Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reader Survey: When Has This Advice Inhibited You?

So it’s time to let you guys in on a little secret: a manuscript of the book is done, and has been for about two months, and I’ve used that time to get notes from some early readers. I mainly sought out people who never read the blog, but two blog readers I know socially asked to take a pass as well. The reaction has been very positive, and I’m tremendously gratified to hear it, but the text also has a few problems.

The first problem is length: the first draft was 600 pages! I then chopped it down to 487, but that’s still really long. Obviously, the first goal was to include as much good stuff from the blog as possible, as well as lots of new rules you haven’t seen yet that were naturally suggested by the gaps that occurred when I tried to string the pre-existing stuff out in a straight path.

But the most troubling note that I’ve been getting is one that flows from the other: the double-barrel shotgun blast of advice is just too intimidating. Most of my early readers (my screenwriting group) said that reading this really energized the drafts they were writing, but one said that it crippled his process!

This caused a longtime blog reader to confess that reading my blog blew his mind, which sounds good, but the result was that his writing process was somewhat paralyzed by a year and a half! …And this brings us to the biggest admission: Hearing this made me admit that this blog has never really achieved its original goal of supercharging my own writing process. My own advice has too often intimidated me out of starting new projects.

This problem is somewhat natural: greater awareness of what you’re doing wrong can stop you from charging forward, which is both good and bad, but the goal has never been to fill good writers with so many worries that they can’t write.

So I’ve considered possible solutions, and feel free to vote for one or more:
  • Simply rephrase what I have in a less negative or intimidating way.
  • Re-brand the book (and, by extension, the blog) as rewrite advice, maybe even calling the book “The Rewrite Book”. This was generally recommended by my group, and I’m seriously considering this.
  • On the other hand, I could do something I’ve been considering for a while: coming up with a “short list” of the only things you should worry about before you write, and then making it clear that the current checklist is only for the re-write. Perhaps this would be accompanied by a new series called “How to Dive Into a New Project”
So I thought I would check in halfway through this two-week siesta to ask you guys a few questions:
  • Can you identify questions on the checklist which have inhibited you?
  • Which questions have you found to be the least helpful?
  • Are there questions that have made you think “Ugh, I can’t think about that until the rewrite, or I’ll go crazy!”
  • On the other hand, which have you read and think “That’s the one thing I wish I’d thought of before I began!”
After I’ve gotten enough feedback about this, I’ll propose some checklist questions I’m thinking about cutting altogether and I’ll get your thoughts on those, but first I wanted to see if you guys could help me out with some answers to these. Thanks!


AD said...

Yeah. Have a "for the first draft" section, and a "for the re-write" section, and maybe even a "final polish" section. Break it up into the broad stages of the process.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I've definitely had the "oh crap, I can't even think about this until I've at least sketched out a first draft" reaction as well. CC provides a metric ton of excellent advice, but it's like getting a metric ton of advice about hitting a baseball. Once internalized, this guidance is fabulous. Until then, you're standing in the batter's box, unable to get out of your own head and incapable of swinging. To free up the bat, I've set aside your "ultimate story checklist" as the guide to second drafts. Maybe calling your book the rewriting guide is the way to go.

One particular piece of advice that I both love and hate is the "make sure there's a dilemma as well as a problem," because for the last few stories I've worked on, inserting a dilemma felt like over-complication. If the problem is huge, and the story focuses on the resolution to the problem, is a dilemma necessary? The example that leaps to mind is "Argo." I don't recall Affleck's character having a dilemma; the hostage extraction was such a difficult undertaking, it didn't need added dilemma. (Maybe I'm missing it, but I don't remember one.)

j.s. said...

Um, none of it?

I don't know. To me, the entire point of thinking about all this stuff beforehand is so you don't end up with a cosmetically reparable first draft that nevertheless is built on a fundamentally shoddy foundation, and will remain so because the real big problems are so thoroughly baked into the concept of the story/world/protagonist.

Anyone who wants to can still write quick, rough vomit drafts and use all the structuring tools to pull some order out of that chaos afterward. But everyone else will welcome the chance to plan a little better and to start thinking more intelligently about structure even at the initial stages of brainstorming, writing loglines and pitching.

Matt, I hope you directed that supposedly inhibited writing group member to your numerous checklist road tests, wherein, time and again, you prove that great movies have numerous and abundant deviations from your advice, and still end up working beautifully for very specific reasons. (To me that's always been the essence of anything you've taught -- "why does this thing work work this way?")

The thing I've always loved about this blog and your advice was that it was about being honest and no-nonsense
practical. Trying to pretend it's only about rewriting or that what you have to offer really is more in the "you can do it!" touchy-feely mode devalues everything I love about your teaching. And it frankly kind of lies about why you started discovering these things for yourself in the first place.

Anyone who's not in touch with his/her inner child enough to be creatively unblocked can always buy Julia Cameron's book.

Everyone else who wants to learn how to construct a better story will be interested in yours.

Kayla said...

I really, really love the third option.

I'd love to buy & read the 487 page version. And I'd also love to read the shorter version, which would be really useful when it comes to actually writing a first draft.

And I'll have to think about your questions... The entire writing process intimidates me, so I can't give feedback on which questions/information specifically scare me.

QED said...

I agree that in general the whole process of starting is scary and being faced with lots of rules makes that harder. Given how much content you have would it be possible to split into two books, a first draft book and a rewrite book?

For the first draft book I would make it less about rules and more about helping people ask the right sort of questions about the story they want to tell if that makes sense. In improvisation I believe they use a lot of "yes and..." would that be a better initial tact to take on a first draft?

Anonymous said...

I'd vote primarily for the first option: to rewrite in a more positive way, but I'd also be interested in having a shorter list to have in mind for the first draft.
I hope you can get the book out soon - I can't wait to read it!

Parker said...

You've said yourself that there are some things you don't discover about your story until you're in the middle of it. So it makes sense to have part of the book be about exploring a concept in order to prepare for the rough draft, and have part of the book be about rewriting to add complexity and depth to the story.

j.s. said...

"Hearing this made me admit that this blog has never really achieved its original goal of supercharging my own writing process. My own advice has too often intimidated me out of starting new projects."

I wonder if you'd expand on what you mean by this. Has knowing what you know stopped you from starting something that could have been good? Or has it only prevented you from diving into something that was full of the sorts of inherent problems and big unresolved issues that often bog stories down? If you think you really don't write any faster do you at least save yourself time in abandoned projects and/or number of major rewrites later on? I mean, isn't the only way to write more and faster just to force yourself to do it? And what's the point of that if you've got quantity but no quality?

What's missing form this post for me is an acknowledgement by you and your book/blog readers that, of all the story gurus out there (and you're not even really presenting yourself as such), you're the one with the most descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) advice. Part of the reason your lists and your book run so long and are so exhaustively thorough is because you haven't extracted some kind of Platonic essence of story, but instead you're only concerned with learning from the way stories actually work (or don't) in the wild.

One other thing I think that's always been implicit in this blog and that might bear more emphasis in a book version of it is that not only does any given story not have to tick off every category on your checklist (or ignore or tweak them in innovative ways), but many solid and successful works are simply good enough at a few of the biggies that audiences will forgive their other weaknesses.

I do like the title and the idea of "The Rewrite Book," so long as you 1) ground it in the idea that "all writing is rewriting" and 2) don't shy away from the fact that thinking about new projects with a rewriters' cap on preemptively can often save you major headaches later on. You could even have a chapter heading entitled something like "Pre-writing as Rewriting."

Justin Walsh said...

I'm with j.s.

If anything, the fact your advice paralysed someone proves that they perceived something so fundamental and powerful that they knew their current work did not live up to a heightened standard. I would view that as vindication, however discomforting it may be.

Did the blog reader tell you if his writing improved during that time? That's the measure you need to worry about. And if he got that much better, does he now care about the pain?

You can't control how people will react to what you put out there. Just make sure whatever you publish isn't presented out of fear.

Looking forward to reading it.

Arlene said...

Don't you dare dumb anything down, Matt! You've been an amazing resource for me. Yes, I've felt intimidated—that just means I have lots to learn and I care. I'd never assume it reflects on your delivery. It's up to us to manage our anxiety, a valuable skill in this business, right? If you're concerned about how accessible the advice in the book is, sure, restructure. But if it’s the volume of advice, keep the floodgates open. Inhibitions are best overcome, not accommodated.

Jill Rasmussen said...

Hey Matt,

Speaking for myself, I use your Story Checklist (I think v.4 is the latest) to help craft my concept, act beats and then outline. But that is who I am as a writer; I like to construct meticulous outlines before I do any actual writing so that I can weed out any obvious structural problems beforehand.

Stephen Tilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Bird said...

I think that one problem is that I have a reader in mind who indignantly insists that none of this applies to him, so I attempt to berate this poor man into submission and brook no opposition to my rules.

This harks back to being fed up with my lousy "There are no rules" Columbia miseducation: that imaginary indignant reader is, of course, younger me.

I'll try to make the book (and the blog from now on) a little more explicitly "a la carte" so as not to paralyze overwhelmed readers. Obviously *I* believe that everything I say is important, but I don't want to repel readers who want to pick and choose, if only for the sake of sanity.

Paul Clarke said...

Matt, it's fine the way it is. If someone is that easily put-off then they're in the wrong business.

It's like those people who complain about certain TV shows. Why don't they just change the channel? No book is right for everyone. If someone doesn't like yours, they can move on. Find one that's already dumbed-down and sweet enough for their fragile ego. Lord knows there's already plenty of those. You'll never please everyone, and it's mighty dangerous to try.

For the rest of us, leave it as is. It's not like you're holding a gun to anyone's head. Every time you've applied the checklist to a great movie there's been instances where it strayed. You point that out. No script is going to follow every single rule. The idea is that when you get stuck or find a section you don't like or a specific problem - you can go straight to your advice on that area and use it to fix it up. To solve the problem. Like someone mentioned, after time this process should be innate.

I have always found your stuff invaluable when attempting to fix issues. In the end all advice is really about the analysis/rewrite phase. It just becomes part of the creative process through practice.

Either way, I can't wait for the book.

Geekademia said...

The beautiful thing about creative rules is that they're meant to be broken. Of course, you can't break said rules until such time as you understand them, and know which ones to uphold while you break others. As far as I can tell, few people on the internet do what you do, which is provide intelligent, practical advice without a hint of platitude to people interested in becoming better storytellers. I would hate to see that lost or watered down.

Shawn Scarber Deggans said...

Hi Matt,

I'm a long time reader of your blog. I'm not a screenwriter. Tried it. It's not my cup-of-tea. But I do write short stories and I am focused on a novel right now.

I use your checklist after I've already created a fairly detailed outline, but prior to a more detailed 0 draft or treatment. It does not work for short stories. There's just too much there. However, it's great for novel, but doesn't fulfill all my storytelling needs. I actually use a program called Dramatica to help structure my overall story.

However, it should also be noted that I go through multiple revisions, send outlines and synopsis' to multiple peers for critique, and usually end up with something completely different than what I initially visualized.

In other words, I do not think you an accurately create a step-by-step guide that's going to work for every writer.

in the age of digital publishing, I think you should just create multiple versions of the same guide aimed at different aspects of the creative process. Create the one big guide that has everything, then create smaller guide with duplicate material that focuses on pre-writing, the actual writing process, and then revision, and honestly I would love to see something on analysis. As long as the reader is made aware that some of the information is duplicated from other works, I don't think that would be a problem.

Rochelle Krause said...

I prefer the option of leaving the book in current form (I would've even had loved the 600 page version!). I'm in the beginning stages of a script so I can't respond to your questions but I will request that you please don't dumb down or in any way diminish your analysis. You're providing a tremendous service in a way that no one else is.

I understand the analysis paralysis about which others speak because I recently experienced it myself. At first I was overwhelmed with how to start my script. Then I calmed down, took a breath, and clicked on your "How to Write a Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps" link. I'm starting with that. As my process continues, I'll read your blog posts that are relevant to my process at that moment. But it's MY responsibility to NOT get overwhelmed but instead to think it through and apply your guidance when and how I deem appropriate.

The problem is NOT your analysis, the problem is how people choose to experience it. You offer so much insight that our brains are overwhelmed. So the easy thing to do is to ask you to stop giving us some much information. I'd rather you continue to overwhelm us with information and allow each individual writer to manage it as she or he is able.

Matt Bird said...

I think to a certain extent the changes I'm talking about have already happened here on the blog. It was really when I did the structure series that I realized "Okay, clearly there is no one structure that applies to everything, and no one movie that hits every beat of any generally applicable structure, so it's time I start talking about 'most' instead of 'all'", and I'm pretty much stuck with that ever since.

The problem in the book is that, even though it's almost entirely re-written, each section still has the palimpsest of the original underneath, and the much-older character and concept material still has the more-didactic voice I used early on.

I think I definitely need to start working on a slimmed-down "How to begin" series, too.

MCP said...

I'm with j.s. and the others who have said not to dumb anything down or recast it as a rewrite-only book.

I have found the checklist questions springboards for creativity, not inhibitors. This is especially true in the areas I am weaker (structure and scene-work).

I have mentioned this before but I feel that your work has made my Draft 3's the equivalent of my old Draft 6's, which is the equivalent of scores of hours of rewriting (which is my least favorite part of writing). So I use the questions during my outlining phase to great effect.

What I found the most paralyzing in the past was a script that had so many problems it was hard to figure out where to start to fix them.

All in all, if the book is an accurate reflection of the quality of the blog I think it will be tremendously helpful to a great number of people.

Patrick said...

Simply rephrase what I have in a less negative or intimidating way?---------

It's not intimidating. Matt, your problem is you have no method. What is your method of screenwriting? On a blog you can be encyclopedic but in a book, a book is like a story. It needs an arc in a way that a blog doesn't. Unless it's an encyclopedia, maybe a personal encyclopedia of screenwriting?

To say it again, on a blog you can say, inciting incidents today. In a book, you say inciting incidents are in the beginning or the whole book is about inciting incidents.

What negative?---------------------
Disagreement? That's editing. When you make formal arguments, you figure out if your written piece is mostly negative or mostly positive. You end with the 'mostly' regardless of whether it is negative or positive. In person, a classroom setting needs to remain positive. Written opinion has to end with your own opinion, not some fluffed up praise to stroke somebody's ego. See?

I can see why you might want to take out the negative arguments, if it doesn’t work why bring it up?

About method------------------------
Your blog has helped me with my own storytelling method to be disclosed at a later date (I'm still writing it up). Here's something like what I'm talking about, narativ.com. These guys developed their program working with aids patients who had given up on the world. They needed a method that could drag the most walled up person out to tell their story and it's a pretty good system. It's similar to mine except I don't have their semi-religious zealousy about story, I'm an entertainer. It can help you because you need establish a point of reference for your opinions.

Re-brand the book (and, by extension, the blog) as rewrite advice, maybe even
calling the book “The Rewrite Book”. This was generally recommended by my group, and I’m seriously considering this. ------------------------------

This is the kiss of death. Besides you can mine a dozen books from your blog, the reviews of underrated movies for one. Then, the threads. Losing my religion is a stand alone book on screen writing.

I envision the Ultimate Story Check list as a screenplay writing guide and workbook (the workbook would be best as a pdf). I envision it as a chronological order framework for a screenplay. Cut out everything else. I think the sections can be different volumes.

Here’s somebody using your title…

On the other hand, I could do something I’ve been considering for a while: coming up with a “short list” of the only things you should worry about before you write, and then making it clear that the current checklist is only for the re-write.
Perhaps this would be accompanied by a new series called “How to Dive Into a New Project”-------------

RE-write? Any new writer would look at your book as a guide for their first draft. Re-write would discourage the newbies.

Can you identify questions on the checklist which have inhibited you? Let me get back to you…

Which questions have you found to be the least helpful?
If you make a good structure, you'll see how silly this question is.

Are there questions that have made you think “Ugh, I can’t think about that until the rewrite, or I’ll go crazy! Let me get back to you on this.

On the other hand, which have you read and think “That’s the one thing I wish I’d thought of before I began!”

I guess I have been writing too long. There's no question about my story that triggers regret. I’m so used to rewriting.

Matt Bird said...

Thanks so much for all the advice!

Elizabeth said...

I just wanted to add a thought I had after digesting this conversation and going back to the blog--which I LOVE. I am also a novelist and a teacher of creative writing. My thought was this: could you pinpoint some of the more major questions or points, and then have others fall under these as subheadings. Branch it out, so that there are fewer initial points to consider but as one is digging down into a major point, there are these additional questions/ checkpoints to consider. In any case, you don't sound negative to me--I've been recommending you all over the place and looking forward to having a book I can leaf back and forth in more easily than I make my way around the blog.