How Writers Screw Up, Part One
For part of my time in Hollywood, I worked with a partner. I called him “Stanley” in Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t so I’ll continue that protocol here.
Stanley was an established writer. He had been the force behind two big hits. I was the junior member of the team.
Stanley was also a major sci-fi enthusiast. He had read all the magazines, the short stories, the novels, the collections. One of the ways Stanley developed movie projects (he was a producer too) was to option a short story or novella by, say, Philip K. Dick and then adapt the piece as a screenplay.
Sci-fi short stories and novels [Stanley used to say] almost never work in the form in which we find them and acquire them. They’re part-stories. They’re half-stories.
This reality was a giant plus in Stanley’s eyes, because it meant he could option these pieces for peanuts, whip them into shape, and sell them as movies.
Stanley made me read a raft of these sci-fi works.
See how they all stop halfway through? The writer will have come up with a brilliant premise, like the idea of “replicants” and “blade runners” or the concept of erasing or implanting memories. But they almost never take the idea to a dramatic conclusion. They stop at Act One.
Or they’ll come up with fantastic heroes but without the right villains. There’s no theme. There’s no climax. There’s no third act.
Stanley didn’t fault these sci-fi writers. He was in awe of them just for their gift for coming up with such wild-and-crazy premises.
In Stanley’s view it was our job—the screenwriters who would adapt these novellas and short stories—to finish the work that the original writer had started.
Our job was to save her.
To make her stuff work
Have you seen Adaptation, written by the great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman? The movie is not science fiction but the problem its writing presents is exactly what we’re talking about here. The adapting screenwriter, “Charlie Kaufman,” accepts an assignment to write a script based on a Susan Orlean article in the New Yorker. The piece is about orchids.
In other words, there’s no readily apparent movie there.
The adapting writer, “Charlie Kaufman,” has to come up with a hero, a villain, an Act One, Act Two, Act Three.
If you haven’t seen the movie, Netflix it. It’s hysterical, with great performances by Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper.
But back to what we were talking about.
Why am I bringing this subject up?
What’s the point of exploring half-stories and part-stories?
Because that is exactly the problem you and I have when we write a novel and it crashes halfway through.
[Sorry, you guys. I promised last week I would stop writing these “Reports From The Trenches,” but I’ve had a few more ideas since then so I’m gonna keep going for another week or two.]
What I’m trying to say is that when you and I write a draft of a novel and the damn thing DOESN’T WORK, we find ourselves in the same position as Stanley after he options a Philip K. Dick short story or Charlie Kaufman when he signs a contract to adapt a magazine piece about flowers.
We are stuck with a half-story.
The only difference is we did it ourselves.
We didn’t have to acquire the half-story from another writer; we banged the sucker out all by ourselves.
Again, why am I beating this nearly-extinct horse?
Because before you and I can chart our course for Tahiti, we have to know WHERE WE ARE EMBARKING FROM.
This challenge is, as I observed earlier in this series, “writing at the Ph.D. level” and “overcoming Resistance at the Ph.D. level.”
Our assignment, yours and mine as we stand over the smoldering wreckage of our half-story/half-novel, is to
- Acquire objectivity about the material
- Detach ourselves emotionally from our own prior work
- Mentally regroup, so that we can summon our courage
- Open our minds to every new and fresh story possibility
- Start again from Square One.
Can we do it?
Will we fold?
Is the challenge too daunting?
Are we too attached to our original (half) story to let it go?
Lemme rephrase what I said about Ph.D.s.
This isn’t about a distinction between academic levels.
This is about the difference between being a professional and being an amateur.
We may have thought, you and I, when we started out in this business (I use that word deliberately, in contrast to “art”) that it was easy.
I have been reading Man’s Search for Meaning and today’s post resonates so strongly with Frankl’s amazing insights.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I choose to kick Resistance in the nuts.
Madeleine, your comment resonated with me!
Listened to the audio version of Man’s Search for Meaning a couple months ago. Life changing.
I also choose to kick Resistance in the nuts.
By all means, don’t hesitate to return to the “How Writers Screw Up, Part n” theme whenever it occurs to you. I’m sure that it will never grow old for this guy.
I can’t begin to express how helpful these blogs are. Not only in their instruction but also their motivation for me, and others, to not only keep writing but to write well.
To quote the great Matthew Quigley, “Don’t know where we’re going but there’s no point in being late.”
Thanks for this!
I prefer the reports from the trenches. Keep going.
As I look at my failed manuscript this morning, this post appears. Good, useful stuff.
PS: Looks like it’s time to watch Adaptation, again.
Thanks for these posts, Steve. It means a lot to all of us who struggle not just with Resistance and the writing, but with the isolation chambers of our own minds. So helpful to hear from a successful author about his thoughts, struggles. To know we are not alone. Michelle
Michelle! I know what you mean! I am on month 20 of a book about law school and the pain I feel (in my body, in my chest) is the realest thing I’ve ever known. I pray I’m valiant enough to keep fighting! If you ever need an encouragement buddy, shoot me a message. It’s fucking tough these days, every day.
This is wonderfully validating. Thank you.
Thanks from me as well, Adaptation is hilarious and the performance by Chris Cooper, is, well, brilliant.
Happy birthday! I think your birthday is coming up.
We’ve written half-stories for this business. My half-story is becoming whole. Thank you.
Maybe your screenwriter friend thought the SF stories he was adapting weren’t complete because the novelists had different goals than a screenwriter does. Good science fiction is supposed to illustrate some universal truth about the human condition and get the reader thinking.
When the exploration crew in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama” leaves the alien ship, they haven’t seen a single alien, they don’t have any answers about who they are or what they want, and they’re left with more questions than answers as the book closes. Yet that’s considered one of the classics of the genre.
I think this is closely tied in to the genre’s penchant for mystery. Peel back too many layers, and you’ve ruined the mystique. Space is inherently mysterious precisely because we don’t know what’s out there.
In a way, writing science fiction is like playing funk bass — the notes that you *don’t* play, aka the “ghost notes,” are just as important as the notes do you do play. The silences are themselves a rhythm instrument. In science fiction, those “silences” are the dark corners left unexplored, the antagonists left masked, the inscrutable aliens who remain inscrutable.
It goes back to that J.B.S. Haldane quote:
“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we *can* imagine.”
I recently talked about my half story at a conference – it was intentional. I now know I was satisfied because I was attached to it. Thanks for writing this !
I once knew a sculptor who would leave her finished pieces out in her garden to dissolve in the elements. I was appalled at her disrespect for her own work. But she was achieving a sort of climax consciousness or transcending her drive to preserve her art by letting go of it. To me it was alarming to see her figures disintegrating under moss and fern. Now I see she was scrubbing off unwanted clinginess to what had been accomplished. She was clean and ready to keep creating. Unfettered. She was kind of scary.
Louis C. K. Speaks often of throwing away, letting go of the past year’s material and digging deeper to create his next stories. The deeper he digs the more he connects with his audience.
So I like the feeling of this kind of liberation. To keep moving and creating and letting go.
[…] A long, honest post from author Steven Pressfield contains this gem on how editing often turns out: […]
Thanks for another spoon full of reality, and for recommending Adaptation, what a great movie!