Learning the work of a writer

The life of a writer is a mystery to most of us. By its nature, it’s performed in solitude. Everyone knows what writing is – I’m writing when I’m sat at my desk, scribbling words into sentences into paragraphs into pages. But the job of a writer encompasses much more than that.  Writing the draft of my novel wasn’t easy exactly, but it was easy to recognise as work. Since I switched to working on one of my screenplay ideas, I’ve found myself struggling with the sensation that I’m not ‘really’ working. Part of the problem is that, writing is my main occupation at the moment. When it was an hour a day, squeezed in around work, I was fine with it.

My screenplay is fairly ambitious, it’s not a straight-forward three act plot. So it’s technically demanding. I’d got as far as finishing an outline but I wasn’t happy with it. The solution, it seemed to me, was to go back into the story world, explore it more thoroughly, look for stronger alternatives.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of the story world, I got it from Jurgen Wolff. It’s everything that surrounds the story: characters, history, locations, events and so on. The richer and deeper your knowledge of the story world, the greater likelihood you will tell a vivid, original story.

Relationship between story and story world
– from Jurgen Wolff

Exploring the story world is part of the job of the writer but it can take many forms. It could be desk research. A visit to a location that’s relevant to the story. Role-play to explore the characters. Creating a family tree. Making a mood board. A host of things.

It feels uncomfortable for a number of reasons:

  • There’s no ‘right’ way of doing it. Those of us who succeed in the school system are primed to find out the right way to do something and obediently follow instructions. We’ve been rewarded for colouring inside the lines all our life, suddenly there AREN’T ANY LINES!
  • It can take you down rabbit holes. Not all the ideas you pursue pay off. I spent a whole morning learning about the how the four humours were used in ancient medicine only to figure out it wasn’t right for what I wanted. Trusting that all effort is worthwhile (think of the Edison lightbulb failures!) is tricky.
  • It doesn’t feel like work. In my office job, work = tension. There’s too much to do, not enough time. The phone rings. Emails demand attention. You have to fight to get your way and do things you don’t want to do. This is playful. It’s…fun. But few of us have experienced work as fun.
  • Only you know the answer. Decision by committee aka the group grope is the bane of corporate work. Genius diluted to mediocrity by the drive for consensus. But it’s safe. Your arse is covered if things go pear-shaped.  This is ALL you.

At the moment, I’m writing a spec script, so the only pressure comes from myself. But my goal is to be paid to write scripts and that will bring pressures of deadlines and pragmatic constraints. So how do I overcome my discomfort and learn this new mode of working?

This is what I’m doing, maybe it will help you:

  • Read advice from other creatives. I’ve already mentioned Wolff. More recently I’ve been reading George Lois. I have a host of other ‘mentors’ I borrow ideas from (see the References in the side bar for a few others).
  • Don’t lose focus. Research online is a hazard for me. Years of switching windows at work make me itch to check Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates and I can lose myself in that. Zen Habits has some good tips on how to avoid this trap.
  • Set limits for tasks. How long is a piece of string? I find the uncertainties are easier to handle if I set a limit, however arbitrary. Half a day at the museum. 90 minutes researching suffragettes. The limit helps me focus, too.
  • Respect the job. Having a large amount of time to focus on my writing is a novelty for me. I felt guilty spending hours at what I called ‘faffing about’ until another writer pointed out it is my job.
  • Give yourself permission to have fun. The suspicion that I was having too much fun to be doing it ‘right’ was one of the hardest things for me to overcome.  It was George Lois who helped me with this one. His words allowed me to give myself permission to enjoy the luxury of having time to create:

“You’re at your happiest when you’re creating…the joy of the creative process, minute by minute, hour after hour, day by day, is the sublime path to true happiness.”

One thought on “Learning the work of a writer

  1. I’m with you on the fact that, until we’re paid to do it, the only deadlines etc are self-imposed. So I’ve tried to tell myself that the upside of failure is freedom …and flexibility. (Hey, maybe those publishers just hate alliteration!!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s