How Aaron Sorkin is making me a better writer

8th October 2016

Yes, I am deliberately making it sound as if Aaron Sorkin is giving me personal one to one advice. Of course he isn’t really. But I kind of feel like he is.

I’ve been taking his online screenwriting masterclass from the aptly named Masterclass.com and it’s exceptionally inspiring and useful, not just for fledgling screenwriting attempts, but for writing in general.

There are 35 lessons in total and I’m not going to blabber the contents all over the place (not least because I’d get in trouble) but one lesson in particular really stood out. It’s called “Writing Habits”.

1. Bulk-up to write

Sorkin says it takes him around 18-24 months from start to delivery. But most of that time is not spent writing. Instead it’s spent preparing, researching and hitting his head on the wall. When he actually starts typing, he can turn it around in two to three months. The simple truth is that most days you don’t write. And it can be demoralising. But that time isn’t wasted if you’re reading up, thinking, talking to people who can give you an insight into settings and characters.

2. Start with the first scene

Sorkin has to have the intention and obstacle of the protagonist in his head to start, or at least the intention and obstacle of that first scene. He writes the first scene in roughly the time it takes to type. The idea flows, it all works. If it’s not like this, if it’s – as Sorkin says – like getting ketchup out of the bottle, then you’ve not pinpointed the conflict and you’re not ready to be writing. Get that driving intention buttoned down, get the obstacle to achieving it watertight, then start at the beginning,

3. Use tools to organise your writing

Because it’s a screenwriting masterclass, Final Draft get a big mention. But so too do index cards for planning scenes and organising thoughts. My personal tools for writing are:

  • Sticky notes – for planning scenes and creating the overall layout. Because my toddler son thinks these are awesome fun to scatter, I transfer them to a spreadsheet asap.
  • Notepads – I keep one with me at all times for jotting lines, ideas, concerns etc.
  • Scrivener – switching to this writing software made complex plotting and multiple timelines work without twisting my brain into a knot from which it could never recover.

4. Write what you like and write like yourself

It takes practise to find your voice and style. The only way to find it is to keep writing, to relax into it and to NEVER try to ape someone else. Reassuringly (because everybody does it sometimes) even Sorkin says he does this every once in a while and has to stop himself. It’s a confidence thing, don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘what does everyone want me to write?’.

“Trying to please everyone is a recipe for bad storytelling”.

As an aside, I personally don’t think you need to ‘write what you know’. Most of what I know is pretty boring. I would have zero interest in a book about my day to day life. My approach is more ‘write what you want to know’. Maybe that’s my journalism background seeping through, but I think researching and learning new stuff for a book (or play or TV pilot or poem or whatever you want to write) is a privilege and a pleasure.

5. Writers’ block

This is the default position for most writers, says Sorkin. Phew, right?!

You’re going to go through stages of thinking you’re never going to finish, never going to get a new idea, that you’ve used every word and so on. Somehow, it works out in the end. But you can help it along…

6. Listen to music to get unstuck and inspired

Sorkin goes driving and listens to music. He picks a long stretch of freeway and plays songs he’s listened to since high school. Sometimes he hears a song on the radio and thinks he wants to write a scene with that as the score. Then he can work back from there and plan which scenes are needed to build up to it, and what will happen in that climax. If you know the West Wing (if you don’t, bloody watch it immediately) the end scene in the season two finale (Two Cathedrals) was written because he wanted to write a scene scored by Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits. And who wouldn’t?!

7. Finally, focus on progress

You need to be in the right frame of mind to write. You need energy and a bit of optimism. You need to feel  entertaining. Sometimes, you need to work to get yourself in this mood. You need little ‘emotional helpers’, like crossing tasks off a list, or seeing the little pile of index cards for scenes you’ve already written. You need to give yourself a pat on the back.

Writing is hard, weird, solitary and easy NOT to do. And even Aaron Sorkin needs a little boost sometimes, so you and I deserve it too. Okay?

If you’re interested in doing the masterclass, I totally recommend it. It’s delivered by short video lessons and supporting material. I’m not trying to sound like an advert, I paid to do it (well, my kind husband gifted it to me) but I’m enjoying it a lot.

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