Creative Living 10: Brad Marshland

March 15th, 2009

Brad Marshland, author of The Imagicators, was born in San Francisco and entered Harvard University with the intention of studying medicine, but the class he took just after “Inorganic Chemistry” each Tuesday was “Visual and Narrative Perspective in Film.” His choice was easy. He graduated with a double major in film and Sociology, earning a summa cum laude for his thesis, a documentary film on homelessness in Boston. He also studied film and social anthropology with the International School of America’s International Honors Program, working with a number of renowned filmmakers. For the past fifteen years, Brad has sold screenplays in Hollywood, had stage plays produced on both coasts, and has written and directed everything from commercial and PR pieces to web content, museum installations and feature films. He’s also found time to write the Young Adult novels he refers to below. You can correspond with him at www.bradmarshland.com. Also, www.imagicators.bradmarshland.com.

Start Anywhere

If you can imagine it fully, completely, down to the last grain of sand, then it will become. That is the magic in imagication”

The premise of my YA fantasy “The Imagicators” and its sequel “The Imagicators and the Wind between the Worlds” is that magic is not about wands and spells, but the applied power of one’s innate imagination. In fact, the whole world where the books take place was itself imagicated eighty years ago by a girl from our world, a girl who was so bored, so alone, that she had nothing better to do than imagine an entire world in such detail that it became real.

Essentially, that’s what every writer does: we weave words into worlds.

When I do workshops and assembly programs on writing and imagination in elementary and middle schools, I often ask the kids, “Who here believes in imagication – the power of imagination to make something real?” A few hands go up. “Who here has a cousin?” All the hands go up. “Who here can picture your cousin?” About half the hands tentatively go back down. “Now who here can picture Harry Potter?” All the hands shoot back up. “So who’s more real – Harry Potter or your cousin?” “Harry Potter!!” they shout, laughing.

I rest my case. Imagication is real. Or at least as real as your cousin.

The kids I teach in these programs – even first-graders – all know the basic elements of stories. They can tell you that just about every story needs a character, a setting, time, place, a plot, a beginning, middle, end… But it’s the beginning that trips most of them up.

In school, we were all taught about outlining. Too much about outlining. Beginning middle, end. I, II, III… A. B. C…. i) ii) iii)… 1.0. 1.1, 1.2…. Different forms, all linear. Incredibly useful – and incredibly stifling, especially when Ms. Stricknin says, “Okay, class, we’ve talked about stories, now you write one.” Just so she can finally have a bit of time to grade last week’s grammar quizzes. Starting at the beginning doesn’t help if you don’t know what the beginning is.

When I’m first coming up with a story, I usually don’t know 1.0. I know 5.3.7, but what if what I thought was 5.3.7 it turns out to be 4.1? And what if what I thought was 4.1 turns out to be 9.5.2? Sure, I could shuffle things around, but Ms. Stricknin says I have to start with 1.A.! I’m screwed. I can’t wait for the bell to ring – if only so I can have an excuse to stop trying.

The beauty of writing is that you can start anywhere. And I’m not just talking about the story outline. I’m talking about all those other elements that every first-grader knows. As a recovering screenwriter, I occasionally work as a script doctor for others. One client is a Hollywood actor you’ve seen in a lot of big movies and TV shows. When he starts a writing project – wouldn’t you know it – he starts with the character. Another client is a director. When he writes, he always starts with the look and feel he wants to convey – long before he knows what story he wants to tell, let alone the beginning of that story.

I myself am a story guy. My work, whether screenplay or novel, tends to be tightly structured, and I usually come up with the theme and a couple of plot points before I know a thing about the main characters or setting, so my tirade against outlining may seem ironic or even hypocritical, but the point is, even when developing plot, I rarely start at the beginning. Initially, my “outlines” look more like webs, connecting setting to theme, plot point to subplot point. Only after I know the story and the story world from a dozen different angles do I put it in a linear order. First, I must be free from the dictates of my middle school English teachers; I must be free to start wherever my imagination takes me.

7 Responses to “Creative Living 10: Brad Marshland”

  1. fairyhedgehog Says:

    This is a really helpful piece of advice! I wondered where ‘real authors’ begin with their writing and it’s useful to see that it can be anywhere.

    Very inspiring, thank you!

  2. Dana King Says:

    I like the web idea. Stumbled onto it for the WIP, and feel much better seeing some validation here. It occurred to me tat, no matter how nice it is to arrange the story chronologically, other characters are taking actions off-stage that will affect what I am to show. I can’t incorporate thoseproperly if I don’t know the relationships. A web, similar to what I’ve heard described as a thought diagram, serves that purpose very well.

    Excellent and thought provoking post. Thank you.

  3. Sylvia Says:

    Starting at the beginning doesn’t help if you don’t know what the beginning is.

    I suppose to a great extent this is the same issue of giving ourselves permissions to write bad drafts because how else do we find out where the story is.

    I love the different starting perspective from the actor, the director and the author – and your Harry Potter story made me laugh aloud!

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    This raises a very interesting point for me personally, since I never know where my story should start.

    My books begin conceptually with a really basic idea — usually a situation and an interesting character other than my continuing cast — and I almost arbitrarily pick a moment with total confidence that it’s the right starting point. The moments I pick have to satisfy certain criteria: there’s a strong visual component, there’s action underway if not immediately, then within a few pages, and the sequence has to show us some aspect of an important story thread.

    NAIL begins with the digging up of a safe buried behind a house beside the river, with LOTS of visual description of the world by moonlight and Bangkok gleaming across the water. FOURTH WATCHER starts with Poke on a crowded Bangkok street, realizing he’s being tailed. BREATHING WATER starts with a teenage girl who’s come to Bangkok to beg trying to see the gangster whose office she’s been dragged into — trying to see him against the glare of reflective windows in the skyscraper across the street, which are dazzlingly full of the image of the setting sun. It’s literally so bright behind the gangster that she can’t see his face until he lights a cigarette.

    Of course, none of these is the original starting point — they’re the third or fourth or fifth I came up with. But I think it’s important emotionally to plunge into the story as you would a cold swimming pool rather than spending hours dipping a toe in and worrying about how it’s going to feel.

  5. Thomas Says:

    Tim,

    I think it’s an important point you bring up in the last paragraph of your comment above. That is, to “emotionally plunge into the story”. This is at the heart of what several of your previous guest bloggers have said as well. However, I can imagine that this is an area where many professionals come to a halt, along with the amateurs, who spend not hours, but days and months dipping their toes in the cold water without making that emotional connection.

    One method to get around this, that I know some use, is to write scenes out of sequence; to write them as they come to you or to focus on whatever you feel like writing that day. A risk is that a writing project can easily turn into a list of chores, not unlike a list of chores around the house, where some tasks are easily done and others less pleasant and therefore put off for a rainy day, which means they may never take place at all.

    My question to Tim: Once you make that emotional connection with your story and get started, do you have to follow the story through, from A to B to C, etc, or can you allow yourself to skip around and write parts out of sequence, while still maintaining that connection with your characters and your story? One thing I take away from Brad’s post is that he uses what seems to be like a mind map, or a “web”, with branches that each holds a part of the story. If I understood that correctly, this seems to be a good way to visualize the whole story. I used mind mapping a lot back in college but haven’t really thought about using it for these purposes. I’m gonna give it a try.

    Thomas

    Ps. One a side note (waaay over to the side). Someone just rushed into my office, wildly gesticulating, and said in an elated tone, “You know the kid who spread feces on the wall? He is wonderful!” … Is that just a contradiction in terms or the beginning of a beautiful office short story? I need to meditate on that one. … Please forgive me for digressing but I had to share that.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Thomas —

    First, to clarify what I said in my first response, ANY starting point is a good one, if only because it spares the writer over-intellectualizing conceptually and forces him or her to get in and wrestle with the material on a grunt-level basis.

    Secondly, I write my books about 90%in sequence. I keep a second window open in my word processor, and I use that to capture ideas for scenes, dialog exchanges, questions, notes to make changes, etc. It’s always there, open, but I try to limit my time there to about ten minutes per session so I can get back to the story.

    No, I don’t map or do the web thing, although both sound interesting. The web, as I envision it, is really a schematic of potential sequences and also characters’ verious desires, options, etc. I more or less have that in my head all the time, since almost the only thing I actually think about when I write is the characters: what they want, what they’re afraid of, what they’re willing to do or capable of doing. The language is just a way to get all that onto the page. I go back and rework it later, just as I rework whatever ending I used as a launching pad into the story.

    I really try to restrict my writing to the story, rather than doing a bunch of explorations and exercises that have the effect of postponing my encounter with the story itself. The two exceptions are when I’m in serious trouble, when I write about the fix I’m in, and a point I usually reach about three-fifths of the way through a book where I go back and do a retroactive outline, mostly for purposes of chronology, but also to refresh my memory on what’s already been put on the page.

  7. Brad Marshland Says:

    One other clarification: When I say “start anywhere,” I’m not just talking about what scene to start with. The question of what scene to start with often doesn’t even arise until the story has some structure. I’m talking about giving ourselves permission not even to start with the story, but to start with some other element such as character or setting.

    One exercise I often give students is to start by describing a character in complete absence of any story. THEN, I say, “What does this character want more than anything else in the world?” Then “What keeps him or her from getting it?” Then we have the kernel of a story.

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