Thursday, August 7, 2008

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Have you ever written a beautiful scene that mysteriously turns to nonsense overnight? Have you ever found a brilliant solution to a story problem one day, only to find it unbearably ridiculous the next?

If you have, you're in very good company. If you haven't, well -- the rest of us don't like you very much.

Insecurity it a part of writing, of course. But why does it happen so often? Why must it happen so often? My theory is that we go to bed as writers and wake up as editors. With the glow of inspiration behind you and a long slog ahead things start to look very different.

Getting past this unfortunate phenomenon is part of becoming a professional writer. Embracing this phenomenon is the mark of a happy writer.

Let me explain. When you wrote the scene or reworked the synopsis last night and all was light and brilliance, you were discovering something about your story. This morning when you were trying to re-enter writing head, you'd changed. You'd acquired the knowledge already. You assimilated it last night in a sea of beautiful, technicolor, exquisitely structured dreams. And this morning you woke a new person. You had new eyes. You had new knowledge. You had a new perspective. You woke a little bit smarter.

And it hurts. Thank god it's exactly where you want to be. You never would have had the opportunity to look down your nose at this brilliant idea otherwise.

Writing is all about gaining knowledge. It's about incremental gains and the occasional giant leap. When your inner editor puts down his coffee, gazes wearily out over his bifocals and asks, "What were you thinking," you need to answer honestly and fearlessly. There's a dialectic at work here. You need to respond. How do you respond?

When I'm developing a story, I work and rework synopses and loglines. I'll scratch out back stories and then slowly, maybe fiddle with some scene work. Somewhere along the line the synopses and so on start to build up on top of each other. One document decides to become the story encyclopedia. Things start to take on their own weight. I get away from my structure. I let things fall where they may. It starts to feel organic. I am enjoying the process.

But as I prepare to actually write the script, I see all the things that I've stepped away from. The SIMPLE structure. The conceit that conveys itself in a few words. The careful and straightforward construction of the main characters. Minor characters have stepped out of their place, and are mucking up the garden, building digressions and gossiping away about back story. It's a mess. The editor is asking unavoidable questions, and the writer is terrified.

But you pick yourself up and respond. You go back to your ideas about character -- the misbehavior and the goal -- and you start to apply it. You look at your 4.5-act mess through the eyes of your three-act model. You relax. You embrace the art. There's something speaking here, and it's not your conscious mind. The story is more important than your structure. The story had better be more than you had in your conscious mind.

I've wanted to write a posting like this for a while. I hit my readers over the head with the need for structure even when I don't remotely believe they somehow always magically hold the answers. Structure and careful back story development and good character hygiene and all that can make you productive, aware, even professional. They're a pretty good way of telling you when you're screwing up. But don't expect them to write the story for you.

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