Sunday, November 2, 2008

Work Habits

I was at a party recently talking to other screenwriters when the subject of work habits came up. Writers - including myself - seem endlessly fascinated with the work habits of other writers, though I can't really figure out why. Successful writers work in enormously varied ways none of which seems to give one an advantage over another.

I know successful writers who:
Write first thing in the morning.
Write late at night.
Write every single day.
Lock themselves in a room for weeks to finish a draft then take a month off from writing.
Turn out five pages in an hour.
Labor all day on a single page.
Write outlines that are longer than their script.
Start with "Fade In" and write with no idea where they'll end up.

Each method seems to work for the writers who use it. So why should we care what other writers do? I guess hearing someone works the same way you do is reassuring. But it can also be unsettling to find a writer you admire has a completely different system.

Anyway, with that in mind, here is my writing process.

First, let me give a little history. When I first graduated from college I had to take a 40+ hour a week "day job" to make ends meet. My writing process was developed somewhat in response to this. I found that it was important I write for at least an hour every day. Writing every day helped me to keep momentum even if I couldn't get very much done on a specific day. If I waited until I had a large block of time to write, most of that time would be eaten up trying to remember where I'd left off the last time I had a huge block of time. Keeping momentum meant I would have ideas throughout the day that I would jot down in a notebook (or often on scraps of paper because I didn't have my notebook with me - I'm kind of forgetful about stuff like that). When I sat down to write I would already have a lot to work with.

Once I started writing full time, I decided I would take the weekends off like a normal person. It often doesn't work out this way in practice, but I don't feel guilty if I don't write on the weekend. I do try to write every week day.

I typically have one major project and a few secondary projects at any one time. I find it difficult to write first draft material on two things at once, but I can combine working on a first draft of one project with rewriting or outlining another. And not all my projects involve writing - I might be editing a short film or directing some sketch comedy.

I've found that I can't sit at my computer and write or rewrite for eight hours straight. I burn out and my writing is no good for several days afterwards. Whatever mental process I developed when I was writing an hour a day is still with me. So I only "write" a couple hours a day. But that doesn't mean I'm lazy the rest of the time. My typical day breaks down like this:

In the morning I'll work on a secondary project for an hour or two and do bureaucratic stuff like returning phone calls or accounting or research or when I'm really desperate, filing. (Some days I'll also write this blog.) Then I'll go to the gym or for a run to get a little break.

After lunch is when I focus on my primary project. I like to have a free and clear afternoon so I don't feel any time pressure, even though I rarely write for more than three hours. After the primary project is done I'll spend the remainder of my day working on a secondary project. If I have a meeting or it's a day I'm teaching I'll adjust my schedule accordingly, prioritizing my primary project into the largest available chunk of time.

I like to outline. Typically I'll have a 12-20 page step outline of my script before I begin my first draft. This takes weeks to develop. I can't imagine starting a script without knowing where I'm trying to go. Plus, having the outline means no writer's block. I always know what I'm supposed to be writing next. I sometimes use notecards and a bulletin board to break a story, but not always. I find it helps most when I'm working on a story with complex interweaving plot lines.

When I actually sit down to write on the first draft of a script, I start my session with a quick polish of the previous days pages. I don't spend a lot of time on that, just enough to smooth the dialogue and get in the groove. I try not to stop for the day immediately after finishing a scene. Instead, I make some notes for the first scene of the next day. This primes my mind to come up with ideas throughout the intervening time that get jotted down in my notebook or on scraps of paper.

I can usually turn out two to five new pages in an hour and do five to ten pages a day. This is possible, I believe, because of the outline. Also, I believe strongly in keeping momentum going on the first draft. Perfection is for the rewriting process.

When I'm rewriting my output is a little harder to quantify. Sometimes I can get through a quarter of the script in one sitting if it doesn't require much work. Sometimes I can spend a couple days fixing one scene. Often I'm jumping around (working on a particular character, for example, or adjusting the placement of exposition). I have done dozens of drafts before calling a script finished, and as few as three. The more I do this, the fewer it seems to take.

I have tried to write late at night and/or with a glass of scotch handy because I like the romance of it. But in both cases I find I get sleepy very quickly. Romance aside, I'm at my best earlier in the day when I'm rested.

That's my process. I don't particularly recommend it for anybody but me. If you find something else works for you, more power to you!

1 comment:

Phillip said...

Funny--I actually was just wondering about other people's work habits. I think the fascination comes from my inherent laziness as I hope to find the secret missing ingredient which will transform me from semi-productive slug into amazingly-productive super caterpillar.

Either way, I guess it is some comfort to know there's another person out there who has no idea what works for anything.