Writing in the Shadow of JFK
Out here in Hollywood, executives ask writers about their writing "process" all the time. It's all part of the mystery and intrigue that every new project needs to break out of the pack. If the writer or showrunner is following some secret strategy, the reasoning goes, then that magic formula may just bless the entire creative endeavor. Or so they think.
The truth, as all writers reading this know, is that the only process that really matters is the one that gets you putting words to page. Anything can work and, based on all the different paths to success, almost anything does for at least somebody.
Ask most any working screenwriter in Hollywood about their own process, however, and you'll probably get an answer that comes down to "Have MacBook Air, Will Travel." Certainly producing TV series teaches a writer to write at any time and in any place possible. In my day, I've written more than a few episodes on airplanes going to the set in Vancouver, B.C. next to other writers doing the same for their shows.
Surrounded by Enemies: A Breakpoint Novel, about what would have happened had John Kennedy survived the ambush in Dallas, is my second book. In some ways, writing a novel was an entirely different experience than writing a screenplay. It takes more time, more detail and certainly more understanding from your spouse. Still, the truth is, I found that my process of going from that blank page to a finished product felt familiar.
My favorite place to write is still my home office. It's big in volume, and it's got a big desktop with lots of real estate to spread out on. It features my iMac, and this is where I love to crank out whatever needs writing. I have reliable, fast Internet, all my books, a Keurig, and my wife, Jackie, who I can bounce ideas against. Of course, I also have easy access to my kitchen. That's an obstacle I haven't figured out yet because, frankly, that's also where the coffee is. Oh, I also just bought a standing desk for when I click a link to an article that says all this sitting down is going to kill us.
When I'm writing something, I also tend to surround myself with books and articles about the subject, almost always non-fiction. When my history teacher father passed on, I inherited a 35 cent copy of JFK's Profiles in Courage that is an invaluable part of my collection because it is full of underlining and notations from him. A few years ago, I gave up the idea that a book should be a clean, pristine resource. Now I highlight, write in the margins, bend back covers and generally put my books through the paces. Maybe one day one of my children will keep one and see it as a snapshot of Dad's mind at a particular moment in time. I have fifty Kennedy books in my library and I've read good chunks of most of them, but only a few from start to finish.
My background is TV news, working first as a CNN correspondent, then later as a Hollywood screenwriter. Both of those careers put a premium on being fast, but they also reward a writer who knows his story going in and has a plan for delivering it. I try to always have a firm grasp about where I'm going but remain open to flashes of inspiration that can, and sometimes do, change everything.
I have two very large built-in corkboards and when I'm breaking story I still like to do it with index cards and giant pens. I'll take cards over a dry erase set-up any day. Sometimes I start with structure before writing. Sometimes I start writing and the structure reveals itself, and then it goes up on the board.
Even though I'm writing as a dramatist these days, my old journalistic habits are hard to shake. I still like to pick up the phone and talk to somebody who's an expert. I love to ask questions and because I'm willing to ask some challenging or odd ones, I've always come away from a conversation with at least a nugget or two that's pure gold.
Only rarely do I listen to music when I write. With Surrounded by Enemies I had so much going on in my head that I usually preferred silence. I did have certain songs that I put in a playlist and listened to them when I wasn't writing. I loved "Sleeping In" by The Postal Service and "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones for their Kennedy references.
Procrastination has never been a problem. What constantly tangles me up is trying to do too much. Right now I'm writing the second book in the Breakpoint series, a feature based on the Betty and Barney Hill abduction, and a TV pilot. Writing this essay about my process while doing all that, well, basically that's my process.
BRYCE ZABEL: Writer/Producer - Journalist/Author Creator of Five Produced One-hour Drama Series... Chairman/CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences... Writer of a #1 Box Office Feature Film... Winner of the Writers Guild Award... PBS Investigative Reporter... CNN Correspondent... Nationally Published Book Author... Adjunct Professor, USC School of Cinematic Arts... member of Directors Guild, Writers Guild... BZ Wordle 4 Worked with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, HBO, Showtime, USA, SyFy, Disney, Warners, Columbia, SONY, Paramount, New Line, Twentieth, Universal, DreamWorks, Animal Planet, Hallmark, etc. Produced screenwriting credits include Atlantis, Mortal Kombat II, Pandemic, Dark Skies, The Crow, E.N.G., Blackbeard, Poseidon Adventure, Lois & Clark, M.A.N.T.I.S., L.A. Law, Victim of Love, Official Denial, etc. Appeared on Today Show, Primetime Emmys, E.T., Access, E!, Coast-to-Coast AM, Politically Incorrect, CNN, etc. Interviewed by Time, NY/LA Times, USA