Squid-Priests and Second Acts: What Novel Writers Can Learn From Screenwriting

‘Sup?

So, this novel rewrite: it’s turning out to be a giant pain in the ass.

It’s no secret that I’ve been stuck for a while. That’s why I decided to devote this entire year to making the manuscript a good one. None of my usual method were working, so, at the suggestion my my friend Kat, I tried screenwriting exercises. And you know what? It’s finally coming together.

Here’s what I’ve learned about screenwriting methods in the last month or so: 1) they’re compact; 2) they’re broad strokes; and 3) I always imagine a bunch of white guys in suits whenever they talk about pitching an idea.*

The thing about using the screenwriting format to outline is that it’s all Big Picture. Some systems out there use a finite (and small) number of index cards to plan it out. Others rely on beats, again of a limited amount. You have to focus on the big stuff in order to hit that number. So all the fiddly bits and the little scenes and the nuance falls away. You’re left with the essentials.

This turned out to be just what I needed. I was getting too caught up on the minutia. Which, you know, is a part of it too, but I was getting too deep. Couldn’t see the giant robot for the bolts. I’m a scene-by-scene outliner, but I needed to pull back and hammer out the big moments so I could see where the problems were. Now I know, so I can start fixing them.

Moral of this story, kiddies: it never hurts to mix things up.

If you’re getting stuck in the minutia and the details and the neat character relationships but you can’t seem to get the whole thing together, try taking a few steps back. Hell, take a mile. And look at the biggest moments. You want the pieces of your story that you can see from space. Then you might see why it’s not working. Maybe there’s not enough happening in the middle. Maybe there’s too much. Maybe you’ve had the Horrible Thing happen to the wrong character.

Conversely, if you have the bare bones but the story just isn’t filling you with the righteous holy fire of creation**, get closer. Dissect it. Take a good hard look at the innards: the characters, the world, the little nagging details. The way people talk. The changes having domesticated dinosaurs has changed the nature of public transit. The headdress of the Water Priests, which is supposed to be a stylized squid but looks disturbingly like a penis, leading to their irreligious nickname of the Holy Peckerheads.*** That’s how you find the stuff we’ll care about.

Yes, I just used the word ‘peckerheads’ to illustrate things you should care about. And now you’re stuck with that image in your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

*Drops the mic, leaves the stage*

*Might just be me.
**Or that could be heartburn. Hang on, let me check the coffee pot level….yeah, heartburn. My bad.
***Which now also sounds like a sports team in my head.

“You Using That Flamethrower?”: Borrowing Tools

English: Reciprocating saw

Looks like a laser gun instead of a saw. Pew pew! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe it’s the combination of meds that I’m on for a couple of Bodily Horrors*, but this seems like a great day to try re-outlining my novel.

Again. Actually, again again. I’ve already tried to re-outline this fucker a few times, using a couple of different methods. It is resisting me. I do not like this.

All the methods I’ve tried so far are tried and true. I’ve done them before, for more than one project, and they’ve worked. But not this time.

Open your eyes to my words, children, and let the truth of the creative life be written: sometimes the shit you always do with great results will stop working and you will have no fucking idea why. Why did it work for that project but not for this one? Why can’t I get my head around this? Why are you no longer working?

No. Idea.

But it is not the end. Oh no. If the old methods are no longer working—and I have the piles of scrap paper and half-finished notes to say that they’re not—then it’s time to find a new method.

Let this be the lesson of the day: if the tools that you usually use for the job aren’t working, then throw them back in the fucking toolbox and get something else. The hammer not working? Get the chisel. Or the Phillips head screwdriver. Or the reciprocating saw.

My new tool? Script-writing methods. My friend Kat was kind enough to bring me a stack of paper big enough to have been a giant redwood in a former life, all containing course notes and exercises from her screenwriting courses. It has colonized my coffee table and will not give it back. The only way to defeat it is by reading it. With a notebook and a stack of index cards.

I’ll be back with my findings next week. Until then: keep your stick on the ice.

*Hint: one of them is not ebola. So at least I’ve got that going for me.