Creative discomfort and Star Wars

The fact is that this script feels rushed and not thought out, probably because it was rushed and not thought out.

—‘Harry S. Plinkett’ (Mike Stoklasa)

They’re already building sets. God help me! I’m going to have to start this script pretty soon.

—George Lucas

It is not actually true that ‘all good writing is rewriting’. It would be nearer the truth to say that all good ideas are second ideas — or third, fourth, or 157th ideas. Writers are notoriously divisible into two warring camps, ‘outliners’ and ‘pantsers’. One of the most common triggers for a rewrite happens when you come up with a brilliant new idea halfway through a draft — and that idea makes a hash of everything you have already written. This, in the war of the writers, is a powerful weapon against the pantsers.

Jeff Bollow, for instance, in his book Writing FAST, recommends that you get your ideas right first, and write the draft later; but he also tells you never to use the first idea that comes to mind, for that only trains your mind to be lazy. If you do your brainstorming properly, and don’t start actually writing until your ideas are solid, you are much less likely to have to tear up a draft and start over. John Cleese touched on the same point in his 1991 talk on creativity:

Before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution.

And if, while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say: ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide till Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then. That’s too easy.’

That creative discomfort can make all the difference between great writing and dreck. One could argue the point endlessly, for there are examples to the contrary — snap decisions that turned out to be brilliant, slowly gestated ideas that still turned out useless. I would maintain that such cases are outliers: so much depends on the talent of the individual writer, and on sheer luck. What we want here is a controlled experiment. We could learn a great deal by taking the same writer and putting him through a series of similar projects. In half of them, he would have all the time he wanted to brainstorm, to throw away ideas when he came up with better ones, to tear up drafts, to indulge his creative discomfort. In the other half, whenever he had to make a decision, he would simply take the first workable idea that came to mind. Unfortunately, we can’t hire a writer to go through such an experiment. Fortunately, the experiment has already been made. The writer’s name was George Lucas. [Read more…]

Quality vs. quality

Edward M. Grant says, in a comment on The Passive Voice:

Most readers don’t care about ‘quality’ in the English teacher sense. They just want a good story that’s told in a readable manner.

I reply:

Which is to say that they are very picky indeed about actual quality. It’s just that the quality of a story as a story is not the sort of thing that English teachers are well equipped to analyse; so they pick and pick at relatively unimportant details of prose technique.

The trouble with publishing first drafts, for most writers, is that we very seldom get all our best ideas on the first draft. Right now, for instance, I am (shirking) revising the second book in a series that I am bringing out — an important structural revision. I realized a while ago that the pacing wasn’t holding up well in the earlier part of the book; and in the course of figuring out why, I came up with a much better way of getting the plot from point A to point B, in such a way that all the elements of the story would come together at point B with a bang, instead of making little popping noises one by one along the way.

John Cleese talks about how one of his fellow Pythons, though more talented than Cleese as a writer, never wrote scripts as original as Cleese’s. This (said Cleese) is because the colleague would go with the first workable idea he thought of, and knock off at 5:00, whilst Cleese would stay for an extra hour and a quarter, trying different ideas until he came up with something better. A lot of writers do this kind of work in the second draft. They’ve built the skeleton of the story, and have a working route from beginning to end; now they can make structural revisions to come up with the best route.

Readers will never consciously notice that all this work has been done, but they have a very shrewd way of being able to tell when it hasn’t.

The immersive writer

There are, as everyone knows, two ways of doing a thing: one way and the other way. For any given thing worth doing, there may be an infinite number of ways to divide it into two categories; just as there are an infinite number of angles at which you can cut an apple in two. All these lines of division are technically valid, of course, but some are clearly more helpful than others. (Here is an example of an unhelpful division. There are two ways of tying your shoelaces: with a barbecue lighter and without. I think it is safe to say that all the usual methods of tying shoelaces fall into the second category.)

There are, accordingly, two ways of reading books; but infinitely many ways to divide up the act of reading into two classes. One way, which I and others have found useful, is to divide reading into the immersive and the analytic. If you prefer, you can call them ‘reading for the story’ and ‘reading for the text’. The immersive reader dives joyously into the vicarious experience of the story, identifies with the characters, laughs at the funny bits, cries at the moving bits, and generally wallows in the sensuous details of the story-world. The text is translated on the fly into a sort of 3-D movie playing inside the immersive reader’s head. Vladimir Nabokov despised the immersive reader. The analytic reader, who is most often found in academia, stays carefully on the surface of the text, studying the language word by word and sentence by sentence, looking for nuggets of technique and jewels of craftsmanship, and treating motifs and symbols as if they were algebraic variables. Nabokov courted and lionized the analytic reader; which is why Nabokov’s books are read (now that the naughty-naughty of Lolita has been eclipsed by a planet full of Internet porn) chiefly by bored university students labouring their way through the ‘close reading’ of a set text. [Read more…]

John Cleese on creativity

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking; and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

—John Cleese

Cleese on creativity, 1991:

[Read more…]