Hi friends. It’s that time again where I ask you to do all the work because I am an idiot.
A query from loyal reader Zak:
“I was wondering if you could kind of delve into how you outline. I’ve tried a ton of different ways, but can’t seem to figure out a really effective way for me to break into a story. I know everyone is different and that one method isn’t for every writer, but I always enjoy hearing how other writers (especially ones working in the industry) go about their business.”
Yes, Zak, I’d love to delve into how I outline, because in doing so, I shall expend no energy and simultaneously end any relevant connectivity to this subject: I do not outline. In fact, I do as little prep work (which I shall now call “prewriting”, because that’s what it feels like to me) as is humanly possible. And yes, I AM incredibly lazy, but this is not WHY I work this way. To understand the why, let’s examine how other writers work, and then deconstruct/reconstruct to come to a FUCK ZAK YOU TRICKED ME INTO EFFORT.
As we’ve discussed here many times and as has been discussed ad nauseum on the Internets since the beginning of time (roughly 1993 by my count) and as you so simply pointed out in your email, Zak, different writers have different processes. Those writers who are on the opposite end of the spectrum from me note, outline, treatment, note card, white board and use every single program and facet of Final Draft like they’re fucking CIA analysts. And I have to admit: I envy those people. First of all, I lack not only their dedication, but also their intelligence and attention to detail. But going about writing that way also feels, to me, less like writing and more like indentured servitude. It takes all the fun out of it for me. It also leaves me feeling as though, if I go outside what I’ve prewritten for myself, I’m doing something wrong. That in turn forces me to stick to what I’ve come up with, which in turn leaves me feeling trapped, which in turn leaves me feeling that I can’ creatively wriggle free of any restraints I’ve written myself into. In case you didn’t notice, that’s a lot of turning. Basically, I have a slew of psychological problems.
But I digress to a simpler way of putting it: writing is perhaps the only thing in this world I feel as though I have a spiritual connection to, and the more “planning” I do, the less organic it seems, and the more like a chore it becomes. On the flipside, the LESS planning I do, the more I feel as though I get into a rhythm and, for lack of a less hippie-dippy term, I can let the best story flow out of me.
Now if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I must vomit at my own pretense.
There, I’m better.
That’s not to say that research and/or planning are always something that I can get away from. They are VERY much not. Pitching requires me to often have to put together materials for producers to weigh in on before I even get into the room to talk to someone about it, and that can be a laborious process packed to the gills with tedium. It’s also part of the job. However, once all that’s fleshed out and decided and the check is in the mail and it’s time to put billions of 1s and 0s to virtual paper, I usually abandon all prewritten materials, keep the rough details in my mind, and work comfortably from a place of far less structure. Oddly, in these situations, I always hit something very close to the mark of what was planned anyway. And no, I’m not going to examine this further, and I’m happily ensconced in a lovely If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It state of ignorance.
Similarly, I’m currently engaged in research for my next spec. There are a lot of materials to go through. But I’m lucky to be able to distill them down to a couple pages of scattershot notes, and that’s what I’ll take into battle with me when I finally get into it. If I stumble, I either write my way out of it or return to a mass of highlighted books and papers to jog my memory for a detail or two. It always ends up working out.
Now, we’ve come a long way to get to a very fundamental point, Zak: you might have to try a lot of different shit to arrive at the process that works best for you. And as it appears you’re still searching, why not gauge opinion for the vast majority of writers – those that work in shades of gray somewhere between the Low Prewriting Effort Pole (me) and the High Prewriting Effort Pole (SO not me)?
So I ask of thee, writers professional, pre-professional and novice alike: what is YOUR process? What are some of the things you’ve implemented in your prewriting routine? What advice can you offer those like Zak that are still clearing the best path?
Feel free to leave your comments below, or shoot me an email and I’ll update this post with any responses I receive. And Zak, thanks for writing. I promise next time you ask something I will know everything and we won’t have to being all these other jerks into the fold.