Report from the Trenches #6
First lemme say thanks to everyone who is following this series. Believe me, writing these posts is helping me as much or more than it’s helping you.
This new book is my nineteenth, I think. I’ve gone through this same hellish, tear-it-down-and-start-all-over-again process on almost every prior book, but I’ve never really paid attention to what I was doing. I just put my head down and ground it out.
Having to write these posts has made me play witness to my own process. It helps. I never really knew what I was doing.
Okay. Where do we stand today? Let’s regroup from the beginning.
I got Shawn’s original notes on April 28.
Three days ago I finished a scene-by-scene outline for the next draft (#12).
That’s real progress.
But that’s how long it has taken me, out of the ashes of Draft #11, to whip together a bare-bones, ballpark blueprint for Number Twelve.
Looking ahead, I’ll guess three or four more months to make this into a finished draft.
I post this intel for my fellow trench-mates who are now going through a similar process or will be in the future. For comparison. This is how long it’s taken me, working full-time seven days a week.
But lemme back up a minute, playing witness, and ask myself, “Steve, what EXACTLY have you been doing in these three and a half months? What’s the actual process?”
If you put a gun to my head, I would say that the work has been in three stages, or three levels. (There’s too much detail to cover in one post … I’ll continue this over the next two or three.)
The first level I’ll call
GETTING BACK TO BASICS ON GENRE
Boiling it down to its essence, this stage of work (or re-work) has been about
- Identifying the genre I was working in (thank you, Shawn, for making it clear in your notes that I didn’t know that.)
- Re-educating myself on the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre (thanks again, pard), and
- Rethinking the entire book to make it align with these conventions and obligatory scenes.
What specifically? What do I mean by genres and by conventions?
Shawn identified the genre I was working in as Supernatural Thriller. (This is what editors do.) In other words, something in the zip code of The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby.
The story was also a Police Procedural.
Something like Se7en.
And it’s a redemption story, like Unforgiven or Casablanca.
So … a mix of three genres but basically a Redemptive Supernatural Thriller.
I didn’t know that when I was writing Draft #11.
All right. Knowing it now, thanks to Shawn, what specifically did I do?
The trick of this sort of story [Shawn wrote in his notes] is to ride out the uncertainty about the true nature of the evil until “all Hell breaks loose.” Remember that in The Exorcist the girl was taken to all kinds of doctors and had all kinds of tests and all possible explanations were eliminated before they brought in Max von Sydow as the last resort to save her. Then and only then does the devil make himself truly known … when the Exorcist arrives with Father Karras as his assistant.
That’s a convention of the Supernatural Horror Thriller genre.
Further from Shawn’s notes:
The reader and the viewer of both of those stories needed evidence, a progressive narrative build to the revelation that the devil/supernatural is real and on stage.
They needed to be convinced that such a being would come to earth and/or visit earth. The devil/supernatural form needed a vehicle to get here. The little girl in The Exorcist and the woman in Rosemary’s Baby are the vehicles … notice that the devil comes through the female.
I think your character Rachel could come in handy as the force that HaSatan [the Devil] uses to come to life…
Ain’t it great to have help like this?
Bottom line: I took both of Shawn’s points (which I had been blind to before) and asked myself, “How can I accomplish these two genre objectives? One, delay the revelation that the villain is supernatural? And two, use the female element, possibly the character of Rachel, to ‘conduct’ this supernatural being into the material world in the first place?”
These weren’t the only two elements that needed attention in order to bring the story into alignment with the conventions of the Supernatural Thriller genre. But they illustrate the issue.
So … in the broadest global sense (remember, this is Level One of reworking the story; I’ll get into Levels Two and Three in the next couple of weeks), I began by trying to solve those two issues in story terms.
Again, how specifically?
I reworked in index-card form the first half of the story to hold off the revelation of “Holy shit, the villain is the devil.” In Draft #11, the reader knew right away. (Of course she’ll know right away anyway, as in The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, just from the jacket of the book and other meta-cues, but the characters in the story won’t know, at least not for certain.)
This meant cutting five chapters out of fourteen and inserting four new ones. I made the detectives work harder. I made them dig up clues without any help. This radically re-energized them as individuals—and made them more interesting as well.
The great thing about adhering to conventions in any genre is the freakin’ process works.
The gunfight at the end of the Western works.
The lovers parting and then coming together in a Love Story works.
Making detectives follow clues works.
So that was Step One in aligning the story with the genres I was working in.
Step Two, per Shawn’s notes, was having a female character ‘conduct’ the Evil One into physical form.
Again, this is a convention I wasn’t even aware of until Shawn pointed it out to me.
At first I thought, “That is a TERRIBLE idea. And there’s no way I can do it.”
But of course Shawn was right.
After a week or so of thrashing, a potential scenario came to me. I’m not gonna spell it out here (it’ll take too long) but suffice it to say, the idea went off like a firecracker. It gave me three or four new scenes, totally overhauled the character of Rachel (in a good way), and gave me a modified climax that was twice as dramatic and five times as satisfying as the previous one.
Of course I haven’t written any of this stuff yet.
It’s all in outline/index card form right now.
But it should work.
I think it will, anyway.
In my early career as a screenwriter, I worked with a partner. When we’d start a new project, the first thing we’d do was watch a boatload of movies that were similar to the one we were working on. We didn’t call it this, but we were studying the genre and the conventions of that genre.
One of the scripts we wrote was a film-noir detective flick for Dino DeLaurentiis. When we noticed that the private eye always gets beaten up in these movies (Chinatown, Farewell My Lovely, The Long Goodbye), we stole shamelessly.
Obligatory scenes work.
Genre conventions work.
So … that in general is Level One of my self-observed process for taking a crashed-and-burned project and trying to set it back up onto its feet.
Identify the genre you’re working in and bring your story into line with the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre.
At least that, it seems, is my process.
We’ll talk about the next two levels in the coming weeks.
“Ain’t it great to have help like this?” Indeed it is – thanks to you both!
I am living proof of “Conventions work,” because I have shelves full of Louis L’Amour westerns, and read them over and over. Nobody who knows me in person can believe it, but it’s true. In this unpredictable world, conventions are predictable. Apparently, I crave those conventions like irresistable food. You and Shawn are helping us understand the predictability of pur readers’ cravings, and how to satisfy them. That is the craft of art, if you ask me.
Wonderful to hear what you’re realizing and how you’re tackling this novel. I’m glad the blog posting is instrumental. Lord knows, what you’re posting is helping me and other writers too. One eye opener after another.
This is great stuff for me, I have a podcast that is more of an “audio essay” on The Arts than it is what most people think of as a podcast. After 50+ episodes I’ve figured out that “storyboarding” with index cards is the most “Resistance-proof” way to work for me.
And I realized that what you say is 100% true, a “frickin’ process, works!” Working within a genre and using conventions frees you up to REALLY swing for the fences on each at bat (aka scene/skit).
This last week I contracted to ghost write an erom (an ebook romance in one of the trashy genres).
It’s been a good learning experience so far. It’s forced me to go back and ask the right questions.
What does a reader of this genre want/expect/demand/care about/etc.
What are the conventions/obligations?
How can I take the tropes and present them in an original way through the character/plot?
I think mastering the “easy” will help me better when I tackle the “hard.”
Loving this series, Steve. Thank you.
Hey! Good for you.
Wish I had a Shawn. This is an excellent post, thank you., Steve.
Steve, thank you again for sharing your process and insights. These posts are like a Master Class.
Best of luck! Looking forward to the next instalment. 😀
So working within that genre, Steve, did you delve into some horror movies? The genre’s going through something of a golden age these past few years, with movies like It Follows, The Babadook, the Conjuring films and others.
I tend to subscribe to the theory that it allows us to experience “safe fear,” a way to get adrenaline going without actually being in danger ourselves — and the best horror does get the adrenaline pumping and trigger a fear response.
Good luck with your next draft.
WOW Steve … I feel somewhat guilty learning these extremely valuable lessons, without having put in nearly the time and sweat-equity you’ve put in over the years! But, I don’t feel guilty enough to stop reading/learning. Your the best! See you in the gym bright and early. BTW, for those of you who don’t know, Steve’s a beast in the gym!!
“…Steve’s a beast in the gym!!”
There is no question in my mind about this.
Thanks for these insights, Steve. So very helpful as I thrash my way through draft #6. And very comforting to know that if I end up needing to write yet another draft (or two, or three …) well hey, that’s all normal and good.
I have a lot of respect for your commitment to the Big Idea even as the story’s direction has twisted and turned. That’s some serious motivation to keep it fresh into Draft #12. How do you do that?
Between your post and Shawn’s from Friday I’ve learned something very valuable about identifying and expressing intent.
It’s interesting to think that even after so many books, you still find yourself returning to relearn the process, craft, and principles of storytelling. I thought I was alone in this. I was hired by a small network to rewrite one of my romantic comedies to fit the network’s tone. In reading their scripts and watching their films, I could see clearly how the films worked; I saw the structure and character beats clearly. I was learning and also seeing how much I already understood about storytelling. So many times I feel like I want to invent storytelling form. I think that’s my ego that wants to be so different as opposed to accepting being a part of a storytelling tradition. How can you find an empathetic audience if you want to feel so different and unique from them?
Steve, thank you. I’ve printed this post out, as it has real meaning for me in many ways. You had me at “Supernatural Thriller.” I’ve been trying to pinpoint my work for years. Keep going. I will, too.
I can’t thank you enough.
Since I failed to make a business and a blog in 2010, I could not write at all, and it had been blocking my whole career.
Mark McGuinness referred me to the War of Art when I told him about it.
Now I’ve read your books, can structure an article and don’t want to get rid of it immediately upon writing.
But the principles are becoming too formulaic in my attempt to apply them.
I’m reading The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Authentic Swing now and don’t quite get the point.
My writing remains what I’ve learned and not what I had from the beginning. I don’t even believe it exists.
“I’m not a writer, this is only for business” – can’t get rid of that, and there’s no fun to it that way.
Nothing in my life has any meaning, except the work.
You are a treasure. Your openness and willingness to share struggle and process is inspiring on many levels. What you relay about your writing also resonates with any difficult life task. I so much appreciate your posts. And your books. I teach beginning writers and tell them all to run out and get The War of Art (some actually do). thank you,
Carol Holland March
This series has been a light in my own dark tunnel of writing. While it only illuminates a few feet in front, it has allowed me to continue my journey. Regardless of the people in my life, from writer partners to professionals, the journey is solitary and infinite. A maze on the horizon in a desert. But because of this series, I do not feel alone. I feel the presence of all those reading your journey. My goal is to push the limits of genre or convention and this puts me in uncharted territory and thus causes a serious crisis in confidence. Like an explorer, while I know the destination, I am not sure I am headed there. Accepting the mess while looking through previous maps found in genre and convention allows me the forward motion I demand. My choices might be wrong but I learn from them. I thought my writing process was flawed because of the work it entails. But now I see hard work is shared by everyone on the journey. The ease comes in the read, not in the writing of it. In my weakest moments of doubt, Wednesday holds a flicker of light. This series got me through. May the light you’ve given us, reflect back on you and beyond to all the writers that will eventually find your work. Thank you.
I just have a question. There was mention of the “devil coming through the female presence” . . . behind which I completely understand the Biblical rationale. At the same time, authors are always trying to create something fresh and new. I am always interested in how an author becomes a game-changer OR game-changes his genre (without the obvious way it has already been done — by mixing genres). It seems like upsetting a predictable convention could be one of those ways an author could elevate his chosen genre. In other words, why CAN’T we — with a little creative imagination (because, after all, we are fiction writers) — make the devil come through a male presence? P.S. Thanks to all of you for your continued efforts at showing us writers how to become better, more observant students of the craft! 🙂
I really appreciate your work and your wisdom, Steve. Can’t wait to spend five days in September learning from Shawn. I hope you’ll be there, too. Maybe you could give a lecture to the group, if you’re able to attend. 🙂