Usually I would advise you to read this article before you continue with my thoughts, but not today. There is enough in Ken Miyamoto’s excellent article to keep you going for days!
I’ve been researching movie/play scripts for a little while now.
There are many ways in which novels and movies differ, but what I do appreciate that the later has to have a really tight hand on moving the story on and getting the audience to care about their characters.
Plot and character, the cornerstones of any story.
You are not going to write a novel in ten days – although there might be a challenge! – but one of the points Miyamoto makes early on is that you should have visualised at least 75% of your story before you sit down to write.
I think I’ve plotted every which way you can, as I am sure you probably have.
I seem to need the excitement of letting the story unfold and the characters lead me, but I acknowledge that sometimes I am not plotting as tightly as I probably should.
I suppose there has to be a purpose for the editing process, other than to spotting typos!
I find that if I plot too much then I know the story and getting the story down is like wading through deep mud. Putting the words in becomes the hard work, rather than working out where I am going next.
How about you? Strong plotters or the adventure of discovery?
Perhaps stronger discipline in plotting will produce a stronger story from the first draft?
I don’t know.
Visualising 75% of the story first means that both plot and characters should be fully developed.
The writing then becomes the how do I show this to the reader?
Much like a director framing the story from the page to the screen.
If you choose to take a break, have you broken your habit?
I’ve written just over 63,000 words in the last 7 weeks, with the aim of writing at least 1,000 words a day.
I established the habit I wanted of writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day.
Then two days ago, I stopped writing.
It was a conscious choice.
The story was going fine. I am a ‘pantser’ by inclination and, creatively, I was having no problems.
The problem came from the characters themselves.
They were easy characters, working well together.
They had a plot which was going forward and had layers. They didn’t grumble.
But they pull me to one side and ask me one question – we know what’s going on, but does the reader?
I looked blankly at them and then asked for more coffee.
They were right.
I was leaving the reader to make big leaps in understanding of the characters from subtle clues in the things they said.
The characters left me alone to work the problem out.
The first thing to do was stop writing.
Another one thousand more words which weren’t quite hitting the spot wasn’t going to help.
I realised I was going to have to make changes in what I had written so far, but I wasn’t going to do that now.
Finish the story. Edit after.
What I needed to do know was realise all of the character points I knew in their backgrounds, and let that information out to the reader, without them having to do an ‘escape room’ puzzle to work it out.
I am writing a thriller. Not a character trait treasure hunt.
I have dropped the reader into the midst of a group of tight characters.
The reader needs to understand how they got where they are and why.
I am the writer, so it’s my job to get them up to speed.
The main characters know we are back to work as normal tomorrow.
Break-time is over.
I’ve looked them in the eye, and I think they believe me.
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.
. . . The Friday Question was, What specific style/genre/type of writing is the one you most want to write?
And my Saturday Answer is . . .
. . . One which changes all the time! If I read a thriller, then I want to write a thriller. If I read a detective/mystery novel, then that is what I want to write. And so on . . . But the type of writing which is constant, no matter what I am reading, is sports writing.
There are some great sports writers in the UK but the outlets are either through newspapers or sport specific monthly magazines. There is a growing number of weekly ‘newspapers’ specifically for sport but they generally tend to be match reports rather than anything in-depth pieces on teams/players/coaches. The rise of Podcasts has really begun to unearth some great content, which would equally be great to see in writing.
A UK version of Sports Illustrated would be outstanding.
I tend to be slightly negative about my own sports writing as I am not a great ‘fill it full of stats/facts’ kind of guy, but more focused on stories and trends.
Sports writing is an area I intend to devote more time to developing.
What’s your Saturday Answer to the Friday Question?
So yesterday I suggested that relatives could take inspiration/lessons from sports and hopefully I will convince you today.
Bill Belichick is the most successful NFL coach ever because:
He stays focused on the overall goal and works hard to achieve it
He never goes through the motions and always trains with purpose
He makes sure that he puts the right players on the pitch at the right time
He doesn’t panic if things don’t seem to be working early on in the season and understands the importance of late on in the game and the season
He doesn’t waste time talking about the game
So how does this translate into being creative?
Be really clear about what you are trying to achieve.
Belichick knows the season is about winning the Super Bowl and so is the pre-season and the post-season. If you want to write a novel then that is the goal, nothing else. Prepare. Execute. Analyse to make next year’s performance better. It is hard work so put in the hours. Be focused and cut out distractions. Commit and achieve.
Practise with purpose and put what you learn into action.
A very underestimated part of what Belichick does is the practice field. The Patriots train with crowd noise. They train with old and scuffed up balls, removing as much of the grip as they can. They try to recreate conditions similar to the ones they will play in. All practice is purposeful.
It can be hard if you are time pressed for your creative pursuit but you need to practice. If you are a writer then try and find an extra couple of hundred words which are based on what you are writing, or will write in the next chapter. It might be character descriptions, or scene setting, or dialogue. If you are an artist you might need to experiment with colour, or sketch certain body parts, or try different techniques for applying the paint.
Use the creativity you need for that particular moment.
Don’t get distracted or show off. Use the skills to produce the elements you need to make that particular chapter, or picture, or composition, exactly as you need it. Be prepared and execute. If the scene is your chapter is heavy on dialogue, then make sure you have been practicing that element. Listen to good movies or tv, listen to or read good scenes from books and plays.
Sometimes, particularly in the early stages, things might not go quite the way you had planned. It happens. Work out why and fix the issue. Sometimes there might not be a specific problem, you just didn’t execute well enough, so make sure you do the next time. Keep pressing on and know everything will come together late on in the season when it really matters. You may have zigged when you wanted to zag but keep the process going and remain focused on the end result.
Don’t waste time and energy.
Monosyllabic answers and repetitive phrases at press conferences are communicating that this isn’t where we win championships and Super Bowls.
As creatives we have platforms which can really boost the audience for our creativity in ways which no other writers/artists have had before, but it can also be a massive distraction. Social Media is the press conference. Learn from Bill. Don’t waste your energy and know it is taking time away from your main job. It is necessary, which why even he does them, but his conduct tells you that he knows what is important. The end result.
So Create Like Bill! And I hope to see you all in the Hall of Fame! (But don’t be surprised if Bill doesn’t speak with us!)
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 . . .