From Idea to Screen: The Blank Space
Readers ask me: How did I get the idea for my novel in the first place? It seems like a straightforward enough question to answer. When you write a novel, you make up profiles for characters and create some adventures to send them on, outline the plot, concoct some conflicts to resolve and arrive at a suitable ending. Then you’re done. Right?
Well, I do start with an idea, of course. For my first novel, Things Unsaid, the inspiration was friends’ stories about their aging parents, the financial pressures they all faced in the Great Recession of 2008, and parents who became estranged from children and vice versa—a family who, on some level, you’re sure must love each other, but they can’t express it. I recorded stories my friends told me and mixed them up with mine and my husband’s. Imagining all sorts of variations of families —all the different ways that families behave. Am I my brother’s keeper? My sister’s? My parents’? What would I say—my last words—to my dying mother, the first and primal relationship in human life?
No matter how carefully a writer crafts a synopsis, the story is bound to turn in a different direction. I had to give myself permission to speak that truth, to let go of the editor, critic, and censor within. So I just started spilling the first scenes and words onto that white space. My motto is “get me to the next page.” I had a quota for each day I wrote. No matter how godawful the writing was, I spit out 10 pages. Or at least five, if I was blocked. But the first page of the day was often the hardest to write.
I agonized and procrastinated writing my first novel, and struggled over and over again with the opening page—“the hook”. I felt like Bill Murray’s character in the classic movie, Groundhog Day, where he wakes up every morning to relive February 2. Well, that’s me, rewriting that opening page over and over again.
Then I listed everything I knew or thought I knew about the major question or theme. I divided everything into broad categories (major plot, scenes, events or characters) and I started an outline. Then I added dialogue, and thoughts about each character—what he or she looked like, if there were siblings, partners, children. I played, expanded, scribbled, and talked to myself, trying to find voices. Sometimes I took long walks by myself and imagined conversations. Now I’m doing the same thing with my second novel and it hasn’t become any easier.
While writers are often divided into one of two types: pantsers (who write by the seat of their pants) and outliners (who map out the story in a systematic grid), I am an outlier. I do both. I usually start off “stream-of-consciousness” style, with a theme but no clear map. I have some sort of conflict or plot but usually am not sure of the ending. Will it be a happy one, ambiguous, or sad? I leave that to the resolution of the conflict, and that often takes on a life of its own
The outline is my first step to getting all those black-and-white sentences onto the screen, or paper, or file cards, so I can see the overall pattern. It organizes my story—a Simple Map (yes, that’s the name of the software). Now I can step back and begin to visualize what works or doesn’t with all these beautiful little color “thought bubbles” on my laptop monitor.
I start developing a history for each character. I am collecting imagined data about my characters evolving over time. Connections emerge—and I can speculate where I hope my readers will connect the dots and imagine their own resolution to the conflict. Sometimes, this is where I can tweak my outline or ignore it completely, knowing there is a map, although the destination may have changed. I don’t have to follow it. But my map is full of places and scenes.
The outline is a tool, use it or discard it. It’s only one device among many that stirs up the imagination. All that matters for me is that page one is behind me. For now. I will be writing that first page over and over again once I know the ending, which will change too. So I’m rewriting the first chapter of my second novel over and over again, seesawing back and forth. But I am on my way.
Diana Y. Paul was born in Akron, Ohio and is a graduate of Northwestern University, with a degree in both psychology and philosophy, and of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with a PhD in Buddhist studies. She is the author of three books on Buddhism, one of which has been translated into Japanese and German (Women in Buddhism, University of California Press), and her short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals. She lives in Carmel, CA with her husband and two cats, Neko and Mao. To learn more about Diane, visit her author website at http://www.dianaypaul.com and her blog on movies, art, and food at http://www.unhealedwound.com or follow her on Twitter: @DianaPaul10.
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