Throughout my entire writing career, I struggle most with the same beast that torments
almost all other writers: finding the essence of what I am writing about. This one's
a killer. This one sends women howling to their knees and makes grown men cry. This
one's a bitch.
In the late summer of 1999, I was in Vancouver, B.C., preparing the pilot for the
Higher Ground. As the creator, executive producer
and show runner of
Higher Ground, one of my primary responsibilities was to find the best
director for the pilot episode I had written. Fortunately, I found a wonderful,
incredibly talented Canadian director in the person of David Straiton.
Through many months of lunches and dinners, casting sessions, location scouts, production
meetings and late night conversations, David and I would discuss the pilot script
endlessly, he constantly challenging my characters, my cross plots, my structure.
Through it all I could see that David was perplexed. The pieces weren't fitting
together for him. There was something about the script he couldn't wrap his brain
around or didn't understand.
"What's wrong?" I said.
"I can't crack the code."
That was the first time I had heard that expression as it related to a creative
work, but I knew instinctively what he meant. He was trying to find the essence,
the Zen, if you will, of the relationship of the characters, not only to each other
and the story, but what it meant on a larger and grander scale. He was trying to
ascertain how he could best commit the scripted story to film in order to achieve
the most satisfying visceral experience for the viewer. He had to unravel the code—the
DNA—of the script and internalize it in order to direct it both artistically
The late, brilliant writer Paddy Chayefsky used the expression "break its back"
to convey the same meaning. After viewing an early cut of his film, Network,
he confessed to a friend, "I never broke the back of that story."
Hemingway called it "facing the white bull"—a reference to blank
white sheets of typing paper he rolled into his Underwood.
I prefer David Straiton's term. Cracking the code. You cannot tell a good story
without first cracking its code. A good story well told is not what you think its
about, it's about what your characters think it's about—if you allow them
the freedom to inform you and your audience.
"All writing is rewriting."
I mentioned earlier that my first novel, Darwin's Tears, required seven (yes,
count 'em, seven) drafts before I finally cracked the code and discovered what the
book was really about. The truth is, after nearly thirty years as a very successful
writer, with all of my tricks and shortcuts and expertise, I could not have cracked
the code alone. I was way too close to the work. I needed help. I sought help. I
received help. My wife guided me with gentle, insightful criticism; my agent, not
quite as loving as my wife, beat me like a rented mule to cut chapters, lose unnecessary
characters, restructure the time-line, find the book's essence, break its back and,
ultimately, crack the code.
I could not possibly have done it alone. Can you? If not, perhaps I can help. Here's
what I can offer you beginning with the most important element of writing: