Some of you may know that after defining myself artistically as a playwright for the last 20 years or so, for the last year I have been writing a novel. I have written over 20 plays in my lifetime, 18 of them have been produced at least once, some of them many times. The writing process by and large ends with the first performance, although we might sometimes go back and tinker with a few scenes here and there. This usually happens in the unlikely event that the play is being published.
And so I know my way around the process of writing a play, I think. This is not to say I know, absolutely, how to write a play, just that I understand the process of how one might go about doing it. The question I have been asked over the last few months is how I am finding the process of writing a novel, and how it differs from writing a play. So this post is an exploration of those questions.
One thing that both processes have in common for me is that I typically hand write a first draft, and then transcribe it into the computer which becomes in effect draft 2. The plays I have written have almost always been written in fountain pen on graph paper. I wrote the first draft of the novel in pencil on graph paper in three small notebooks. The novel in fact magically ends within a page of the end of the third notebook.
When one is writing a play, one of the most important things to monitor is the voice of the characters, making sure they are clear and distinct. My novel is written in the form of a daily journal and so the voice of my protagonist is of the utmost importance. It’s close to my own voice, but it’s not my voice, it’s his. So in a way, it has rather been like writing an extended monologue, and in this regard it wasn’t too much of a departure for me, if I thought of it that way.
This perhaps begs the question, could this novel then be adapted for the stage? The simple answer to that is yes, it might possibly work as a one-man show. Another question might then be, why didn’t I just write it as a one-man show? The simple answer is, I don’t know. The surprising thing about it is that if this were to happen, it wouldn’t interest me to do it myself. Again, I don’t really know why.
When I write a play, I am very tuned into the page and word counts at the bottom of the screen of any Word document. These counts tell you, roughly, how productive you’ve been on any given day. In a play, because of the nature of dialogue, it is possible to leap ahead in pages without drastically altering your word count; writing a few hundred words might swell the script by 5 pages, and you can feel that you have put in a pretty good day’s work in doing so. For some reason, I can remember that my play A Guide to Mourning is about 18,000 words long. It is, by today’s standards, a full length play, and so that has always been an unofficial benchmark for me.
Also, if the play is in two acts, you can reasonably tell by the word count if the two acts are of roughly the same length and therefore duration. This is important because you don’t want to end up with a first act that is 90 minutes long and second act that is only 15 minutes, say. You get the idea.
This is obviously not a concern in a novel. But what I have noticed is that while the words pile up, the pages numbers tick by very, very slowly. Like a glacier, receding. A few weeks ago, I seemed to get stuck on page 87, no matter how long I worked or how much I typed, I just seemed to be stuck there. (I noticed this because I don’t like the number 87, it being 13 less than 100. Another strange example of living with tridecaphobia!)
I have now typed just over 45,000 words, transcribing the written version of the novel from my journals into the computer. I am just starting the third and final volume. Some people ask why I don’t get someone to do this for me, but this is the most critical and creative part of the process. Hardly a sentence gets typed that isn’t changed, somehow. More often than not, the handwritten version is quite compressed and needs expansion, illumination. And of course at other times it just has to be thrown out. Sometimes, it actually has to be changed because I can’t read my own damned handwriting.
Overall, the main difference I suppose is the sheer volume of the novel. It really does take discipline and even courage to go on. You also have to manufacture your own enthusiasm for the project. Some days that can be difficult as you find yourself convinced that they guy who wrote the first draft is a babbling idiot. How James Joyce lasted 17 years in writing Finnegans Wake is beyond me. And he didn’t have Facebook to distract him!
Courage, discipline, optimism are what I need now. So far, so good. I am looking forward to sharing this tome with the world when the time comes. When it does come, I am looking at an innovative way of going about publishing it.
But for now, the writing continues.
Thanks for reading!