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.
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.
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.
If you have read any of my other posts then you already know that I am a fan of Podcasts and Audiobooks. Today, I revisited one of my favourite Ray Bradbury novels in F451, with a great audio version narrated by Tim Robbins.
One of the many things which struck me this time around was just how quickly Bradbury gets the story moving.
After a quick page or so of describing the Fireman Guy Montag doing his job and returning to the Fire Station we – along with the protagonist – are confronted with Clarisse McClellan.
I wondered if this was where Thomas Harris got his inspiration for Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. I also couldn’t shift the image of Julie Christie as Clarisse in Truffaut’s cinematic version from 1966.
Back to the novel and Clarisse starts to question Guy Montag and his profession as a Fireman, musing on the possibility that Firemen used to put out fires not start them.
Bradbury moves so fast here. How did she pick him out? Was she waiting for him? What made her think that he was different? The strong opening imagery of Montag now confronted with an alternative possibility takes just six pages.
Montag returns home to find his wife has attempted suicide and we become aware that his life, and the life of the society we have been dropped into, is not positive or healthy. Like Hamlet we realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Is Montag mad? Suffering from a disease spread by the very things he burns? Or like Hamlet, is he the only sane person in a cast of the mad or those who do not even realise they are just as trapped as he is?
Within fourteen pages, pretty much everything is set for the rest of the story.
Within twenty-three pages we have met the Mechanical Hound, which Montag is convinced doesn’t like him, and Captain Beatty, who we don’t trust the moment he explains that the Hound doesn’t think anything that ‘they’ don’t want it to.
Main character. Catalyst character asking questions. Difficult home life/relationship. What will pursue the Main character. The Antagonist.
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 . . .