Reconsidering Writing Production

Filmmaking fascinates me in part because all creative processes do, but also because film’s collaboration forces its makers to explain their decisions to others. This can be a handicap because to succeed the various participants have to get on the same page. But it can also be an advantage because there are others present to at least theoretically contribute to creativity and question errors in judgment.

I’ve wondered, as a writer who performs alone the tasks that many people perform in a film production, what insights the dialogue of making films could teach. For example, what does the back-and-forth between film actor and director suggest about how specifically I should make my characters in early drafts?

Today, for no other reason desperation, I started experimenting with drafting my novel in somewhat the way a film production operates. Routinely, I never draft chronologically, but I have generated the setting of my scenes as I’ve written them. Same, again for the most part, with the way my characters look in terms of physical stature, dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, etc. In other words, I came up with the setting and costumes at the same time that I put the character in them.

This morning, I flipped that. In film production, the construction of the world the characters will inhabit and in which the story will take place precedes the filming of the story. The locations, the set design and decoration, the props, the costumes, even the hair designs, are planned and in place before the actors show up. Partly because I tend to struggle with plot and I didn’t know which events to take up next in my drafting, I began to design and draft the settings for my story. I made a preliminary list of some of those settings: places where the main characters live, bars and restaurants they frequent, an important music club, workplaces of some of the main characters, and landscapes in which some key scenes occur.

Two things happened:

First, I realized that I don’t need to know exactly what’s going to happen in the setting in order to create it, any more than I need to know exactly what’s going to happen at the restaurant or grocery story I decide to visit on my way home. All I have to do is show up—or provide a character—with an intention. A scene happens when some obstacle to achieving the intention emerges, either from the setting itself or from another character with a contrary goal. Of course, in the conflict that ensues, I may discover that a few different details will make the scene work better. But for the purposes of drafting, I only need the place and the people. They make the plot happen.

Second, almost immediately I feel more confident about generating the plot and subplots. The cast of supporting characters has begun to expand as the specifics of each setting emerge, and the qualities of each place—which ones which characters will find familiar and which ones certain characters will find alien or threatening—are already suggesting the shape and even outcome of what might happen. Of course, it helps that I have a good sense of the main characters, and a general sense of the overall shape of the story. But as I worked today, I became much more comfortable with not having more than that.

But most importantly, I feel very differently about the entire process. The idea of creating the world of the story ahead of having the story spelled out in detail, which I have always liked but which really hit home when I listened to this podcast a few weeks ago, has suddenly burst on me with an unexpected energy. I’ve never written stories “from the outside in” because for me the “outside” was plot and I preferred to start with the characters. But now I find the “outside” to be much richer than I had ever imagined. I’m excited about working on the costume design for the characters—what they would wear in different season, situations, in formal or casual settings—and I’m learning about what these characters value and even how they move and occupy space.

This has implications not only for fiction but for something like memoir, biography, history, or even social science writing. How would it help me clarify what I want to say if I spent time early in my process delving into the settings? What would the landscape and clothes signal to me and to the reader about what’s most significant? How can this enrich the way I see what I’m after in a piece?

I don’t yet know, but I’m eager to find out.

Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Attention

In details there’s the truth.
Richard Ben Cramer

In all probability, nothing taught me more about paying attention than my time writing about the dead. So it’s fortunate that the newspaper writing for which I first was paid was an obituary. As a 19-year-old city desk clerk at the Eagle and Beacon in Wichita, Kansas, I daily transcribed obituary notices phoned in by funeral home directors.

For many outside journalism, obits (obituaries) evoke a mixture of the morbid and (perhaps for that reason) the comical. We all take the important dead—those famous and those related to us–seriously. But the idea of writing about the dead for a living, especially the ordinary deceased who have died in ordinary circumstances of ordinary diseases or age, often strikes people as somewhat bizarre.

And I felt the same way, until it became my job. At that point, anxiety initially replaced the humor. What if I misspelled a name or omitted a relative from the list of surviving family? What if I got an honorary title wrong or missed an important civic group to which the deceased belonged? Sometimes I overheard the periodic calls editors received from disgruntled family members; I didn’t want to be the cause of one of those calls. So attending to details meant first and foremost not screwing up.

Later I wrote obituaries involving more than the standard funeral home notice. Several papers where I worked had an informal habit of running a daily “long obit,” which we reporters referred to as “the death of the day” or “death du jour.” From the death notices we received, we chose someone once in the public eye—maybe in a peripheral way—but perhaps no longer so. Since I was an intern, reporting and writing the death of the day often fell to me.

Over time, writing obits became less about not getting it wrong and more about saying something true and essential about that person’s life. Once I wrote about a lawyer with a distinguished but behind-the-scenes career in the state attorney general’s office years earlier who had committed suicide in his 40s. I remembered talking with his former boss, the former attorney general himself, and the mixture of respect and grief I heard in his voice brought home that everyone, however unknown, has had someone somewhere who felt the same way about him or her. The level of the person’s fame didn’t determine the quality of the obituary; the level of the writer’s attention to details did.

Attention, then, had everything to do with creating an engaging experience for the reader. But to what, exactly, does the writer need to attend? Everything. Weaker writers, I discovered as a teacher, focused only on content and, to a lesser extent, organization. Beyond that, they simply tried to avoid mistakes. The stronger the student writer, however, the more the elements of writing to which she attended. As I improved as a writer, I had broadened my writing concerns in the same way.

The words I chose would shape the tone and impression the reader felt. Through them, I could engage the reader intellectually, emotionally, even morally. I could generate humor, irony, compassion, outrage. And of course, my words helped drive the rhythm and pace of the writing. I could speed the reading up or slow it down, set a musical or matter-of-fact tone.

Attending to sentence length and structure created, enhanced, or destroyed that crucial sense of “flow.” Students I taught often assumed that all sentences in journalistic writing are short and punchy, that they all read like a passage from a Hemingway short story (which are not, by the way, all constructed completely from short sentences either). Engaging writing of all kinds, however, is more likely to use a variety of sentence lengths and types. The trick is figuring how often to use what kind of sentence and at what moment.

That figuring begins with attending to language in general, especially written language. To succeed, I attended to the differences between the stories my editors chopped up and rearranged and the ones they left intact. I attended to how other, more successful writers used words, syntax, structure and content. I read more attentively the writing of students in my classes, of writers on the student newspaper, of professional journalists, of essayists and novelists, historians and scientists.

This may sound like the most tedious labor, but it has never felt that way. And that’s because the most important quality I look for in a writer is something we’re all born with but which we often let atrophy: curiosity. Good reporters, like all good writers, have a desire to understand. They look toward when others look away. They ask questions when others would rather not know. In my writing and teaching, I found that the simple act of consciously attending doesn’t just give us more information; it cultivates our curiosity. And that’s a mental muscle all writers—and the rest of us—need.