listening and thinking

A buddy of mine has been bugging me to listen to more podcasts, especially those involved with cinema and screenwriting.

My problem is one of timing – do I download it to my laptop, or MP3 player, and listen to it at another time, or just stream it live while I’m doing something boring? So, I’m making an effort to listen to Podcasts more often. Streaming it live seems to work best. If I download it I tend to forget about it.

Some podcasts are very good. In particular I love Mark Kermode’s weekly Film reviews. They are entertaining and informative. Mark always calls a film the way he sees it, and doesn’t engage in PC bluster.

Creative Screenwriting has been publishing excellent podcasts for a couple of years. Most of them are Q&A sessions with screenwriters and directors. My friend had urged me to listen to the interview with writer Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine (2006). It is an excellent interview, and it contains a lot of insights into the film writing/development process.

I was struck by something Arndt said about the writing process. He noted that he “believes in procrastination”. By that he doesn’t mean not writing, but to plot and outline a great deal before you write the first draft. For Arndt there are two parts to writing: thinking about writing, and writing. “Thinking is 98%. If you knew what you were going to say you would just sit down and write it.” As he says, “Typing doesn’t take that long. It’s figuring out what you want to say that takes a long time.” So Arndt’s strategy is, “To put off writing as long as possible.” The difficulty with the other approach is, “If you commit something to paper too soon you’re stuck with this thing that you don’t know what it is, and what to do with it.”

In many ways this is similar to the way that screenwriter Paul Schrader works, as I discussed some time ago. Schrader believes in telling your story to others until it’s worked out. Both Schrader and Arndt think that you can damage your story by putting it on the page too soon.

This seems to be the way I work best – for longer projects. For a short story I can start with nothing and get to the end without an outline. It does require gritted teeth and determination sometimes. I’ve never written a screenplay without an outline of some variety. I may deviate from the outline once I start writing, but at least I have the guide rope upon which I can place my hand when I’m lost or despairing.

I have noticed that some stories require more thinking time than others. Some I can rip into immediately, and others need to be mulled over longer. There’s an indefinable feeling, a build-up of pressure, that lets me know when I can proceed. Without that pressure behind me I can flag half-way through a story. The problem is, of course, to have several different stories on the boil in your mind, so you don’t end up thinking, and never writing. Plus, deadlines don’t care about how long it takes for a story to boil. If it has to be done, it has to be done. The handy thing about deadlines is that they enforce an artificial pressure upon a story.

At the moment I’m tired of being in a steamy kitchen, with many simmering pots, and none of them boiling.

It’s time to stoke the fires.

Or blow up the damn kitchen.


  • gordsellar

    I like the idea that starting writing something can damage it. I’ve been finding the longer I hold off on something, let it simmer and thicken, the better chance I have of coming at it from the right angle, with the right twist in perspective, from the proper POV to the story itself. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to know when that’s happening, and when you’re just putting things off. I’ve just discovered that formal experimentation might be one way of working through that question. For example, I found my “Egan Thief” story was going nowhere. So I let it sit for months, and it kept on going nowhere, until suddenly, when I started trying to write a symmetrina (an unrelated one) and then I thought the form would be pretty applicable to that story, I began a radically different reworking of the same idea in a very different way. The form pushed me in a direction I hadn’t previously imagined. Even if I abandon the form in a later draft, the formal experimentation itself helped me by forcing me to try something I’d not yet imagined, or, rather, forcing my imagination to work in a way I wouldn’t otherwise have done. We’ll see if it leads anywhere, of course, but I do think there’s something to this formal experimentation idea. It’s kind of like how learning to write sonnets helped my non-rhyming verse, and struggling through writing a fugue helped me to understand how to write counterpoint my own way.

    • Maura

      Great insight Gord. I think not being married to one particular form is another reason not to write a story too soon, however. A story can be expressed in many different ways. I find once you write it via a particlar POV, time-frame, etc. that it’s harder to write it another way. A story takes on a certain life once it’s on paper. It’s really difficult to reverse engineer it after it has taken shape. Not impossible, but sweating-bullets hard work. I’m delighted you’ve made a breakthrough on that story. I’m looking forward to seeing it. 🙂

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