“Playing With the Pieces” or “Why It Takes Me So Long”

I don’t like to outline. I used to, I may again, but not right now.

In school I outlined – we all did. I wrote 3 features this way, with each outline getting better and more detailed than the last. I would refine the outline first and then write. If an idea came to mind while I was writing, I would stop writing, add the scene to the outline, and then tweak the outline again and again before resuming writing. By the third feature, my process was disciplined and precise.

And completely lifeless.

It was actually a chore to complete that third feature. Part of this was because I was writing the script on spec for a producer (based on his idea) who bailed halfway through, but the other part was because the writing was so lifeless – all the “fun stuff” had been explored and laid out before, at the outline stage, so the writing itself felt like dictation. The script turned out okay I guess, but the process was an exercise in drudgery, without life or spark or energy. Without discovery.

So with my fourth feature I decided to try an experiment: I would take the 4 structural chunks of the script and only look at 1 at a time. I could outline, use index cards, anything I wanted, but I could only work on 30 pages at a time – thinking about anything beyond that 30-page unit was off limits until it was done and polished. To challenge myself, I consciously tried to write myself into a corner every 30 pages. And each section would end with an ambitious climax or cliffhanger, one which I had no idea how to top or get out of. It was great.

The good news is that this fourth feature ended up being Aftershocks, still the script I am most proud of. The bad news is it took 7 years to write. I honestly had no idea how to end the thing as I would set it down and then pick it back up months or even years later, letting it breathe as I worked on other scripts and other ideas in between. False starts and dead ends on the second and third acts took years. But once I figured them out… well, as I said, I’m pretty proud of it.

Something changed when I started writing Aftershocks: I started writing an idea that I loved, that meant something to me, that I was deeply invested in. It was an experiment, it was for me and nobody else, it was something I never thought about in terms of selling or sending to an agent. It was special yet had no expectations. The pressure was completely off yet it meant the most to me of any work I had attempted. For once the writing process was fresh and alive and always kept me guessing – I could turn on a dime, I could delete whole sections on a whim if I came up with a better idea. With no outline to adhere to, the whole experience of writing became different. Energizing. And because of this I’m convinced the script itself feels more alive to the reader. It sure does to me.

Many other things changed for me during those 7 years: my focus shifted away from taking meetings and trying to hustle within the industry. As time went on and my heat and urgency faded, I started thinking less and less about the external praise or rewards a script or writing career would bring. My prospects faded away and as the years passed all that was left was the work itself. Agentless, with nobody to send the script to anyway, the only person left to please was myself. By the time I figured out the surprising ending and finished the thing, it was the experience, the writing itself, that had become the reward.

It’s about the process, not the product.

Or is it? I’ve completed 2 features since Aftershocks, and they were the 2 fastest scripts I’ve written – I’m talking less than 2 or 3 months each, which is light-speed for me. Things were cooking, and they were fun to write. Neither of these were experiments like Aftershocks had been, but unlike that third feature the writing was brisk, exciting, full of discovery. I outlined somewhat, but I had learned from my experiment – outlines and index cards were loose and were never allowed to strangle the life out of me. The process and the stories felt real and alive, not like the shells of old, stale outlines. And I liked each of them when I finished – they both made me laugh (which is good because both were comedies). Fun process, good product. I enjoyed them and one of them got optioned. I had found a balance.

The lesson I learned from that process/product balance was this: dig in to the process and the final product will take care of itself. If you don’t have anyone to take the script to anyway, write something that will satisfy yourself – and your soul. Even more years have gone by now, I don’t even have a day job in the business anymore, so this distance brings freedom to really dig in and get my hands dirty.

But with this distance can come isolation. And now the pendulum has swung too far this way.

Something about the themes of Dead Guy and Psycho Ex really resonate for me – they are really two sides of the same coin, two opposite treatments of the same premise – and I dig this. Like Aftershocks, they are each about obsessive characters. I love this territory, and nothing makes me happier than thinking about these characters and their themes and issues. I have fallen in love with these guys and their stories and all the ideas in here. I have fallen in love with the process. It’s the greatest – it’s the most fun I’ve had writing.

Except I’m not writing. I think about these stories all day and all night, but I don’t seem to write much. I have themes and runners and one-liners for the comedy version, I have tension and suspense and killer atmosphere for the suspense/thriller version, but I don’t have much plot. Where I used to have balance, now I’ve got tons of process but zero finished product. Tons of internal rewards, but no concern at all for external rewards or pressure. These ideas are so much fun, who wants to be done with them? Why finish the scripts? We are already 2 years into that 7-year pace.

Sure, each script is up over 60 pages now, but this is just rough first-draft stuff. Scenes are overlong. Scenes with strong conflict are indirect and vague, and scenes with great atmosphere have little conflict and feel like they are just stalling for time. I’m beginning to think that these stories really aren’t about obsessive protagonists, but really about their obsessive author who has gotten lost playing with the pieces of his beautiful puzzle when he should be busy putting them together. But it sure is fun.

The process is at least as important as the end product, right? You have to give the process meaning by making it enjoyable for yourself, correct? The end product may be lost or found, powerless to the whims of industry readers, but the process you keep forever. I think. But there is also discipline and drive. Keeping yourself honest. Trial by fire and all that. Is there any relationship between the experience of the process and the quality of the finished product? No matter how enjoyable the process, THE WHOLE POINT is to come out with a finished product, right?

Without the hard work and discipline you’ll never finish anything, but without indulging yourself in your ideas and dreams you’ll never have anything worth finishing.

Something like that. Time for that pendulum to swing back the other way again. Where’s that outline?

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One Response to “Playing With the Pieces” or “Why It Takes Me So Long”

  1. Kevin says:

    That very first line makes me think of Simon. He liked to do drawings.

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