The Practice of Writing
By: Michael James Greenwald
Happy Sunday everyone. This weeks topic is “Making Time.” I spent quite a while mulling over how to approach this post, because it’s something I’ve paid attention to a lot when other writers talk about their schedules and how they make time in busy lives for writing and I hate to be highly disappointing to all you Green writers out there in our audience, coming to PLC for answers (dammit!!!!), but like most aspects of becoming a professional writer, you must use trial-and-error to determine what works best for you.
Okay, please bear with me as I deviate from the mean (I hear my fellow PLC writers groaning…”he’s doing it again!!!”). I have a 122,000 word manuscript that I started the summer of 2008 and finished one year later. It’s the third time I set out to write a novel, the first one being a disaster-mess and the second novel being not much better, but before beginning this one I really took time to strategize my approach and I worked a lot of elements out in my head, so I felt more prepared than ever before to create a workable manuscript that would lead to representation, publishing, and WORLD DOMINATION…okay, went too far there.
I’ve always been a very intuitive, anti-outline, write your way into the story and see where it takes you, kind of writer. It fits my personality and quite honestly writing this way, Anarchy Writing, as I call it, has created scenes and elements and cool writing that under the restrictions of organization I might have not discovered. But in the last three months while trying to edit this monster, I’ve been constantly frustrated with the results, yet could never pinpoint the problem. Then yesterday (tired of picking at my novel and getting no where), I set about starting the adaption of my novel to screenplay. To do this I bought a stack of 100 Mead unlined note cards, borrowed The Screenwriter’s Bible off a friend’s bookshelf,
and followed the steps outlined by David Trottier (Who? Yeah, that’s what I said.)
The first step involved questions to better know your characters. My belief at the time was that I’d written an entire novel, so I knew my peeps fairly well, but I committed to following the steps. On the first card, I wrote:
What does your protagonist want and what does he most fear?
And set to answer that. Simple enough, right. I reflected on 420 pages of a novel that I’d written, which placed Brett Myers, my protagonist, front and center, and I wrote:
And then I stared at my cursor. Well, he wants happiness, but Trottier specifically selects happiness as being too vague for a want. Then I thought a bunch more, really putting time into discovering what Brett Myers REALLY wants and I came to the shocking realization that in 122,000 words I’d never really decided on the one unifying thing that my protagonist wants!!!!
I know, right?
Next step, according to Trottier, is to figure out a:
for each character. Since I didn’t have Brett’s want I couldn’t decide on his goal either. So after panicking (wandering around a small room, flapping my arms like a bird, emitting moaning sounds from my lips), I decided to forget the 420 page manuscript and just focus in on the steps Trottier lays out. And when I did, what did I find? Well, most importantly, I found my story, what it really was, at it’s core, and least importantly I discovered in the year I’d been writing my novel (my third) I was writing without any idea of what my core story was or what my characters core need or want freakin’ was!!!!!
Basically, if I was making a tree, I was creating all these really good branches without ever forming the trunk. A Trunkless Tree
Funny looking tree, right? Funny looking novel. I’ve been writing for three years, knew all about needing to know what a character’s want is, but never really, really, took a deep look at this, took the time to prepare, to write it down, to display it where I can see it when I’m writing, and not lose focus on that idea.
Following Trottier’s steps, I realized I had no better handle on my novel’s Core Plot structure, grandiose theme, purpose, and better yet when I finally had twenty note cards that showed my character’s seminal want, Core Plot Structure, theme, they did not match up to the manuscript I’d written!!!!!
So what am I going to do? I’m going to do a major rewrite on a “finished” 122,000 word manuscript. I’m going to follow the Trottier steps to writing a winning screenplay, gonna write these answers on note cards and tack them to the walls on my study, and I’m going to write all the scenes of my story on note cards and tack them to a cork board, creating a story-board like television writers use to block TV episodes. Basically, I’m going to have visual evidence above my head as I write qualifying The Trunk of my story, so when I do the rewrite, I will never lose sight (literally) of my core story and my characters core wants and needs and goals and flaws.
So to you Green writers out there, my only advice on Making Time (this weeks topic–oh, yeah, that’s write, looks like I’ve written a trunkless blog) is to experiment, use trial-and-error, and find what works best for you.
Jack London used to wake up, make coffee and toast (butter and grape jelly), and plant his butt at his writing chair until he reached 3,000 words and only then did he get up, stretch his legs and take his huskies out in the snow; Michael Chabon writes from 10AM-3PM , everyday, rain, shine, MLK day, the day his friend died, EVERYDAY; Shania Twain writes songs in all-night, sometimes two-three day binges, then doesn’t write again for weeks; Ernest Hemingway couldn’t write sitting down, so he wrote in his kitchen standing up; Stephen King dons his favorite I-Love-Ryan-Adams fan-club T, plays AC/DC to brain-splitting decimals, writes 2,000 words, finishing in-time to watch BoSox games; I read about a writer who wrote in a full business suit and actually packed a brown-bag lunch to work in his home office and another writer who could only write in the nude with a bottle of Jack between his legs (that might have been Kerouac or Thompson, I can’t remember), and another who could not write without a loaded pistol on his desk (swear to Dickens–not sure if the pistol was to keep him motivated, or more likely, as a backup plan in case he couldn’t discover The Trunk of his story).
So, my only advice to you is to do all of those things (maybe not the pistol thing, kids) and see what works for you, but the most important part, as I learned yesterday, is you must be open to epiphanies along the way, and whether you’ve decided to begin your first novel or you’re beginning your thirty-first, writing is the same as the practice of doctoring or lawyering, you learn by trying something and learning from your mistakes and successes.
Tune in Monday for Amy McLane, kick starting next week’s topic and I’ll see y’all next Sunday, same spot, same time.
I wish you all good words!!!!!