Jan 2011 05

by Brett Warner

It’s a brand new year, and if you’re anything like me – young, broke, and sitting on a dust-gathering fine arts degree – you’re probably thinking: okay, this is the year I start/finish my (insert writing project here). A lot of us have them – those nest egg ideas, gestating deep in our brains, waiting for just the exact perfect moment to materialize in some quantifiable, word-countable form. Sure, there’s a lot of reasons not to write nowadays: we’re job hunting/working, seeing somebody, going back to school, finally getting into Lost on DVD, etc. Nevertheless, 2011 is as good a year as any to finally take that secretly amazing television pilot idea (The West Wing meets George Washington’s first term in office), Star Trek fan novel, or earth-shattering poetry collection out of the realm of “maybe someday” and into the nitty, gritty real world.

Every writer works and thinks differently, but just about every professional will tell you that writing successfully is work – damn hard work, usually, and needs to be approached as such. In the spirit of aggressively engaging your long put-off writing projects, I’ve compiled a list of five off the wall methods that have helped me over the past few years. A few standards, one or two drastic measures – these not-fucking-around variety techniques have pulled me out of many a blinking cursor bind and, who knows, might help others do the same.

[Eli in The Underachiever]

Leave The House

Complacency is the enemy of creativity, which is why the easiest way to procrastinate with writing projects is to snuggle up in your bed with a laptop, listening to your favorite CD and somehow imagining that in this billowing cloud of comfort, you’ll be in any frame of mind to “pound out” anything. Find the busiest, noisiest, most obnoxiously inconvenient coffee joint, bar, or diner you can, and hole yourself there right up to the point when you start to get used to the place, then quickly move on. A change of scenery can be the greatest thing that ever happened to your pet project. I mean, look around you – there are probably lawyers downing espresso after espresso, trying to figure how to save their clients’ lives, or insurance moguls envisioning new ways to fuck you and your loved ones in the most conniving, loophole-maneuvering ways imaginable. These pricks take their work way too seriously, and you should too.

Start Fucking Around

Stephen King once wrote that if you’re ever stuck on a story, change the protagonist’s gender. Messing around with the components of your work is not only helpful, it’s absolutely completely necessary. Not even the greatest ideas stay the same from start to finish, and there’s an infinite number of ways to take an okay idea and make it great through careful restructuring, reformatting, or re-approaching. Say you’re writing a straightforward, traditionalist detective story and every line is boring you to tears. So, switch things up a bit. Sam Spade is now a gay, albino, cat-loving opera aficionado. Ka-pow! Or maybe the story is told from the perspective of the killer, posing as a detective and trying to solve his own crime in order to check for any holes in his perfect plan. Or the story is set an anachronistic fantasy world that fuses Nazi-occupied Berlin with the early ’80s Manchester post-punk scene. Whatever it is, don’t just settle for an ordinary idea. Take something simple and direct that readers can identify with and recreate the hell out of it.

Break Some Rules

The most exciting writers to read are the ones who are diligently unafraid to break the rules, so by extension, the most enjoyable projects are those with a punk rock, “never give a fuck” attitude about dos and don’ts. Who says that a short story has to be short, or how long a novel needs to be? Why can’t you tell the same story from the conflicting viewpoints of three separate narrators, one of whom has never even met any of the characters in question? What law is there that says screenplays must follow cut and dry industry standards, or that poetry needs to pick one language and stick with it? Good writing should come from the imagination first and the problem-solving areas of the brain second. Go crazy! Write a soap opera featuring real celebrities playing other, different celebrities. Do whatever excites you, because if you’re not having fun writing it, no one will have any fun reading it.

Don’t Write About Yourself

This may or may not be as applicable to other writers, but in my experience, the easiest way to sink an idea creatively is to base everything on your own personal experience. This obviously excludes memoirs and letters to Penthouse, but generally I find that by basing too much on people you know and places you’ve been, you lose the sense of discovery that makes writing fiction such a fresh, exploratory experience. Anyone who’s maintained a LiveJournal longer than three months knows just how quickly you can get tired of yourself. Like Leo tells Juno, never build from memory, always imagine new places. People are never as exciting or intriguing as when you’re just starting to get to know them, so why populate your prose with guys and gals you already know inside and out?

Give A Shit

Like anything, writing only really comes together when you hunker down and get serious about it. I know it sounds dumb and obvious, but 99% of my quote unquote great ideas fell into oblivion because I never took the time to step up (or sit down, rather) and just get on with it. You really do have to want it, like sports or running for president. It’s not something that happens accidentally, a book can’t write itself. (Unless you’re Marg Helgenberger in The Tommyknockers, in which case your teeth will start falling out.) A lot of writers designate a period of time every day to work on something, but really you’ve just got to find your own method and rhythm and keep at it. Set deadlines for yourself, if nobody’s already waiting for a finished manuscript. Sucker a friend into reading a page or chapter a week and make sure they pester the hell out of you over it. Whatever it takes, just never stop writing. As much fun as drinking $5 coffees and feeling smarter than other people can be, the truth is that writing can be really brutal work if you don’t tone yourself appropriately. Writer’s block can be a real prick if you let it, so let’s get tough, plunker down, and make 2011 the year we finish the damned things.

Brett Warner is a blogger and award-winning screenwriter. He wrote this article because he couldn’t think of anything to write about.