Keeping Going

18 Feb

The Way of the Writer

photo by Vince Kusters

I don’t know if you missed it, but last month I was prviledged to be a guest blogger on my collegue Nick Daw’s Writing Blog on the subject of Inspiration. This post generated a lot of, well, post. Emails to be specific. I think my ideas went over very well but people had a lot of questions. A particular exchange with a nice woman called Yolanda M. from South Africa prompted me to consider retelling the subsequent question and answer session here in the blog, as I think it has a lot to say about how you manage your writing. Keeping going and trying to focus on the right things. The same is true of all arts, visual and audible.

Here’s what Yolanda had to say:

“I have a question: How do you keep motivated through the long process of writing a screenplay? I’ve restarted my story 8 times! There’s so many things to keep in mind when writing, So much little detail! It feels like every step forward takes me back 3 steps. Will this script ever get finished?”

She also gave some details of her plot and characters. It seemed to me she was getting bogged down in details.

My reply was like so:

Keeping going is the hardest thing in writing and it’s one of the toughest things to master. Writers block or just plain lack of stamina are all things which prevent you from getting things done.

Think of it this way: if you were sculpting a statue which you knew in the end was going to have a lot of detail would you start at the top and start spending lots of time doing detail on the hair when the rest of the body was still trapped in stone? No what you would do is chip out a rough shape of the figure and gradually refine it till you had a shape which approximates your finished result. Then you would refine it over time adding more refinements and details and finishing touches. Eventually when you see there is nothing left to change you are finished.

Make a plan of what you are going to write, make a commitment to write a certain amount a day (and make it doable, even if it’s only 500 words) and in 90 days you’ll have a pretty thick script. Don’t worry too much about fine details but plan the story, lay it out so you know what will happen when. Decide how long you want the script to be, say 90-100 mins? In screenplays it’s about a minute a page. Have a major story turn about a quarter of the way in and a final twist about three quarters of the way in. So first hit point about page 30 and last one about page 60, just roughly.

Write in short bursts, set a timer for 10 minutes and resolve to write as much as you can in 10 minutes. Then stop. Go watch TV, drink coffee, go for a walk to think about it. Come back and do it again another 10 minutes. Do that 3-6 times a day. Do that every weekday and take time over the weekend to read what you’ve done and take notes about details you will add, look up and research for your rewrites.

Writing is all about keeping going. Getting bogged down in details and trying to decide what you are going to do in too much detail as you go just slows you down. Get a rough idea of where you are going and write write write. Once you have a first draft you can use the 10 minute technique to do your rewrites too!

It’s important to give your ideas a form as quickly as possible, give them life so they can breathe. Only then can you add the important historical details and wonderful subtle nuances which will make your script a joy to read.

Having taken that on board, Yolanda was concerned about her story. She recounted a list of things which happen to the hero in the first 18 pages of her script. There was a lot of plot. This is a common mistake that writers make when they start out, because the thing you remember about stories you love is all the great things that happen.

I replied like so:

Okay the problem I see you’re getting yourself into is that you are so far writing a lot of plot, details, things which happen, and not much story.

Plot is – a man goes to zoo, saves people from zebras
Story is – a man goes to zoo to plead for his job back, and misses the meeting because he saves a kid from a lion.

See the difference? The first is just a happening for no reason, the second illuminates the character and puts him in a difficult situation. Which could lead to another situation which he has to get into because he has no job.

All the time the one question is WHY is this happening? If the answer is because it’s exciting and I’m moving the plot forward, then you need to rethink it. If the answer is that this tells us something important about the character and forces him into a course of action which takes us on our journey, then leave it in.

Always ask why. And don’t spend too much time labouring a point about how tough, how kind, how true this guy is, don;t waste scenes on that for 18 minutes, tell his story in the first 5 pages with a little glimpse into his world and who is is, how he is thought of, then get the story going by having his world change.

Advising Yolanda and the other people who commented and emailed me has prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for years; set up a small Internet service for giving writers advice. I call it The Noun Collective and it will be launching in March, and I guarantee you can afford it. Obviously offering a service like that requires some form of payment, it takes time to answer questions and it’s taken me decades to know the answers to these questions. But rather than do what others do and set a high price for dispensing my “pearls of wisdom”  to beginning writers, I’m going to take a more modern approach; you can pay what you like! I will have premium services for long form script evaluation, but the main service will be this: ask a question, get an answer, pay what you like. Watch out for details in future blogs. Subscribers to the newsletter will be able to get beta test access to the system, by the way, so sign up now to get ahead of the pack.


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Posted by on February 18, 2010 in Creative Genius, Essay


2 responses to “Keeping Going

  1. pratibha verma

    February 18, 2010 at 10:52 am

    very effective and pointed.

    • Phil South

      February 18, 2010 at 5:12 pm

      Hey thanks for reading and enjoying it. I hope to add more readers letters to the blog as we pick up speed.


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