idea(s) and receive their input and then decide how to move forward. If someone said something that really upset me, honestly, that usually meant either the idea sucked or they were onto something. Either which way it always got me thinking...
So Lincoln, bounce. Tell people your stuff. Get feedback.
DON'T BE PRECIOUS.
Finishing that first draft is a big deal. It is a piece of writing. Something that is now a whole, even if the parts don't necessarily run smoothly. And because it's not perfect it's so easy to get down on yourself when you start looking at it. Therefore, when rewriting, it's good to follow a few simple rules that will help you structure your rewrite and stave off self-loathing:
After printing out your project, take some time to celebrate your first draft. You finished! Hey! Hot Damn! Not everyone can say they have a first draft of ANYTHING. For me, when I used to finish something, I'd celebrate by drinking and eating cheese. Now? I still eat the cheese but I lost the drinking portion so I've folded in shoes. Once that celebration is over, take a couple of days off if possible. But not much more than that. A couple = 2 from what I recall from elementary school.
2. GET YOUR PEN OUT
After you've taken your teensy break, have a pen ready and read one way through off of the hard copy. Don't start rewriting as you're reading. Go to sleep.
On the second pass, start categorizing your rewrite. Sample categories could be: Plot Issues, Character Issues, Scenes to Delete, Structural, Formatting...
Come up with a strategy. Though that sounds simple that may mean rebreaking an entire story or A Plot. You may rebreak many threads and that could have domino effects. That's okay. Take the time to thoroughly decide on the approach of rewriting and thoroughly examine if you change x how will y be effected? Will it be better? As long as you think through the approach both within the document and what your approach as the writer will be (ie.: I'll work for 7 days on this part and then see where we're at and maybe switch gears) then you will have a strategy. (By the way, I've had to rebreak outlines more times than I can count. There's no shame in that. It though might not be necessary. Take it all one problem at a time and you may find big sweeping approaches aren't what's best. This whole section could be called DON'T PANIC).
5. PICK YOUR POISON
A little adjunct to Number 4: While you're thinking of your rewrite, you may want to think about what to attack first. There's a saying which is "Go in the order that is killing you." I recommend rewriting the most challenging area(s) of your project first then go towards the easiest.
6. TIME MANAGE
Time and schedule your sessions so when you're rewriting, if you say work at 90 minute timed sessions, your chances of ending on a high note are greater than if you work for hours on end with no real cut off point. Danger there is basically getting sunk into the depths of despair.
THE DEPTHS OF DESPAIR by Cynthia Greenburg Dunlop
online shop, look at a scene, read about politics, look at a scene, call an institution I have a long-standing gripe with, glance at manuscript sitting by coffee maker, lie in bed and think about what I didn't accomplish today, look at phone, remember before bed looking at my phone is supposed to be bad for me, go to sleep.
Time Management is something every creative person must incorporate into their process so the slog-feeling of rewriting doesn't thwart effort and self-esteem.
Bounce ideas. Don't be afraid to call fellow scribes feedback. You can easily ask a trusted soul to read a scene, a chapter, or the whole thing. Be ready for feedback you hadn't anticipated and come prepared with specific questions like "Is this part working?" "Did you get that so-in-so was trying to do this or that?' "Did these lines land for you or feel funny?" Caution though - if you want compliments ask buddies, if you want truth, ask peers.
Good luck and when you sell it, buy me the pair of shoes that are in my cart on Amazon with the other things in my cart that I never bought.
Yes, I feel like crying. But really, that's not indicative of all that much because crying comes you know, too easily to me. I'm a sensitive soul. Still...
I'M SO FUCKING HAPPY!
How did we do it? You didn't ask that. Who would ask that? But I want to say PERSISTENCE and DILIGENCE gets her done! Those are the two biggest keys to getting a workable piece of material. Yes, of course, it meant the world to have a kick-ass partner who makes me laugh every single writing session, and moves heaven and earth to make sure she can show up for our writing. But breaking it down it's all the little things: scheduling, calendars, clearing away your thoughts before you write, having a definite start time and end time, setting goals, taking the time to work on the hard scenes, saying the hard stuff to one another, admitting when something's not working and truly enjoying when something is.
Persistence and Diligence, make that your mantra.
And so, we celebrate. We brag a little. We smile when smiling can be so tough (the world, the news, the people who annoy us who are in the news of the world...).
Fuck them WE HAVE A FIRST DRAFT!
One thing I do believe (and am now experiencing myself) is in our desire to get to the finish line we might start underwriting.
It's natural. It's exciting. You're going to have a finished screenplay/novel/pilot. Yay! But man, you're fucking tired. It's been a long haul. Can't you just work a little less hard now?
Consistency IS the key. With consistency, you can get your work done without underwriting any one section. For me, oddly, it's the end. I see the finish line and I'm like We're done! I don't have to care as much anymore!
Every single part of your work has to be valued. You need to stand behind all of it. So don't rush.
Slow and steady wins the race. Unless you're in a marathon but let's be honest, you're not. You hate exercise.
When we fall in love with our prose sometimes we don't think about why the sentence, paragraph or scene is actually there. And that can really fuck up what would otherwise be a good piece of writing.
Before I worked on shows and before I taught writing classes, I took a bunch of writing classes. I learned a lot. And from the many classes I took I can boil something down for you so you don't have to take the same amount of classes. Put your work to an Intention Test and see what stays and let go of what some of us might refer to as "the fat."
For the Intention Test, ask yourself these five questions:
-What is my intention for this Scene/Page/Chapter?
-Why is this Scene/Page/Chapter here? What is the point of it?
-Does this Scene/Page/Chapter move the story forward?
-Does this Scene/Page/Chapter offer any new information/characters?
-If this Scene/Page/Chapter wasn't here, would anyone miss it (other than me?)
I think this could be helpful and help pry your addiction to Sentimentality away from its grasp. We get sentimental about our writing. We fall in love with our lines. As many writers complain about writing, often, I think secretly many of us kinda fall in love with our writing. I can't tell you the amount of times I've heard a writer say, But I really liked this. There are so many things I really liked too. But streamlining, getting to the point, etc., makes pieces flow and readers love you for it. There is no excuse for dense, bogged down writing that has no real point and gives the reader the excuse to walk away.
Don't let them go! You do have power over your reader and you do have power over your weaker inclinations! The solution is to use The Intention Test, grow a pair and make some fans!
Mindless activities, doncha just love em? I putter mainly in my kitchen. But really, the whole house is game when I'm in that frame of mind. And the reason I'm not going to list the many many ways one can putter is because it's so BORING POINTLESS AND USELESS! Which is actually the definition of puttering.
Here's why I am writing about puttering on a blog dedicated to writing: it's because I recently “diagnosed” a fellow writer as being a putterer in his writing process. Puttering easily can be done while toiling away on your script or novel. This guy desperately wants to be done with his book so he can show it to an editor for feedback but he just keeps going over little chapters, moments and areas because a few months ago he came up with a newly realized emotional thru-line. He just wants to make sure all the tracks are laid down nicely.
a few months ago…
Classic Putterer. His precious writing sessions are stagnating because while he's ensuring this one thing is covered in each and every nook and cranny, he’s getting lost. He’s doing word counts, changing buts to howevers, wrestling with where to put new and exciting commas. He’s wasting precious time!
I'm not judging him. I do it with scripts. I'm like "Oh wait a minute, so and so is gonna have to say this thing and have this attitude in that old scene so this new scene makes sense." CUT TO: An hour later. Yeah, I addressed that, I also wrote a bunch of new material (most of which won't stay) and I looked at the jeans on sale at Madewell, put items in my cart and then didn't buy anything (a whole other level of puttering).
Art is war, remember? And to get past enemy lines and reap the spoils of the war you have to strategically move forward, neutralize the bad men and get a bunch of accolades, saving lives along the way (including your own).
But what about that niggling thing that happens when you do have a great new emotional thru-line that was only realized while you were halfway through your piece? That feeling of "I just have to make sure it’ll make sense! Let me do that, for the love of God!"
HERE IS THE SECRET TO FIGHTING THE PUTTER NUDGE:
Create a document called "MUST MAKE SURE." Your "Must Make Sure" Document reminds you of all the things you must make sure are in your work before you present it to anyone. That way nothing falls through the cracks and you have no excuse but to keep moving forward. When you're done with your current draft, you'll do a pass for each item listed in your "Must Make Sure" document, spot checking that the thing that has to be there, is.
It's not easy. Because of course a part of you will fight this every time a new idea emerges. You'll think I just have to do this one thing. Honey, that's putter talk and you’re above that. Now.
Of course you might be the rare putterer who has found puttering is a part of your process. In fact you do get a lot of shit done despite of or even because of your puttering... Okay. That's fair. But if you're like me, puttering serves little to no purpose and you don't need another unfinished piece of writing in your drawer to prove it.
Like Boston says,
The sun is shinin'
The clouds are breakin'
Cause I can't lose now, there's no game to play
And if you can't trust Boston, who can you trust? They finished songs and they even wrote a song about it. They were like the first anti-putterers.
Writing when you don't want to is what separates the women from the girls, the men from the boys -- just had to do that. Always wanted to make it women but I love men too so I wanted it equal opportunity. Speaking of equality, women and men can be equally lazy. Lazy, avoidy, etc. And with writing, that doesn't work so well. The whole point is consistency.
It's REALLY annoying that to be a writer you have to write. I mean my God, how messed up is that? But yeah, that's what it takes.
So what I'm saying is you kind of gotta do your job. Doesn't matter if you feel sick, doesn't matter if you feel tired, doesn't matter if you think you're out of ideas, doesn't matter if you have friends in town or are away. Gotta keep at it.
Because that way you:
•Stay connected to your idea
•Allow your brain to think of your idea when you're not writing
•Have integrity and don't just pay lip service to your craft/profession when you tell yourself and others you're a writer
and... you... get to...
So remember, you don't have to write for one billion hours at a time. You don't even have to write for 5 hours at a time. But you do have to consider if you're not writing every day or on most days, think about what's in your way? While I'm a big believer in a daydreamy kind of break where you let art, culture and the world envelope you in terms of nourishment, a break is not a month.
Writers write. That's your mantra, daughter. Son. Did it again, couldn't help myself.
And if you're not going to write today after reading this then immediately go out, support your local bookstore and buy:
The War of Art.
One thing that I've done that has helped my writing immensely is to take risks. I think being uncomfortable is an important facet to being a good writer (hey man, I'm kind of uncomfortable right now writing this blog!). Risk taking of course sometimes takes the form of an action, like jumping out of an airplane which I'm never doing because i want to live, but it's a good example. I do remember though traveling to Europe by myself when I was 20 or 21. I didn't want anyone to know but I was terrified.
Terrified is good.
Writing about something you're scared to write about or that isn't a guaranteed hit, is the ultimate goal. Revealing a hidden or anonymous truth about yourself or relationship to the world is brave, real, and authentic.
Because if you've read this blog at all, I'm all about you and I as writers getting to the truth. The truth of our voice comes through and always wins out over trying to impress or fit in with what we think would sell. And often, it's the risk of being honest that makes something more attractive to the world - in terms of buying it.
I was reminded of this reading an article in the LA Times by a former client. www.latimes.com/style/laaffairs/la-hm-la-affairs-rebecca-cullen-20180224-story.html. As I told Rebecca, I can't imagine writing about my sexcapades. Very bold and my hat is off to her.
Different things I've done to sort of encourage my own truth-telling and risk-taking include creating a podcast, doing I think like 3 blogs before this one, and shooting an online commercial. All of these things were risky. The podcast was because I had no idea what I was doing and felt nervous every time. It was my voice and our literal voice does not lie. I was shaky-mcshakerson at times, trust me. But I learned to use that nervous energy to hopefully sound enthusiastic. In fact, I learned a lot doing that podcast. The blogs? I love writing so that might not seem like a big deal but I wasn't writing about writing I was writing about LA and hidden treasures I loved. I didn't really know what I was doing. Who cared what I thought? But I did it anyway. What the hell, right? http://opinela.blogspot.com.
And the commercial, which I created, co-produced and directed - I mean that was A BLAST! But again, I was scared. I wanted to do a good job. The buck stopped at me. And it was for a sex product. I mean talk about embarrassing convos with my elders and some of the more conservative Hollywood peeps I know. In addition, this was only the second time I would be directing something. Could I do it? That certainly was something I wondered. Something I prayed for. I really wanted it to be fantastic for everyone - the client, my talent, crew, and me - so you know, no pressure. Despite my fears, I think we did pretty well and it did open some doors for me, doors I didn't even know were there:
So it doesn't have to be every day but I implore you to stretch. Look outside of your comfort zone creatively. And not quietly. It builds a far bigger wrinkle in your brain to just, as they say, put it all out there. Imperfection gives us the strength to, when say we're doing our chosen art (the screenplay, the TV spec, the novel) operate that muscle of courage we need to write more truthfully and to represent our finished pieces more effectively. We're able to go where we haven't gone before. You know, we grow a pair.
Because otherwise, you're small, you're writing and creating for an audience of one, and if that's what you want to do, fabulous! But if you're reading this blog, I don't think that's the case.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.” — T.S. Eliot
Any writer will tell you the secret to writing is writing. Any other writer will say the secret to writing is rewriting. And another writer might talk to you about discipline. I don't know. There are no magic bullets. But the reason people give these suggestions or at least one reason is often writers complain about writer's block. If they're totally honest, they can find the time to write, they can carve out at least an hour of their day if not more to really give it a shot, but if they have nothing to say, they have nothing to say. It's boring. It's lonely. And said writer can't help but feel like a fraud.
Currently I'm having a bit of a dearth. I don't have an excuse. I have that daily precious time to do my work and for me, it is work. It not only brings me joy, it can and has generated income. So... do I hate joy and income? Am I out of ideas? Am I a real writer? If I was wouldn't I be writing and prolific and blowing myself and others away with my bright, unusual and pithy ideas?
Well, here's the good news, I'm too old to totally give a shit. Like on many levels I don't even ask myself those questions any longer. I no longer traipse down the rabbit hole towards Existentialism Plaza. I've been writing long enough to know there are downs, dearths, and some real choice moments when nothing is emerging. But do not misunderstand. Not giving a shit doesn't then become not doing anything. Nope. There is a solution.
DOCTOR'S ORDERS FOR WRITER'S BLOCK
1) Show up for it. Even if all you do is write in your diary, show up for your writing. Daily. At least an hour.
2) Keep your notebook by your side. Write down your random thoughts. All day. All night. Have your notebook at arm's reach.
3) READ. Any novelist knows to read and to read a lot. Novelist, TV writer, playwright - no matter, you are a writer and writers read. Reading outside the genre you write is the way I usually go. And I try to mix it up: non-fiction, articles, short stories, scripts -- all to get stimulated. I LOVE good writing. I'm inspired by it. I emulate it. Currently I'm reading Edna O'Brien and I couldn't be happier. I have a bunch of books on the docket and I even listen to good writing. On a recent drive my husband played me a beautiful rendition of a Sylvia Townsend Warner story on the New Yorker podcast. Heaven.
4) Watch TV and film -- shows and movies you wouldn't gravitate towards are ideal. I currently watched "Beguiled." Had little to no interest in it and knew close to nothing about it. Those for me are the best because then when they're good you're rather blindsided by genius. "Beguiled" was like watching moving paintings over and over. And under the beauty was some serious plot shit I never would have thought of. That was a nice kick for my brain.
5) Live outside your box. Go to a museum, take a night and do something you wouldn't typically do, take an exercise class that you're afraid of, snorkel - anything that you haven't done before. On New Year's Day we signed up for a Sun Salutation class at our yoga studio. 54 Sun Salutes. I'm really out of shape. But it's bound to get something going. Or I might just throw up. The point is...
It's about stimulation. It's about shaking it up. You are a full person with a million idea germs but some times those germs get stuck between routine and expectation. They're stuck inside your vessels and your capillaries, between your frontal lobe and your waistband. They're just plain stuck. And if you keep doing more of the same, there your idea germs will stay stuck, bored out of their freakin minds. And if you do nothing to save them, then they'll eventually wither away. But if you live a little, they start to move, collide, and finally emerge. They get unstuck, you get unblocked and boom, your germs mate with each other and ideas are born. And then you can't help but write it down. You go from stuck to fingers dancing on the page. You're back, baby!
And what a great way to start off the new year! You know what I mean? With a brand new idea. That's a nice way to say fuck you to an existential crisis, isn't it now?
That's all I got.
Happy New Year!!!
Just read in Vanity Fair how Karl Ove pretty much detests everything about himself. I've read all of the My Struggles and I can tell you, that's pretty much the truth. But something that I found so interesting too about the article was if he were to come back as anything, he would come back a window. I mean does he say this shit on purpose? It's so annoying how spot on he is sometimes. Obviously that's what we as writers are. We see things. We observe. We're either inside looking out, or outside looking in. And whether we're talking about the world at large, society, nature or our minds, we are observers. To me, that takes a little pressure off. I'm just writing down what I see or how I see things after they've gone through the funnel of my mind and into my pen or my fingers on the board.
A little tip, and I wish I could remember who I learned this from, but when you watch things, hear things, see things, listen... observe from the vantage point of your characters. How is your character experiencing Alabama? The new Star Wars movie? The hotel room you're staying in? The view from your window?
That's all I got. Ciao for now!
Writer, Writing Coach, Writer Supporter.