Question: How can I pick up on a project I’ve been away from?

QUESTION: I started on a short script yesterday with a idea I was really excited about, I did a quick treatment first to plan things out and then I started into the first page or two before heading to bed. I came back to it today and just didn’t have the same rhythm of thought I previously had for it if that makes sense.

The thing is it happens to me often enough, in that I find myself writing a script I started a week or two earlier and struggle getting back into the swing of the story sometimes.

ANSWER:  Use a voice recorder and leave yourself a note:

“Hey future me! Knowing you as I do, you’re going to be burned out when you get back to this. Just remember to…”

Spend 5 minutes talking about everything that excites you or bedevils you about the project. That way you’ll have something to react off of when you return to it.


 

* Note: When I started my coaching practice, I thought I was going to focus on productivity tips like this, figuring I could forestall a lot of arguments by not talking about approach or theory. How wrong I was. I’m still a big fan of productivity tips for screenwriters. Read my early posts for more like this – the 2012 stuff has some good ideas, but they were written early in my blogging career and it shows.

It’s easier to write every day if you get organized first.

People say that the secret to screenwriting is to “just write.” It’s sound advice, but it’s also convenient advice. It’s right up there with “just be yourself,” “have fun with it,” and “go with your gut,” advice that’s got a grain of truth in it, but that’s also frequently used by lazy people who don’t want to put much thought into the question you’ve asked.

So, while I agree with the advice of “write every day,” I like breaking it down a few steps further.

If you’re going to write every day, you need two things: a place to write, and a place to put the writing you do.

The absolute easiest place to put your writing is in a flexible catchall like Evernote. I like evernote because it’s searchable and flexible, and if you’re ever super bored, you can spend a day curating the ideas that you’ve stored there. But honestly, anything that’s searchable will work. In the age of modern computing, you can save all your documents to one folder and use your computer’s search feature to find keywords or hashtags if you ever want to tie all your fight scenes together.

The other thing you’re going to to need is a place to write. Some writers like to take their laptop out to a Starbucks. If that works for you, more power to you. But most writers have a desk or a workspace. Most beginning writers don’t use this space well. Your desk is your physical locus of control for your projects, the cockpit you sit in as you navigate your craft deep into the subconscious. If you’re using your desk as a big horizontal shelf, it’s not serving it’s intended purpose.

So if you’re stuck on writing every day, spend a day getting organized. Clean everything off your desk, keep it clear so you have a nice clean space to mess up with all the keystrokes, post-its and scrawling you’re going to make in the service of creativity. Get your notes off your gmail drafts, your iNotes, and the post-its on your mirror and put them all into a place that is easy to search.

If you’re serious about writing, you’re going to spend every day of the rest of your life doing it. Make sure you carve out enough space to make that task easy.

Related .

Write whenever you can (written in ten minutes)

“We often overestimate what we can accomplish in a day and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten minutes.” – Bill Gates (paraphrased)

I had to write a blog, but I didn’t want to. So I set a timer for 10 minutes and I started typing. This is what I got (I spent an extra two minutes proofreading).

We often treat writing like some big, sacred ritual. People say, “Oh, if I can’t sit down at a desk for 2 uninterrupted hours (or whatever), it’s just not worth doing.” This is just an advanced form of procrastination.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” EB White.

No matter what excuse I use, you use, there are dozens of prolific authors who were poorer, busier, and who had more kids than we did. If they can do it, so can we.

So if you’re stuck, if you’re afraid, set a timer for ten minutes. Just ten. Save what you write in a database like Evernote, or even just a word document, you’ll be surprised what you use later (I made liberal use of my quotes file to finish this post). It’s better to be the writer who writes a little every day than the writer who writes tons and tons on very rare occasions.

3 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

It happens to all of us.  We get stuck, and then we can’t move forward.  Here are some tricks you can use when you don’t want to write anything.

1.  Use a timer.

Using a timer focuses the mind.  It’s better to have ten minutes of solid focus than a hazy weekend where you occasionally glance at your notes.

Set your timer for the time available.  If you have fifteen minutes, shut off the internet and spend that fifteen minutes in a pure, focused burst where you work solely on the project at hand.  For super extra-credit, keep track of all the focused bursts you’ve done so far, so you can say, “I’ve spend an hour on my screenplay, 90 minutes on my spec pilot.”

2. Write support material.

When we get stuck, it’s usually because we’re missing a preparatory step.  The brain knows you’re sending over a cliff that hasn’t yet been bridged, and it would prefer to spare itself the indignity of the crash.

So ask yourself questions and write answers.  This connects you to the material and draws new ideas out of you.  Understanding is like a ladder.  You don’t need to know every step, but you need enough steps to be able to climb up to your goal.

Sample Questions (50 words per):
1.  What am I trying to say with this story?
2. How does this character relate to me?
3. What is the theme of this story?  How can I use this script to explore a problem I don’t know the answer to.
4. What are my three favorite movies?  How can I plant subtle allusions to them in the next scene?

Save your answers in a seperate file.  They might come in handy.

3. Rewrite your worst scene

Scenes stack on each other like jenga blocks.  If you have a crappy base, your structure won’t have any success.  To quote two poets, build a sure and steady base or else the centre cannot hold.

If you’re anything like me, there’s at least one scene in your draft that stinks, maybe you got stuck on it, maybe you rushed through it.  It’s often hard to identify the scene you hate the most, but find it (or pick a random one).  Polish it till it shines.  Once the problem scene is fixed, you’ll have more ideas for how to continue the good plotting and storytelling going forward.

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Note: This entry is a rewrite (and hopefully an improvement) from an older post.  Writing is rewriting and all that stuff.

Best practices for getting started, organized, and through your first draft.

1. Always have a pen and paper (or a voice recorder, or a smartphone with a good battery).  A pen and paper is best, as it’s living testament to your desire to capture ideas as opposed to just having a cell phone.  Productivity nerds call this ubiquitous capture.  The thinking is that your brain won’t give up the really good ideas if it thinks they’ll be wasted, so having a pen and paper is like a catalyst for creativity.  If nothing else, it’ll maximize your productivity.

2. Pick a project and work on it until it’s done.  The more projects you have, the less like you are to finish any one (there are other reasons to focus on one project)).  Make sure your project has a coherent logline, a castable protagonist, and has an actual genre.

File:Copyright Card Catalog Files.jpg

3. Have a trusted system in which to put your ideas.  Remember, this is simplified because you’re writing one project at a time (see above).  You’ll want to keep track of scenes, characters, dialogue, and other material that will feed your draft.  Also set aside another set of folders for any idea you have that doesn’t pertain to your main project.  Record it, file it, and don’t worry about it till your main project is done.  I recommend Evernote or Workflowy.

Ergonomic Workstation - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

4. Have a place to work.  Most people have a desk, but for most people that desk is under piles and piles of bills, old magazines, and office supplies.  A desk is a focusing tool for your mental energies.  It is the physical representation of your control over your environment.  If you’re feeling blocked, clean off your desk, there’s ideas under that clutter.

5. Write every day. It’s tempting to think that you can populate an entire screenplay by careful use of random ideas jotted down at stoplights, but the real work of writing is done while sitting at a desk, sweating out a dozen bad paragraphs for every usable sentence.  Writing discipline is like a muscle, you have to work it every day.  Set a daily goal and keep to it every day.  If you can’t keep that appointment with yourself, this might not be the line of work for you.  Make sure that you harvest the best ideas from your writing and put it in the trusted system.  You don’t need to save everything, just the absolute best ideas generated by the writing.

These are the best practices that keep the writing machine organized and efficient.  You’re working towards a beat sheet, and later a treatment, and finally a script.  Sadly real writing will never be quite as easy as a simple “how to” guide makes it sound, but if you follow these best practices, you’ll be well ahead of the game.

Tasks, Resistance, Pick Up Sticks, Prerequisites.

Many of the tasks we do actually require prerequisite tasks (or, to make that a little more street, and you gotta do thing one before you do thing two, cabron).

I was talking to a client about her process, and we talked about the importance of her desk being clean (thematic upshot, your desk is a focusing tool, not for storing papers – if you’re blocked creatively, clean your desk).  I thought the topic might make for a good blog, so I took some notes and put them in my trusted system.  Later, when I sat down to write,  I recalled that there was a cool quote from Anthony Bourdain’s kitchen confidential that I wanted to use, but which I didn’t have readily available.  The blog would have to wait.

Then I remembered that I had started this same blog three times and each time I’d hit the same stumbling block. I had an emotional attachment to the quote but I didn’t have the book.  As past events are an indicator of future performance, the desk Blog won’t get written until I get that book.  So I have to schedule time to get to a library or bookstore or find a way to immediately bring up tasks relevant to a location when I’m at that location.

I decided to turn this example of a bad process into a teachable moment and/badly needed content for my anemic blog.  Tasks are like pickup sticks.  The lesson I take is that tasks are like pickup sticks ***, and and often the task you want to do is buried under three more tasks that you’re barely aware of.

sticks

So when you’re stuck, in a scene, in a process, or in life, reflect on all the steps the task requires, past present and future. Odds are, the psychology/reluctance that makes you stuck is based on a subconscious knowledge that your past self screwed your present self by skipping a step. So identity the next step and do that instead.

Footnotes:
* This blog is set in a hypothetical, better, world where pirating books isn’t an option. 

** The lack of a desk Blog is holding up a grander idea I have for making a cool flow chart of how to start writing. Procrastination begets procrastination.

***I asked a bunch of 20 something at a mall if they’d heard of pickup sticks. They were all vaguely aware of them. I’m happy for their cultural literacy, but genuinely curious as to how they all had pickup sticks as kids.   They had Nintendo 64’s. Why were they playing with colored wood? ****

**** I’m a little footnote happy this week because I’ve been reading/inspired by Bill Simmons.  That dude loves footnotes.

Record your ideas as soon as you have them.

I’m writing this blog from the driver’s seat of my car

Okay,  I’m actually recording a sentence of it every time I hit a stop light.  I use an Sony ICD-PX333. The typing up comes later (or, if you’re really lazy, you can plug it into Dragon Naturally Speaking and it’ll transcribe your words for you.

I like voice recorders because they are instantaneous, recording entire monologues with the touch of a button.  With paper, you need to retrieve the pen and actually write (I can talk at 160 words per minute, I’m lucky if I can scratch 55 wpm with a pen). If you’re good at improv, you can do both sides of a conversation and have entire scenes in the time it takes to record them.

Another great part of voice recorders is that you can talk to yourself and then answer back later.  I’ve asked rhetorical questions, recorded my to-do list.  The voice recorder is a device that instantaneously transmutes all your musings into a concrete, recallable form.

If you have a smartphone, you have the ability to do this, but there’s something to be said for a dedicated device. A voice recorder is one touch, which makes it easier to use in the dark, in bed, while driving. With a smart phone you need to wait the thirty seconds it takes for the little processor to find your voice memos. You’d think that this wouldn’t matter, but motivation is funny. The more work you have to do to get to your ideas, the more resistance you’ll have to actually recording them.

It’s important to record ideas as soon as you have them. We think we won’t forget, but the truth is we do. The brain is funny, if you have your ideas recorded somewhere, your brain will give you more… if you never do anything with the ideas you have, eventually you stop having them. It’s important to record your ideas as soon as you have them, ubiquitous capture is a key step to personal organization and productivity.

Regardless of whether you get a recorder or not (seriously, do) the lesson to be drawn from this is to maximize your available time.  A lot of beginner writers will say something along the lines of “I will write from 8 to 12,” and if they miss that window they’ll discard the idea of writing that day entirely.  This leads to procrastination, and procrastination is the grave that opportunity is buried in. It’s not about having the perfect amount of time to write in, it’s about making the most of every moment you have. Get in the habit of recording your ideas. It’s good practice, and you’ll have something to develop when you finally sit down to write.

Related:

Write Whenever you can (Written in Ten Minutes)
When is the most popular day to start a  screenplay? Tomorrow.