Working in Increments

James Britton’s “Sag Harbor Studio,” 1925

In the past, I’ve approached my writing projects with a sort of “Sherman’s March to the Sea” method: blaze straight through, don’t look back, and burn anything that gets in your way. While this produces swift results, it doesn’t exactly guarantee the quality of the finished project.

This past semester, I was working on a feature screenplay with this approach. I had deadlines to meet — as a professional writer most likely would — so I tried to finish swaths of the story at once. I’d work on “this event” or “that character” in a single night with the intent of wrapping it up and never second guessing what hit the page.

Not that I didn’t edit the work or change it up now and again; rather, the whole process felt rushed. I’m not yet a professional; I should have the leisure of taking my time with my work. Of course, school assignments have their particular importance, but I’m not fond of the broad strokes I took to complete (or nearly complete) my screenplay.

I’ve returned to this piece lately, which has been a daunting task. I’m completely re-working it, which is a unique mixture of nostalgic upset and an exciting foray into a new story altogether. However, my approach has been significantly more measured: this time around, I’m taking smaller steps, working for just as long on a little less.

As a result, I’ve been focusing on detail and specific moments with a steadier and open mind. I can take the smaller pieces and pick them apart, exploring all the directions my writing can go in so as not to sacrifice what could be the best way to communicate my story.

My characters, whose lives I endeavor to hold in almost greater regard than my own, are finally becoming the intricate and believable people they are in my head. I’m now taking more time to develop the most infinitesimal aspects of their selves, which is creating more unique and human individuals.

I still run into problems with my story, such that can drive me up a wall trying to solve. But instead of laboring over them for hours, I’m letting them simmer on the back burner while I work on parts of my screenplay that I actually have a grasp on. After a while, I can hear them starting to boil, and when I feel they’ve reached their peak I take them off the range and work with what I’ve cooked up.

This has proven a far more natural and satisfying process than racking my brains for a solution till I feel like my synapses can no longer fire. When I tire myself out looking for an idea, I’m more likely to settle on whatever solution comes to me first, weary as I am. But when the ideas seek me out, I am in a better frame of mind to assess them accurately and determine which one is worth developing. Not that I don’t try and solve my writing issues; I’ve just stopped micromanaging them.

I’ve found also that this time around, my screenplay is turning out far better than it did at school. The plot doesn’t feel forced, the “plants and payoffs” (which I love to employ) are far more subtle and realistic, and my characters — as I mentioned before — are more human, realistic. In all, my writing is richer with this slower pace.

It feels as though I’m approaching a more intimately personal story that is at once married to my human experience and distant from it. I think, for a change, I’m writing a story that is both mine and my characters’.

Hopefully my “small steps” regimen provides the same insight for someone else. Otherwise, this is just a profession that I’m having a good week.

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