Monday 10 October 2011

One Storyteller's Process

Writing is tough. We all have our own styles; and it can be daunting when we read interviews with writers or listen to podcasts with gurus, because they often have very specific rules, entirely different to our own. 

So it's good to get different perspectives. There is no right way to write -- all that matters is that you get the work done, and you write well. Zoje Stage has written a guest post about her process, which I find very fascinating because it is quite similar to my own. So many 'experts' tell you to get up at 9am and begin writing immediately, in a structured way. Zoje Stage has a different approach, which she eloquently explains in the following guest blog. 

A guest post by Zoje Stage.

Whenever I hear a writer discuss their writing process I am intrigued. Intrigued in a similar way as when I see someone with a really interesting tattoo: I recognize the beauty of the tattoo, yet I have never once coveted another's tattoo as my own. Both of these things are singularly personal. Though I'm sure no one out there really covets my writing style (or my tattoos), here's how I work:

I do not write every day. Or even every month. Yet I consider myself to be a fairly prolific writer. I average three or four new screenplays a year, plus rewrites and polishes. I know it is common for writers to have a set schedule, squeezing in writing time before and after work. And many writers outline first, or create a synopsis or treatment to serve as a guide. These methods don't work for me. I need uninterrupted time, and the only instances when I have not finished a script are when I attempted too much initial research or planning. Because, you see, I am a stream-of-consciousness writer.

I have written this way since I wrote my first screenplay twenty-three years ago. My process requires a certain amount of "down time" - which is when the things I've been influenced by settle into my brain and soul. I keep a notebook of story ideas and I jot things down. But what really gets the process going is, no kidding, a moment of inspiration. Sometimes it comes while I am watching a movie or staring into space. Sometimes - again, no kidding - it comes to me in a dream.

For me, the "moment of inspiration" means that something suddenly gels: a couple of characters, a couple of scenes - and the initial story idea. The next step is to look at my calendar and see when I can fit in some extended writing time - preferably where I can write for five or six days in a row, several hours each day. Then, in the days leading up to my designated start time, I let my mind wander around my story and characters. I jot down notes for scene ideas; I pick character names and occupations.

I write a first draft in an average of seven days, writing for as long as I possibly can on each day. As a stream-of-consciousness writer, I need to be in the story - in the moment - to generate the momentum needed to finish a first draft. Writing has always been a magical process for me, because I don't know on Page One exactly where things are going to go, or how we will get there. As I get into the process, I start to see different paths, and I continually jot down scene ideas as part of each writing day.

My goal for a first draft is simply to finish it as quickly as possible. There are certain tricks I employ to make the process easier, such as: I end each day in the middle of a sentence (usually dialogue) right smack in the middle of a scene. The idea is to "set up" the next writing day so the hard part - starting - won't be so daunting. Sometimes I still find myself avoiding the start of the writing day, inspired instead to empty the dishwasher or scrub a spot of toothpaste off of the floor (yes, I wander as I brush my teeth). 

On a full writing day I'll write fifteen pages or more. On a half day, I shoot for five to ten. My style requires inertia... keep going! I am a hunt-and-peck typist, but I do it incredibly quickly. My stories are primarily character driven - and I can see that my style might not work as well with plot-driven material. But I have written a fair share of horror, science fiction and even action, though I think it is the depth of character that sets my work apart even then. 

After I get the first draft, I usually set the script aside for awhile. My first drafts tend to be pretty good - but clearly subsequent drafts are better. But after the initial flurry of activity, I again require "down time" to gain perspective on the story and generate new ideas. Sometimes it helps to have someone read the script and point out holes, missed opportunities, or confusing moments. But, as most writers know, it's very hard to find the reader who responds to the needs of your story without altering it toward their own sensibilities. As a rule, if one person has criticism (or praise) for a certain element, I ignore it. If two or more people criticize (or praise) the same thing, then I take it seriously.

Screenwriting in particular is an art form where people want to stick their fingers in your pie. I am not here to feed everyone. I consider myself to be a conceptual artist, and as such it is imperative that I defend my work. And it is equally imperative that I understand how my work will function (or not) in the real world. I am always open to suggestions that make my initial idea better. I am rarely open to ideas that spin my story in a totally new direction. 

I am somewhat schizophrenic in my writing, as I write both independent films that I want to direct, and also higher concept scripts that I want to sell. But my process is the same. Especially when one is engaged in a precarious occupation that may or may not pay off financially, I think it is vital that the effort feel meaningful and fulfilling. I love what I write. I love the stories that emerge during the writing process; I love my characters; I love how I feel after creating something that didn't exist a week before.

I have believed since I was a teenager that everyone is given a talent, and that it behooves us to recognize our talent and try to make the most of it. Some might look at my twenty-three years of effort as an exercise in masochistic tendencies: a constant cycle of victorious out-put tempered by nearly non-stop rejection. But, in the immortal words of Popeye, "I am what I am." I can't be another kind of writer or another kind of person. I could wish that more people see the magic that I try to produce, but I have no illusions about the reality of marketing or the nature of competition. 

Your style of writing probably won't change for having read this; you may even feel more validated that your writing style is right for you. (And it is.) We are each the accumulation of our own experiences and unique imagination. My stories have been set in motion by being a highly sensitive person living with an imperfect body, influenced by the strange and sometimes dark permutations of human behavior. I think I am a stream-of-consciousness writer because I process the world physically - and I have to spew all that I've absorbed back out into a more coherent form. Being a storyteller lets me breathe - in, out, in, out...  

For whatever it's worth, this is my process.

Care to share?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. I envy writers who are able to schedule time for themselves to write in this way. I can't wait until I'm able to do that one day, after my son is in school!

    I've heard the tip about stopping mid-sentence before, but I completely forgot about it. I plan on doing that from here out. Starting a new scene on a new day is always the most difficult part for me.