The Writing Process

And after some computer malfunction shenanigans, we are back!

In a little over a month I’m going to be on a stage, talking to a crowd (hopefully) about writing. Creating a story and characters and all of that. And as of now I have no idea what I’m going to say. I mean, there’ll be three of us, so I should only have to cover 15 minutes tops, but still. I suppose I could talk about the various stages I go through as a writer. Let’s review them together, shall we?

Stage one: “Didn’t I use to be a writer?”
I have written or co-written 30 plays, ranging from “They tell me it’s great” to “This had better never see the light of day.” And each time I finish one, I inevitably start to worry that it was my last. I’ll have no ideas, no plans, and the notion that I managed to write down all those words in the last script just starts seeming insane. A fluke. Surely I can’t do that again.

Stage two: Inspiration
And then an idea will hit. It could come from anywhere. Dreams. Conversations. Watching something and thinking “I could do that better.” Usually not the last one because if someone else had the idea first, using it myself just seems icky.

In this stage, the very basics of the idea begin to form. The skeletal structure of the story, just enough to fill a thirty-second elevator pitch (examples from my past work: “Muppet Show murder mystery,” or “Man seeks romantic advice from the Devil”). The core characters will start to take shape. Maybe a few patches of dialogue. I’ll mull the idea over, talk about it with close friends, colleagues or anyone who gets in my radius when I’m “chatty drunk” at a party. Some ideas never clear this stage, and I’m probably better off for that, but if the idea is clicking, I’ll commit to it. Then it gets tricky.

Stage three: Actual work
Now I have to take this rough idea and turn it into a functioning story. This is where I finally figure out what the story is about. Now that doesn’t mean the plot: plot is just what happens during the story. What is the central theme? For example, the Dark Knight is about order vs. chaos. Inception is about letting go, or on another level storytelling itself. The Hurt Locker is about how you can lose yourself in the thrill of danger. Most of my recent plays are about getting out of your own way and letting yourself try to be happy. I don’t know, maybe I think if I write it down enough times I’ll actually learn to do it.

And yes, you also need a plot. Supporting cast. How will this resolve? Will the protagonist learn a lesson and triumph, or either fail to learn the lesson or learn it too late and fail? I prefer the former, a good friend and colleague prefers the latter, but neither is inherently better. Depends on execution. Which brings us to…

Stage four: Write it down
Depending on how long I ponce around talking about that play I’m going to write (do be careful: anyone can TALK about writing something, and it’s easy to get stuck on that step, but you have to move past that eventually) this is the longest part. When the idea’s really clicking, and the characters are well realized in my head, the characters basically write themselves. Sadly, they don’t write themselves in any useful fashion. Creating swaths of dialogue in my head is easy; actually writing it down is much harder and more time-consuming. But with time and focus (each their own brand of tricky), I eventually crank out a first draft. Now we enter the panic stage.

Stage five: Showing it to people
Is the script any good? I don’t know. I never know. First drafts have been called excellent or the worst thing I’ve ever done, and until that moment I couldn’t have guessed which would be which. Everything seems good while I’m writing it, at least for the most part, so I need someone to tell me what is and isn’t working. And the act of giving my script to someone to read is a weird two-step process: first I’m incredibly nervous to show it to anyone (on account of it might be terrible), but as soon as I’ve sent it to them I almost immediately switch to desperate to hear what they thought. From there, the editing begins.

Stage six: Draft upon draft
This one’s pretty simple, really. Get feedback, find out what needs fixing, then fix it. Repeat. I prefer to gather people for workshops, in which we read the script aloud and then people give me their thoughts. It does take a certain amount of guts to go through this process, but until you can hear people say they didn’t like something about your story without wigging out you’ll never improve.

Stage seven: editing forever
Art is never finished, merely abandoned. There will always be something that could be improved. I’ve come up with ways to polish a play while in the middle of a performace. Not an ideal time, because it’s too late to chage anything this time around and dwelling on it can make you miss your cue, but the point is the more you grow and evolve as a writer the more flaws you’ll see in your past work. Scripts I used to be incredibly proud of now embarrass me a little, but come on. I was 21.

There’s always going to be the drive to improve. The need to perfect a story. Because the better it is, the better the odds are that I can use it to trick people into liking me.

Look, I never said my creative process was easy or sane. But it seems to work.

My Top Five Cities

Now I talk a lot about travel in the “About me” section and intro post of the blog. That’s because I talk a lot about travel in general, even when it’s been a year and a half since my last proper trip. Like now. Fortunately for me I have plenty of travel tales built up over the years; unfortunately for me it’s tricky to bring those up and not sound pretentious. Start a story with “Back when I lived in Australia as a child” and even I want to smack me. It’s a challenge.

Still, as we get our sea legs here at Tales From Parts Unknown, it seems like a good idea to hit on the various topics I plan to be talking about, if nothing else as an intro to both you, the audience, and to me, the guy who’s gradually figuring this out. Today: the five cities I could visit over and over, and what I think it is I love about them.

Honourable mention: Sydney
I love Australia. I do. Despite their giant monster spiders and tiny actually deadly spiders, despite some scarring experiences in their grade school system, I love it. If you can get past the continent’s thick layer of murderous nature, there’s a lot of beauty there. But I’d be hard pressed to name a favourite city, having spent the most time in Canberra and Darwin and having little fondness for either. So, Sydney, I guess.

5. Tokyo
I’ve only been to Tokyo the once, and it’s all I’ve seen of Japan, but I fell in love with it pretty quickly. It’s massive: any time I found an observation deck (almost once per day) I would stare out at the city and couldn’t see the edge of it. It’s… different. Even when I found myself lost in a residential area, the places where “exotic foreign city” really does break down into “place where people live and work,” there was still a fascinating otherness about it. Being immersed in a different culture. At night it was bright and colourful and weird and amazing. It had some of the best sushi I’ve ever eaten. I could spend every night in the Harajuku district. It was a fascinating enough city to be lost in that I didn’t even mind some of the things that normally make me anxious about foreign countries: my inability to blend in (making me a target for strip club proprietors and surprisingly matronly prostitutes) and my idiot brain’s inability to grasp any foreign language. Nine years of French lessons and at my peak I could barely get by in French, what possible chance could I have had in Japanese. But if I stuck to restaurants with pictures on the menu or English on their signage, I did okay. Tokyo was an experience, no matter what I was doing, and that’s what I look for.

4. Florence
I was 15 the first time I went to Florence. Having spent most of my life up to that point in North America… 1980s North America… the idea of actually making your city nice to look at was novel to me. It’s not really something we do around here. But Florence is pretty. It’s filled with Renaissance art and is home to my first time I remember tasting chocolate gelato. And it was brilliant. Maybe my fondness for Florence is entirely situational. My two trips there in high school ended up being two really great days. How much of that is the city and how much was the day itself? I don’t know, but hope to find out when I return there in May. Although a lot of that is going to be coloured by trying to keep Ian from getting arrested for re-enacting Assassin’s Creed 2 all over everything. Which, let’s be real, is also going to be pretty great.

3. Las Vegas
Okay, this one’s probably entirely situational, but in this case that’s the point. I’ve been to Las Vegas three times: once when I was six (I doubt I got the most out of it), once for my brithday and most recently for my young apprentice Patrick’s birthday. Unlike any of the other cities on this list, I probably would not have as good a time if I went by myself. On my own, I’d have an oversized drink or two, half-heartedly play blackjack for twenty minutes, watch a Cirque show (probably Zumanity again don’t you dare judge me) and end up bored as often as not. With people? Correction, with the right people? It’s a gateway to good times. The sheer weight of the ridiculous, tacky oppulence makes having fun almost compulsory. Don’t believe me? Go to the Venetian. Look around. Look at the pool. Look at this hallway, for pity’s sake.

This probably cost more money than all nine best picture nominees this year.
This probably cost more money than all nine best picture nominees this year.

That isn’t even in the main part of the hotel. It leads to one restaurant and goes past the pool. And it is the fanciest hallway I have seen built after the French Revolution. In another section they have not only built a canal but they’ve developed lighting that almost precisely recreates sunlight. It’s the uncanny valley of light and hurts my eyes a bit and the whole room kind of wigged me out but I appreciate the effort. In summary, this building shouldn’t exist without a king or pharaoh forcing peasants to build it and I love it and want to party in it forever. With the right group, anything is possible and everything is awesome. It’s an expensive weekend but hell of worth it just for the experience. Unless you go with the wrong people, in which case you’re going to have some free drinks while losing your rent money on the slot machines. I assume. Fortunately I only go with fun people.

2. New York
I feel this one needs no explanation. New York is a city that lives up to its own hype. Manhattan reinvents itself every other block: it’s Times Square, then it’s a jewellery district, then it’s Hell’s Kitchen. Times Square’s parade of giant advertising billboards is so tacky it becomes a thing of beauty. There’s great food (including sandwiches the size of my head), Broadway theatre, Central Park, basically anything you could look for. I really don’t know what more I can tell you that every book, movie, comic and TV show set in New York hasn’t already said except that they ain’t making it up.

1. London
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Samuel Johnson.

Take everything I just said about New York. Say it again, then add hundreds of years of history. In place of Times Square, Leicester Square. In place of Broadway, the West End. Plus Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, great ghost walks, more Jack the Ripper tours than have a right to exist, and it’s less than a day’s travel from Stonehenge, Bath, and the Doctor Who Experience. London’s got everything you could want. Well, everything I could want, anyway, and that is the entire foundation of this list.

Next time, something about theatre, and the wonderful, horrifying process of having someone read something you wrote.