Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Notes from the overground

Even before the current obsession with pitch sessions in which writers "pitch" their story and book concepts to agents and editors, there was a certain inexorable logic to the concept of a writer knowing what the story was about, perhaps even what obstacles that required overcoming, and possibly a final word or two about the theme of the story. You knew a number of writers who could be relied upon to have answers to all these vital statistics because a number of them had lapsed into the world of television, which had buried deep inside itself a notion that it could do an editorial meeting one better by requiring the writer to speak about his--because there were many more him than her back then--intent in having written the story.

Your career in that sort of life was a rough-and-tumble intrigue involving film editors, assistant directors, drunken Irishmen, and cranky geniuses from the UCLA Film School, all of whom nourished ideas of breaking out of the rut that killed Fitzgerald (they used to really talk that way), and a pair of aging actors from the 40s for whom you wrote screen tests involving younger women and older men, for emerging actresses with whom they sought to have sexual dalliances. It is no wonder you did not want to know where your story was going until you were well enough in it to be convinced it was yours and that you were not looking for deliberate ways to secure and maintain the attention of potential viewers or, in your case, readers. That would all come--or not--in subsequent draft, where as if by some mystical connection, you would arrive at the proper beginning, the appropriate pace, even the resolution or, as many of those who did TV and wrote for magazines and books called it, closure.

This is all prologue to the question hanging fire in the short-order kitchen of your mind: How do you write notes and impressions in a way that will, at some unspecified time in the future, interest and energize you. The reason for this is your recent resolve to not be sidetracked from a project in the works with a fresh idea for a project that is completely unrelated to what you are working on at the moment. At the moment, you are working on a novel, which is interesting because of its theme, its locale, and the way it relates so tidily but at the same time plausibly to a single incident that happened in the past. Your interest is also there because of certain technical problems. Although you are well aware of them, material appears to be forthcoming and you are not at anything resembling a brick wall. You are interested in seeing how the novel will resolve and how you will ultimately cope with the problem.

Today was the day for a brief visit to the nether regions, to Down Below, to Los Angeles. As you ascended the upgrade known as Conejo (for rabbit) Summit, your attention was particularly required because of trucks shifting into the exit lane in order to be weighed out at mandatory scales, to the streams of impatient BMW and Audi's, striving for primacy in the fast lanes, for timid mini-cars, and for Law Abiding Citizens who would rather cause crashes rather than move to the right or, worse yet, speed up for a few hundred yards. Whereupon you were presented with an idea for a story that in effect had you passing through the outlier of Newbury Park and a good portion of Thousand Oaks before you became tangibly aware of your surroundings. The story almost told itself in your mind, suggesting such things as the protagonist's past, the job he was hired away from his previous job in order to take, and the likely scenario that things look good for him professionally for the moment, bringing into play the denouement, in which his behavior triggers suspicions in his wife wherein theme is set in place as well as an ingredient you are fond of, which is surprise, and the overall procession of events is the unthinkable come to pass.

Do you say screw it, as you have so many times in the past, start in on the story, and tell the novel, er, excuse me for a few weeks? Or do you try what you consider the sensible thing of writing just enough notes to preserve the idea (and trust you won't be seduced into, oh well, just the first draft) and hope you won't get another idea, equally compelling, which seems always to be the case when you are working on something.

In your current enthusiasm for the idea, your fear is that it will dissipate, which would leave you feeling vaguely uneasy at having let something so potent get away.

In simple terms, can you trust yourself to get convincing and intriguing notes down on the page?


Sarah said...

well, if there's anyone who can "get convincing and intriguing notes down on the page", it's you...

Matt said...

For me, the idea-killer is literalism and too much of an attention to detail. I have more success jotting down (even going so far as to devote an entire page in the moleskin) ideas, concepts, pieces of dialogue which are vague-to-cryptic: they only make sense within the context of the original, inspiring idea (whatever that may be). The trick is to leave enough point-form clues so that the notes become a key to the larger (yet unwritten, un-spelunked) work.