Writing Week: The Coral Reef Theory

I studied acting way back when in my college days. Early on in our  training all of us students came into rehearsals for a new role burning up with a thousand different ideas that we wanted to try all at once. We would identify all the key moments in each scene and then bring all our new skills to bear to make sure we hit each and every beat just so.

This went on until Don, our revered acting teacher,  told us to cut it the hell out already.

What Don told us was that it was not our responsibility to get everything right every night of rehearsal. Our only responsibility, he said, was to find one new moment each night. Just one. That's all. 

Maybe on Monday we find an unexpectedly tender moment in scene 3, then on Tuesday we realize how much better it is if we sit instead of stand throughout the big confrontation in scene 10. On Wednesday we finally manage to get through the entirety of scene 8 without forgetting all of our lines. 

Don told us that a performance is built from the accumulation of all these small discoveries, like how a coral reef is built from the bones of millions of tiny creatures laid down in layer after layer over a very long time.

Kind of a relief, right? You don't have to get everything right all the time. You don't have to worry about making the entirety of a chapter work each time you sit down with it. 


Sure, you try to do as much as you can, but if you get to the end of your writing day on Monday and find that for 2 hours work you've only managed to craft one revealing character moment in chapter 2, that's a win. It's a win because on Tuesday you're going to write a particularly nice bit of dialog in chapter 3. Then maybe a few weeks later you'll come back to chapter 2 and have another little moment of insight, and then another and  another and until one day all these small daily moments of insight turn into a book.

What do you all think? How do you decide if you've had a productive day of writing?

11 comments:

Alison Stevens said...

I like the idea of writing as a coral reef. The animals that build the reef are so tiny, but each one adds to the skeleton in critical ways.

For me, a productive writing day is one in which I complete a scene (or more, if I have the time). It may not be perfect (ok, it's never perfect), but I've put something on the page. Then I can have another productive day in which I improve on the first draft.

Rachael Harrie said...

What a fantastic piece of advice. I love when I read something and have that "aha moment", where I just start nodding my head and don't stop again until I've re-read the advice through three times. I think part of the challenge with my writing these days is the pressure of having so many ambitions and just not enough time to do everything in. The old "I'm going to finish my book by..." and "Tonight I'm going to write 7 chapters" and "Ok, how about I write 3,000 words today. Oops, didn't get to 3,000; only managed 450, that means I have to write 5,000 tomorrow" pressures. All self-inflicted, of course! I think I'm going to take the coral reef approach from now on - build on my novel piece by piece, steadily and surely, until its beauty shines through... Cause I know there's beauty in there somewhere ;)

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great post. You're so right that you don't have to get everything perfect on the first try. That's what editing is for. I consider a day productive when I've written x-number of good words - or at least words I know I can make good when I come back around to the edits. Even a day where I know I've written utter crap, though, I can feel good about because crap can be fixed - a blank page can't.

Ash Krafton said...

Thanks for this article. The idea of not getting everything right the first time is key in keeping the passion of writing the first draft.

The first draft is where our hearts and souls collide to capture the essence of the story. It's where we get it all out. And without passion, you may lose the drive to keep on with it.

Too often we edit ourselves while trying to get the first draft flow. My solution: Go back to notebooks and pens. Leave the delete and the backspace keys for the editing.

Get those beautiful, single important ideas out in the first draft and don't worry about the mistakes. You'll need them for your coral reef later.

Michelle said...

I have to agree with this and it wasn't until recently that I came to the revelation that this is oh so true! While revising my current novel I've found that piece by piece, each day of revision reveals a new hidden jewel that solidifies the piece as a whole. Chapters are not polished in one sitting. Characters are developed in layers, with elements added over the span of the writing process. What a great way to put it into words Beth - thanks!

beth said...

Oh, this is brilliant. Truly. And Don sounds like a great teacher :)

Shallee said...

This is a very encouraging post! There are so many "shoulds" as a writer that it's good to remember we don't have to be perfect all the time!

Jeff Hirsch said...

Hi guys! Glad you enjoyed the post. We all just have to keep at it and give ourselves a bit of a break!

Jaime Theler said...

What a nice thought. Thanks for sharing. Hopefully I find more than one moment a day, though, or this book is going to take forever. :)

Angie Smibert said...

Great post, Jeff. I've often thought writing and acting had a lot in common.

C.E. said...

excellent! I love this post, very positive and makes me feel better about not busting out 5 chapters in one day or something.