Writing – Prep the Soil First
I meet a lot of people who tell me they used to write, or they want to write, and they have this great idea, but they’ve sat down to put it on paper (or screen) and – nothing. Nada. Bupkis.
I’ve been writing and finishing plays for about 35 years. In the early years, I, too, had a lot of discarded scripts. I’d sit down, excited, write about 10 pages, maybe more, then -- nothing. Oh, I might know how I wanted it to end, but I didn’t know how to get there, or I simply got bored trying.
Then, in my junior year of college, I made a deal with myself: I would finish every play I started no matter what. I would take that story to “an” end, if not “the” end. The result? Some really crappy plays.
However, I also realized that, for many plays, I was not ready to write them. I didn’t know enough about the characters, or the setting, or the topic. I simply was not ready to deliver on the stories because I had not prepared "the soil". I had a seed of an idea, but that was it.
For some successful writers, maybe their process is to sit down, search the corners of their mind, find an idea, and go. If this works for you, then that's your process, and bravo! To me, this sounds HORRIFYING! Like skydiving without a parachute. The landing is gonna hurt.
My process is something along the lines of what a good gardener does. (I am speculating, because not being a good gardener, I only know what I’ve heard.)
1. The Seed
Someone says something, or I see something, read something, etc. and a tiny seed is plucked and put away. If you’re looking for inspiration, you can take a walk through the neighborhood, a plant nursery, or garden (or a bookstore), and see what other people are doing. Read the local headlines. Read the classified ads! (Desperately Seeking Susan, anyone?) Want to gather seeds in unconventional places? Go to a local diner, dive bar, airport, park, gym, grocery store. Or go to an antique store or flea market. Let the found objects be your guide.
Do some people watching: Who are they? What’s their relationship to one another? Are they happy? How long have they known each other? What is ahead for them in the next 24 hours? Let your imagination play.
I also take a lot of my inspiration from history. Find a period or event you’re interested in and read more about it. Pay attention to the photos formed in your mind as you read. Bring these figures to life for others. Engage your senses. What do you see, but also what scents, tastes, sounds to you experience in your mind? What does it feel like in this world?
*Not Zone Hardy Just like not all plants grow in all environments – zones – not every idea that comes to you is right for you to develop. A friend of mine new to Florida bought a bunch of African Violets and planted them outside. They were dead within hours.
Let me give you a story example: I have an idea revolving around hockey. I don’t play hockey nor does anyone I know. It’s not that I can’t write a play about hockey. It means that I am going to have to do a lot of prep work before I can even begin IMAGINING this world. I am -- gulp -- going to have to watch hockey games. Yikes. There are lots of writers who could do a much better job growing this idea than I can. It’s not that I can’t tell this story. It's not that you must follow the adage: Write about what you know. It’s just that writing about what we know expedites things. For me, a play about hockey would do better in a different zone.
2. Prep the soil.
It’s time to prep the soil. Learn everything you can about this particular seed -- even if it's hockey. If it’s history – don’t just read about it, watch movies, listen to music from the period, see if you can pull up newspapers on the date(s) it was taking place, look into the fashion and popular designs of the era. Immerse yourself in it. You’re gathering materials you may not use, but it’s going to make for good, rich soil.
Get to know your characters. Really get to know them. Who are they? What's their name? Where did they grow up? What are they most afraid of? What is their deepest desire? What book is on their bedside table? Dig in! Create biographical sketches – sketch your characters, even if you can’t draw! Draw stick figures with arrows and words pointing to the figure, describing attributes. Learn about them “inside and out.”
3. Nurture the seedling.
If there’s a seed in the soil of my mind, I nurture it. Move it to a sill where it can get some sun. For an idea, this is like giving it attention. I like to do this as I’m falling asleep at night, and more often when I first wake up. I’ll “noodle” it around until I must get out of bed and start the day.
A long drive on a highway with little traffic is good for nurturing stories, too. North Dakota roads are perfect for this – not a lot of hills, you can see a long distance, and few cars weave in and out around you. Put the car on cruise control and let your mind work the story. (Pay attention for deer, though. No plot twists while you’re driving, please!)
4. Avoid direct sunlight.
Talking about the TOPIC and not the story helps. I avoid telling people the plot until I feel really confident about it. Meaning: I’ve lived with it for months, maybe even years. Just a frown from a friend or loved one can make me want to discard the project. At the very least, it loses some of its glow, and I have to really work to get it back. So, yes, talk AROUND the topic, but don’t share the story. It’d be like promising apple pies to people before there are buds on the apple tree. Also, avoid talking the plot to death. If you tell it too many times to too many people, you won't feel as compelled to write it.
5. Transplanting the Seedling.
When my kids were little, sometime in the spring the teachers would ask parents to send in empty cardboard egg cartons. The kids would plant seeds in them and when they sprouted – the seeds, not the kids – the parents would send the little seedlings home for us to plant in a bigger pot or the yard. (In my house, this was usually a quick death for them. I told you, I'm not a gardener).
However, when I’ve got a solid idea for a play, and I’ve prepared the spoil (with notes and research), I am ready to transplant it and see if the roots will take.
6. Don't wait too long! Sometimes, when the kids brought those little egg cartons of seedlings home, we never got around to transplanting them into a bigger pot. What happened? They withered away. The time came and went, and we missed the window. This can happen when a writer becomes so immersed in their research that it becomes a way to procrastinate. Rather than supporting the writing of the play or story, it becomes the focus. If you want to give lectures on your topic, that's great. But if you want to write a play or story, you will need to know when you have enough material to begin the writing.
7. Work with nature, then let her do her thing
Beginning prematurely, before you’ve prepared “the soil,” is bad for my process. Maybe you have time and resources to plant seeds in unprepared land – throw a handful out and see what takes root -- but I don’t. I like to give my ideas a chance to grow. This means “setting them up for success.”
This requires a process.
You can’t rush the process. Take it slowly. Enjoy each step: Finding the perfect seed for you, learning everything you can about it, preparing the soil, nurturing it, avoid talking it to death, then bringing it out and watching it grow.
Writers and artists serve as conduits for ideas. Ideas are plentiful but not all come to fruition. Taking time to cultivate the idea will help it develop strong roots. Then – who knows what you will reap? Like Jack and his beanstalk, it may rise so high it will transport you and others to someplace magical.
Writing prompt: Do you have an idea-ling for a story or play? How can you cultivate it today? Create a biography for a character. Research a time or place. Listen to music your character would like. Watch a movie about your topic. Visit a library and sit down with a table of reference books. Take a drive or a walk and -- dream it into existence. Enjoy the process.