Friday, January 18, 2008


Writers Rewrite

Todd Alcott is one smart cookie. I've been reading his blog, What Does The Protagonist Want, for a couple of years now, I think, and his insightful analysis of story-structure has inspired me to push my own writing in directions it really needed to go, and I think it shows in the work.

Today he posted a meditation on the idea that "all writing is rewriting," but rather than concentrating on the sentence-level rewriting that phrase usually connotes, he's talking more about idea and story level. The process he outlines, both the idea of "rewriting" the ideas of others and reworking one's own ideas, comes closest to describing my own process of any description I've found.
This means two things:

1. There is nothing new under the sun. Any idea you have for a story, it's been done, a thousand times over, whether you know it or not. This should not be an impediment. One thing to do when you get an idea for a story is to read a whole big stack of stories similar to yours and see how those writers solved their narrative problems. Then you can copy them. Feel no guilt about this: those writers did the same thing when they were writing their stories. There's the old quote: steal from one writer and it's plagiarism, steal from everybody and it's research. When I get a writing assignment I sit down and watch every movie I can find in the genre I'm looking at and note patterns, tropes, key moments, character beats, anything that makes the movie enjoyable. Then I sit down and watch a bunch of movies in a completely different genre and note how the two genres connect and contrast, and think about how I can steal traits of one genre and apply them to another. This is what will keep my screenplay from being rote formula.

2. You must be able to look at your own writing as though it is someone else's. You cannot become too attached to your work. You cannot fall in love with a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, a line of dialogue or even a word merely because it happened to turn out nice. The fountain of creativity is unceasing, you cannot worry for one moment that you will "run out of ideas." This means that the writer you will be rewriting the most is yourself. You must learn to love this aspect of creation -- not just the initial spark, which is the fun part, but the heavy lifting of merciless revision and improvement, which is work. If you don't love rewriting your own work, you're dead in the water.
He then goes on to rework the simple idea "a good guy fights a bad guy, and wins" until it transmutes into a very familiar form. Brilliant.

In any event, the idea of sitting down with a big stack of things just like idea you're working on, and then sitting down with a stack of things completely different, is pretty much exactly my process. At the moment I'm in the preproduction stages of an epic fantasy, and working my way through a hugh stack of novels that are kinda like what I'm hoping to accomplish, not only out of the desire to avoid reinventing the wheel, but to see what sparks when reading other people's work, to see how I might approach the same ideas they use from different directions. Similarly, a great deal of what I write is inspired originally by the stories I think other writers are writing when I start reading one of their stories, only they end up having written another story entirely. That phantom idea that was bouncing around in my head when I started reading their stories, which ends up completely different than the story they actually wrote, often won't leave me alone until I sit down and write it myself.

Anyway, cool and insightful stuff on Alcott's blog, so go check it out if you've any interest in the process side of the writing craft.

Thanks for the pointer to Alcott's blog. There's tons of great stuff there. I've spent too much of the afternoon reading his analyses of the films of the Brothers Coen.
Alcott is forever pointing out things I'd never known about movies I thought I really knew. He has a real gift for getting to the real heart of a story.
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