Editing symbols, well known and lesser known.
When you first come up with an idea for a story, you don’t have to think too hard about what it is you like about the story. Something catches your interest. One idea follows another and you’re off and running.
Later, when you’re deep in the belly of the beast, maybe stuck in the middle of the first draft, or struggling with the umpteenth rewrite, the very point of writing as a use of your time comes into question. You liked the idea as an idea, but this sprawling mess in front of you doesn’t seem to be that thing at all.
Why are you even bothering? Who is going to read this? Aren’t there already a thousand stories like this? What’s on TV?
You have to be able to hold onto the thing that made you want to write this particular story. When the going gets tough (and it will) you need that thing to get you through. But first you need to work out what thing is.
We all know quite well that Pixar make some of the most delicious modern narrative for cinema. Their films play our heartstrings like a fiddle. Between WALL-E, Up, Toy Story, and very soon, Brave, it’s clear that the writing staff behind Pixar films are one of the most competant, talented sets of writers in the entire field.
Exceptionally fascinating it is when we’re given the slightest peak into their production style. Emma Coats, story artist for Pixar, threw us a few construction designs the team of Pixar films tends to use. Can you apply several of these rules to your own writing? Would your writing hold a candle to an emotionally charged Pixar storyline?
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Right here is your story. Your manuscript. Your career. So why the fuck are you running in the other direction? Your writing will never chase you — you need to chase your writing. If it’s what you want, then pursue it. This isn’t just true of your overall writing career, either. It’s true of individual components. You want one thing but then constantly work to achieve its opposite. You say you want to write a novel but then go and write a bunch of short stories. You say you’re going to write This script but then try to write That script instead. Pick a thing and work toward that thing.
Momentum is everything. Cut the brake lines. Careen wildly and unsteadily toward your goal. I hate to bludgeon you about the head and neck with a hammer forged in the volcanic fires of Mount Obvious, but the only way you can finish something is by not stopping. That story isn’t going to unfuck itself.
You have a voice. It’s yours. Nobody else can claim it, and any attempts to mimic it will be fumbling and clumsy like two tweens trying to make out in a darkened broom closet. That’s on you, too — don’t try to write in somebody else’s voice. Yes, okay, maybe you do this in the beginning. But strive past it. Stretch your muscles. Find your voice. This is going to be a big theme at the start of 2012 — discover those elements that comprise your voice, that put the author in your authority. Write in a way that only you can write.
Everyone’s “rules” for themselves are different, and based on opinions—art’s merit can only be based on opinions and so on and so forth. But there are a lot of things that successful authors agree on, from avoiding adverbs to making sure you sit and write every day, that I try to abide by. So check this list out to see what works for these guys and gals. (The first list is my favorite because it’s so definitive!)