This is another post from the Archive. I’ve hit a point in my current working project where I’ve had to take stock of what is there and what isn’t there in the story so far. This post came to mind as a guide for me as I am reviewing the almost 80,000 words I’ve already written.
I’ve just read a great article by Gwenna Laithland advising writers to use ‘white noise’.
Basically, white noise is the void – the bits you leave out which the reader then projects their own thoughts and imagination onto.
Laithland uses the example of a Harry Potter stage show casting Hermione Grainger with a black actress. J.K. Rowling admits that she never specified her heroine’s skin colour.
I often get caught up in feeling the need to give more detail in description and narration – partly because I write dialogue much more easily and my pages can quickly resemble a play script.
I like writers at both ends of the spectrum. The very precise and detailed, and the void.
So which is best?
I suppose the answer is write with detail when you need to manouveur the reader into a specific place and embrace the void where it really doesn’t matter.
I am still working on this.
I’ve come to realise that the Void can also be used in the plotting of a story also.
What you need to reveal to the reader and what they can deduce for themselves.
The trick seems to be letting go of your own imagined, or fixed, view of the story and allowing the reader the space to become properly involved themselves.
The void allows them to bring their imagination to the story, even if you plot line turns out not to be what they imagined– Jack Reacher creator Lee Child is very good at this, giving you lots of room to try and work out what the ‘bad guys’ are really up to.
Ingredients, Flavour, and Cooking – Words, Structure, and Writing.
In The Script Lab‘s interview with Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer), one of the pieces of advice he gives is that writers should learn to ‘be a cook’.
His point is that, particularly in screenwriting, there is always going to be collaboration. You need to learn to work with others to produce the best script you can.
In any professional kitchen there are any number of ‘cooks’ and together they produce the finished plate of food which you eat.
In combining your expertise with that of others you make your writing/script better – the best that you can make it.
You learn new techniques. You try different combinations of ingredients. You taste different flavourings.
You experiment and refine.
There is a tv show in the UK called Masterchef. There is an amateur, professional, and celebrity version, but they all follow the same format – everybody cooks and some go through and others don’t. Not all of the prettiest food goes through, but the food which has the best taste and shows the better technique is chosen.
As the rounds progress, the remaining cooks are given the opportunity to work in real restaurants. They learn from some of the greatest cooks in the world. They listen to feedback from the best food and restaurant writers.
Towards the final places, the cooks are expected to show their understanding of new techniques and new flavours. They are now being judged on what they have learnt as well as how great the food looks and tastes.
I get Scott Neustadter’s point.
I also get that my ability to produce the finest beans on toast wouldn’t get me very far in Masterchef.
I also get that in making that comparison my writing might not match up to my beans on toast!
So how do we be better cooks/writers?
To be a great cook you need to understand your ingredients, flavour combinations, presentation, recipes. You need to experiment and practice. One contestant in Masterchef was asked how confident they were feeling about their food and they replied that the seventeen times they had cooked it that week had all gone well!
As writers we have to understand words and how they combine with others. We need to understand the structure which binds the words together. We need to know the recipes – the greatest books in our genre or story type – and how we can tweak here and there to produce something as equal or better.
We need to practise over and over again.
That might even be at a sentence or paragraph level.
Experiment. Learn from other writers.
Try styles of writing you have never done before. Look at how they use their ingredients to produce the final dish.
What can you take and use in your own writing?
Write and experiment. Write and refine. Write and practise until you get it how you want it.
You hit a wall. You lose the thread. A character doesn’t follow the plot line you have carefully constructed for them.
I’m sure it happens to artists and musicians also.
As a writer you normally do two things.
First, you give up; thus proving that you probably aren’t really good enough to be a writer after all. Second, you become belligerent and try and force the character, or plot, into fitting into the shape you created for it.
I’ve done both.
But, more recently, I’ve been learning there is a third way.
And it is easier than the other two.
You just close the notebook or electronic file and open up a new one.
Then, every now and again, let your creative mind wander back to the project and see if anything new occurs to you.
Let me give you an example.
I will call the project White Ladder.
White Ladder started with an image of two old men talking in a room one evening. They see a news clip of a new movie actress wowing audiences. It turns out that one of the men knew her mother.
That image and about 400 words, of mostly dialogue, was over 20 years ago.
It just never got past that initial stage.
A couple of years ago I heard a radio programme which focused on particular musicians and their defining albums. They played some of the songs and talked about the inspirations and processes of making the albums.
The one I listened to was David Gray, talking about his album White Ladder.
Suddenly that image of the two men talking came back to me and a variation on the theme started to form, energised by the words and mood of David Gray’s album.
The plot line was now dictated by the titles of each of the tracks on the album and the mood set by, often, just one line of the lyrics.
I don’t usually plan. I am a pantser by trade.
A couple of weeks of looking back at the plot line then led me to open up a project on Scrivener and start putting words on the page.
74,428 words later I stalled. I was at the three-quarters finished stage.
The two main characters had not followed the plot line and were all out refusing to do so.
I huffed and puffed and threatened to delete them, but they knew I was bluffing. So I gave them the cold shoulder for about six weeks. It turned out they were more patient than me.
So I took a key idea from within the project and tried to write the story from that perspective instead.
That was good for 34,149 words. Then the plot line decided not to follow the original plot I had carefully conceived. The two main characters waited patiently on the street they were walking, looking at me, waiting for me to make a decision.
I now had the word count of a full length novel, but three-quarters and one-quarter of the same story in two versions.
Dust gathered on both versions. Apart from reworking the whole plot into a series of ten short stories, telling the story from the perspectives of different characters.
I think I got that idea from Patrick Gale and his fantastic book Notes from an Exhibition.
Dust still gathers.
I know this story will be finished, because it keeps tapping on the door of my creative studio, reminding me that it is still there.
But in not finishing White Ladder (yet!) I have learnt a lot.
I have learnt that one simple scene will eventually become a full story if you wait long enough.
I have devised a story plot three different ways.
I have 108,000+ words of writing practice, which will eventually be a finished novel.
I have learnt to be patient with myself.
I haven’t failed because the book isn’t completed.
I’m not trying to alienate anyone here by mentioning the New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. I understand that the franchise and the coach are like Marmite – you love them or you hate them.
For full disclosure I am a San Francisco 49ers fan, but as a sports coach you have got to learn from the best and the 6 Super Bowl victories simply make him the best.
I was listening to the Sky Sports NFL podcast, with the excellent Neil Reynolds and Jeff Reinebold, where they were finishing up their pre-season ‘state of the franchise’ thoughts and the final team being mentioned was the Patriots.
It occurred to me that surely the secrets of Belichick’s success could be applied to being creative.
Hear me out.
Players on a team are ultimately a set of skills and experiences. The coach uses those skills and experiences to craft a win. You get enough wins in a season then you get the big prize at the end; but even if you don’t, those wins remain achievements in themselves.
As a creative you gather together as many skills and experiences as you can. You use those to produce a piece of work. You put together a good enough body of work then you are often acknowledged/rewarded/awarded titles and prizes.
Let me be more specific.
You are a writer. You gather your group of players – in this case authors/books/characters/plots from across all your years of reading. You use this knowledge, these skills and experiences, to write a chapter – to win. You win as many regular season games as you can – you write as many chapters as successfully as you can. Losses and ties mean you need to do some revision. The post-season is where you hone it all down to that last championship game – the finished novel.
Perhaps, alternatively, the different games in the normal season are different types of writing. The post-season is your overall body of work.
The head coach is the natural editor in your brain. A little more of this. A little less of that. Those elements for that particular match, or these elements for this piece of writing, in order to be successful.
Hopefully, you can see where I am going with this.
Tomorrow, I will try and convince you of what Bill Belichick can bring to our creative endeavours.
Basically, I’ve got rid of more stuff I had forgotten I even had, or had kept because it might be useful at some point. I decided that some point had been reached and that the stuff wasn’t useful after all.
A family desk taken by my eldest son, freed up space for an armchair I’ve been looking at with fondness for a while now. I write at a standing desk, but I was hankering after a seat to muse, imagine, read, in.
I thoroughly recommend a standing desk if you don’t usually use one. Some are very pricey but mine is about the size of your laptop and does the job perfectly.
Revamping and tidying up are often necessary but also serve as perfect actions for not writing.
I sway between being really frustrated when I don’t write and just accepting that sometimes my brain needs a pause to fix something in a story, or make the necessary links to the next stage of the story.
I’ve probably mentioned this before but I don’t plot/plan in a James Patterson kind of way. Once the plot is down on paper then I know the story and my brain is off to the next one. The discipline to then take an extended plot and write it up into the finished novel eludes me. Be honest though, James Patterson probably feels the same way, which is why he has all of those co-authors.
I plan more like Lee Childs. I turn up, like Jack Reacher (okay – like a Jack Reacher who has been placed on too warm a wash cycle than the label directs!), meet a couple of people – good or bad – and the rest happens from there.
I am currently writing something new and it is requiring a little more thinking than I am used to. I think? Or I am doing a good job of pulling the wool over my own eyes. Sometimes, kicking back into the habit of hitting a word count each day, no matter what, really does get the job done.
I confess that all my normal habits have gone a bit wayward, with the only one remaining intact is the one where I listen to a new album everyday. Writing 1000 words a day has become disjointed. French language learning hasn’t been learnt for almost three weeks now. Exercise has not been what it should be. I have read more, and listened to podcasts and audio books more frequently.
My cotton-wash-when-it-should-have-been-a-wool-wash Reacher gives a Gallic shrug (as he can’t remember the phrase he was looking for) and wanders off into the night to regain his writing habit and his credibility . . .
One piece of writing advice is to destroy your tv.
You’re a writer of books, so read ’em and write ’em.
TV was invented to distract you and allow advertising to sell you stuff.
So that should be enough for why not to TV.
So Why to TV?
Plot and Characters in a story arc.
Most tv series don’t give you much more, other than a great source of material for building ‘cliffhangers’ into your chapter endings.
Watch how each episode is finished. How does it wrap the events of that episode but how does it inform on what went on in previous episode plots or signal something yet to come.
What character relationships are there and how do they develop?
Not everything needs to make sense. A lot of TV shows don’t even try to explain shifts in scenes or seemingly impossible plot points – they just know you want a conclusion to that episodes situation and to see how the relationships between the key characters is furthered.
Perhaps you don’t need to fret over all of those details which were giving you sleepless nights after all.
I re-watched the movie The Thomas Crown Affair the other night and Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway clearly had style, in both their personalities and their fashion.
Creatively, I think we spend a long time trying to find our ‘style’. Early works are often composites of our favourite writers/artists/musicians, as we learn new techniques and experiment out of confidence in our ability to produce something maybe worthwhile.
Structure and technique can both define and dictate what we produce, but most of the successful creatives you could name eventually do something a little different and that is what gets them noticed.
What’s your sense of ‘different’ from your heroes or fellow creatives?
Chase Jarvis put out a great podcast/video on style with fellow photographer Alex Strohl – it is worth a look.