Archive for Writers to admire
Journalist and Pete Hamill, whose latest book is “Tabloid City,” described in The Writer magazine how he approaches writing a novel. I think the same method works for anyone getting ready to write a screenplay:
“I start by walking around a lot, letting the major characters rise in my mind. The way Dickens did, and others. Sometimes I make drawings of their faces, and then scribble more notes in the margins. I know vaguely what the story will be be, but I don’t make detailed outlines because they remove the joy of discovery in the actual writing.”
…If a fiction is set in the past, I read histories, letters, memoirs and even old newspapers. Then I let my notes marinate for a while, usually a few months, until they become a memory…the memory of one or more of the characters.”
Those kinds of historical documents are so much easier to find these days, via the internet. Newspapers, including the New York Times, allow you to access their past issues, and the British Museum and many others also have put massive amounts of documents online. Writers starting out now takes this kind of access for granted, I imagine, but we old-timers will remember having to throw ourselves on the mercy of librarians and spending days in the dusty stacks. Hamill goes on:
“If the places I am describing are still in existence, I go to look at them, to stand before them, listening to what they are saying to me.”
These days with Google maps and other sources of information, you can simulate going to most locations although of course it doesn’t match being there, breathing the air and hearing the sounds in person.
Another possibility is to contact someone who lives in that location, using social media to find them. I think most people would be flattered to be asked to help someone writing a screenplay. If you’re nervous about emailing strangers, put the “six degrees of separation” to work–ask your friends whether they know anybody who lives in the place you want to find out about. If not, ask them to ask just one or two of their friends the same question. In most cases it won’t take more than that to find someone.
Sometimes when we have a new idea we are tempted to go to the keyboard and start writing right away, but there’s a lot to be said for Hamill’s method of immersing yourself in the characters and locations before we start.
The other day I saw Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” which I think is a stunning achievement–shamelessly old-fashioned, lush, with superb performances from the two kids, and yes, a tad self-indulgent if you’re not into the history of film. Fortunately, I am.
Anyway, it made me more interested to read (and watch) Fast Company’s interview with him about some of the outstanding fictional and real characters in the cinema’s past. Here is what he says about Orson Welles and risk-taking:
By the way, a while back I spoke with a high school student who had recently seen “Citizen Kane.” He said, “I don’t get it. There’s nothing in there I haven’t seen in a dozen other movies.” I had to point out to him that they’d all been made after “Citizen Kane”. He pondered this for a split-second, then his face lit up. “Hey, I guess it’s pretty good after all.” Yep, pretty good.
(If you’d like 60 days of support for writing your screenplay or getting your other creative project going, you might want to enrol in the Writing Breakthrough Strategy Program that starts on Jan. 16, 2012 (and quarterly after that). Check out the details at : http://www.writingbreakthroughstrategy.com .)
One passage of an interview screenwriter Marti Noxon (“Buffy,” “Mad Men,” “I Am Number Four”) did for Film School Rejects caught my eye:
Something works the best for me…first and foremost, if I have a gut level reaction that tells me that I understand emotionally what the core of the story is, then I’ve already started off in a better place than when I’m coming from my head and thinking, “Commercially, this would be a good idea” or “I should take this project because it’ll make a lot of money or because I like these people.”
That’s wisdom coming from experience and it really rings a bell. I’ve mentioned in some other posts the few times that I accepted an assignment despite having a gut feeling that it wasn’t right for me. Of course you have to eat, and sometimes you just show up, do the best job you can, and collect the pay check.
However, especially if you’re doing something on spec, before you start, check with your gut (or wherever you store your intuition).
Here’s how it might work. Your loud voice says, “I bet this would sell! Vampires, that’s what everybody wants!” Your smaller voice says, “I’m tired of vampires. I have nothing to say about vampires.” Your louder voice says, “Who are you, Ingmar Bergman! I’m telling you, vampire babies, it’s never been done! It’s hot!”
It will be hard, but listen to the small voice. Keep coming up with new ideas until you find one that both of your voices can agree on. That will be the winner.
(For more friendly guidance on writing a screenplay, novel or short story, get my book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon and other online and offline book sellers.)