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.