In our fifth episode, we talk about the importance of making a plan to tackle your projects to better prepare for failure (because it’s going to happen), and go over some ways to tell it’s time to scrap a project entirely. We also read three-pages from a fan-submitted script called CALL CENTER.

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Hello and welcome to episode five of Coping with Creativity, a podcast for creators about coping with that unrelenting need to create, our mental health, self-imposed pressures, actually succeeding, and everything in between.

My name is Jesse Lawson, and in this episode, we are going to be talking about planning and failing.

I was originally going to approach this from the perspective of a musician, a game programmer, and a writer, but decided instead to just focus on being a writer. All of the types of art that I create come from the same central element inside me–this drive to create–and so the tools I use for one definitely translate over to other forms of art. That’s what I’m hoping happens with you, too–that you’ll hear me talking about writing and know that it’s metaphorical if you’re a different kind of creator.

So let’s talk about planning for writing. You’ll often hear that there are two types of writers: people who plan and people who write by the seat of their pants. Plotters and pantsers, you’ll hear. I don’t think that anyone fits either of these groups completely–absolutism rarely has a place in creating–but I do think people tend to push themselves inadvertently toward these opposing poles.

On the plotting side, we can see a perfectly plotted out story, scene by scene, turn by turn. All of the processes of discovery and creativity are finished, and what’s left is just to type the story up. Done.

On the pansting side, we have no outline, just the raw creative energy that we bring to the keyboard or pad of paper every time we decide to write.

I really don’t know any successful writer–and by successful I mean someone who has finished something–who rigidly adheres to one or the other. Instead, most people who have finished and published at least one book have a little bit of both in their toolbox–including me. If writing is walking, I think rigid plotting would be like walking ten miles on a treadmill and rigid pantsing would be walking ten miles up a mountain in a straight direction and not caring about whether you veer off the trail or not.

I think the happy medium is somewhere in between: we need to appreciate that writing is about the journey and not the destination per se; I’ve talked before about how the grind must drive you, and if it doesn’t–if getting words on paper doesn’t drive you even when you’re completely in a slump–then you need to get out while you’re still sane. When we embark on the hike up the mountain toward our book or novel or project, we should have a general idea of a few things so that we can have the highest likelihood of completing something of a higher than average quality:

We should have a general idea of where we are going.

We might not know every twist and turn in the plot or the arguments we’re laying out, but we do have an idea of the overall story or theme that the reader will arrive at toward the end of the book. In my novel Burrow, I knew the protagonists were going to prevail in the end and I knew how they were going to do it, but I didn’t necessarily know all the things that were going to lead up to it. I think this is okay because it gives us some signposts to follow and a general trail to follow, but doesn’t completely strip us of our ability to creatively discover new ideas (or new trails and sights) along the way.

We shouldn’t start too soon.

How many times have you had a great idea for something, started working on it, and then once the fire was out you realized that, well, that’s all you have for it? I have dozens of stories I’ve started and only gotten a dozen or so pages into because I started them too soon. I started these stories before I had a general idea of where I was going. Without a destination in mind, your journey is going to be less about progressing toward something and more about just momentum toward nothing. Stories must progress toward something; every story has gravity, and if everything is just floating around not hurling toward the ground, you don’t have a story, you just have a series of events.

We shouldn’t start too late.

A screenwriter friend of mine is notorious for using index cards like crazy. He has one index card per page of his screenplay, usually 120 to start, and then for each of those cards, associated cards for each major element of the page. Then, he has another card that wraps up the first cards into a series of scenes, and the another set of cards for the story arcs. It’s nuts! But he’s super meticulous and almost OCD about how everything connects and feeds into each other. While all this I’m sure is great for ironing out a very complex storyline, his problem isn’t in his organization system, but rather that he spends so much time trying to be in control that he never actually sits down to write the thing. If planning is preventing you from getting writing done, you’re probably over-planning.

We should set realistic goals.

So many articles online are going to tell you to write every day. Some people are going to seem superhuman–they write a thousand words every morning when they wake up. As for me, some days I can barely muster four sentences, let alone a set amount of words per day. I have never understood people who can set and meet daily goals like that; I have always felt like if I force myself to write, I’ll only write garbage. And a lot of people feel this way, and that’s okay.

We need to set realistic goals that aren’t just about writing, but that are about ourselves. Only we know the intricacies, the handicaps, the pluses, the minuses, and the strengths and weaknesses inside us. Our goals should be highly individual, which means looking online for tips on how to set goals is only going to force us into a model that works for someone else. Find a way to define productivity for yourself, and then set small, attainable, and realistic goals for yourself.

We should get comfortable with failure.

We’re not just going to fail to meet our own goals, sometimes we’re going to fail to meet the goals of others. If you are entering a competition, you’ll fail to meet the deadline. If you’re trying to finish a book by the end of the month, you might fail to meet that goal, too. You are most definitely going to write something that you really like and then have someone rip it apart because it’s not clearly written, your characters are cardboard, your story is garbage and uninteresting, and your writing is awful. It’s going to happen. What matters in this world is not whether we fail or not, it’s how we compose ourselves and continue on after we recognize that we have failed.

Failure is inevitable, but strength is a choice. We must have the courage to critically look at ourselves and come to terms with our shortcomings–but at the same time, we have to learn to be confident in what we are creating when we know that it is something good. Not everyone is going to like what we write and that’s okay; what’s important is that WE like what we write. And if we are disappointing ourselves, we are failing, and if we are failing, we better be learning and changing. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always got.Having a plan helps to prevent a lot of the mistakes and missteps that precede failing to meet our goals, but that doesn’t mean your plan has to be super detailed.

Have a general idea of where you want your story to go; have a general idea of where the twists and turns are going to be or could be; have a general idea of what the major accomplishment and theme of the story is going to be. What feeling is the audience going to feel while reading it? How about when they’re done? If you plan for it, you can make it happen.

We should know when to quit.

Does the end-state of your project keep changing? Do you keep going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, in what programmers often call “scope creep” which is when the scope of your project keeps growing and growing uncontrollably? Are you having a hard time saying “no” to new ideas? Have you lost sight of your original enthusiasm for the storyline? Is your plan constantly shifting to the point where you are constantly having to rewrite? Then it might be time to quit. Maybe not abandon the project entirely, but definitely give this one some time to cool-off.

Not every project is ready to be worked on all the time; sometimes we have a good idea that just needs to simmer for a while so we can work on something smaller. If we can work toward a series of tiny goals, we might be able to get build those successes up into a big final project–one that we successfully finish. But if we don’t have those tiny goals, if we jumped in too soon before we realized whether this project had an achievable, attainable end-state, it might be time to quit. Work on something else. It’s okay.Just because you’ve spent a lot of time on something, doesn’t mean that time wasn’t wasted. Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.

Going Forward

So is a plan something that is a step-by-step solution to how you’re going to get to where you want to go? Not a good one, no. I used to tell my Marines that a plan is just a list of things that wont happen–but that planning is important. You should definitely have some expectations of what you want out of your creation, especially when it comes to what you will–and ultimately will not–allow it to become. The enemy of “done” is “maybe this too”; we will never complete our work if we keep expanding it, changing it, adding to it… With a clear destination in sight, it’s easier for us to stop when it’s time to stop, and move on to something else once we’ve satisfied the shape of what we wanted our story to become.

On the other hand, with a clear idea of where we are going we will have a better idea of what we need before we can begin. We don’t want to start too late, and we don’t want to start too soon. But we do need to start. And we do need to finish. And we do need to get our work out there for other people to experience. So make a list of what you want your project to accomplish, set realistic milestones that are small, measurable, and easily attainable, recognize when it’s time to murder your project and give life to a new one, and for the love of everything in this universe, never stop creating.

Three Pages of a Screenplay

Alright, now if there’s one universal constant in this universe it’s change, and this podcast is changing a bit right now. We’re still going to do a three-page read of a fan-submitted script, but this time we’re just calling it Three Pages of a Screenplay. I know, my creativity knows no bounds. I want to move away from the rigidity of the immediate question format to offer a more well rounded critique, still grounded in positivity, but offering more of a whole package.

This week we’re reading three pages from a screenplay called CALL CENTER by Bob Henderson in California.

So my first impression of this is that there is a lot of potential. The setup of the beaten down and exhausted protagonist trope existing inside the Bill Lumberg-esque nightmare that is the corporate world so smartly conveyed in Office Space is refreshed with the added bonus of the protagonist–whose name is Kyle–working in a call center–which, according to my sources, is its own circle of hell.

Thematically, I like that Bob used language that made the protagonist disappear into this world that has swallowed him–and everyone else–completely up. “A vast open call center floor stretches out like an endless sea.” However, I was sort of pulled out of this when I got to “What a terrible start to a Monday”– for me, I wonder if, while objectively a bad start to a Monday, this is just expected for our protagonist, and would better convey the lostness of his sense of self in the corporate world by indicating that.

The exchange between Peter and Kyle thew me off when Kyle asks, “You mean up-sell?” I’ve worked in sales. I don’t know anyone who would talk like that. I do know people who hate up-selling, and they would say something like, “I can’t up-sell to an irate customer” or something like that. I do like that Peter pulls him to the side and says, “We don’t use that word!” Nothing will set in stone that blemished bureaucratic boobery of anti-corporate fiction like a boss who tries to control thought by rewording and rephrasing facts so that they’re easier to stomach.

Another thing I think will have a huge payoff is the Customer Guidance Class that Peter forces Kyle to attend. I am envisioning a Michael Scott-esque tirade of corporate brainwashing and a call and return style teaching, with Peter having his class repeat like drones the marching orders for a successful sales call.

I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the break room scene with Mindy. As with most injections of pretty women, this scene starts with a description of a woman’s appearance, and then ends without any purpose for her existence other than to be some challenge or circumstance for the protagonist to experience. If Mindy is supposed to represent some trophy for Kyle to pursue–which, though very tropey, doesn’t seem too far outside of what we will come to expect–it might help to set that up with Mindy scoffing at Kyle as he tries to say hello to her. That of course is super tropey, too, but we don’t have a lot to work with creatively in this scene. What is Mindy supposed to represent for Kyle here? Is she someone that will have a purpose outside of visual attraction? What is the point in describing her as gorgeous, and what would removing her visual descriptions do to the story? I always like to ask people, if you removed the description of your female characters, would your story stay the same?

Moving on, the smash cut is a good example of proper execution. Here we have Kyle’s voice fading out and blending into a Borg-like collective of corporate drones, and then WHAM, we’re at the comedy club scene. These three pages work well because we’re left wanting more. I want to know what heck happens here, why is he at a comedy club, how is this going to fit with his corporate job, and what is the force that propels the story forward here? Even though we haven’t quite gotten to where what some would call the “inciting incident” is (and I hate using those jargon words, by the way), Bob’s writing has momentum and each page–maybe minus the scene with Mindy–gives us a sense of moving forward.

Kyle is setup as someone who has been on his last thread for so long that he has just grown used to it. We all have been there at some point in our lives; get hit on the back so much and so often that you just start turning in hopes that it eventually gets that sore muscle we have. Because if we’re going to get punched over and over and over and over, we might as well try to get something out of it. Something tells me Kyle will be propelled quite unexpectedly into a situation that flips the script for him–but continues to perpetuate a world that he cannot control, but rather is merely a participant in.

Thanks again to Bob Henderson for submitting that script.

And that wraps up this episode. I appreciate you taking the time to listen, and hope you’ve found it useful. The full transcript of this episode and all other episodes is available online at copingwithcreativity.com, along with links to my Patreon page where you can support this podcast and all of my work. Also, my Patreon page has a new intro video that’s quick, fun, and to the point, so check it out and, if you want me to keep producing podcasts like this one, pledge a dollar or more each month and I’ll give you behind the scenes access to the production of Coping with Creativity, Blank Page, Evolved, Cain, and any other project I’m working on.

Thanks for listening, and goodbye.

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