Saturday, September 10, 2005

On being a wrong-headed poltroon

I've charged blindly at this project about half a dozen times over the last five years, never making any headway. Back when Conchie was a novel, I thought that having a vague idea of my characters and plot points was enough, and that armed with these meagre details I could start writing and let the story tell itself.

I'd cruise through the first bunch of pages easily enough, but, quite predictably, would end up hitting the buffers when I ran out of story. Even though I knew how it began and ended, I didn't know anywhere near enough of the geography in between. Every time I was bought up short, I rationalised that I must have approached the story from the wrong angle, rallied, and had another run at it, each time as ill-prepared as the last. Whenever the narration raised even a simple question I'd have to extemporise an answer. Following that, a lengthy period revising everything I'd written to accommodate it. I wrote about eight first chapters, all from different viewpoints, with varying tones and levels of characterisation, before giving up the job as a bad 'un.

If you've been reading your screenwriting blogs, you might be thinking that this is shaping up to be yet another post about the importance of outlining. But I'm no pro; I'm writing my first outline for my first script so what I've got to say is much more basic than that. Although I've learnt that if I try to write without an outline I end up in some kind of temporal loop, always starting over, the real lesson for me has been in the evolution of my nebulous desire to be "a writer" into something more concrete.

My total inability to advance with Conchie as a novel had less to do with my crappy prose than with the fact that I didn't know how to write a book. Call it ignorance, call it enthusiasm; off I went, wondering how hard it could be, believing that as long as I trusted my talent, I'd be okay. The fact was I had no idea how to pace a novel, when to introduce characters, initiate sub-plots, whether to aim for 100 pages or 600. I have a degree in English literature; but it turns out that reading Hamlet from a New Historicist perspective in order to gain insights into the Elizabethan attitude to insanity and treason is actually pretty inadequate preparation for becoming a playwright. Sadistic Talent had led me up a blind alley, two b'foured
me in the face and was laughing while he shat on my head. I was shit. I was deluded. It was the phone-room for me, forever.

Having misread my lack of attention to craft as deficit of talent, a dark depression descended. I didn't know what to do with myself. I watched a lot of telly. One day I noticed I had about eight torrents fired up and I was spending all my time watching TV. It was the only popular form of storytelling I respected, and there I'd been, trying to write a novel.

If I'd been in the bath, I would have leapt out.

No wonder progress had been impossible; I was in the wrong game. I'd wanted to tell a story, and because I never gave much thought as to how I wanted to tell it, it stayed locked up, weakened and got sick, and took a part of me down with it. Once it saw it's escape route, I perked up too and got ready to start digging.

So to anyone with a vague aspiration to become a writer, I say: stop being vague. Say goodbye to that romantic nonsense about being a conduit for stories and start learning to be a mechanic. This is a ten megaton atomic fact: writers don't channel stories, they build them. On a bad day, they smash them into place with bastard great mallets, seal them with foot thick metal panels and rivets the size of dinner plates and spend all their time running up the down the length of the
fuckers plumbing leaks that spring forth at enormous pressure.

Talent is one thing. But it's no substitute for knowing what you are doing, and being in control.

If you're trying to write, but just sitting there looking at a blank screen or sheet of paper wondering why it's just not happening, well then I don't have much sympathy for you. In most cases your problem is going to be that you may know a bit about your story, but you won’t work out the rest of it until you learn more about the medium you’re creating it for, because how it’s displayed will affect how it’s told. It will never just blossom into a fully-formed tale in your mind; if you are waiting for this to happen then you basically want the result without the work. If you don’t get your hands dirty and start making the effort to learn how screenplays - or comics, novels, poems, whatever - are constructed, your story is going to be stillborn.

There are plenty of places to get hold of TV scripts on the web. Print them out, get yourself some coloured pens and start having fun identifing the different plot strands, noticing if the act-out cliff-hangers are emotional or physical, how many pages there are per act, per scene, how many words in a typical line of dialogue, where the story beats are. To get you started, I’ve compiled a wee list for youse:

  • Firefly

  • Wonderfalls

  • Veronica Mars and Cupid

  • Twin Peaks:  Season One.
                          Season Two.

  • Sports Night

  • The Dead Zone

  • Lois and Clark

  • Tom Fontana collection

  • Lee Goldberg bonanza


  • Now go, and work, and learn.

    Then start writing.

    Category: Writing

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