Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Don't stare into the sun

Just a quickie, and just because I wanted to get my January blog count up to a substantial 2.

So my Priority C time is going great guns.  Having delivered “Her Royal Spyness” and a big corporate job before Christmas, I now have the time, space, and a little bit of money to work up some new script outlines, put together my first proper TV series proposals and do the much-delayed rewrite on Romeo and Rosaline (it looks like the competitive project mentioned in that post isn’t going anywhere particularly fast, so we’re taking another crack at our version).

In between all of this, two more immediate feature projects have emerged, both low budget and contained and concept-driven and for which I might end up writing drafts or ‘scriptments’ in February, just to keep the ball rolling.  Both very exciting and more on both to follow.

But within my Priority C, new business pitch ideas, two patterns are emerging.  The first type of idea, usually a chunky high concept, is the one that knocks you sideways when you first happen upon it and then almost overwhelms you with its potential.  The idea immediately generates so much obvious material – scenes, characters, act breaks – that your job as a writer is to make some sense and order of it all (and sift out the obvious from the interesting, too).  I liken it to being swamped by an avalanche, and then having to dig your way out.  It can be hard work, but if you know where you’re heading, and you give yourself enough time, and you approach the job in a rational, methodical manner, you know you’re going to get through it all.

Then there is the second type of idea – less digging up and out, more digging down and in.  I’ve mentioned this before, specifically in the old writer-as-palaeontologist metaphor from Stephen King.  I’m walking around a desert and I stub my toe on the nub of an idea.  I look around and my writer-as-palaeontologist senses start to twitch.  There is something here, below, buried.  I know it.  So I get out my tools, and start to dig.

But sometimes, after days and days of digging, all I have to show for it is a load of old bones and a very big hole.  It doesn’t fit.  It doesn’t work.  So what do I do now?

It seems there are three options.  One is to give up and walk away.  Perhaps my senses were wrong.  Maybe there is nothing there after all.  And, sometimes, knowing when to quit is the writer’s most valuable tool.  But not in this case.  I KNOW there is a movie here, I’m just not going about it the right way. 

So option two.  Keep going.  Keep digging.  Follow Gene Fowler’s advice and “stare at the blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead”.  (I always knew this quote but didn’t know its source, possibly thought it was Hemingway.  Fowler was an interesting man it appears, an early-days screenwriter whose other great tip was "The best way to become a successful writer is to read good writing, remember it, and then forget where you remember it from."  This seems to say it all.)

But is option two smart?  And does it work?  This seems a different problem to the avalanche situation.  There is no guarantee that, just by hacking away at the bare earth, you will eventually strike oil or hit the gold seam (to mix a number of metaphors).  And when do you know when to quit, after all that?  You’d be like Costner on the 18th  in TIN CUP, hitting three wood after three wood into the drink.  Heroic, maybe, but still a failure.  And with time being the most precious commodity a writer has, how many heroic failures can we afford?

So there’s option three.  A third way.  Not giving up but not blindly ploughing on, either.  Just take a break.  Put the kettle on.  Go for a run, have a bath.  (These can all be read either metaphorically or literally, by the way).  Read a book, a script, watch a movie that might have some kind of overlap with the problem you’re currently taking.  Don’t give up but just don’t think about it.  Don’t stare into the sun until it blinds you.  Look askance.  Look around the problem and see what that throws up.  See the wood, not the trees.  Even work on something else.  And then the answer might just hit you in a flash.  Or, when you return to the script, the yellow brick road will shine invitingly and you will wonder what all the fuss was about.  Crossword puzzlers will know this technique of old.  (And if it doesn’t hit you, then you haven’t wasted hours and days and weeks staring at the blank sheet of paper and beating yourself up over your shortcomings as a writer.)

In the last few weeks I’ve found that it actually works a treat.  One time recently I was laid low with some horrific man-flu (probably just a mild cold).  It coincided with hitting a brick wall on another script.  So I took myself away from my computer and off to bed.  Two hours of near-delirious mid-afternoon-napping later and the problem was solved.

But I’m conflicted about option three.  It feels like a smart move, the right way to finesse your way through a problem.  The subconscious shouldn’t be overlooked, nor instinct, nor the need to “feel” a complete solution to a script problem rather than cobbling together something that might look okay but doesn’t feel right.

But I’m also worried that I’m kidding myself.  That it’s actually the lazy option, the passive option, that I’m leaving too much to luck / fate / “inspiration” whereas in fact a more deliberate, left-brain, blood-from-forehead approach will yield better results over time.

Anyone got any thoughts on this that they want to share with me?

As a post script, my last post, about War Horse vs Tintin provoked some strident but, to me, still baffling, defence of the former film.  One of its most ardent advocates was the British writer Stuart Hazeldine, and we had a bit of back and forth over it on Facebook.  I concluded that even the greats make mis-steps, whereas his position was that you don’t get to ‘great’ by not knowing precisely what you’re doing all the time.  He also kept referring to the director as Steven, which I found a little familiar, until I read this.  So what do I know?  Well done Stuart, you bastard.

(Although a little part of me still thinks he’s only defending War Horse because he doesn’t want his future employer googling him and finding out he’s been slagging him off online.  Although I also don’t think Spielberg spends too much time googling screenwriters, so there goes that theory.  Incidentally, I once met Stuart and some other people for a drink, way back in the day, and he spent the entire evening scribbling into his notepad and not talking to anybody.  So maybe he’s an option two guy.  And that hasn’t worked out too badly for him.)

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