The Foolscap Method
On the theme of progressing from unpublishable to publishable (and taking off from Shawn’s Friday post, The Itch), I offer herewith a few words on a technique I call “the Foolscap Method.”
The Foolscap Method is a way to get a big project started—a novel, a Ph.D. dissertation, a new business. It’s a trick, but a very wise and astute one. It’s not just a technique for organizing one’s thoughts, it’s a way to outfox Resistance.
I’m going to continue on this subject for the next week or two, as well as putting up a couple of ten-minute videos. Details to follow.
What is “foolscap” anyway? It’s the (usually yellow) lined paper in legal pads, whose dimensions are 8 ½ by 13 ½. In other words, a sheet that is slightly greater in length than a normal 8 ½ by 11 page.
The Foolscap Method was taught to me, probably thirty years ago, by my great friend and mentor Norm Stahl. Norm is a documentarian who has written and produced at least 200 hour-long docus, maybe 300, for the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. He is a locomotive, a Clydesdale, an unstoppable engine of professional creativity and production.
But back to the story. I was in New York, the 1970s, broke, starving, struggling desperately to start, stumble through, and finish a novel. Norm took pity on me and invited me out to lunch. We met at Joe Allen’s on 46th Street. I was sniveling over my cheeseburger, detailing the travails of my creative process. Norm reached into his briefcase and pulled out a lined pad of yellow foolscap. Then he said the words that would change my life:
“Steve, God made a single sheet of foolscap to be exactly the right length to hold the outline of an entire novel.”
This was not one of those moments that are appreciated only in retrospect. I got it on the spot. I felt like somebody had just stripped me naked, dumped a ten-gallon bucket of icy water over my head, then whacked me between the eyes with a two-by-four.
I saw, though I could not have articulated it at the time, that Norm was a rock-solid working pro, one who thought like a writer, worked like a writer, and delivered like a writer—and that I was a hopeless amateur. It became clear to me why he was published effortlessly while I was battling with might and main and getting nowhere.
A wave of terror and shame broke over me. I could do nothing but cringe with mortification at my own failure to grasp the most elementary concept of any enterprise:
Outline the sucker.
Break it down to its fundamentals.
Identify its theme.
Do it on one page. Do it without preciousness. Do it now.
Don’t start the actual writing until you know where you’re going and what you’re trying to accomplish.
It would make a better story to say that I went straight home from lunch, put Norm’s wisdom into practice, and blazed through my project to a glorious finish.
I screwed that one up, nearly hung myself, moved to Hollywood in despair, where I screwed up a dozen screenplays and numerous other projects, before finally getting the message. The process took about ten years, learning the lesson first on movie scripts, then another seven years before I could make it work on a book.
I finally broke through to a publishable novel with The Legend of Bagger Vance in 1995. By then, Norm’s lesson had sunk in.
I’ll be writing more about the Foolscap Method here on the blog over the next couple of weeks (as well as putting up the videos I mentioned earlier). I’ll demonstrate in detail, in reference to Bagger Vance, how a single sheet of foolscap indeed can hold the outline of an entire novel—and try to save you the seventeen years I spent learning it the hard way.