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.
Thank you Mr. Steven… I can understand fully all the details yet, but surely I appreciate your willingness to help us, avoiding many years of failure… This is a true gift for us.
Steve, looking forward to hearing more about this essential process, thanks for the post.
P.S. I like your story better without the “Hollywood ending” – far truer and much more encouraging and inspiring for us poor saps still struggling at the bottom of the mountain.
Apparently some people turn pro with a single, all-out, convulsive effort of will. More power to them, but that hasn’t been my experience to date.
I am much farther along toward completing a project than I would have gotten without Steven’s insights, but the process continues to be one of slogging uphill against Resistance. (Had Steven not explained that being blown back to Square One can be part of the process, I would say the pre-marketing part of the project is almost finished.)
I believe that it’s the best way to start a project.
It’s like creating your map on the world of creativity -where to go, the tempo, e.t.c.
But of course there might be a time where you will come to a dead-end. And right at that moment the characters of your story will point the right direction!
Looking forward to see your approach for the “foolscap method”.
Funny how it works for business too:
Before there is a business plan for managers to understand and investors to part from their money, there are back of the envelope calculations, scribbled attempts at defining a purpose & a boundary, milestones & steps to greatmess, hurdles & ways around, a list of things to do…
It is a foolhardy attempt at predicting the future of an idea not yet defined, that nobody else can understand; it fits on a page.
Years later, coming back to it, I am always amazed that all the major events of the life of a project were jotted down in a few hours… It is as if this page took a life of its own and the written words & numbers created their own fate.
Thanks again. Inspiring and gently ass-kicking and a relief to know that other writers (all?) struggle with putting words to page and that the process is anything but overnight. Resistance has me labeled a fraud, phony, and fake for all my stuttering attempts at writing. I will keep plugging (dusting myself off again) and tear off a sheet of foolscap today. Thanks too for suggesting Mckee’s conference…fantastic!
Steven, you are god-send!! **Respect**
This also works for composing music…thanks, Steve.
Thank you Mr. Pressfield.
Hit the spot. Thanks, Steve.
I salute you for your dedication.
So, how many words would a foolscap hold?
Really looking forward to hearing more about how one of my favorite novels came to fruition.
Thank you for your great words and writing Steve. I have found a part of myself I thought I lost a long time ago!
This web page and Mr. Pressfield´s books have become a fundamental part of my working life. The constant reminder of what being a true professional is.
I’m on my way out the door right now to buy a pack of legal tablets in anticipation of what we’re about to learn. Than you, Steven.
In revision mode, so all I can say is – as usual – thank you. I will share this.
Yep, I was introduced to the Foolscap in 1972 by author Dan Potter, close friends with ee Cummings. I was in graduate school in creative writing in Oklahoma and Dan, back to his home state from Yale and years in NY, was the writer-in-residence. We became friends and as I thumbed America for years I often stayed with him in Oklahoma City. We often stayed up till near dawn talking about writing and making up stories. I sold the first short story I ever wrote to Penthouse Magazine. I was 22 and it was a parody on a bestseller, The Teaching of Don Juan. Like you, Steve, I later moved to LA to try to sell scripts. Yep, I outlined them on those magical yellow
sheets of paper. Alas, that was not my fate. As you may recall, I ended up becoming a character in the principal script I was trying to get produced: I walked the 900 mile route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears to poetically bring home the spirits of the 4,000 Cherokee who died on the forced marched from the SE to present day Oklahoma. Of course, this was real, not imagined, so the outline for the story was blown away in the wind–EXCEPT for the burning belief in the concept. I walked the Trail, wrote the book in 6 months, sent it to an agent in NY, and in 2 weeks an auction was aroused. Random House won and nominated the book, Walking the Trail, for a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. The publishing door OPENED and I was on my way, 6 figure book deals following. I have now had 7 books published, striking out on my own on Kindle, doing well. My 8th book with be out this month as a serial and is simply called: Native American Thriller. Did I outline it–so to speak–on that magical yellow paper? You bet, and on the first page we learn, in the modern world, one day all dogs have stopped barking in American. The wolves have stopped howling. What the hell is going on? It’s there, of course, between the lines against a yellow dawn.
It’s good to be back reading your blog. I have just returned to the USA from spring in Rome, my second home, and while there I’m, well, I love your posts, but Rome is, with all respect, just too exciting to spend much time online. Keep those insights coming, Steve!
Hey Mr. Pressfield,
Any chance you have any of those old foolscaps laying around you could scan/share with us? I think that’d be pretty neat to see.
Okay, I know the phrase “nearly hung myself” shouldn’t make me laugh, but you make me laugh. Thanks.
Have been reminded of words from pre-WW2 Patton by this. During some divisional advance manoeuvres, I recall him saying to his staff officers that if they couldn’t commit the entire divisional plan to one page, it was too complicated. I have a copy of one of his sketches somewhere, along with the china-graph sketch drawn by Rommell during his antics in the desert (both copies). Both of those men were genius, and I bet they would have instinctively followed your method. Looking forward to Wednesday.
not sure if you’ll see this… but what do you do when you are blocked at the outline stage? When should you throw out an idea? Sometimes I feel like I know there’s something there, and I’ve been grappling with it forever, but I can’t bring it into the kind of clarity that’s needed for a single page.
Thanks a million!
“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).”
Was the follow-up post ever completed?
Hello from Nashville,
I’ve been sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the foolscap method ‘how to’ and the videos that you wrote to anticipate in your July 3 post using The Legend of Bagger Vance as example. When??
Thank you for all that you do for writers,
Thanks again, sir, for all that you do. You’re a driving force of inspiration!
Steven, recently I started reading Gates of Fire. Thank you for writing such great book and this post is great, now I just need to apply this wisdom to my daily activities and projects.
I really enjoyed this article and signed up for updates, however, I have a question, is there a reason you write in italics in a small font?
It’s really hard to read…
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I have just now stumbled on your blog and this entry. What a profound, and probably deceptively simple way to outline. The idea of having my novel at-a-glance is appealing. My first book, a non-fiction work called “Within The Veil”, was frankly a logistical nightmare. As I embark on adapting it into a novel and also begin writing a second and also fictionI book I look forward to using this style of outline. Cheers.