By Jennie Jarvis
I don’t know about anyone else, but when I finished a major writing project – whether it be a screenplay or a novel – I fall into a deep depression. Unlike Brad, who wrote earlier this month about having multiple projects going, I can’t do that. I’m a one project at a time kinda gal. For me, writing a creative work is a form of marriage, and I’m fiercely loyal to only one story at a time.
But when that story is over, it’s like the marriage has ended in a brutal divorce. Suddenly, those characters that lived in my mind so vividly for months have left me, like a cruel ex-husband who found a younger, hotter chick to share his life with. I can’t turn to my previous plot to lull me to sleep at night or to fill my mind when I’m ignoring someone who’s really, really boring. Sure, a lot more gets done around the house (laundry, dusting, vacuuming, hey honey, when did we get a second dog?), but the creative entity inside of me curls up with a big tub of rocky road ice cream and settles down to watch Bridget Jones Diary. This depression exists because, now this creative project has been sucked out of my head and placed onto the page, I have a void inside of me. The space where the story once existed needs to be filled again.
Fortunately, this depressed void period doesn’t last forever. All the other ideas I had while working on the previous project will start to pop into my brain from time to time. At first, they just drop in to say hello but don’t really linger. I might go on a bit of a date with each idea – revisiting the story and the characters, checking in to see if they simmered enough for the writing to begin. A few of these ideas stick around a bit longer than the others. They occupy my thoughts before I nod off to sleep. They urge me to scribble notes on a napkin all through lunch. Eventually, one idea in particular surges ahead of the others. It spends more and more time with me. It leaves a toothbrush in the bathroom, promising to return at the end of each brainstorming session. Once that happens, I know it’s time to shelve the other ideas and commit to my new project.
For me, commitment always needs to start slow. As in my dating life, anytime I run into anything too quickly, I wind up regretting it. But if I take my time with a new idea and make sure everything is in place before I start writing, then I usually run into success.
For me, when it comes time to start a new project, whether it be a screenplay or a novel, I always go through the following steps:
1. Character and World Building
When I first have an idea, it usually comes in flashes. Therefore, to encourage the way my imagination works, I always start by taking those flashes and fleshing them out. In order to do this, I like to think of my story in two parts: Plot and everything else (I’m a screenwriter. Sue me.)
Before I dive into plot, I force myself to start on the everything else. Coming from a film writing background, I feel strongest in working with plot, so I make sure to work extra hard on the “other stuff” – namely character and world building.
For me, developing my world and my characters comes in the form of making a “world book.” I take a regular composition notebook and I spend hours – and I do mean hours – finding photos online and in magazines to paste inside that notebook. I find pictures of people who look like my characters and landscapes that look like the world in which I want to write. I do this regardless of whether the world my characters inhabit is real or fantastical. I create a visual landscape inside the pages of the composition book so when it’s time to write that world, all I have to do is open the book and lay it in front of me on the table at Starbucks. Without having to think about it, I get instantly sucked back into the world of my book. I can see the characters, not in my head, but right there on the page in front of me.
When creating those characters, I try to find their voice on the page, making decisions about how they will talk and writing sample dialogue beside their faces. I experiment with sentence structure and diction, imagery and accents. Anything I need to do to find the voice of each character outside the world of the narrative. I place those words by their faces so I can easily come back to who these characters are with just the turn of a page.
Often, while creating my world, I focus not only on landscapes but on inspirational images as well. For example, in my first novel, The Book of Melanie, I knew I had a character burned at the stake as part of the plot. While flipping through magazines, I found an amazing image of a flamenco dancer with her arms raised in the air. Her facial expression was so severe that it worked perfectly as an inspiration point for the scene I had planned, even though the woman was obviously not being burned. In another scene, I knew I needed to put my character into an emotional uproar, and so I found a picture of a woman crying that evoked emotion in me. This eventually made it much easier for me to write that scene later on down the line.
Some of the inspirational images I found surprised me and eventually changed my plan for my book. I found a photo of a dog sitting in a doorway, and I wrote him into a scene where my MC woke up from a coma. I found an image of a raven graffiti on a brick wall that became an omen of evil early in my tale. A smiling Caucasian girl being dressed by an Asian woman became a scene. The nightmare eyes of a villain became the eyes of one of my evil characters. Children playing in water became a point of happiness in my otherwise sad world.
Once the world book is completed for a new project, then it’s time to move onto plot.
Screenwriters know treatments well, but I also use this tool as a novelist as well. At its core, a treatment is a four page summary of the story. Once screenwriters are ready to sell their completed screenplays, they use their treatment as a sales tool (similar to how novelists use synopses). But at this stage in my writing process, the treatment isn’t being used as a sales tool. It’s used to help me find my story.
I’ve never been one to explore an idea on paper. I’m not one of those people that have to write 100 pages before I find my story. For me, all I need to do is write that summary. When the original idea bubbles in my head, I have a general sense of the story, but by writing it out in summary form, my subconscious fills in the holes, and I have a much clearer idea of where I want to go. This is especially true after building my world book because my brain has already spent time in that world. Writing the summary forces me to think about my story as a complete entity rather than as a hodgepodge of ideas and images.
When I finish writing my summary, I take it to my writer’s group and get their feedback. It doesn’t matter how beautiful my prose is or how strong my action lines are if the overall story isn’t working, so I don’t feel comfortable moving forward without their seal of approval. They tell me where the story needs to be fleshed out or what concepts I need to explain. I use their notes to fix the big picture since the smaller details will always change based on any shifts in the larger arc. I rewrite the treatment to make sure it reflects what I will write (I’ll re-write it again after the book or script is done as well).
Once the treatment is where it needs to be, I’m able to move onto the nitty gritty of each scene.
My outline changes a bit based on the planned medium of my story. If I’m writing a screenplay, then I look at a scene by scene breakdown of the plot. However, if I’m writing a novel, then I always start with a chapter by chapter breakdown and then move further into the individual scenes within that chapter later on.
When it comes to the individual scenes, I always ask myself the same questions:
What is the title of this scene (not necessarily for the reader but for myself)?
What is the dramatic function of the scene (why is it here)?
Who are the characters?
What is the goal of each character?
How does each character try that goal? (What are their tactics?)
What stands in their way? (What are their obstacles?)
Once I have the answers to those questions, then I know I have a complete scene. If I can’t answer all of these questions, then I either need to cut the scene or seriously rethink it. The one thing I DON’T worry about is whether or not the reader will like it or how they will otherwise emotionally respond to it. At this point, that’s the last thing I need to worry about. Until the book is completely written and revised, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Once all these steps are completed, I feel confident that I can truly start this new project. The preparations were our committed dating period, and now I can fully commit to the long haul. The book or screenplay places the ring on my figure, and then I settle in for months and months of writing it.
How do you prepare to write a new work? Are you fully committed to your writing project?