How I Write: Build A Vision And Burn Your First Thoughts
The worst thing about getting an idea for a new story, is sitting down and writing it. Hence why I’m writing this. What usually happens is I have that eureka moment – when you just know you’ve got something great, you’ve got to do something with it, you can’t just let it roll around in your mind any longer – then I sit down and write a couple of thousands words, and start establishing rules for the character and plot as I go along. I’m usually really pleased with this writing. It has energy and vitality. But then I get stuck: all the rules I’ve casually invented lock me in. Sometimes that great idea isn’t at all great, it’s just a casual thought. Sometimes it’s of no interest to anyone else but me. That’s okay, I like fairly odd things. I’ve been writing and making things for as long as I can remember, and I’m lucky to earn my living from it. But it’s only relatively recently I’ve realised how I best work.
When I was in art school we all had to keep a sketchbook, and at first I didn’t. I wanted to make complete finished work, every time. This, of course, is how not to make complete, finished work. All those thumbnails, notes and stuck in bits of paper are there to guide you along your way. A good idea is never linear. So I changed, I kept a sketchbook, and still do, although now it’s more a notebook, and in truth it’s not just one physical item anymore – it’s also my Pinboards, my bookmarks and who I follow on twitter. You realise over time that if you want to create, you have to have a vision of the thing you’re trying to create. It sounds incredibly pretentious, but your vision is your blueprint. There is no right or wrong way to execute an idea, just your way. But for you to find your way, you have to start building up all the ephemera that goes into making your project real inside your head.
What does your character look like? Where do they live? What do they do? They’re all very well. But for me I got to know what clothes they dress in, what music they listen to, all aspects of their environment before I can really feel I can bring them to life. This process is a little bit like writing a treatment for a film. A treatment is a really difficult document to write. It’s not like a script, storyboard or shot list. That’s the instruction manual on how to make your film. The treatment is crucial because it’s all about the emotions we want the audience to experience when they watch whatever you’ve thrown up onto their screen, and the same can be said for any writing. What is your story about? Why should I give a fuck? How are you going to move me? Why will I remember what you’ve told me out of all the other thousand bits of information I’ve been bombarded with today? Writing a treatment defines the criteria that develops your characters and story. It’s not a list of rules, because rules are just a bit fucking dull really. It’s a way of making creative decisions and solving problems, because writing a story is mostly an exercise in problem solving.
When you’ve got your treatment down, then it’s all about pushing your ideas away ‘first thoughts’. These are the kind of thoughts most people get. I worked in a creative department once where a game was played whenever anything big happened in the news. The point of the game was to try and predict the headline on the next edition of the Sun. When Luciano Pavarotti died, a lot of people came up with the headline ‘Pavarotting’. Good, if tasteless. The best one was judged to be ‘Nessun Dormant’. In the end the Sun went with the more respectful ‘End Of An Aria’. But you get the point, loads of people punned the name so it’s not exactly a gold brick of an idea. It’s common, it’s not special or memorable. Why should anyone care?
A treatment can help you push a character in all sorts of different ways. I know Nabokov said he treated his characters like galley slaves, and it’s true this idea of letting them wander around your story could mean you could end up in a dead end. But Nabokov also said the more gifted and talented one’s character is, the greater the chances of their resembling the author in tone and lint of mind. In other words, using your treatment to let your characters develop independently of what you would do in a similar situation is a great way to get somewhere interesting. And for me that’s the point of writing, to say something interesting.