Like the vast majority of writers I don’t find the writing process easy. Some days it’s painfully hard work. Not smashing up rocks with a pickaxe down a salt mine hard, but writing can be its own exquisite desk-bound hell. Most of the time I’m not enjoying myself, particularly when working on the first draft of a script. Enter the dark high priest whose goes by the name Procrastination. Hey, and what better way to procrastinate than a blog?
The Internet told me that my blog needed a snappy title. A moniker, if you will. There’s my name of course, but it’s rather ordinary:
Simon A. Brown
I’ve added the middle initial “A.” to stand out from the baying hoards of Simon Browns clogging up the Internet. (“A” stands for Alexander, if you happen to care.) I could just go with this:
The website of screenwriter Simon A. Brown.
Nothing wrong with that. Bit vanilla maybe? Yeah, I can do better …
So I started to look up quotes about writing and the writing process. Surely there’s one that succinctly sums up everything I hold true about writing, screenwriting and the world in general. I’ll simply pick out some of my favourites and in doing so find “the one”.
When I sit down to write, my usual feelings are a mixture of fear, anxiety and abject horror at the blank screen in front of me. When I finally get going it’s mainly painful and I mostly hate what I read. Fortunately for me, other writers feel the same. Here’s one of my favourites from Ernest Hemingway:
“The first draft of anything is shit.”
Yes indeed. The first draft is a barely-worked lump of clay – an unfortunately necessary stage to go through, but most of what you write in that first draft will be ill formed and mediocre. With apologies to Papa, I would tweak this quote to read:
MOST of the first draft of anything is shit.
Any first draft will contain something worth keeping. It could be a single line of dialogue, a piece of description, the bare bones of a compelling story, the perfect character name. The key skill of any writer is to plunge his or her hand into the shit, sift through said excrement and pull out the good stuff. And then comes the most important stage: the rewrites.
Stephen King is all about the shit too. This is from his excellent book, On Writing:
“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
Hmmm. Could this work as a blog name?
Shovelling shit from a sitting position.
Perhaps not, but let’s stay with how ghastly the writing process can be with this zinger from George Orwell:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
See, Orwell wasn’t having any fun, and that makes me happy.
Here’s a quote from an actual screenwriter – the genius that is Aaron Sorkin. He’s referring specifically to writing The West Wing, one of best TV shows of the last twenty years:
“The job stays the same, every week. Writing episode forty-four, I still feel the same way as I did writing episode two. I’m terrified. I have no ideas. I’m certain this is going to be the one where I put the script on the table and people are going to go, “Oh.” I want to nail it. When it works we still all jump up and down.”
So Sorkin’s terrified of that blank page too – that makes me even happier. He also nails the true reason why writing is painful: it’s the constant fear of failure every time you sit down in front of that screen. You may have succeeded before, but buddy, this is the script they’ll finally find you out for the talentless charlatan you really are.
I’m conscious that all these quotes so far have been from white males, some of them dead. Maybe this is because female writers are better at just getting on with the writing and don’t waste their time quoting about it. But here’s one I’ve found from a dead white female – the great Dorothy Parker:
“I hate writing, I love having written.”
This echoes Sorkin and resonates with me. There is nothing more satisfying than reading back a finished piece. Even a (mostly shit) first draft can be a tentative pleasure to read – because one-hundred-and-ten pages of mainly crapola it is better than zero pages any day.
Here’s a quote from an interview with one of my favourite authors growing up, Douglas Adams:
“Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”
Recently I went on a mini pilgrimage to visit Douglas Adams’s grave in Highgate East Cemetery.
That’s my selfie with Douglas at the beginning of this post. (What do you call a selfie with a dead person? A dealfie?) It’s become a tradition to leave a pen on his grave, and I was honoured to leave one of my trusty black Bics there myself:
Please note the little whale someone has left atop the headstone. If you’re not familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s a reference to this sequence – here taken from the original radio show.
Adams famously hated writing and excelled in procrastination, but in fact he didn’t originate this quote. It’s also attributed to Gene Fowler in a slightly different form:
“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
This particular quote has a long history.
Here’s an earlier version, attributed to various writers including the journalist Red Smith and Hemingway:
“Writing is easy. You just open and vein and bleed.”
I considered Your Forehead Bleeds or Open a Vein and Bleed as blog names, but my partner – the Floridian – pointed out that it sounded like I was going to be writing solely about horror and gore. Much as I love the horror genre and plan to write about it, I should probably avoid blood (and shit) in my blog name.
So I’m not quite there yet. Here’s one from Tarantino:
“I like it when somebody tells me a story, and I actually really feel that that’s becoming like a lost art in American cinema.”
Aha – maybe now I’m getting somewhere. Story. It’s all about the story.
Which brings me to screenwriting guru Robert McKee. He considers story vital too. The clue to this is in the title of his epic doorstop of a guide to screenwriting – Story. Here’s a quote from McKee:
“If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on … Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75 percent or more of a writer’s labor goes into designing story. Who are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the consequences? Finding the answers to these grand questions and shaping them into story is our overwhelming creative task. Your goal must be a good story well told.”
See that’s lovely stuff there from Bobby-Boy but I’m after short and snappy. Anyone who’s read his book or attended his course knows that brevity isn’t McKee’s forte.
With that in mind I finally came across this quote from another recently dead white male, the author Tom Clancy:
“I try to keep it simple: Tell the damn story.”
I’m not a fan of Clancy the novelist and can take or leave a Jack Ryan movie. But in four words he gets to the heart of everything. As a writer it all comes down to designing, constructing and shaping a story. A good story well told.
Tell the Damn Story.
Great name for a screenwriting blog.