Sunday, January 21, 2007

Writing methods

One of the best kept secrets in the creative writing teaching industry is that 90% of the books present a method that's not the only way to do it. That is, they say plan before you start writing. In fact, many successful writers don't do much planning at all. They start with a vague notion of something and start right in writing, working things out along the way. Nobel prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, for example, has written that he starts with two people in a room. Ten pages later he knows whether or not he has a play. This is not planning: this is full stream ahead, sink or swim, trusting in the magic of the process.

So I emphasize in my own classes that there are two ends of the method spectrum, the planners and the sink-or-swimmers. I call them the tree method and the forest method, tree as in starting small and building a forest, forest as in starting large and trying to find the trees.

In my own career, I've been mainly a forest writer, a sink-or-swimmer. Since there are so few textbooks for us, I wrote my screenwriting family of textbooks, beginning with the electronic Screenwright and ending with the Focus published Practical Screenwriting, to fill this gap.

However, as I've aged, I feel I don't have the messy leisure to develop a work that's the forest agenda. I've tried to plan more and earlier in order to reduce the time it takes to finish a project. To this end, I've discovered a tool I really like, the structure software called Save the Cat!, based on the book by Blake Snyder. His method is compatible with my own structural paradigm presented in my books. What I especially like about the software is that it requires an orderly development of story structure, finishing one part of the process before you're permitted to go to the next. The most fun is the last part, moving around colored index cards on the screen, creating a story board. I enjoy doing this -- and when I'm done, I print out what amounts to a sequence outline of the entire story, which then serves as a security blanket during writing. I may still stray from it but I always have a reference of where to return.

I developed a story board for the Cold War novel and now am beginning to write it. I moved Sally back burner while I do this, a story that's been giving me a lot of trouble -- one I've attacked as a forest person, bullying forward. I think what may be helpful is to look at Sally through the tree lens of the software and develop a storyboard for it. Then when I'm done with Baumholder I can turn to it, hopefully with a full sense of my story for the first time.

If you like to plan, or get lost when you don't plan, you might want to check out the software and book.

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