Notes on a Process

I hate writing. I love editing.

I can’t remember ever writing a first draft of anything: scripts, essays, nothing. I have a tendency to block those experiences out, largely due to the overwhelming frustration that accompanies the creation of a first draft. And because this is my blog post and I don’t want it to bring me down, I’m going to reflect on the only part of my process I actually enjoy.

I tend to view my process as one of curation rather than creation. I start with a sense of wanting to tell a story about X or interrogate issue Y, from there curate an amalgam of characters, scenarios, ideas, themes, et cetera, and by degrees winnow out unneeded elements until I have something with a structure and an ideology. For this project, I knew I was interested in a few different things:

  • Revenge, as a concept or structure
  • Continuities between antiquity and the present
  • Narrative tension, as an opportunity to expand the kinds of stories I write

As I gathered materials, I assembled more themes I wanted to explore:

  • Relationships between women and men
  • Digital mediation of communication and its effect on dehumanization
  • Obfuscation and paranoia

At the outset I didn’t know where, if anywhere the congruities were between these ideas. I started sketching out scenarios and characters in my notebooks. I began to imagine turning points and revelations. I drew pictures of what the people and places, and things I saw might look like. Eventually I had a story. I put it away for two months.

One of the things my writing teachers have impressed on me is the importance of critical distance, the idea that you cannot write objectively if you are too close to your subject. So, I used my break to work on other projects, relax, play with my dog, spend time with friends and family. I returned to my thesis a little over a month ago and saw a document that needed real work. The dialogue doesn’t cut, many scenes are flat, themes and ideas with potential are either too subdued or too obvious, tense scenes aren’t tense, characters aren’t consistent, the list goes on. Fortunately, these are all fixable problems.

I find that once I identify a problem — say, a character not having a clear arc — I like to do a read-through of my script only focusing on that one problem. I edit, I elide, I expand where necessary. There’s always a ripple effect throughout the rest of the document; often fixing one problem creates half a dozen more. Fortunately, doing this kind of editing work almost always throws other issues into sharper relief, making them generally easier to identify and fix.

I also find that this point in the process is when I really like to identify other works to draw from. For my thesis, I’ve found essays and books by Donna Zuckerberg, the plays of Thomas Middleton, the novels of Thomas Pynchon, and films by David Fincher and Joel and Ethan Coen (among many others) to be instrumental to refining the ideas and techniques in my screenplay.

I’m still refining the script. I’m still busy with classes, drama productions, and post-graduation plans. But I’m more confident than ever that my project is moving in the right direction.