Thursday, March 14, 2013

How To Write Every Day, Part 4: Work on Multiple Projects

I talked last time about the overwhelming urge to take a break from writing when you reach a tricky fork in the road, at which point you can simply write the bad version, or you can brainstorm new versions of the scene, as long as you don’t count that as your writing for the day.

But sometimes you just get that sinking sensation: You’ve strayed too far from your outline and now you’re waist-deep in the big muddy.  The big fool inside your head says to push on, but should you listen?  Sometimes you become obsessed with making the wrong solution work, but it never will.  Instead, you realize that you need to step back and spot that much better, much simpler solution that’s been eluding you. 

But try as you might, you fail.  You know it’s there, and you know that there’s no point in going on until you spot it, but you just can’t see it…yet.

This is why, if you’re committed to writing everyday, you need to be able to jump to a parallel project.  Some writers advise against this, because they say that you need to be able to totally immerse yourself in your world, rather than dipping your toe into different ponds, but I disagree.  I would say that it’s more important to maintain perspective, and the only way to do that is to take a step back occasionally.

Writing a few pages of another project is helpful in multiple ways:
  • It buoys you up out of that sinking sensation and allows you to start fresh on new challenges.
  • It reminds you that not everything is riding on your main project, so it can be what it needs to be, instead of being all things to all people.
  • It allows you to move that big problem to the back of your mind, but it keeps working the muscles that you need to solve it, which makes it more likely that you’ll have that “Eureka!” moment, when a solution for the supposedly forgotten problem suddenly flashes into your head.  If you take days off to just think about the main problem, it’s more likely that you’ll forget it entirely.
But what if you don’t have another project ready to go?  That’s fine.  Go through your old abandoned projects and dream up radical re-writes, and try writing the first three pages.  Find another abandoned screenplays and write the bad version of the next scene you were never able to tackle.  Maybe, now that you have some perspective on those projects, they’ll come roaring back to life.

But it doesn’t really matter—Just keep flexing that muscle until you’re ready to go back to your main project in a few days.  You might just find that all those false solutions have melted away, and the real solution is staring you right in the face.  (And, most importantly, you haven’t broken your writing momentum.)


J.A. said...

"It reminds you that not everything is riding on your main project, so it can be what it needs to be, instead of being all things to all people." -great insight into a huge obstacle.

j.s. said...

I agree with J.A. I'd say that as a corollary "Everything is riding on your ability to switch gears quickly, to constantly nurture multiple projects in different stages of development all on your own and to be in the right sort of physical and mental shape to invent something out of whole cloth because the tiniest spark of an idea happens to be what excites somebody who wants to work with you the most."

I've seen people slave away on one project year after year and it might be getting somewhat better but it's mostly getting different. Better to have multiple good enough scripts than one masterpiece that everybody admires but may not want to buy.

Rewriting should be about flexibility, self-honesty and measurable improvements, not perfectionism.

All that said it does seem lately like you're moving back to a more drafty and less plan-y kind of mindset. After all if you're always writing and rewriting anyway what's the need for careful planning about? Can't you just dive in and find the characters and the story draft after draft because you'll have to rewrite it all anyway no matter how carefully you've planned or prewritten?

Matt Bird said...

True, I am drifting more towards a "find your way" path, but that doesn't mean that I'm not as focused on all my beloved little rules.

What role do the rules/how-to's/checklists play if you're finding your way by writing pages?

Obviously, the ideal situation is that you work with the rules enough that they become instinctive, and you naturally avoid every pitfall.

Failing that, I'm starting to feel that it's better apply the full checklist *after* you begin the first draft. In fact, I've been working on a bare-minimum "short checklist" that you should apply to your outline before you start writing, and then you can go back and do the full checklist either after the first draft, or, more likely, when you've lost your way in the middle of the first draft.