I did something I never thought I’d be able to do: I wrote a novel.
It probably sounds weird that someone who considers themselves an aspiring writer, and someone that has proven able to finish projects, would think they’d never be able to write a novel. I know lots of people have written several novels, published or not, and don’t think of it as a huge milestone. But I sincerely believed that I didn’t have the focus, the idea, or the stamina to write an entire novel.
Well, I did it. And I learned that (for this particular story, anyway) I can write ~69,000 words in ~11 months (which, according to Google, is actually somewhat short for a novel of its ilk). It helped that the novel I wrote is a story that’s been gestating for five years, and something I’ve already written and revised as a screenplay.
I’m more proud of this accomplishment than maybe anything else I’ve ever done. It’s hard to overstate just how difficult this process was, but also hard to describe how fulfilling. Novels are a different beast than screenplays (not least because a typical novel is 80,000 to 100,000 words while an average screenplay is around 20,000) and, as new ground for me, I found that those differences were changing the way I thought about storytelling. First, the differences:
Novels have more dimensions than screenplays, but screenplays have more restrictions.
The biggest challenge in writing a novel for me was the amount of content I had to shape. I’m used to writing short stories and screenplays, which have a finite amount of space to work with. Screenplays, especially, are limited by the form itself. In a screenplay there are no inner thoughts, there is no memory, the only things that you write are the things that the audience will see or hear on screen. While you can add flashbacks or exposition to explain pieces of a character’s backstory, that sort of thing is generally frowned on and slows your story down. The challenge to screenwriting is using subtext and action to inform the audience of what they need to know.
Novels, on the other hand, have limitless space. I was afforded the opportunity to dive deep into the characters’ pysches, histories, and insecurities. I still had to pick and choose what was relevant and what wasn’t–you never want to clog the page with irrelevant bullshit–but being able to slow down and explore certain aspects of the characters’ lives was a new challenge. It allowed me to weave together narrative threads and add nuance to character actions that would be impossible in a screenplay. Which leads me to the next challenge…
There are a lot of balls to keep in the air.
The story I have is relatively simple; in the original screenplay there were only five characters we spent considerable time with, their relationships with people outside of their group were limited, and (because of a screenplay’s emphasis on forward-motion) there wasn’t a huge number of threads that made up the fabric of the story. Aside from introducing inner lives and complicated histories for every major and minor character in the novel, there were also several new, more detailed story threads to keep track of.
Characters that had bit roles in the screenplay were promoted to nearly full-fledged players. I invented several characters from whole clothe, two of which were major, and introduced several new subplots that tied into the theme of the story. It became a lot to keep track of and, while my memory (and documentation) is pretty good when it comes to character quirks and story threads, I’ve resolved myself to taking copious notes and inventories when I do my first edit. Things that in a screenplay just aren’t as important to have in your head because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking (and, again, the limitations of the form) take on added significance when you’re relying on the imagination of the reader to fill out a frame. How big is a certain character’s apartment? What is the layout of the building for that escape? Did I say it was on the fifth floor or the seventh floor earlier?
These types of questions are in every chapter as you build your story and layer details upon details on one another.
Writing a script is a sprint; writing a novel is a marathon.
Keeping momentum on the story was difficult, especially as I worked through the second act doldrums. The beginning of any story is always fun because it’s new and you’re introducing characters and story elements. The end of a story is fun because things are coming together and all of the groundwork laid earlier on is paying off. The middle of a story is confusing and messy because you’re deep in the woods, your compass is broken, and you can’t retrace your steps to the beginning because a fresh snow fell and covered your previous tracks.
This was especially difficult to deal with when I ran into moments of burn-out or I got busy with work and couldn’t write consistently. There were a few times when I turned my focus to writing a short story or developing a new idea simply because I was tired of looking at the novel. There were other times when I just couldn’t carve out the time to write because I was slammed at work. Inevitably, when I returned to the story I had a hard time regaining any momentum.
With a screenplay, being relatively short, it’s easy to reread everything you’ve done and reorient yourself with the story. When you’re 40,000 or 50,000 words deep into a novel all you’ve really got is your outline to keep you on track. My outlines are generally pretty light; I map out plot points and some specific details that will help me get to them, and then fill in the details as I go. I go back and fill in more details to the outline if I write something major that wasn’t originally there, but generally it doesn’t change too much as I go through the first draft.
I’m wholly expecting that in my first read-through I’m going to find a lot of inconsistencies and WTF moments simply because there was so much time between my writing certain chapters.
What I learned.
As I’ve alluded to several times in this post, stories are made of all sorts of different threads that come together. In screenwriting, it’s easy to overlook this fact because there is so little real estate to work with. Screenplays are very economical, so using what you introduce (or not) is easy to do. With the novel, though, those threads took on new significance because they informed where the story was going.
For me, this became most evident in some of the minor characters. In the screenplay, the minor characters are a footnote; just a way to move the plot forward or add dimension to the setting (i.e., townsfolk a character interacts with). But as I wrote the novel I started to learn ways to reuse minor characters in a way that enriched the major characters and the story as a whole.
In summation, I realized that when telling a story one should use every piece of it. There is always depth behind a character, or a plot point, or a setting that could help to tie things together later and make a more enriching experience for the reader or audience.
So what’s next?
As I was writing and I introduced new elements to the story or thought of ways to elaborate on things already written I took lots of notes on how and when to implement those. So, before anything, I’ll probably go back into certain chapters and write a few thousand more words of backstory and connective tissue for the plot.
Then, I plan to sit on it while I write a screenplay I’ve been noodling on. In that time I might edit the first couple of chapters (it’s been nearly a year since they’ve been written and, while I’ve glanced at them a few times since then, I haven’t really read them) and then give them to my writers’ group for feedback. Otherwise, though, it will sit for a few months while I write a new project.
When the new script is written and, itself, needs time to marinate, I’ll start my edit of the first draft. By that time I’ll likely hate what I’ve written and curse all the time and effort I put into it. But, as I revise, maybe I’ll take big steps toward making it great.
After the first revision, I’ll pass it around to people I trust for their opinions and edits. I may even pay some of them to do the job of an editor, as I know some talented people. (If there are major issues with it when all that is said and done, I’ve thought about hiring an experience industry editor, but that can be pricey.)
Using the notes I get from my trusted circle of fellow writers I’ll write a third draft. Then, and only then, will I decide whether or not to shop it around. I think the story and its hook are strong enough to garner some attention, but that isn’t where I’ve faltered in the past. Maybe the added space to let the story breathe will fulfill the potential of my execution.
If not, then at least now I know how to revise the screenplay again.