The Foolscap Method
Here’s a trick I use on every project. I learned it from my friend and mentor, the novelist and documentarian Norm Stahl. Norm and I were having lunch one day at Joe Allen’s in Manhattan and I was complaining about how hard it was to get a novel started. Norm happened to have a pad of yellow legal-sized foolscap paper in his briefcase. He took it out and set it on the table in front of me.
“Steve,” he said, “God made a single sheet of foolscap exactly the right length to hold the outline of an entire novel.”
That was a lightning-bolt moment for me. In one stroke Norm convinced me to:
1) Stop wasting time writing “bibles” or “character profiles” or any other kind of Resistance-spawned preparatory material. Shut up and begin.
2) Forget doing research, at least at the beginning. Shut up and begin.
3) Shut up and begin.
Here are two drills I’ve given myself over the years. One, write The Great Gatsby on a cocktail napkin. Two, design the Spirit of St. Louis on the back of an envelope.
Have you ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? (I highly recommend the book
by the way.) Parkinson’s Law states that
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
In other words, Resistance will make us fiddle around forever—unless we draw the line and stop it. That’s what the foolscap trick does. It cuts out the crap. It concentrates the mind.
By limiting the physical space we permit ourselves to define our project, the foolscap/cocktail napkin/back of envelope method forces us to boil down our idea to its absolute basics.
Nail down those basics and we’re ready to rock and roll.
The Great Gatsby
A poor boy (Jay Gatsby) becomes fixated on a beautiful high-society girl (Daisy Buchanan) who represents to him glamor, success, happiness—all those qualities that will render his “outsider” life blessed and beautiful.
The vehicle by which Gatsby hopes to win Daisy’s love is a height-of-social-glitz mansion in nouveau-riche West Egg, Long Island—across the bay from East Egg, the old-money, fashion-and-wealth capital of the post-war, go-go 1920’s.
Gatsby becomes rich by hook or by crook, builds the mansion and creates a social scene to which he knows Daisy will inevitably be drawn.
But Gatsby’s dream is doomed by its essential superficiality. Complications—the fact that Daisy is married, and that her husband Tom is carrying on an affair—lead inevitably to tragedy.
The story is told not by Gatsby or in the third person, but by Nick Carraway (i.e. Everyman)—a wise and caring participant/observer who lends the proper tone of empathy and perspective to his narration of the inevitable tragedy.
The foolscap method works not just for novels, but for every kind of project.
The Spirit of St. Louis
A monoplane, not a biplane—sacrifice lift and maneuverability for range.
All interior space (including extra-length wings) will be used to store fuel. The plane will be a “flying gas tank.”
Competitive designs include tri-motor planes with two- or three-men crews. We’ll do it with one engine and one man, to save weight and increase range.
Pilot must endure stress, fatigue, overcome all obstacles on his own.
Can you boil down your idea/movie/startup/philanthropic venture into elements so basic that they’ll fit onto the back of an envelope or a pad of yellow legal paper? That’s the final strength of the foolscap method. It enlists shame to overcome Resistance.
“One page?” Norm’s sheet of foolscap seems to say to us. “Are you saying you can’t summon enough time and focus to fill one page?”
(I’m calling the next four weeks Do The Work Wednesdays because their content comes largely from my new book, Do the Work. Do The Work is a follow-up to The War of Art. It’s available right now, for free in ebook format, on Amazon.com. The book and audio version will be released, on Amazon only, April 20.)
More next week on the Foolscap Method: further tricks and techniques for organizing that one crucial page.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the concept of #ibc (intuitive back channel) doing the rounds on Twitter (I blogged about it too), but this for me is a perfect example.
I was frustrated with my dissertation last night, so I pulled out a sheet of A4 (UK equivalent of foolscap) and designed the next chapter. I didn’t need to do any extra research, I just needed to do the work. And today, I came back and wrote something like 750 words (so far, it’s only 10:20am) from knowledge, without research, that I’m backing up now.
Then I came here and read this, and I thought, wow, someone else with the same problem. I keep War of Art close to me on my desk, to remind me to be a pro, to show up and do the work, but sometimes it’s easier said, or read, than done.
Thanks for this post.
All the best,
I feel the same way about business plans. If you can’t fit a business plan on 2 – 3 sheets of paper…then it’s either no good, too long or unlikely ever to be achieved 🙂
Woe, I have been having a mind block this was just perfect advice. I have a note first thing tomorrow morning start writing, but not just write taking action is the point I gleened. Thanks a heap. Great positive content.
Thank you Steven for your continuing insights. I was very excited to read about your new book, “do the work”. I have been trying desperately for the last hour to download the free ebook but to no avail. I have followed the link but it only leads to paying for the book on pre order. I have kindle on my pc. I live in Switzerland, could this be the reason? Thanks for your help.
Sharon, my apologies, I know there have been some glitches. The Domino Project folks (who are behind “Do the Work”) are working with Amazon to fix ’em. Sorry for the hassle!
Thanks for getting back to me Steven. I will keep trying and let you know once it works. In the meantime I will contain my excitement about reading your new book and, do my work.
I’m really looking forward to getting this on 20 April. It did look familiar, but I went to pre-order – only to be told I already did. Silly me. Still, only 2 weeks to go now…
Hi, Thanks Steven. An interesting read particularly as I have just committed to being far more productive.V Insightful Thanks Monica
I was looking forward to reading the book today, but it isn’t available *right now* for the Kindle. It’s only on preorder.
A friend of mine once interviewed Paul Schrader and apparently he uses this method to structure his stories. Using lined paper, each line is a scene and all scenes combined add up to the story which must fit on one sheet.
Great post. Thanks!
I remember reading on your blog a while back that research can be Resistance. Reading that has helped me a lot with my own writing. I’m a Wikipedia junkie, and once I start reading something on there, I can spend hours reading related articles. Now I just write things like, “Bob lives on **STREET** in Manhattan.” Then, when I’ve finished the day’s writing, I can go back and figure out what street he lives on, making sure the geography works with my story. And if I get distracted at that point, it’s okay. I’ve done my work for the day. The battle with Resistance can wait till tomorrow.
Thank you for this “make me think” post
And thank you for the download on the 20th
Thx so much for this. I was trying to download it for free on Amazon, but I can only preorder the Kindle version for money. Where can I download it for free? Does this have to do with the fact that I live in Germany?
i write almost every day…analytical articles… the key for me when it comes to handling Mr. Parkinson’s law is to reduce in my head the time i have to complete the work…that mental trick is quite effective…a corollary Steve knows: every Marine is always 10 minutes early!
This golden advice makes me think of David Belasco (1853-1931) the legendary Broadway producer. (Among dozens of others, he wrote “Madame Butterfly” for the stage which Puccini transformed into his famous opera.)
Early on, Belasco politely listened to wannabe playwrights rattling on about their script ideas. He soon devised a foolproof solution to these tedious interludes. He’d simply hand supplicants his card and say, “If you can’t write it on the back of my card, you don’t have a clear idea.”
Gone with the Wind:
The South attacks Fort Sumpter.
Rhet chases Scarlet
Rhet catches Scarlet
Lincoln makes the Gettsburg Address
Scarlet loses Rhet 😉
Amazon says that Do The Work will be released on April 20 – that includes the Kindle free offer, so it seems. I’ve pre-ordered and look forward to reading it! Many thanks! Enjoyed War of Art tremendously, along with all the others –
“Do the work, do the work” has become my manifesting mantra.
It’s spooky how apt this post is to my situation right now, this morning in sunny UK, when I woke up with an ‘Oh, no’ feeling at the prospect of rewriting a chapter that’s got bogged down. Thank you, Steve. I look forward to getting a copy of the new book. Foolscap, by the way, is not equivalent to A4. It’s much longer – 8 x 13″ as I remember.
Huzzah! An excellent article, and for once, I find I’m already doling something similar!
I’ve finally gotten things honed to where I have a series of project binders filled with grid lined paper. Periodically I enter the scrablings onto a ‘lead sheet’ and print it off. It’s a combination to-do list, working/thinking place and a specific place to jot down those zingers that need to be captured.
I also love the concept of culling the idea down to soundbite size. So often creativity begins to rise and bubble like bread dough leading to the inevitable ‘Yeah, but what’s it about?”.
You always have to be ready to punch the loaf…
I think that was the day I realized I wasn’t ready to write the novel I thought I wanted to write – when no matter what I tried, I couldn’t boil it down to five paragraphs. It’s just not ready yet. I turned to a non-fiction project and was able to outline it so fast it kind of scared me. There’s definitely something to be said for using this method to identify what you’re ready to write – thanks for the reminder!
I also find the beginning of a new story daunting. We all know how important a good first few lines is, and I bring that pressure with me. Plus, it’s like I am ‘breaking the seal’ on a new piece of writing with all the trouble and time it brings me. So yeah, definitely a little resistance from me with beginning something.
The way I usually get by it is writing the 20th line, or the 15th line. There isn’t nearly as much pressure from those lines so I can just throw myself into it and work on the important first few lines later.
Can’t wait for that amazon link to work! REALLY looking forward to reading it!
Oh, I am so doing this. Right. Now. Thanks, Steven!
I just was turned on to The War of Art after losing my job a few months ago, now I can follow my passions and turn “Pro”. I try to set some time aside each week to let Resistance in by doing excess Research, then when it’s time is up, out the door, back to work. Thanks for the ass kick, can’t wait for the next one!
Ahhh…NOW I see why my “weirdo” professor (Erny) made us used legal pad paper to write out our thoughts before we completed EVERY assignment! Everything is coming full-circle for me now! Thanks for the tips Steven 🙂
I just ordered you new little gem. Then I am shutting off the computer, putting the research mind aside and writing the next chapter to my first novel.
Love the no-nonsense advice. I tell my students all the time to dispel with everything and just sit down and write. No computer or printer? Here’s paper–sit down and write. No time to research? How will you research when you don’t know what to research? Sit down and write. No paper? Here’s some Post-Its. Abraham Lincoln wrote one of the most important documents in history on an envelope. Sit down and write.
I’ve woken up at 5 a.m. to get more writing done, because I wasn’t getting much done after work, so why not get more done before work? No more “I’m tired” resistance. And I printed out T.E. Lawrence’s translation of “The Invocation of the Muse,” and taped it to the wall next to my screen.
Thanks for the jumpstart.
Informative and precise…
Its difficult to find informative and precise information but here I noted…
I am working on a revision of a novel I wrote over a year ago. I know it needs a great deal of work and I believe I can use this Foolscap Method to help me.