Maybe premature, in that my novel won't be in print until early next year, but I got an e-mail query from former screenwriting student Blake about the writing process that birthed this book, and I think the questions he raises are intriguing enough to share:
I was hoping you'd talk about your approach to your novel...specifically the structure. Did you outline? A little or a lot? Did you just sit down and write and see where things took you?
The reason I ask is that I am having trouble with my novel, and I wonder if part of the problem is that I have been so screenplay-oriented during the last 10 years that I am unable to turn off my "screenplay mind" and go with my "novel mind." For a screenplay, I would normally outline fairly thoroughly, but it feels like that might be overkill for a novel -- and a very daunting and long task.
So perhaps it's really two questions -- specifically, did you outline, and if so to what extent? And more generally, how you switched back and forth from screenplay approach to novel...or did you only focus on the latter?
I love Blake's delineation of "screenplay mind" and "novel mind" because I think they truly are separate entities. At the same time, I think he's sniffing around an issue that's fundamental to the writing process in whatever medium one chooses. First question first, though: to what extent did I outline?
This novel began with a simple premise: a man desperate to win back his estranged wife invents an imaginary lover to make her jealous... and gets into real trouble when this imaginary lover becomes real to him. Fairly quickly I developed a rough idea of the story's beginning, middle and end; I knew that midway, the man would be caught between imaginary lover and real wife, and I knew who I wanted him to end up with. I had a few notions of scenes that intrigued me, but that was all.
At the time I was in a writing group led by writer Deena Metzger that met three times a month. The format of these meetings was simple and effective: Deena would introduce a provocative writing topic for us to chew on, we would all write for 30-40 minutes, and then whoever wished to would read aloud what they'd written, receiving brief feedback from Deena and the group.
With no real map, I began using Deena's writing exercises to try out writing isolated scenes in my imagined novel. If Deena's topic, for example, was "what happens when you encounter your 'shadow self'?" I'd quickly examine what I knew of my story to see: is there a moment where my protagonist, Jordan, meets someone who'd qualify as his 'shadow?' If no such moment existed, I'd make one up -- and this is significant -- without regard for whether or not the scene "fit" or belonged in the novel-to-be.
That's because really all I was doing was investigating the world of my story, and getting to know its characters. This freed me to write without restriction and -- an added bonus from Deena, bless her heart -- to already have a subtext to play with, within a given scene.
After a few months of doing these exercises, I had a very loose collection of scenes. Some dealt with material that was central to my plot, some were clearly tangential. But by the time I had about a dozen, I was far more familiar with my people and my plot than I had been before, and I was already filling in some gaps of the larger structure in my mind.
At this juncture I decided to sketch out a very rough, skeletal outline, using the scenes that seemed most relevant as push-pins on the map. The scenes were all over the place; a bunch in the first act, some in the second, a few in the third. I more or less connected these dots, but there were still huge gaping holes in the map, broad deserts with no roads constructed yet; I often had no idea how I would get from one plot point to another other than in the most abstract, general way.
What I did have, however, was a wonderful impatience. By now -- as if I was the reader of a serialized story that was missing key episodes -- I really wanted to know how it all fit together. Beyond that, I wanted to know what it meant. Why did a character do this, the plot turn like that? What was my unconscious trying to tell my conscious mind? What the hell was this by now exceedingly oddball story about?
This, I maintain, is a great place to start a first draft: know just enough of your story (i.e. a beginning, middle and end, with a few choice beats along the way) to get yourself in trouble. I hadn't planned it, but that's what happened: I was now hooked on a story that refused to fully reveal itself, and the only way I was going to expose it was by writing my way through it.
Just for insurance, and to quiet the "screenplay mind" that was clamoring for more information, I filled in more gaps with extremely general beats. "Jordan makes a mistake that jeopardizes his job" was about as specific as I might get. What mistake, what kind of jeopardy, what specific effect on his livelihood -- who knew? I'd figure it out when I got there. I think that too much detail in this outline would have sucked the life out of my story. A lot of the writing energy came from a need to discover those details in the moment of their needing to be found.
"What do you want to know, in the writing of it?" is a question Deena had posed in group one night, and this was the credo I'd stumbled into following. I dove into the draft, and the amount of mystery that remained was a great impetus to keep writing. Because once I was in the actual first draft, writing linearly forward, of course new information, new decisions, new complications arose.
And sure, new problems, too. The disadvantage of such nighttime driving (with one headlight) is that you can get lost, turned around, stuck. But for every scene that didn't work I got an idea about what might work instead. And because I did have some big, bold-stroke signposts to aim for (and some interesting little side-trips, embodied in those extra Deena scenes), I never got bogged down for long.
The first draft was written in longhand; I'd started the story in my journal at Deena's, and somewhat superstitiously, it only felt right to continue this way; I also liked the energy and commitment embodied in this physical process, as opposed to the casual cut-and-paste revisions one naturally makes on one's computer. It took me about a year, what with all the other work I was doing to pay the rent.
But a draft, I believe, is just something to change. Which brings me to where Screenplay Mind met Novel Mind, and I'll be back in a couple of days to answer Blake's second question and talk about that.