Saturday, September 08, 2007

[Process] - The Writing Headspace

For the last two and a half years, I've kept notes about what I learned while writing the Limit. Now I'm creating posts that will cover each phase of my script-writing process. They'll be added to as I trawl through the blog (and linked to on the sidebar).

First up, creating the right headspace to write in.

I found this quote about how to beat procrastination that needs to be prominently displayed: I think I've found a way to overcome my first-day-back syndrome. It's a 5-step process: First I ask myself why I'm writing it, then what the absolute best case scenario for when I've finished it could be. After that I brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas, organise them and figure out what I have to do next.

Took less than an hour to
do that and at the end I felt inspired to start work.


I should write about my bugbear – attempting to focus on completing one idea while I’m continually coming up with new (fresher) ideas


- My standard first day slowness where I get my head round the fact that I’m in a new phase of the project continues.
- My ‘enjoy myself’ philosophy seems to be working. I’m very comfortable writing until my body tenses up or my brain gets logjammed – and then just doing something else, relaxing until this signal in my head tells me it’s time to go back to the keyboard.
- I really like working on this film. If we (Andrew and I) can pull it off before anyone else does, it could end up being one of the definitive vigilante thrillers. It’s that sense of mission that gives me most of the drive to work on it. And more and more, it’s getting to be not work but play.


So, back to my three days on after one day off. And yet again, I find that first day back goes a little slow. I thought it was only when I started a new phase of a project, but maybe it's after any type of break.


As for The Limit, I decided that if I was going to build this confrontation scene up in my head as something big, tough to conquer, then I was going to approach it with rock-climbing-like determination. So at the start of today (yes, after my sleep-in), I set the goal of finishing the scene no matter what ... and set up base-camps at certain sections of the scene that I would reach, rest and then move on from.


Just a note: after a day off, I am again finding it slow-going transcribing these notes for Outline E.


[from working on lovebites] - These episodes, these early versions of Episode 1 are funny. The question we kept asking ourselves during pre-production, the comment that kept getting thrown back to the writing team, boiled down to, "Is this funny enough?"

First, way to make you doubt yourself.

Second (and I only had the sense to ask myself this with two years hindsight), what does 'enough' mean? Using it without definition, such as, "This episode isn't good enough," is initially a great way to avoid arguments. Everyone can nod sagely, agree we haven't reached and breached some unspecified limit...and then wander off, promising to do better. I mean, we had set ourselves the goal for this show of dealing with humour and believable characterisation. This is not fertile ground for strictly defined operational parameters.


Finished The Limit’s rough outline.
Now I have a dilemma. I promised myself three days holiday after this - and by holiday I mean dabbling on some other writing projects - but I am keen to keep pushing on. So:

Do I keep my promise to myself or follow my current inclination?
Do I stick to the plan or stay in the moment?

[...] Yesterday's decision turned out to simple. I've already had a holiday in the lead-up to Xmas and I really want to write, so I'm going with the flow. Restarting things on Thursday.


I love finishing short, cool bits of writing. Achieving rocks!


This was going to be my last full day on Astral. In the last hour I've changed my mind - and The Limit is back to being my primary as of now. The reason's simple: I was feeling frustrated, angry and a little depressed. Probably due to my impatience at not making progress on the script.

So now, let's see if I can use that impatience to overcome my first-day-back syndrome.


While the pitch currently is good for the purpose of timing, I have to accept it doesn’t plausibly convey this sudden shift. So I have to re-write it so it does.... and that's made me stall out.

It’ll be hard work but probably not anywhere near as hard as I’m imagining. In fact, I’ll probably spend longer procrastinating than I will in re-writing it.


A couple of days ago my perfectionism nearly stopped me writing 100 words.

In this one early scene I kept re-finessing details. So I forced myself to keep moving - and in the process clarified what the two leads have in common. After a little more grunt-work, the pitch has finally started to convince me.

The key: relying on my performance (rather than emotive words) to convey the feeling. That means I have to know what emotion I want from the sequence. And if there’s a choice between describing plot details and a simple emotion, choose the emotion.


This morning:The pitch turns out to be 8 minutes long, I’m wading through a cut-down of Act 1 and my enthusiasm is waning.

Thought I'd try kicking my energy back up by pitching it again and again, letting the edits come naturally, through performance, not writing. At first my brain blocked me ... but when I finally did it, I broke through!

The pitch is now 8 min 50 sec, but I don’t care. Finally the emotions are almost all there. I was absorbed by the pitch the whole way through. That’s a damn good place for the pitcher to be.


Yesterday I wrote a terrible version of a crucial scene and I don't care. Writing a feature film on spec means having the time to make sure a scene works. In this case, making it easy for the audience to empathise with the grief and anger the main characters feel.


Trying to get to sleep last night, I came up with a neat scene for later on in the movie. A sure sign this project’s starting to occupy a larger part of my brain.

I’d forgotten how good it feels to just write – solving problems at a dialogue level, trying to figure out character and get the scenes to do their jobs. Also, I’m loving the pace. I have a deadline, but I also have enough time to reflect on how to fine-tune scenes. It all feels very contemplative.


Finally [started writing]. I was a little freaked out about starting to tackle it - but decided to break it down into a manageable bit.


Time pressure. Things need to be done quickly. Like, you may be asked to deliver a 44-page script within 48 hours (Joss Whedon & Tim Minear, Firefly). In TV there is always a deadline.

The very first thing Jo Randerson said when she joined our first intake of lovebites writers was, "What's the situation? Let me guess: there's not enough money and we're behind already." This is an accurate assessment of working in television.


I wasted a week by coming up with reasons not to write.

Recovering from the party. It’s Easter - I’ve eaten too much chocolate. It’s Easter - everyone else is on holiday. The rest of my flat’s sick – so I feel unmotivated too. But these aren’t reasons, they’re excuses. The reason was I wasn’t inspired by what I was writing.

Murder, disillusionment and my new tattoo.

I’ve been working on a tense conversation between murderer and vigilante about their personal history. I want subtext to turn this not-so-idle chitchat into a continuation of their conflict

With our recent changes this whole sequence has to be reconsidered. 50% of what’s there has to be scrapped. It has to be rebuilt at a motivational level, starting with what Peter and Forster want. Then moving between their heads, asking “What do I think he should do if I were him?”. The goal is to make each reaction something that boggles the other character.

And then I got disillusioned because this all felt like a sterile, mechanical exercise. So, a week of avoidance.

Then I started trying to vividly visualise the scene. I remember I tried this before, with Trace outside Forster’s farm. And so far it’s working. The scene is fun to work on again.

The same lessons, learned over and over again. Hopefully this diary’ll help me boil them down into a couple of pithy meaningful phrases that I can have tattooed on the back of my hands.


A. Disappointed because I've wasted a lot of time today.

B. Satisfied because I've kept asking myself what this scene is about until I realised it's about 'Peter facing the consequences of becoming a vigilante'. I think I'm ready to write and finish this thing.


Feeling stressed out at the thought of trying to finish all of Act 1 today. So I've set myself a couple of small goals. First, I'd like to quickly rough out the new introduction to the movie (over several passes) and bat that off to Andrew. Then I'll do all the macro restructuring of the rest of Act 1, after which I can start to fine-tuning.


In Which Lie Die I Tell, William Goldman talks about scenes in screenplays where – after you’ve read them – all the work is done. The audience has bought into the story and they’re just going to be taken along. In The Limit, I think that scene comes 3 pages from the end. And I just wrote it.

It’s a weird emotion: relief, triumph … and a little bit of fear. I’m disturbed at how little craft I applied to Act 3. Basically I burned through it today, wanting to write from the heart and follow my old outline rather than re-break the scenes by Stakes and Conflicts.


I was finding the mis-direction scene a bit difficult. Coupled with my now consuming desire to FINISH something, I spent Thursday through to Saturday morning writing a playtest draft of my new RPG, The Luck of the Joneses.

After that, I came back to the scene I’m been blocked on and finished it in a couple of hours.


In my screenwriting class we set out to discover what would happen if you treated your screenplay-in-progress like someone you had recently fallen in love with. What if you courted your story, wooed it, gave it your very best, and loved it madly?

"The results were extremely promising. Our conclusion was that if we were willing to throw ourselves into falling in love with our work, risking heartache, holding nothing back, the inner muses responded in kind.

Cynthia Whitcomb
Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay


One of the risks for me with writing is that I get sucked into the emotion I'm writing about.


Spent Wednesday procrastinating about writing the script. Spent yesterday finishing this draft of the script. The difference was that on Wednesday I felt like I had to do two things at once: come up with cool new stuff AND rigorously proof read the script.

I felt stressed out about it, so I had to take things back to basics. First I wrote Wednesday off and just used it to set up the new computer that Lee built me (Props, man! It's fantastic). Then I told myself to get a good night's sleep and try and settle back to my daily routine of exercise, writing and everything else. That took a lot of the pressure off and at some point I was able to just say to myself, "Don't proof read. Just write."

From there, finishing the script - which had seemed such a huge deal the day before - was over in a matter of three hours. My goal became to create something that was readable for others as opposed to getting it perfect right now. That took a lot of the pressure off and that meant I could do more constructive things than just stare at the screen and worry. So, the script's come in at 89 pages (dead on what I wanted). It's being read by four people at the moment - and while they are doing that, I'm going to talk to an actor and do send detective work on Trace's character, try and get more excited by her.

For the record, this was Draft 2B. A B-draft seems to be a quick hack-and-slash to tidy up any inconsistencies and make the story flow so you can get it out to other people. I'm now scheduled to finish on 24 July. 17 days left, 14 days in my safety buffer.


Re-working the climax - the section I thought I'd gotten right only two weeks ago - and there was much procrastination this morning. "IT'S TOO IMPORTANT!" screamed the editorial static in my head. "I'm scared of getting it wrong."

Eventually I plunged in (after working up bits and and pieces of ideas in layers over a couple of hours). Now I'm through 'the worst' and hopefully into the final stretch. Have a feeling that this is going to be like the argument scene in hopeless. Rewritten over and over. Good thing here is that there is a specific effect that needs to be accomplished - unlike the argument scene which could wander all over the place - and that should act like a map, helping me home in on an effective way of hitting all the emotions and beats I need to.

But, yeah, a very scary section this morning.


Taking a break between drafts means ideas are popping into my head all the time –scribble down images & snippets that’ll flesh out scenes. Guess I’m refuelling.

And now there’s a clearer vision of the script. Like how Trace’s impatience is a character trait. How ‘The Plan’ needs to be more convincing.


I’ve been procrastinating a little the last couple of days. Working on a dialogue scene, trying to find Taine's voice. But I may have just had a break-through with how the parents find out Taine's gone missing - I can visualise it very clearly, so that immediately puts it at the top of the list of all the ideas I've had.


2 things ...

I mentioned a 'breakthrough' a couple of days ago? Yesterday I realised the ramifications of it meant a HUGE rewrite of the script. First I was angry, then panicky ... then, slowly, I calmed down and am now gunna look through it methodically, seeing exactly what would need to be changed.

Also, my progress on problem-solving is slower than I'd hoped. Going slow & devising solutions that convince me is a good goal, but I think I'm starting to feel the lack of that obsessive quality, the need to get it finished by a certain goal. Maybe before I go house-sitting at Viv & Gino's in a month'd be an appropriate new goal.


Okay, this is getting ridiculous. In between checking in on the (now-wrapped-up) Forge thread about the Star Wars game and grooving on my new Sage extension for reading blogs in Firefox, I have been getting less than an hour of work done on The Limit every day.

So multi-dimensional's on hiatus until I finish solving the last of the readers' problems and make a decent start on the restructure. I may even just not use the internet at all - after all it is the timesuck of doom for me.


I’ve mapped out this rewrite on four A3 pages – and today I crossed over into the fourth and final page. Once again, I slowed down - kind of freaked out & scared – and began a massive blast of procrastination.

Then I remembered how angry I am at this script. How much I want to finish it so I can get it out of my life and do something new. That anger’s built through the day until now I am fully focused on bring this thing home.


Halfway through this brainstorming phase of the draft. Taking a day off to let my mind refill with creative goodness & get some distance from it.

I'm enjoying the writing. It's starting to go faster - and I'm expecting to keep up that pace until I hit the big re-writes in Act 3.


Day 1 of this dialogue draft: ½ an hour writing, 1 page done.
Day 2: 2 hours writing, 1 page done.

Day 3 (today): 3 hours writing, not even one page done - but I've made the decision to finish & have fun while writing it.


I’m approaching quarter of the way through the big restructure & today was That Day where I started to get enthused about the work again. I love That Day.

So, I got through about 5 scenes in quick succession. One was the tricky, pivotal conversation between the 2 dads that keeps tripping me up. I want it to be like a verbal fistfight, but in order to stay true to the characters it’s turned out a lot quieter. What’s neat about this scene is that one of the characters completely gives up on what he wants halfway through. I discovered that this morning; it’s a neat & nasty surprise.

Then wrote a quick new husband-and-wife argument scene. I love the wife now. That was never true in previous drafts. And this argument gives an insight into Peter’s fragile sense of masculinity.


Quite often when I'm starting a dialogue draft, I won't shave until the story has quickened and the dialogue is coming naturally and rapidly out of me. Yesterday (which was also my 33 1/3 birthday) I was able to shave the beard - which had grown very uncomfortable and was stopping me from sleeping well - and see Serenity (my estimation of that movie has gone way up on a second viewing).

So, I'm going to duck away now and keep writing ... hopefully reaching the 3/4 mark by this evening.

Edited to add: Two fun links that have a lot of applicability to the writing I'm doing. Here's John Rogers on action sequences, and Josh Friedman on sex scenes.


I’ve said it before: I always take a long time to ramp up to full-writing-speed when I start a new draft. One of the causes (I’ve just discovered) is that it takes me a while to regain the confidence to make rapid decisions about the writing – as I start getting back into it, I’d prefer to fluff around paralysed by the choices I could be making rather than commit to something & lock it down.


I have a weird feeling, thinking about the script now. A feeling like, for the first time with the Limit, I'm not that sure what edits I'd like to make to it. I've had that feeling before - with other scripts - and it's usually indicated that further tinkering tips the story over the edge and starts to break it.


The draft is coming into the home stretch. Less than 20 pages to go. Decisions are easier to make now. Dialogue is coming to me like I’m overhearing the conversations from a distance.


I've thought a lot about whether I should post this, but given that I'm trying to keep a full record of my writing process I think I have to go through the last fortnight.

Two Fridays ago - DBS gave me feedback on the script. Much of it was good, some of it was really challenging. I enjoyed the session a lot.

Two Saturdays ago - I finally read through the script myself. My emotions went through two phases:

  • 1) the actual reading, where I thought that the script was terrible. Unrealistic, badly motivated, lame writing. It totally didn't live up to the ideal in my head and I was pretty much devastated by the end;
  • 2) drawing the whammo chart - my graph of how interested I was in the script. This revealed that many of my problems lay in the first act but that the middle of the script still wasn't as strong as I hoped. Two reasons for that were that it was unclear what Peter wanted to achieve in his first intense conversation with Forster, and that Tracy's midpoint is misplaced. So, I was slightly lifted by that. Slightly.

Two Sundays ago - acted in the Wasps. My character was supposed to receive utterly devastating news to his ego. I drew on the memory of just having read the script.

I took a week off, where I couldn't face reading or thinking about the thing. I drew some solace from a book on script-editing where another writer was described as adopting the fetal position for two days, curled up in bed with a hot water bottle. I was not that bad.

Last Saturday - Morgue and Pearce described how Clive Barker reads his books aloud when he finishes writing them. I resolved to do that with this script.

Last Sunday and Monday - I forced myself to read through the script, taking notes. While most of them were pretty specific, what I was really trying to do was get an understanding of the big picture.

Today - just read it aloud, and it really gave me a clear idea of why certain scenes (like Peter deciding to take revenge) weren't working. I'm feeling better about the script.

So the big picture changes are:
Act 1 - tighten up the family stuff
Act 2i - clarify Peter's motivations and restructure the mid-points.
Act 2ii - make sure the action scenes relate to characters. Possibly put Tracy into a much darker place, emotionally.
Act 3 - focus on the three main characters, plus handle the exposition 2000% better.

Now to look at everyone else's feedback and see where they and I agree.


David emailed me, hoping that the Limit was going better.

Yeah it is. My last big post about it was just a demonstration of a writer getting emotional about what he wrote. That's cool; I expect ups-and-downs now.

At the moment, I actually feel pretty confident about the script. Everyone's feedback works together & ... more importantly to me ... I feel like the script is now 'telling' me what it wants to be. Adjusting scenes feels like a natural process now, one that doesn't require that much thinking about it. It's like there's an ideal version of this draft that I'm chiselling the unnecessary material away from.


The writing's been going smoothly but right now I think I'm facing a psychological block - I need to make a change that has big ramifications for the rest of the film. It's a simple change, but I think its implications are stopping me from going ahead with making it. Instead I'm analysing. And working on this much-delayed post.


Work on The Limit was brutal today.

I've been trying to get back into this re-edit. I have, in fact, set myself a two week deadline to finish this part of the writing - so that's 25 June. But I was stuck on this 2 page section where Peter talks to his stepson. What has happened during this rewrite is that I've figured out how important this scene is to the movie - and it's helped clarify how I should be characterising Taine.

Unlike working on the 48-hour competition, there is no immediate pressure on me to make a decision about a line of dialogue or an approach to the scene. This leads to perfectionism - which is my curse & the reason I've been working on this goddamn project for what seems like most of the decade - and this two-page scene for the last four days.

The big picture upshot: next film I write, I'm getting myself a year to complete it. One year, and then I'm getting out no matter what state it's in. Hopefully that'll give me some motivation not to waste all the work I've put in.

Medium picture upshot: working on this has been long, secretive & driven by the need for perfection/the desire for greatness. Next project, I'd like to do something shorter form (TV, short film, short TV - the link goes to a Wired article about fan TV shows in the Whedonverse), with a development process that is completely out in the open, and it's driven by attitude and immediacy.

Right now: I had to take a walk in the bitter cold to clear my head. And my conclusions were a) I need to relax and have fun while I'm writing, and b) the scene didn't need to be perfect - I'm going to go back, read the script aloud when I've finished this re-edit, and make adjustments.

Scenes finished now, and I got through another four pages to boot.


Last weekend, I hit the big rewrite at the end of Act 2 and the wall of "What the hell do I do next?" I thought I'd take some time out - and in the meantime, brainstorm some possible solutions, try to understand the basic problem, and work on some stuff that I've needed to catch up on (including the next draft of The Lucky Joneses RPG).

However, over the last three days, this is what's happened:

1. A lunch-time conversation with Sean where I realised that the scene I was blocked on has to reflect the father-child dynamic that the whole movie's about;

2. A realisation that I'm trying to make this perfect, which leads to procrastination. I should make rough, necessary changes, and complete this draft; and

3. Another realisation, that I've lost track of the big picture - and finishing this script is more important than working on the game.

4. ... Maybe there's some fear of finishing in there, too.

So, I'll be trying to go back into it tonight & definitely be working on it for the remainder of the week.



The Assembly Draft is done

It took four hours from the start of Act Three to the end. And the rewriting got faster and faster as I went through. That's always the way with this script, I find; the ending is tough to conceptualise, and a breeze to write through. Hopefully that doesn't mean that I'm ignoring some fundamental problem (cf. The Midpoint).


Today, I looked through everything I had to do from the start of Act 3 to the end, solving problems as I read through the script, and by the time I reached the end of my reading I realised I'd found a way through.

And it is good.

Then I started to procrastinate / freak out about finishing, again. So after letting that happen for a few minutes, I bit off the smallest part of the very next problem I had to solve and tackled it. Which worked pretty well.

The point: I can finish this pass on the script now.


Man, this frickin' script. I had a great start to the rewrite (5 pages in one day, which is fantastic for my first day). Then I hit this big father-son scene at page 14 and get bogged down in it for 2 and a half weeks until I figure out what it's really about (clue: it's personal).

Anyway, once I figured out the heart of the scene, it flowed easily & the script has kept going at a nice rate. I still hope to have it all finished for sending out to producers by New Year, but I also hoped to have the fine-tuning draft finished by tomorrow ... and with 60 pages to go, that's a little on the unlikely side.


I just got to a section of the script I've been dreading - and it seems to be going fast, painless and good. I have much relief at this.

Also, a tip (perhaps applicable only to me): I find that if I'm blocked on a script, I actually get a lot of work done if I take a train up to the Kapiti Coast. The secret is to not bring anything else to read or do . There's something about boredom that really forces me to write.

Commuting. Environmentally friendly and creative.


[The Limit] The final rewrite has begun!

At about 4pm.

Basically, I got sick of taking notes and preparing to do it - so I've just launched straight in [to the final rewrite]. Posting may resume its recent quietness, or it may keep on being done every couple of days. I'm not sure. I've got a holiday coming up, which will probably be devoted to the script but it'll also give me some free time to jot some stuff down.


The more important I think a scene is, the longer it seems to take me to write. Thinking of something as "important" makes me freak out, because I need to get it "right".

But at this stage of the script, every scene should be important. Every scene needs to contribute. Every moment, too.

That means I'm going to have to develop some way off de-freaking-out. Being a full-time writer would be good too (more dedicated time to solve problems and get into a groove). Unfortunately, I may have to let that ambition go for a while, and content myself writing on the bus.

(Example: It's taken me five days to work on a single line of the script. It's an important line -- it has to let us know what Peter's worst fear is, and hint at some of the oddness that is to come.)


I think it's worth noting that when I finished making changes to The Limit last night, the sense of quiet satisfaction I felt seemed exactly the same as what I feel when I finish any project - of whatever magnitude. To be specific, finishing the script after seven years gave me the same amount of satisfaction as working on a 48-hour film, writing a role-playing game, or locking down a well-constructed sketch.

I wasn't expecting a flood of adrenalin or a massive epiphany; it's just that what I did feel surprised me.

Unbundling this further:

  • the script isn't yet finished finished as there's still proofing to go
  • I found the writing process itself to be rewarding - challenging, sure, but satisfying and worthwhile
  • from working on hopeless, I'm aware that there are many moments that you celebrate during the life of a script (including realising you're filming a scene that matches up to your imagination; seeing a cut of the film that finally works; and the Premiere)
  • there are also future rewards, specific to this script.

Those possible future rewards include stuff like:

  • reading the script with fresh eyes in, say, a year & enjoying it
  • selling the script
  • getting positive feedback from people I respect
  • having a script that I think is special enough that it could generate royalties for me
  • having a sample script that could open doors to new jobs for me.

The point is that there wasn't some big Hollywood rush of triumph. It was a quiet moment. If anything, I would call it contentment.