Anyone who’s ever tried to write a novel will tell you, the secret is to stick at it. It’s the one thing that every single writers’ guide agrees on: if you want to be successful you have to develop writing as a habit, to sit down everyday at the same time or place and write something, anything, even if it’s I don’t know what to write. I’ve read this so many times, and I’ve even written the quotations down at the top of my notebook pages in my best curly handwriting, but it’s still a lot easier said than done.
They make it sound so simple – just show up, just stay in the chair, just write something, anything, as long as you’re writing. But the problem is that every time you write something, no matter how well it flows or how much you like it when you read it back, you never quite feel you have the skills or the confidence to turn it into anything more. So you buy more books: How the Novel Works, Structuring Your Novel, Plot vs Fiction, and before you know it you’re reading so much there’s no time to write anything!
I didn’t want to make the same mistakes I’d made in the past, so when I started screenwriting I decided two things. First of all, I was going to start at the beginning. I needed to really learn the craft, and to give myself the confidence in structure and form that I never felt I had when I was staring at the first of a brand new note book and trying to write a Booker Prize winner. So I went back to Amazon, searched through the pages and pages of screenwriting manuals and finally chose Robert McKee’s Story and, for more of a ‘workbook’ approach, the Teach Yourself: Complete Screenwriting Course. Well, they worked for me with French and Spanish.
And now, for the first time in my life, I seem to have developed a habit. I sit down with the books every day (OK six days a week, I gave myself Sundays off) and I work through them page by page. I take notes in my (beautiful, new) notebook and I do the workshop tasks (read the script of a film you’ve never seen, watch the film and see how they compare … write down all the strengths and flaws that you share with your protagonist and how you could share them more deeply …) And because they’re such brilliant books, or maybe because I feel like I’m learning something and improving myself rather than just scratching away at a random floating scene, I find that I’m doing it willingly, compulsively even, the way you would any normal habit. In the last 11 days I’ve written in a café by the Eiffel Tower surrounded by Americans, in the basement of my building between classes, opposite my boyfriend in a bar while he entertained himself, and most importantly, here, at the kitchen table, while everybody else (except the annoying builder drilling downstairs) is still in bed. Because that’s what habits are. Like biting your nails or shooting up, they’re something you just can’t help doing.