Monday, July 5, 2010
Writes With Others
People think of writing as a solitary pursuit. But it's not that simple.
I had an idea for a play, and decided to take a class, because I've never written a play before. I wanted to self-impose deadlines, but most of all, I wanted feedback. We meet only once a week, and I have found myself waiting until the last minute to get the stuff on paper.
Sure, I like procrastinating as much as the next writer, but what's really going on is that I am craving the input of The Room. The actual class itself -- hearing the work out loud and getting reactions from everyone -- really makes me miss TV writers' rooms.
Everybody outside the business -- and more than a few people inside the business -- seems mystified by the group-think of a TV writers' room. "So what, you all write it together?" Well,
yes. At least when it's working right. It forces you to make decisions and cut to the chase -- two things that a writer sitting alone in a padded cell doesn't often do. You can accomplish in a week what would take you several months on your own, because of the instant, outside input. (Theoretically one writer whose episode it is drives the story, but everyone and anyone can and does break it.)
The above board is pulled from a photo I happened to take at the Secret Santa party during my year at One Tree Hill. It's of the various plot lines (color coded by character) broken down into story beats (events), but before those have been interwoven into the different "acts" (AKA segments between commercials). Of course, it helps that you already have ongoing characters and storylines. But getting other people to help you sort it out is invaluable. Even the shows you hear of where the creator "writes everything" still relies on the group think to get the stories beaten out and episodes outlined.
When I wrote a pilot earlier this year, I pulled together a virtual writers' room among select (patient) friends who were incredibly helpful in separating forests and trees. And I do the same for them when they ask.
Writing a play is vastly different than TV and movie scripting, where you're taught to write the shortest possible scenes to convey the maximum information. Plays really have to hold forth -- and what's hardest is trying to utilize the form and not have it drift into realism, which is boring and ultimately pointless on stage. The best playwrights like Martin McDonagh write plays that could only be a play -- they use the fact that you're in a theater with live people as a plus, not a minus.
It's been quite a learning curve, and my teacher's been great, but so have my fellow students. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences (including actors and academics), but all their points of view are valid. I find myself wanting to email them work in progress to know whether or not what I'm doing makes any sense.
So far every scene I have written I have thrown out and written a new one instead, but it's all getting better as it goes along, at a much quicker pace than if I was sitting alone. I of course have done plenty of the latter in my life. But without an editor and a deadline, writing can be a lonely self-tasking. The class gives me focus. Hopefully my muscles will be in shape enough by the time it ends that I can leave the nest successfully. (If not, I may be writing a lot more blog posts.)