The Writing Process – Part I

I’m currently several drafts into my second novel. I plan to self-publish it. I don’t really have a deadline, except for the arbitrary one I gave myself. With no proverbial sword hanging over my head, I’ve worked steadfastly towards that goal for the last eight months. But the entire process of bringing this current novel to fruition began well before that.  Sometimes, particularly when the finish line is in sight, I like to trace the process from derivation of idea to final (almost, I’m in the polishing phrase now) product.


About a decade ago, I watched a very good indie film called Old Joy. The story explores the relationship between two men and the tattered threads of their former friendship. One, who has clearly moved on to a “normal” life with responsibility of fatherhood looming, and the other who has continued to live “the artist’s life”–teetering on the edge of existential dereliction. The film explores the space between their lives and what they can learn from each other—all with very little dialogue.

Forgive the Dave Matthews reference, but that film got under my skin in a very white-bread kind of way, meaning the emotions are very restrained (Medigan, my Italian father was fond of saying, which according to the Urban dictionary is extremely pejorative–who knew?) It’s Italian slang for whiter-than-white Americans; he used it more like, “You call that a meatball? Medigan!” Another way of saying, “I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles with ketchup.”

Old Joy 2006

So, that very subtle, Portlandia-esque, indie film melded with my own (Italianate) tendency towards high drama and I start thinking what if one of these characters were heavily involved in the occult and threatening the other one. Now I have these two male characters (opposites but also closely connected), but instead of friends, I make them strangers who are bonded together in a brotherhood of a violent act—blood brothers!

That got me thinking about good and evil stories—Doctor Faustus is one of my favorites, so I use it. The Faustian tale’s been done to death, but perhaps with a clever spin? I flash on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Viola’! I steal a significant part of that plot. Remember “criss cross”?


A footnote about stealing—the greatest writer of all time,William Shakespeare, gleaned his plots from all kinds of sources. It’s the writer’s job to give a well-worn plot (in horror, it’s typically tragedy) a fresh treatment.

So, I had my Faustian model, borrowed a bit from Strangers on a Train. I had my Old Joy inspiration. Now, I start mining my own stuff. For some reason I love to write stories about musicians. I trust the muse and go with it. The next part of the writing process is purely intuitional and emotional. I get it down in a first draft of sorts: a stream-of-consciousness mess that only makes sense to myself (if that).

Like a good student, I read my Robert McKee again. Because I’m still allowing myself fantasies of making feature films, I fashion the story into a screenplay, dividing it into scenes on index cards. Then in a burst of energy I write a first and second draft.

When I feel okay enough about my script I host a public reading where I invite friends (I’m blessed with many talented ones) to read the script aloud. I highly recommend this part of the process. You find out what works, what doesn’t, and you get out of the house to socialize a bit while still working. Write the bar bill off your taxes.

I take a screenwriting class at my local community college. Blessedly the teacher knows her shit. She drums into our brains (mine is significantly older than my fellow classmates, but still nimble): structure, structure, structure. I write another draft. She points out my mistakes. I take in her feedback, and because by now I’m sick to death of this thing, I throw it in a drawer for four months. I highly recommend this step.

A footnote about feedback: the better you get at writing and the more professional you aspire to be, the less afraid you are of hearing criticisms and the more you welcome it. When you fear it, it’s because you lack confidence. I’ve been there. I once submitted a very unpolished screenplay draft to a competition and the written response made my face burn with shame, but I learned. Every creator who desires to leave behind the moniker of amateur must go through this painful, but liberating rite of passage.

So, I throw the Black Magick screenplay in the drawer (literally). As it’s wont to do, the Fall weather sparks my energy in a Gothic fashion; I’m ready to look at my story again with fresh eyes. I read it not as a creator, but as a reader. I like it. I decide this will be my next novel, using my screenplay as an outline. I sign up for Nanowrimo. I feel corny because I’m not a joiner, but it keeps me on track during the most politically chaotic month in recent history.

I make a short film about my post election misery .  I feed my melancholy into my characters. I enjoy exploring the edges of their darkness. Horror isn’t about happiness..

I self-publish my first novel in the new year. Whether anyone reads it or not, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I get some good reviews. People like it. My confidence grows.

I write two more drafts of Black Magick; between the notes, the three screenplay drafts and the three novel drafts I’ve been over this material a lot.  I’m ready to release it into the world and have no one read it (ha!)

Writers, feel good about yourselves, for you are able to take an abstract idea and forge it into something tangible. Not everyone has the talent for it, and less, the commitment to actually see it to completion.

I’d love to hear from other writers about….

Cracks me up every time.

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