Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How to write

It's always fun to hear what famous and successful writers have to say about their writing schedules and habits.  Usually it's something like, "I get up at 8:00 every morning.  I brew myself a fresh cup of coffee, read the New York Times, perhaps circle some articles that have story potential.  Eat a healthy breakfast, then sit down to write for a few hours.  Have lunch, run errands.  Write for another few hours until dinner."

And... well -- yeah, great, dude.  That's great to know if you already write for a living.  Except, if  you already write for a living, you probably don't need any tips on organizing your writing schedule, because you must have come up with a pretty good writing schedule to get where you already are.  What about the rest of us, who aren't already under contract with Universal, receiving monthly royalty checks, taking our pick among lucrative writing assignments?

I get up at 6:45 Mondays through Fridays, work from 8 to 5, generally hit the gym after work three days a week, often have class one evening a week, and try to have some fun on the weekend before the cycle starts again.  There's time in there for writing, but it's not always easy to find.  (And it's a lot harder for people who work in entertainment, like I used to in my less sane days.)  Some people solve the problem by adhering to a strict schedule... like the hypothetical employed writer referred to in the first paragraph, but on a smaller scale.  Two hours a day, an hour a day, three hours three times a week, or whatever.  

I have tried many times to implement a system like this in the past.  As far as I can remember, it has never, ever worked.

First: I just hate trying to design and adhere to a schedule.  Ironically enough, this process actually enables my procrastination.  It works like this: if you assume that you need a schedule in order to write, then the converse must also be true... that you can't write until you figure out a schedule.  I say to myself, "I'm not writing yet because I don't have a schedule yet.  Once I figure out a schedule, I'll be productive.  I'll definitely do that one of these days."  Because the scheduling itself is not on a schedule.  It's whenever I get around to it.  And let me tell you, I can live in that netherworld for weeks or months.

Second: Well, here's where I risk drifting into writer heresy.  But I think it needs to be said.  And I'll even bold it.  Committing a certain amount of time to writing is not necessarily productive.  Yes, I went there, I crossed the line, I spat in the face of every writing teacher and book and mantra that has ever existed.  And hold your breath, because I'm about to make things even worse.  Sometimes -- maybe even often -- spending an arbitrary amount of time writing can be counterproductive.  I'll just sit here and wait for the gunmen to arrive.  In the meantime, let me explain why I believe that.  I'm drawing only from my own experience, of course, but I have a feeling I'm not the only person to whom this applies.

Some people write simply for the enjoyment of writing.  They're not looking to make a career out of it, they have no interest in selling what they write, they might not even show their work to anyone else.  For those people -- whom, it must be noted, I do not intend to disparage in any way; writing is a noble pursuit regardless of the context -- spending time writing is the goal in itself.  But it's not a goal in itself to the rest of us; we need tangible results.  A screenplay (or a book, or an essay) is counted in pages, not hours.  And not just pages -- good pages.  

Just spending the time does not guarantee that you will generate pages, and if you do, it definitely doesn't guarantee that they'll be good.

And -- I know, sometimes you need to crank out pages even if they're bad... to get to the next scene, to establish a placeholder for something better, etc.  But I really try to minimize this sort of thing.  Bad writing usually takes just as much time and mental energy as good writing, and I don't like spending hours upon hours feverishly sputtering out words and thoughts that are beneath my talent.  I don't know about you, but if you ask me what keeps me motivated as a writer (obviously not the money, at least not yet), my answer would be: producing good material.  When I read my own work and it really engages me, when I can visualize the movie the pages are describing and it's one that I'd want to see, then I'm spurred on to keep writing.  When I read my own work and it's bad, I don't feel the same push.  More likely, I'll have a bad case of writer's block the next time I sit down.  That, right there, is how writing can actually be counterproductive.  Bad pages plus being bummed out plus writer's block?  Not progress, to me.

So I try to minimize the bad writing and maximize the good.  (Yes, I am totally the first person to figure out such a scheme.)  I don't do this by keeping to a writing schedule.  Instead, I focus on results.  Ten pages a week, to me, is pretty good.  It's not going to set any land speed records, but that's still a pretty good complete script in a little over two months.  And when I write those ten pages is up to me.  Maybe I write 3-4 pages on three different days, maybe all ten in one marathon Sunday afternoon.  I just know I'm going to get them done.  Also, importantly, I really try to have a plan.  

Having some idea of what you're going to write when you sit down, can be helpful.  And I really do mean some idea.  Not necessarily the complete idea, but enough to go on.  Like, "this week I need to write the scene where Bob escapes the dude with the shotgun."  I don't necessarily know how he escapes him, but I'm confident that I can figure that out once I sit down.  I don't need to plan out every single beat of the escape, and even if I did, I'd probably change it once I sat down to write it.  But I do need that much.  "This week I need to write the scene where Bob does something heroic" isn't enough.  If that's all I have, then I know I'm going to be blocked when I write it.  My mind will go in a thousand directions and I'll just end up writing the first thing that comes to my mind, which will probably suck.  So, yes, having a plan is important.  And the great thing about planning is that I can do a lot of it when I'm not even at the computer.  Driving, working out, eating lunch, pretending to listen to someone... all great venues for planning.  

So that's what works for me right now.  Have a plan, write good pages, feel good about them, write more good pages.  I may one day repudiate everything I've just written, and that day may be next Wednesday, but until then I'm happy with it.

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