Question: How to handle multiple ideas and the creative process?

August 25th, 2011 by
An email from GITS reader Woody Walters:
I have more ideas than I can handle and would really like to see your advice on the subject of controlling your creative process on the blog as well. I have taken some of your advice on making notes and planning out the script in as much detail as possible.

This is a great question because it’s something that will challenge you if/when you become a professional screenwriter. Unlike many other members of the filmmaking community, screenwriters can ‘stack’ projects – that is while you are writing another project, you can line up other future assignments. And if you become really successful, you can move into the role of producer as well. For example, here is the current list of projects with which screenwriter-producer Akiva Goldsman is attached to (from IMDBpro.com):

Fantastic Four – Producer, 2013, Treatment/outline

Primeval – Producer, 2012, Optioned property

Robotech – Producer, 2012, Script

Sgt. Rock – Producer2012, Optioned property

The Lonely Dog – Producer, 2012, Optioned property

Heart Shaped Box – Producer, 2011, Unknown

Lobo – Producer, 2011, Script

Lone Survivor – Producer, 2011, Script

The Ha-Ha – Producer, Director, 2011, Unknown

The Incredible Mr. Limpet – Producer, 2011, Optioned property

Untitled I Am Legend Prequel – Producer, 2011, Unknown

Amulet – Producer, Writer (screenplay), 2010, Unknown

In the Small – Producer, 2010, Script

That’s 13 projects, mostly as producer. How about screenwriter-producer Ron Bass:

A Season in Central Park – Writer (writer), 2011, Unknown

Teacher Man – Writer (screenplay), Producer, 2011, Script

True Believer – Writer (screenplay), 2011, Script

Boomsday – Writer (screenplay), 2010, Unknown

Player’s Rules – Writer (writer), 2010, Unknown

The Private Lives of Albert Einstein – Writer (screenplay), 2010, Scrip

What a Wonderful World – Writer (screenplay), Executive Producer, Producer, 2010, Unknown

That’s 7 projects, mostly as writer.

Even a pre-pro writer has to develop the use of the same mental ‘muscles’ that someone like Goldsman and Bass use because while writing a spec script, they typically have many other ideas they’re interested in writing – and then, of course, new ones pop up along the way.

So now, as a pre-pro, or later, as a pro, you need to learn how to manage your many story ideas while you maintain a clear focus on writing your current screenplay.

One aspect is simply managing your ideas and your writing — and this is where all my pontificating about writing being a two-fold process [prep-writing and page-writing] — can come in quite handy. The script you are currently writing is, obviously in the page-writing category. All your other ideas are in the prep-writing phase. That’s two different dynamics.

For the page-writing, you need to put ass on chair, close the door, turn off the phone, immerse yourself in your story world and characters and write. Whether it’s one page a day or 24 hour marathon writing sessions, it makes no difference to the basic requirement of disattaching yourself from this world and going into your story world.

For the prep-writing, it’s much looser dynamic. You have all these other story ideas. My guess is that you will naturally create a hierarchy of which one you want to do next, followed by another one you feel pretty good about, then a bunch of others sitting on a rather equivalent level of projects to develop for down the road.

One suggestion: Create a Word file for each project (or if you prefer, buy a spiral notebook for each project). Anytime a stray thought or possibility comes to mind for any of the projects, make sure you record that info in that story’s file. So part of this prep-writing dynamic is to be mindful of each of your story ideas, attuned to anything you experience in this life that may create an idea for any of your projects. You can do this anytime: In your car, at the grocery store, in the shower, on a run, sitting at your desk, in a coffee shop, in the library, and so on. It’s really about an awareness on your part that your creativity can ‘speak’ to you anytime and anywhere.

The bigger challenge is to focus on one or two and develop them so that once you finish the current script you’re writing, you’re ready to jump write into the page-writing phase for the next project. Suggestion: Pick one story that you feel has a strong story concept and about which you are passionate, and focus on developing that one. This requires a bit more structure than the generalized approach I described above. Here you will want to focus on these aspects of the story development process:

* Research

* Brainstorming plot points and possible plot elements

* Developing characters

* Structuring your plot

* Outline (if you’re into that approach to writing)

So you basically have three things going on in the course of your creative day:

* Page-writing: The time you seal yourself away to write the script you’re currently working on. You must consider this ‘sacred’ time – do not let anything get in the way of your commitment to finishing your current script.

* Prep-writing (general): Everything from generating story concepts to anytime you have any idea or thought about any of your various future projects – being attuned to whenever you creativity reacts to external stimuli of your day-to-day life and recording those ideas into a file for each of your stories.

* Prep-writing (specific): Cracking the next story you want to work on – research, brainstorming plot, character development, structuring plot, outline.

How to manage all that? How about this:

* Page-writing (current script): 2 hours before your day job.

* Prep-writing (general): Anytime during the day.

* Prep-writing (specific): 2 hours at night after your day job.

If you actually approach your time like this being conscious of what you’re doing, then you can manage to both write and prep your stories.

There’s one other dynamic: Managing your expectations. Since the page-writing process is a labor-intensive affair, one which challenges you throughout to find the resolve to keep pressing ahead, it’s quite typical for a writer to start to look at one of their future ideas and become enamored of it. Hey, maybe I should set aside the script I’m currently working on and write this other story – it seems better, more exciting, etc.

While your other story idea may end up being a better script, this is dangerous territory – because almost assuredly part of what’s going on here is the ‘grass is greener on the other side’ syndrome: The script you’re writing – the one you ‘know’ – is a slog; the script you hope to write – the one you don’t ‘know’ as intimately – appears to be easier / better to write. However if you set aside the script you’re writing and move onto the other project, here’s what will likely happen: A few months down the road, you’ll be writing this other story, and that process will be turning into a slog, then suddenly you look at some other of your story ideas, and you find yourself saying the exact same thing you did originally: Hey, maybe I should set aside the script I’m currently working on and write this other story – it seems better, more exciting, etc.
In other words, you end up with a stack of unfinished scripts.

My advice: Always finish the script you’re writing before moving into the page-writing phase of a future script. Do not use your interest in some other story as an excuse not to do the hard, necessary work you need to do to finish a screenplay.

How about you, GITS readers? How do you manage your ‘slate’ of story ideas? How do you balance your page-writing time and prep-writing time? And how do you manage your expectations about what you’re writing now and what you want to write next?

UPDATE: There are some superior ideas and approaches readers are posting in comments, so if you haven’t clicked through, I strongly encourage you to do so.

[Originally posted January 16, 2010]

9 thoughts on “Question: How to handle multiple ideas and the creative process?

  1. The Bitter Script Reader says:

    That's a lot of projects for one man. Considering the sheer number of projects he's attached to and the fact his ouvre includes LOST IN SPACE and BATMAN & ROBIN, I have a pet theory that "Akiva Goldsman" is actually a joint Alan Smithee-type of pseudonym that has been deployed when appropriate during the last decade and a half.

  2. The Bitter Script Reader says:

    Joint WGA and PGA approved pseudonym, I meant

  3. Annika W says:

    I recommend one piece of software to manage ongoing projects: Scrivener

    Opening up a Scrivener file is so much better than opening up a Word document. It's designed for project management. I could wax poetic about it all afternoon, but you really just have to try it out yourself. It was designed by a writer and will only cost you about $50. Once I know I really want to write a story, I start a Scrivener file on it. It's like crossing the Rubicon. After that, all character notes, web pages, research, etc. goes into the file in the right place. The other thing I do is always brainstorm with a notebook and pen. If I'm not jotting something down, it's fantasizing, not brainstorming. The difference between the two was a big learning lesson. Just today, I didn't feel like working, so I opened up my notebook where I'd done some character work two days ago, read what I'd written, and then just segued right into writing new stuff and ended up writing an outline. Not bad for a day's work when you started out wanting to screw around. The next step will be opening up the Scrivener file and transferring the outline, then there's really no turning back.

  4. Scott says:

    @Annika: Okay, I'm sold. Heard too many good things about Scrivener. I'll pick it up and tell you what I think.

  5. Nick West says:

    Different notebooks: check.

    Finishing the writing script: check.

    Great advice, Scott.

  6. Ricardo Cantoral says:

    The Incredible Mr. Limpet ? I heard that was dead. I really, really hope it dosen't happen.

  7. […] Doing the whole thing over again- writing multiple scripts and building strong work ethic Share:Share on TumblrMoreDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tagged advice, Screenwriting, scripts, tools, twitter, web resources […]

  8. rojomayne says:

    @ Scott – This is a fantastic article about the managing the creative process. Thanks for sharing.

    A corny analogy inspired by this article:

    When you meet that idea, it’s love at first thought. A sexy idea you spend every waking moment with and thinking about. Late nights on the phone – typing sweet nothings into the memo section.

    You take the plunge- and pledge to take this idea, to have and to hold, ’til FADE OUT do you part, and you commit exclusively to this one of a kind idea.

    Then, the honeymoon stage is over. The idea sends you out to the grocery store one night for some fresh tomato and baguette in order to make its famous bruschetta, and bam! You make eyes with a fresh, exotic, new idea, browsing through the basil in search of mint.

    Then it begins. You’re not paying as much attention to your script at home. You’re distant. It’s like you’re just going through the motions, and the second act of your commitment is dying. You’re getting started later in the day as a result of spending late nights frolicking and flirting with the details of this new, exciting idea.

    Your idea at home catches wind of the situation, and cuts it off- into a short story at best, but most likely the relationship is incomplete.

    Then you move on, seemingly excited to mingle with the mistress of mint, but perhaps the excitement was in the temptation? That spark isn’t there as you approach the second act and she sends you out one night for some fresh lime for her famous mojitos, and bam!

    It’s a wash, rinse, repeat cycle.

    Sorry if this was insanely corny, but I found the thought of it amusing.

    Scott, this article has made me realize that commitment to idea is paramount. A screenwriter must have LOYALTY to his/her idea. One must take the commitment of opening a new file in Final Draft very seriously. Play the field if you must. As a screenwriter, you can be a PLAYER. Go to bed with as many ideas as you can -and never call them again, but make sure when you’re standing on the alter of FADE IN, you’re committed to the loyalty of that script.

    Just needed to get that out of my head. Thanks for the community, Scott, and all the participants. Good day and good writing.

    1. Scott says:

      rojomayne, that is a MOST apt analogy. Combine that with Shiny Object Sydrome and a writer faces a pretty stiff form of resistance in getting a script written: the natural flow of the ‘relationship’ becoming familiar and lose its luster in combination with the excitement of discovering a new idea.

      Generally speaking it’s best to – as you say – remain “loyal” to your script and you do that by FINISHING it. There really is some truth to that whole 10,000 hour thing or 1 million word thing, however you typify whereby we learn the craft by DOING it. So pounding out scripts is key. Plus each finished screenplay represents original IP (intellectual property) and a potential sale, option, writing sample, whereas an unfinished script is a sad, sad sight to behold.

      Thanks for your observation. If you don’t mind, could I use it as the basis of a blog post?

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