When to start

So I’m reading a book on economics and the fall of the Soviet Union last week and one line suddenly jumps out at me. In moments I’m recalling Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank talking about democracy. I still remember the feeling vividly. I’d been thinking of my childhood years in West Berlin and what it felt like after the Wall came down and how there was this limitless possibility and hope, and also a little sadness over the fact that I couldn’t be there. It was similar to the feelings surrounding tomorrow’s inauguration.

And then of course it all went to hell shortly thereafter. I hope Mr. Obama’s quiet revolution fares better than Yeltsin’s.

In any case, within minutes I saw an entire script unfolding before me. Ideas are cheap. Any writer probably gets a dozen every day. But a few really have that spark, that sense that they could become a real story. But once you get an idea with the appropriate fire, the question becomes, “when do I start?”

There are no formulas, rules or truths, and any self-proclaimed guru who tries to sell you one is full of shit. Only the formatting guidelines of a script are set in stone, and beyond 12-point Courier and the appropriate margins, anything goes. Sure the three act structure can work, though it doesn’t have to. If there is a gun in the first act, you’d better use it by the third…unless you can make it work otherwise.

And then there’s the question of research. A lot of writers immerse themselves in the world they’re about to be writing in for a long period of time before they get started. It’s probably a good practice, but I can’t work that way. For me, too much research tends to shape the story and take it off course into the weeds of detail, especially in a period piece. So when I get an idea for a script and I don’t have an ongoing project, I’ll wait as long as I can, which usually means a week or two. And then it will either fade or I just have to jump in and race through the first draft in a few weeks.

I don’t slow down for research on that first draft. What I can’t find out in short magazine articles and Wikipedia will have to wait. I’ll save the heavy research, that involving travel or books over 500 pages, for somewhere between the first and second drafts. Often I’ll find that some of the assumptions I made in the first draft hold true. Other instances will have me rewriting to correct some factual errors.

I’m not a big fan of advance research, but that’s just me. Maybe you’re the sort who needs an idea to gestate for a period of time before getting to work. I know some writers who wait years. There are no rules, though. Beware of people who try to tell you that there are.

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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