Archive for November, 2012

The Light Switch

Posted: November 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

About a month ago I started a new feature assignment. The pitch went great, and I had an approved treatment less than two weeks later. When I received the green light to start the script, I felt confident. My character arcs were defined, my plot hammered out, my third act rug-pull neatly planned. The script is going to be a cakewalk. Right?

There’s a certain self-assuredness that comes with reaching this point in the writing process. Maybe it’s because the path to a finished treatment is often a soul-crushing mirror of truth. It forces us to face (and, more frighteningly, fix) every plot hole, inconsistency, and cliché we overlooked when that perfect idea first gestated in our brains. It challenges us by crossing its arms defiantly and saying, “Yeah, sure, the concept was good. But now you have to make it real.” So when we triumph, it’s like we’re wielding Excalibur in a black leather Fonzie jacket while the Dos Equis guy nods approvingly from across the bar.

Feeling confident, I cracked open the laptop, poured myself a whiskey and Coke, and… nothing. No words came, not for an hour. Then two. I finally managed to start a scene—then promptly deleted it. The opening sequence was described in the outline, right? So why isn’t it spilling out of my brain with the unbridled fury of the Ark of the Covenant? I hit a creative wall, and hit it hard. So I took a break. I made coffee. I paced and cursed and played Halo—you know, the usual creative exercises. Finally, with inspiration pretty much on strike, I pushed it aside for a night. I rationalized it by telling myself I could do double the pages in the morning and make up for lost time. But I didn’t.

After several days, I started to panic. I had forced out four pages, but hated every one of them. I pushed another page out and realized I wasn’t writing because the scene moved me; I was writing just to get to the next page. I wanted to feel progress. It was like someone had crept into my Apartment of Solitude and rearranged all the keys on my MacBook Air, and I was learning how to write all over again. And by God, there is no worse feeling for a writer than feeling like you’ve forgotten how to write.

When we hit that wall, a whole bunch of unpleasant words float through our minds—hack being the ugliest. When we imagine ourselves writing, we never think about the struggle. We think about the flow; the endless stream of perfectly-matched nouns, verbs, and adverbs that say exactly what we want to say. So does it make us hacks when we push words out to feel a sense of progress? I submit to you that it doesn’t.

I once read the following quote from Winston Churchill: “When you find yourself going through hell, keep going.” This can easily be applied to writing. Pushing pages out you don’t believe in isn’t a bad idea; submitting pages you don’t believe in is a bad idea. I pushed and I hammered and I wrote until finally, the other day, I noticed a change. I started recognizing my characters’ voices underneath the forced prose. Things started to take shape. I started recognizing not just that certain scenes were wrong; I noticed why they were wrong. And like someone flipped a light switch, I could write again.

There’s still a long way to go on this project. Treatments may help avoid major story pitfalls, but they don’t solve everything. New ideas, characters, and problems bubble to the surface constantly. But hitting the wall reminded me that rocky starts are part of the process. Flow doesn’t come easy; sometimes it doesn’t even show up until the first draft is complete. The key is to keep going and push through until something inside of you flips that light switch on.

— TJ