Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Five Ways of Working

In the previous blog post, I waxed philosophical about the need to have methods, approaches or "ways of working" to move forward on a large project.

A large project is basically: anything that cannot be finished in a single sitting of between 20 minutes and four hours. (It's hard to get much done in less time, and it's hard to sit consecutively for much longer.)

And I became much more aware of these ways and sensible about using them when I shifted from argumentative writing to creative writing (in my case, screenwriting). It may not be that way for everyone, but for me the shift from argumentative writing to creative writing produced a new perspective, a different kind of awareness--probably like trying to do an accustomed task with the hand you're unaccustomed to using.

So here are five possible ways. There must be many others, but these are some.

Five Ways of Working.

1. Make a small whole. Elaborate the parts over time. 

This is how I teach screenwriting as story development. The "small whole" is an outline, step-outline or 'beat sheet.' It's normal English-language sentences describe actions which, when imagined or acted out, interest and impress the reader. 

You can start small:  "1. Jack and Jill go up a hill to fetch a pail of water. 2. It ends badly."  And then you can elaborate. Why do they go? Why do they need water? What exactly goes wrong?

What you are doing is conforming each part to the whole--and vice-versa. This little bit must lead effectively from here to there, but it must also stand as some kind of emblem of the whole--clear or cloudy, direct or indirect, right-side up or upside-down.

If, at every point, you keep a small, complete version of  your story, you will be able to move it forward incrementally. It may be slow, but you always have something to show for your work, and that is a great boost to morale. 

2. Make a set of specifications that tells what kind of bits you need and what size they should be. Then make the pieces to size.

This is something I'm trying now. I have a project where I know some of the pieces. And based on that, I'm creating a design for the kinds of pieces and how they fit together. Sometimes "how the pieces fit together" is the hardest part. So I'm solving that first.

Then I am working by putting the material I already have in the little boxes I have made. Where there is no material, I am inventing the material--which is easier because it has an exact space to fill. 

This is the opposite of "Start writing and stop when you are done"--which is basically a recipe for disaster, for no design, for over-writing, for getting stuck. With "work-to-size," you know how big each piece is supposed to be, and you then tailor the material to fit. But you most know the Whole Design and the Kinds of Pieces. 

3. Draw a big line and then fill in the segments. Work in chunks--from point A to B, B to C, etc.

This is the way I wrote my first feature script and started my second. I developed an outline bit by bit. Then when I could develop it no further in that format, I translated what I had into script format. This involved a good deal of puzzle-solving.

Screenwriting has this interesting feature: your design may be an outline, but your final product must be a script. So there is always the question of developing an idea in one format and then translating it to another (if you work that way).

Basically, what this means is: not all problems can be solved in all formats or on all platforms. I'm sure if you're sewing a garment, if you haven't sewn on a zipper before, that's a special challenge. So you make the whole and then start working on finishing the parts. 

In this case, I had the whole story, but never having written a feature before, the piecing together of the segments was a challenge--and it had to be handled separately. (Basically, your brain can only do so much processing at once, and so it's a question of managing the load so that you aren't crunching so many different equations at the same time that you get them all balled up.)

This works, but it's challenging.  Indeed, I have the first 25 pages of one script which needs the next 30 to be "worked out." It's such a daunting process that it discourages, and so that script has stayed at page 25 for several months--and may stay there longer, as I explore other working methods.

4. Create interesting pieces. Weave them together around the most critical points to create a larger whole. Connect the dots with relevant material--connectives, contrast, etc.

I generally tell students to avoid this. You have an interesting scene where a woman tears up her prize rose bushes. And then you have another interesting scene where a man confesses to his wife he's been cheating during a dinner party. But you don't have the rest.

So you write the bits that you have, and then you try to expand each a little bit, and to weave the parts together.

I am developing more sympathy to this method, as I start to work with some materials which are multi-character and which involve orchestrating multiple stories in parallel, with intersections and contrasts. It can be done--if the material fits the method--although I am expecting a certain amount of false starts. 

5. Create an unmapped whole one large chunk at a time.

This is basically the hardest. This is likely how most dissertations are written. You have a description of the project--which is largely bits of the first two chapters.

Then you are advised "just to write it" one chapter at a time. Never having written anything that large before, not knowing what such a thing feels like or how it fits together.

It's a wonder anyone finishes any such thing or that any of them are publishable quality. My dissertation was certainly a trainwreck of weak transitions and poor organization--putting stuff in separate chapters that probably could have been better presented at one blow. But I did not have the experience to know that.


If college students had courses where they purposefully applied different working methods to different projects, they might actually graduate with a sense of: this is what works best for me, when it comes to getting something biggish done.

Indeed, I'm kind of wondering if many Life Projects couldn't be better attacked using a variety of such methods.

But of course: you can't know until you find out.

--Edward R. O'Neill

How Not To Go Crazy

Writing, I mean.

How NOT to go crazy while writing.

I mean: writing something longer. Like: longer than a few sentences.

As soon as you need to get past about a page, that's when the real woes begin. And that's when it feels like you might lose your mind. 

My father used to say--with good reason, I now believe--that anything important can be expressed in a clear one-page letter. 

That's certainly good advice for job-seekers. Now I wonder if my father's wisdom wasn't precisely: avoiding writing anything much longer than a single page.

But if you must write something longer than a single page--a screenplay, an article, a dissertation--it actually helps to have some kind of method. 

I don't mean "method" in any heavy-duty, methodical sense. I don't mean "method" like: recipe or formula.  

A better word might be "process," as when writers and artists talk about their "process." It sounds nebulous, but it's a real thing. Watch a good artist work. There's something definite happening there, even if you can't reduce it to a simple series of steps.

Another phrase might simply be: ways of working. Or: approaches.

How do you approach a large and complex task? 
What ways of going forward are there?

It's kind of unbelievable, but very little is written about how to write something longer than a page--I mean how to go about it, where to start, what steps to take.

I started writing screenplays last year" I started with a 15-page short and graduated quickly to a 140-page (overlong) feature. And that was a turning point for me. I have been more concerned with process and craft than I was when I focused mostly on writing prose arguments. (I wish I had written essays, which need no argument or thesis; but arguments are the meat-and-potatoes of scholars, so write arguments I did.)

If you are an academic who writes, your writing is probably largely leftover habits from writing term papers. I bet they didn't serve you terribly well. You probably got papers written and earned decent grades. But the same approach may not serve you well on a dissertation or article.

As I groped my way towards screenwriting, I sensed quickly that: when a creative writer needs to do something, she needs to teach herself how to do that thing. If you come to a part where you need to describe a character, you figure out how to do it best, given what your goals and talents are.

More likely, you need to invent a character. But it's the same issue: when you run into problems, you must invent techniques to solve them. Creative writing is a kind of sui generis problem-solving: whenever inspiration fails, you must develop a method to solve the problem at hand. 

This is more or less what Stanislavski said about his famous "Method": he called it 'notes for moments of difficulty.' In short: how to get yourself out of a bind when you find that inspiration does not 'naturally' supply you. 

But how do you move forward? That is the crucial question. And it seems impossible to answer. But once you have a few gestalts or general images for different ways of working, it's really not so mysterious.

But that's what I'll blog about next time.

--Edward R. O'Neill