Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a feature in which fourteen screenwriters shared a few of their favorite writing tips. There’s a lot to enjoy here—I particularly liked Jeff Nichols’s description of how he lays out his scene cards—but the most interesting piece of advice comes courtesy of Andrew Bujalski, the writer and director of such mumblecore movies as Computer Chess and Mutual Appreciation. When asked how he writes believable dialogue, Bujalski says:
Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.
Which, at first, sounds like just another version of the famous quote attributed to Hemingway: “Write the story, take out all the good lines, and see if it still works.” But there’s something a little more subtle going on here, which is the fact that the center of a scene—or an entire story—can be made all the more powerful by removing it entirely.
When a writer starts working on any unit of narrative, he generally has some idea of the information it needs to convey: a plot point, an emotional beat, a clarification of the relationship between two characters. Whatever it is, it’s the heart of the scene, and the other details that surround it are selected with an eye to clarifying or enriching that pivotal moment. What’s funny, though, is that when you delete what seems like the crucial piece, the supporting material often stands perfectly well on its own, like a sculpture once the supports have been taken away. And the result often gains in resonance. I’ve noted before that there’s a theory in literary criticism that Shakespeare, who based most of his plays on existing stories, intentionally omits part of the original source material while leaving other elements intact. For instance, in the Amleth story that provided the basis for Hamlet, the lead character feigns madness for a great reason—to protect himself from a plot against his life. The fact that he removes this motivation while preserving the rest of the action goes a long way toward explaining why we find Hamlet, both the play and the character, so tantalizing.
Still, it’s hard for a writer to bring himself to remove what seems like the entire justification for a scene, and we often only find ourselves doing it in order to solve some glaring problem. Walter Murch, in Behind the Seen, has a beautiful analogy for this:
An interior might have four different sources of light in it: the light from the window, the light from the table lamp, the light from the flashlight that the character is holding, and some other remotely sourced lights. The danger is that, without hardly trying, you can create a luminous clutter out of all that. There’s a shadow over here, so you put another light on that shadow to make it disappear. Well, that new light casts a shadow in the other direction. Suddenly there are fifteen lights and you only want four.
As a cameraman what you paradoxically do is have the gaffer turn off the main light, because it is confusing your ability to really see what you’ve got. Once you do that, you selectively turn off some of the lights and see what’s left. And you discover that, “OK, those other three lights I really don’t need at all—kill ‘em.” But it can also happen that you turn off the main light and suddenly, “Hey, this looks great! I don’t need that main light after all, just these secondary lights. What was I thinking?”
Murch goes on to say that much the same thing can happen in film editing: you’ll cut a scene that you thought was essential to the plot, only to find that the movie works even better without it, perhaps because something was being said too explicitly. It can be hard to generate this kind of ambiguity from scratch, and you’ll often find that you need to write that pivotal scene anyway, if only for the sake of excising it. This may seem like a waste of effort, but sometimes you need a big sculptural form to lend shape and meaning to its surroundings, even if you take it out in the end.
There’s an old rule among artists that says that if you want to check the proportions of a drawing, it’s easier if you turn it upside down. The human brain is designed to find patterns wherever it looks, which can be a hindrance as well as a help: it tends to focus on points of similarity and silently fill in the rest, which means that a portrait can come off as more accurate than it actually is, at least through the eyes of the artist who made it. Inverting it removes that veneer of familiarity, allowing you to see it clearly. The same applies to copy editors, who will often read a text in reverse, starting with the last sentence and ending with the first. When you’re reading something normally, your mind has a way of filling in the gaps and overlooking small errors; read it backwards, and all the typos suddenly seem to pop. Part of this is simply because reading something the wrong way around forces you to slow down, instead of skimming along as you normally do, but there’s also something more profound at work: by looking at a familiar text or image from a different angle, we can restore it to its original strangeness.
This is particularly useful for writers, who have a habit of revising the same story until they can no longer see the words themselves. Every fluent reader of a language tends to process text in semantic chunks higher than the level of the individual word, much as a chess player sees the board in terms of larger groups of pieces, and a writer reading his own story takes this tendency to the extreme: I’ve often caught myself reading my manuscripts on the level of the paragraph, or even an entire page, glancing quickly at a group of lines to confirm that they’re the same as always before moving on—which isn’t anything like the way a reader will initially encounter it. This kind of behavior is what leads to typos persisting after the fiftieth revision, and, worse, to broader narrative miscalculations: a plot point or emotional thread may seem clear to me, but I have no way of knowing how it reads to someone experiencing it for the first time. The result is like a portrait sketch of a friend that looks good to the artist, but which nobody else can recognize: your own familiarity with the subject blinds you to the ways in which you’ve gone wrong.
And while it may not be practical or helpful to read an entire novel backwards, there are intermediate ways to temporarily pull yourself back from the text. When I’m doing a rewrite, for instance, I’ll often read the larger sections of a novel out of order: I’ll start with Part III, say, move on to Part II, and then end on Part I. This is especially useful when I’m doing a detailed polish followed by a quick overall read: the second time around, I can evaluate the rhythms of the novel with something like a fresh eye. Because my published novels all move between the perspectives of three or more primary characters, I’ll also do at least one rewrite where I read through each protagonist’s scenes as a whole, which allows me to test each thread for emotional and narrative soundness while exposing myself to unexpected juxtapositions. And if I were really interested in restoring a text’s original strangeness, I’d read it again after changing it to a radically different font, which does a nice job of alienating you from your own words—but I’ve never been able to follow through on this. Even I have my limits.
Still, it’s important to find ways of making our work strange again. Time alone can do wonders, which is why it’s best to wait a month or so after finishing a rough draft before starting a rewrite, but when you’re on deadline, more mechanical measures can be necessary—and they can sometimes take you by surprise. I never get tired of quoting these lines from Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen about the great film editor Walter Murch:
As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas.
These days, we don’t need to manually rewind our film or flip backward through a pile of pages to find the place we need, which makes it all the more important to create those moments for ourselves. And sometimes it requires nothing more than looking at a familiar landscape the wrong way around.
Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
A while back, I wrote that the one tangible form of progress in a writer’s life is the fact that your first drafts start to look as good as your final drafts from a few years ago. I’d like to add another sign of growth to the list, and if it isn’t as visible, it’s just as important: as time goes on, you come to love every stage of the process, not just the elements that drew you to the profession in the first place. Looking at my own approach to writing, I’d say that the average project of any length falls into six distinct but overlapping stages. There’s the search for an idea; the research, background reading, and brainstorming that fleshes out that initial concept; outlining; writing the first draft; revision for style, otherwise known as polishing; and revision for content, which often means rewriting entire sections or adding new material in response to reader comments or your own shifting sense of the storyline. All have their own pleasures and pitfalls, and not every stage will seem as appealing as every other when you start to write seriously. Yet I’ve come to believe that it’s good for a writer to derive satisfaction from every aspect of craft, at least enough to pass with relative ease from each step to the next.
There are three reasons for this. The first is that each stage exercises a different part of the brain, or, more accurately, a different range of mental states from intuitive to analytical, and a writer needs to be comfortable in each mode as much an athlete needs to be in good shape overall, even if he tends to exercise one part of the body more than others. The second is that there’s no way of knowing how long any given project will spend at any phase. You always start a novel with a general sense of how much time it will take, but in practice, the three months you’ve allocated to writing the first draft can easily expand into six, and revision, in particular, can drag on for much longer than you expect. If that’s the case, you’d better enjoy the trip—you’ll be in this stretch of territory for a long time to come. The last reason is possibly the most subtle: if you enjoy every stage of the process, you’re less likely to get caught up by one at the expense of the others. Research, for instance, can turn into a drug, and the only way to move beyond it when necessary is to be actively looking forward to the moment when you can begin to put words on the page.
My own history as a writer is of gradually coming to love each phase, even if I still feel like tearing my hair out over the particular problems they present. When I first started out, I loved the research and brainstorming stage above all the others, which I could take or leave: writing was largely an excuse to explore the world and investigate interesting ideas, and the story itself seemed like an obligatory chore to postpone until the last moment, as Hitchcock is reported to have felt of the filmmaking process after the script was complete. Later, I came to love outlining, which was the only way I could see a story through from start to finish, and once I had a complete manuscript in hand, I was a quick convert to the pleasures of polishing, since it’s great fun to refine material that already exists. As more time has passed, I’ve started to enjoy the initial search for ideas, with its sense of infinite possibility, as much as anything else. And writing the first draft has turned from a slog into an opportunity to realize the story itself, as well as a stimulating confrontation with language and tone—although I only began to enjoy it after I’d learned not to look back at what I’d written until the entire story was finished.
I’ve even come to enjoy what is easily the most frustrating stage, which is revising in response to comments or the discovery of unforeseen problems. My patience isn’t infinite, and after the fourth or fifth round of rewrites, it gets a little exhausting. Still, there’s something about scrutinizing a finished draft and trying to address its shortcomings that feels like the ultimate test of a writer’s ingenuity: it’s the point at which all the design and debugging metaphors I like so much come to the foreground. There’s an indescribable satisfaction to be had from finding just the right tiny fix that will clarify the spine of the entire story, or writing a new chapter on the demand to fill in an emotional beat you never knew was missing, and the greater the pleasure you can derive from such tinkering, the happier you’ll be as a writer in the long run. And that’s true of every step in the process—you might as well learn to love them all, because you’ll be spending a good chunk of your career on each one. (That said, there’s still one area of writing I haven’t learned to enjoy yet: the long stretches of waiting after a submission has been sent. If I could figure out how to take pleasure in that, I’d be set for life.)
Novelists come in all shapes and sizes, but if they’re united by anything, it’s two qualities of mind. The first is an irrational optimism, a sense that despite all evidence to the contrary, they’ll conquer the odds and become one of the thousand or fewer authors on the planet to make a living from writing fiction alone. The second is ambition, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Ambition is the only force that can carry any sane person through the effort of writing an entire novel: a more rational being would have given up long before, and many often do. We have ambition to thank for the novels that stand as towering works of the human spirit, for the most crassly calculated commercial fiction, and for everything in between: if money were the only thing on a writer’s mind, after all, there are easier ways of making a living. It all comes down to a desire to be known as a writer, or to leave something meaningful behind when we’re gone, and while other factors—an urgent story to tell, the need to express our innermost thoughts and feelings, a sense of emptiness when we contemplate a life without some sustaining project—it’s ambition that keeps it going and carries it home.
That’s the good thing about ambition: it comes out of nowhere and rarely leaves a true writer entirely, and without it, the shelves of our homes and libraries would be bare. But there’s a dark side to it as well. It’s the voice in a writer’s head that tells him that he’ll never be as good as he has the potential to be, and one that quickly takes for granted what he’s already accomplished. Speaking of romantic love, the great screenwriter Ben Hecht once wrote:
If you ask a man who many times he has loved—unless there is love in his heart at the moment—he is likely to answer, “Never.” He will say, if his heart is loveless, that often he had thought he loved, but that, victim or hero of love, he was mistaken. For only love can believe in love—or even remember it.
Change a word here and there, and that sums up how most writers feel about what they’ve done in the past. When you’re working on a novel, it seems urgent, inevitable, the most important thing in the world; when it’s done, even in published form, it starts to feel a little dead, and whatever pleasure it once gave you is quickly swallowed up by the drive to move on to the next big thing. That voice in your head is implacable and coolly rational: What you’ve done so far is all very well and good, it says, but what have you done for me lately?
Learning to live with those two sides of ambition is one of the hardest challenges faced by a writer, or any creative artist. I’ve been living with an unquenchable ambition for as long as I can remember, and brother, it’s exhausting. I love writing, but as with so many other authors before me, the act itself gets tied up with other, less wholesome emotions, like competition or dissatisfaction. It doesn’t help to remind myself that if I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve done so far, it has less to do with my achievements themselves then with an ingrained state of mind: I’m the kind of person who is never going to be entirely satisfied, even if I tick off every item on my literary bucket list. I even catch myself wondering what it would be like to turn it all off. If there were a switch I could press to take my ambitions away, leaving me content with what I’ve accomplished and willing to live in relative peace, there are times when I’d be tempted to flip it. When someone like Philip Roth decides that it’s no longer worth the trouble and walks away, it makes headlines, but Roth only did what most writers, in their heart of hearts, often wish they could do, if only the voices in their heads would allow it.
And the only solution I’ve ever found is to refocus that ambition on the one place where it can do a bit of good, regardless of its external results: on the way you spend your time from one minute to the next. We may not be able to control what happens to our work once we’re done with it, or how we’ll feel about it if we ever see it in print, but we can at least make sure that our free time is spent thinking about the things we care about and pursuing the activities that matter to us. In some ways, that’s the most worthwhile ambition at all—the determination to own the time that we’re afforded, not just on the level of constructing a body of work that will outlive us, but on spending the next available hour doing something we find interesting. It’s quite possible that, like Hecht’s hypothetical lover, we won’t be satisfied with what we’ve produced, but the time invested in that pursuit can’t be wasted, however many mistakes we make along the way. Whenever I feel less than content with something I’ve done, I stop and ask myself a slightly different question: Am I happy with the way I spent the time it took? And if the response is yes, then I’ve got my real answer.