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My Writing Process: Step 1 - Filming

This is the first in a series of posts on my writing process.

An agent I queried a while back asked what famous actor would play my protagonist if my book were adapted for film. I love this question because before my novels become novels, they are first and foremost a movie. A movie I watch hundreds and hundreds of times. A movie where I'm the high-maintenance director sending my characters back to the drawing board to try harder. Cut! That doesn't sound like something Emma would do. Cut! No, no, no, that's all wrong, Aubrey. Cut! Come on, Quinn, no one says that. Cut! I need to see a little more emotion from you, Kirk--are you a man or a manhole?

That's right. The first critical step in my personal writing process involves zero writing and may take many months or maybe even a year--or more. I never set out to make filming part of my writing method; it just kind of happened.

When I wrote my first book, I realized that an outline helped tremendously--I never had writer's block because my outline was so detailed. That got me thinking harder about my outline--how did I end up with such a good one this time? Turns out, it was all thanks to the thinking (and overthinking) I'd done leading up to the outlining process. Leery of going through the pain of trying to write another novel without having some sort of a plan, I spent many months selecting the perfect concept first. (My first attempt to write a novel, back in my twenties, was a sudden decision to just start writing and see what happened--needless to say, it was never finished and what little was written was utter crap.)

I now think of this obsessive spiral of plotting in my head as filming. Although I don't actually follow a formal process, here is generally how it tends to flow...

Write the screenplay--except, don't. Okay so that's a little confusing. I said I don't write anything until filming wraps and I meant it, but I can't exactly start filming without a story. So I do get some key plot elements together in my head:

  1. A big, interesting problem. For example, a popcorn heiress wants to launch a fashion line, but her family says too bad, you gotta take over the stupid popcorn business.

  2. 2-3 smaller problems or adventures. For example, the heiress has just broken up with her boyfriend and the family's popcorn fields are being set on fire by an unknown arsonist and it's like one gigantic Jiffy Pop out there.

That's it. That's all I start with--a big mama plot and her baby subplots. I don't worry about twists just yet (but if they spontaneously come to mind, I definitely take note). I usually find that the twists are better when they naturally evolve once filming starts. Same goes for themes: I'll do a quick brainstorm, but I love them to emerge from the story organically.

Cast the actors. The main characters must be fully fleshed out for me before filming can begin. Makes sense, right? You can't exactly start rolling tape and yelling action without a cast. I have no hard and fast prescription for what this looks like, but in general I at a minimum, I have to know:

  • What they look and sound like. I find it extremely helpful to have a real person in mind to start with, then I tweak features here and there to make a Frankencharacter of my creation. My current protagonist mostly looks like an old friend, but I've given her Emma Stone's voice, a new haircut, and the body and wardrobe of a stylish mom I always see at school drop-off.

  • What they believe. I need to know who these people are. What beliefs do they have that explain why they might say or do the things they do? Who do they vote for? What are their values? What angers them? Are they religious?

  • How others see them (and how they see themselves). Is your character well-liked? Feared? Hated? Does she come across a certain way that may be misleading? Is she self-aware? Does she seem to have it all together? Does she have it all together? (I hope not.)

  • What relationships they have. Who is most important in your character's life and why? What tensions exist? Who might they envy? Who do they hate? Fear? Desire? Have they been hurt? By who? How? What roles do they play (caregiver, mother, wife, boss, etc.)?

  • Their career and/or passion. You absolutely have to know what your character does for a living and how they fell into that particular line of work. We spend most of our waking hours working (and if your character doesn't, that's an important factor to understand too).

  • Their Backstory. Why is this character the way he/she is? What did her childhood look like? What are her dreams? What mistakes has she made?

There are more things I throw into the mix, depending on the character, but these are the minimum fundamentals I must know for any character that appears in more than two scenes of my book. How deeply I get to know them depends on how important they are to the story. The thing to note is that all these elements do not have to make it into the story. They are primarily there so that you can write an authentic, relatable character. If you don't intimately know your character, no one else will be able to, either.

Scout the location. Many agents (but by no means all) will tell you they want a manuscript that makes them "feel" the location. I personally am not too hung up on setting. My characters and plot drive my stories. However, it is very important for me to choose (or invent) settings and to be familiar with them. If I don't, I find myself getting distracted by the greenscreen in the background while mentally filming.

Set the scene. Just before we start taping, I set the scene for my actors. I tell them who's in this scene, where we are, what the vibe is, and at a high level what action and dialogue must take place.

Action! Now I trust the actors (and my imagination) to run with it. You could retitle this step as daydreaming.

Cut! Cut! Cut! The actors cannot be trusted to run with it. They get it wrong almost every time. I yell cut the second I know it's not right (it's not interesting or pushing the plot forward or authentic, etc.), then I have them refilm the scene again. And again. And again. Until finally it's right. It may take many days, weeks, or months to get certain scenes just right. But until they're right in my head, I don't move on to the next step. That's not to say every line of dialogue or facial expression or even action is known and polished. But when a scene wraps and I feel excited about it and want to see what happens next, I know I'm ready to move on to the next scene.

Repeat. I repeat the preceding 3 steps for each major scene. I have no set rules about the number of major scenes I must have. Once I start writing, I know there will be more. And I also know that most of the key scenes I start out with will be either cut or completely overhauled at some point in the revising process, but that's okay. I do not stop until I have the fundamentals locked in--that is, I know how my main story starts, progresses, and ends (and I know how some of the subplots will be meaningfully weaved in). Once each scene is awesome, I run them together in sequence to make sure they vibe and flow. If they don't, it's back to filming.

Filming my books typically takes me about 3 months once I have a decent idea (which can take another few months to narrow down). I usually do filming in my downtime. And by downtime, I don't mean all those leisurely hours I have while my kids are quietly doing puzzles together in the other room. Ha. I'm talking about those snips of time here and there that I have to steal--five minutes in the shower, another five on the drive to pick up the kids, the half hour commute on the train, the 45 minutes to 7 hours it takes me to fall asleep at night...

I know it's scary to think about 3 months of thinking when all you want is to have a tangible manuscript to ship off to an agent. It's a lot of time to invest, and it can get really hard to not start typing, but I'm no longer tempted to write or even outline without first filming. Been there, failed at that.

Instead, I hold my fingers back from the keyboard until the key scenes of my movie are in such great shape that I stop yelling cut! and start making popcorn. Once that happens, I'm ready for Step 2--Outlining.


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