All movies, all art, all stories, they start with a good idea.
Ok, maybe not a good idea, but at least an interesting one. In the pitch meeting, when the screenwriter said “What if you woke up one morning with no recollection of the previous day, and suddenly you realized you couldn’t find your car,” someone from 20th Century Fox said “That’s an interesting idea,” and bought it.
Sometimes all you need is the idea. For the rest of us though, the idea is the easy part, and turning that idea into a complete story is where the difficulty lies.
I’m this way. I have ideas stored in my head for premises of shows that have been festering for years, which I haven’t even bothered to write down.
My brother once told me years and years ago that if the Chicago Cubs won the World Series that he would never watch another baseball game again.
“What an interesting idea,” I thought. So I’ve been tinkering in my brain a show about a man who determines mathematically that his life cannot and will not improve after he turns 32 years old, and has promised to kill himself at that age, who is delaying his suicide because the Chicago Cubs are making a deep run in the playoffs. This would take place on the night of the infamous Bartman Game, and well, with how cruel being a Cubs fan is, you can kind of make out where the story goes from there.
I really want to do this play. It’s next up on my cue after my play about sexual addiction with the long and explicit title. BUT, there is a huge problem…
Due to new management and plenty of young prospects, the Cubs look like they can realistically win the World Series in the next few years. In fact, while I wrote this blog, they pitched a no-hitter. I’m running out of the window to make this play interesting.
So 300 words into this piece, I get to the crux. Getting from the idea to the finished product can be really confounding and arduous work, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some practices that I’ve found streamline or derail the process of cultivating and focusing your ideas.
DO TAKE A BRAIN DUMP. DO NOT KEEP IT IN YOUR HEAD
Sorry to sound graphic there, but brain dumping really is the best method of preserving your idea. Just like a dream journal, you should always write down your good ideas. I’m notoriously bad at this. I used to tell the idea to my girlfriend in bed while she tried to fall asleep. This is a terrible way to preserve an idea or a girlfriend.
Get on board with brain dumps. Get a recording device, your smartphone will do just fine, and find a friend too. Hit record and talk out your idea all the way. Then have your partner ask you further questions to flesh it out.
Some good questions might be:
What does this play/movie look like?
That’s the idea, but what is the story?
Why do you have to do This idea?
What made you want to do This idea?
Those last two are really important. If you’re like me, you might have an idea you get really into, but when it’s time to come back and write it, significant time has passed and that fire isn’t lit anymore. You can go back to your brain dump and listen to word for word what made this idea so exciting, and then hit the ground running.
Example of this in motion:
Andrew: I can’t remember why I wanted to write a movie all about a traffic light, but I know I told my ex-girlfriend about it. Do you think I should call her up and asks if she remembers?
Chelsea: Andrew, the last thing she told you when she left with the kids was “I don’t want to talk to you ever again, and it’s because you put all your problems, insecurities, and creative ideas on me.”
Andrew: So that’s a no?
Chelsea: Why don’t you listen to that audio file where we talked about the traffic light for hours.
(Andrew listens to audio file)
Andrew: Oh wow, I totally forgot that I wanted to use the traffic light to explore the place of religion in modern society. Now I’m ready to start writing again! Thanks Chelsea!
Chelsea: Don’t thank me, thank your brain dump… but also thank me.
GIVE YOUR IDEA A TITLE
This is a short and simple piece of advice. There is a reason that films have working titles, it’s so that they can be referred to easily and quickly and people will still know exactly what you’re talking about. It gives a tangible thing you can hold on to, making all of this easier to remember.
Example of this in motion:
MATT: What was that idea you had?
ANDREW: Which idea?
MATT: The one about therapy…
MATT: No, it was therapy and a lot of sex?
MATT: No, it was therapy and a lot of sex and it was on the moon?
ANDREW: Oh yeah, don’t remember much about that idea…never gave it a title.
MATT: I think you need to explore new subject matter.
DO TELL EVERYONE AND ANYONE YOUR IDEA AND WHEN YOU’RE GOING TO DO IT
I’ve said before that the worst part of writing is writing. It takes time, and sadly our fingers don’t move as fast as our minds. You can see what you want to do, but physically putting it down sucks. It flat out sucks. This is why deadlines exist. They are enough to usually make people sit down and plug away.
But this is just a newborn idea we got here, what if there isn’t anything yet that is forcing a deadline?
Well, then you better make a deadline for yourself. If you can hold yourself accountable for things, then great, your problem is solved. If you can’t hold yourself accountable, then you need to add an incentive like the crippling weight of the judgment of your friends and family.
Not a joke. My real advice to you is to tell your friends and family not only about your idea, but also WHEN you are going to get your idea done. This way you have to keep your word or face rolling eyes whenever you tell anyone about an idea ever again. How other people see us influences plenty of our daily decisions, so why wouldn’t it work for cultivating your idea? It’s silly, but it works.
Example of this in motion:
JULIA: Hey Andrew, what’s up?
ANDREW: Just writing a piece for Tuesday Thoughts.
JULIA: Great. What about your new play? Got a new draft yet?
ANDREW: Of “The Women I Masturbate To?” Not yet, but soon!
JULIA: OK… But we can’t move forward with the project until you do…
ANDREW: Well (Gulp) I’m going to spend a whole weekend working on a new draft. I’m gonna check into a hotel with an idea and check out with a new draft.
ANDREW: You’ll have it by October.
JULIA: Great! See you October 1st!
(Andrew nervously begins to write)
DO THE POOR MAN’S NOTEPAD. DON’T DO A REAL NOTEPAD.
I don’t agree with taking handwritten notes on an idea. The best way to learn and remember information is to pay attention when you first hear it, and to write it down once so you get muscle memory. You will never come back to study those notes. Don’t lie to yourself. That marble composition book is just going to end up in an old backpack with ten others just like it, never to see the light of day.
So you get an idea for your idea. A bit of dialogue, a plot development, or you read an article that relates. This is fantastic! You want to revisit it.
So you write it in a notebook or sticky note or whiteboard?
You will never come back to that notebook, sticky notes get lost easily, and whiteboard get erased.
So, put it in the notepad app on my phone?
You may have your phone with you all the time, but you still have no reason to go back to the notepad app.
What do I do then?
Email it to yourself. Email accounts have a lot of storage. You look at your inbox everyday. Unless you are a monster, the sight of 200 emails in your inbox should make you cringe. So you go to clean it out, and hey, I’ve now had a reason to come back and stumble on those notes for my idea. Reading them again right now made me want to sit down and write more!
I don’t even have to do an example for this one, because the practice is literally just that.
I’m not against paper products; I just don’t see their long-term value. Instead I find it better for the clutter of my overall life to email these notes to myself, and then print them or write them in a journal once I’m going to lock myself in a room and write for a weekend, when I’ll have a need to go back to them. Which brings me to my next tip,
DO’S AND DO NOTS FOR YOUR SELF IMPOSED WRITER’S RETREAT
This is for that moment that you really think you have cultivated your idea enough to figure it all out. It’s time to write., let’s do it efficiently.
This is something I’m trying out for the first time soon, and that’s the self-imposed retreat.
I’m going to a hotel. It’s one thing to section off time to write in your home, but when you do this, life can get in the way and stop you.
Mini REAL LIFE example:
ANDREW: (Furiously typing) Man, I’m really in the zone writing this Grayscale script that was due a while ago. At this pace, I can write ten scripts today!
CHELSEA: (bursting into Andrew’s room) Hey, want to go to La Marcha?
(ANDREW eats tapas instead of writing)
There is nothing to say that life won’t get in the way at a hotel, or that the hotel won’t get in the way, but the number of possible distractions will be less.
Some hotel tips for your WORKING trip:
– Don’t select a hotel with free wi-fi. Maybe you will need wifi to look something up for your idea, but if you need it that badly, pay for it. Don’t let facebook get in the way for free.
– Don’t select a hotel with a pool, premium channels, and a great view. You don’t need these distractions. In fact, ask for a room without a view, on a low floor, and tell them you don’t need a lot of room. Your hotel worker will love you, TRUST ME.
– You can select a hotel with a gym. I actually think this is a healthy distraction. Running on a treadmill will either give you positive eustress that will help you write, or you will be like “Why the fuck am I running? This is terrible!” and then you’ll go back to writing.
– Do pick a hotel with a restaurant and late room service. You don’t need to leave the room for food. You could always order delivery, but most hotels will make you come to the lobby late at night to avoid sending strangers to traipse through the hallways under the guise of being deliverymen. That’s just added time wasted to come get your food.
You also want to go into this retreat with clearly written goals. Remember, you’re paying for this, make it count.
Write down a clear schedule. This many pages done by this time, sort of thing. Write it big, like on a flowchart. When you finish one of the goals, physically scratch it off, write through it, hell, even tear that part of the page off and throw it away. Physically ending that part of the writing session will feel great and push you through to the next goal.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED TODAY?
Look, having a great idea is exciting. It energizes you, but it needs to energize you enough to see it through. There is nothing stopping someone else from having that same idea, and who knows, maybe they are more motivated to see it through than you. You don’t want to be the guy saying “I had that idea for the dinosaur amusement park too!” No one will want to be around you.
There is no day like today. Build your idea. Make it your lasting legacy. Do it now, because there is no way of knowing if the Chicago Cubs are going to come along and screw it all up for you.