An argument for putting it all out there
Filmmaker Ruben Östlund on his unique writing process.
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The In Writing Creative Hour returns this Sunday 12 March at 5pm GMT (that’s 9am PST).
The Creative Hour is a Google Meet get-together for paying subscribers that I host a couple of Sundays a month. We meet online, have a chat, and then write for the best part of an hour in companionable silence; think of it as a virtual library environment, just with more moral support from your In Writing community. It’s a very nice way to get some work done at the weekend.
If you’d like to join us, do upgrade your membership (if you haven’t already) and look out for an email first thing on Sunday, when I’ll send out the link.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023 longlist was announced on Tuesday, and on it is Cursed Bread, the third novel by Sophie Mackintosh, who was on the In Writing podcast last week. Also on the list is a wonderful previous guest of the podcast, Maggie O’Farrell, for her ninth novel, The Marriage Portrait. Congratulations, Sophie, Maggie, and all the other authors in the running.
Sticking to the awards theme – on Monday, tomorrow’s podcast guest, Ruben Östlund, will find out whether he’s won one or more of three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. These nominations are for last year’s Triangle of Sadness; in 2015, Ruben missed out on a nomination for Force Majeure, and I enjoyed this video of his reaction to that.
I loved my conversation with Ruben, and I think if you’re interested in storytelling of any kind – not just on screen – you’ll get something out of tomorrow’s episode. One thing that really interested me was that he spends months talking about and making notes on his ideas for a film before he begins the writing.
The thing with me is, I don't sit down and write if I don't know exactly what I'm going to write, and where a specific scene is going – or actually, where the whole film is going. Because before I sit down and write, I pitch the project, talk about the project a lot. And before I write, I know how to pitch it from the beginning to the end, because I learn so much from telling other people about the project.
I also use the people that I'm pitching to as an instrument, you know, that tells me, ‘Oh, now they're not 100% concentrating. Here, they didn't react in the way that I wanted them to react.’ So from pitching the project, I can adjust some parts of how I'm telling it, or maybe move the position of one scene and another scene. So for me, it's very important to try to have the whole film physically in my body, before I sit down and start to write it.
I’m so intrigued by this way of doing things, and it makes sense: making a film is really about trying to find the most engaging way of telling a story. He wants his audience to be gripped, and he tells and retells it in different ways until he understands what’s going to hook them in, shock them, make them laugh and so on. I can see why that’s so effective in honing what the tale should be.
I also love the idea of sitting down with such a clear sense of what you’re going to write, because for me, the doing is always easier than the working-out-what-needs-to-be-done. (He does say that his film The Square, which has an even less conventional narrative than Triangle of Sadness, was hard to work out on the page, even after all that talking.)
Every writer has to decide how shared they want the creative process to be. When I interviewed the novelist Liane Moriarty, she said she doesn’t show anyone anything until it’s finished, because she’s figuring out the plot as she goes along and she knows that her story will change a lot in the second draft. That process for her is completely private. I know in some literary circles, writing on instinct is even considered the ‘correct’ or more truly artistic way.
I think when you’re starting out, there can also be fear around sharing your ideas or work with other people when they’re not completely polished. I remember once or twice telling book ideas to friends, and being totally dispirited by their responses; they were polite but I could see they didn’t ‘get’ it. I abandoned those ideas, but I shouldn’t have. I don’t think they were bad ideas; I think I wasn’t selling them very well in those conversations. Over the years I’ve realised that I can trust my own judgement a bit more.
I think to do as Ruben does – to really sell an idea convincingly to somebody before you’ve done any of the writing – takes quite a lot of confidence. I don’t mean that you have to have a high opinion of yourself or of the idea, but I think you have to be confident that if the other person doesn’t react in the way you hope, you won’t fall down dead – and that if your idea isn’t convincing them yet, that’s OK, because you can improve it. This is a kind of self-belief that’s all tied up with resilience; it’s perfectly consistent with failure and things going wrong. I’ve found out in recent years that you don’t have to be born with it – you can strengthen it like a muscle.
Ruben’s episode of the podcast will be released tomorrow, and I really think it’s a goodie. Do subscribe on your chosen podcast platform to make sure you hear it. I’d love to know what you think after you’ve listened, so please let me know in the comments below, or find me on Twitter or Instagram.
I look forward to seeing some of you on Sunday! Good luck with your writing this week.
Always interesting to see how other people work. I never show works in progress to anyone – I don’t want their opinions to fog my ‘vision’ (if you can call it that) before it’s fully formed. I too can be disheartened by lukewarm responses to book ideas so I tend not to share too much. My agent and editor see it first, when it’s done or at least in a place where I’ve taken it as far as I can without needing further collaboration.
I love hearing about people's different processes. For me, it does help to share what I'm thinking about with friends, and hearing it spoken helps me solidify some of my ideas.