Making Movies into Novels

I just figured out why I can’t sit through movies, or if I am able to, why I later cannot remember them. It’s because my brain works on novels. And so does yours!!

I am convinced of this because of how people are watching TV these days, i.e. not on a TV. We watch shows on PVRs, Netflix, online streams, illegal downloads and TV box sets. We don’t watch television on television. We’re too efficient. We have too much to do to watch commercials! We’re beginning to realize we like stories in a convenient format. We like to carry them around in our purses. Sort of like books.

I am happiest when I am in a novel, or a long New Yorker article, and I’m just waiting to find out more but I have to do something else with my time like work or sleep or maybe write. I keep the story at the back of my mind. It’s why I like reading more than one book (or New Yorker article) at once: they get to spend time together in my head, making my dreams more creative.

If I watch a movie by myself, I watch it in at least two parts. With Netflix now on my iPad, I watch movies in ten-minute  chunks, filling in the silent transitions of clothes-changes and teeth-brushes. I just figured out why I do it. My brain works on novels. I’m trying to make  movies into novels.

Charles Dickens’ novels came out in serialized format – one chapter a week in the newspaper. Why doesn’t that happen anymore? Wouldn’t newspapers be infinitely more interesting? Wouldn’t writers be infinitely more interesting? Our culture likes to see the ins and outs of the creative process: what if at each week, with the serialized portion of the novel, there was a quick post from the author on what it took to write this chapter this week? What if the audience became privileged to the inner workings of the novel, the way we can on DVD special features and episode commentary?


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We’re already used to following characters and stories on Twitter and Facebook. We are used to the novel – we’re constantly using the novel format – but we don’t realize it. In fact, we keep talking about how the novel is going out of fashion. People are scared for books now that they’re digital. But what a good thing for the art form that it made it through this digital revolution. What a good thing that it maybe even impacted it.

I would say the nature of the novel, as it first appeared in serialized format, is the inspiration for social media. To engage us as an audience, social media has latched on to our passion for being in the middle of something ongoing, where the characters are developing and interacting and where we learn information through a combination of inferences and exposition. We are consuming novels all over the place without even realizing it. It’s why I’m so excited right now. I fit in! I’m going to work!

I Like Homework!

We are discussing motivation as a central issue to teaching: how can we motivate our students? But the question was more like, how can we stop un-motivating our students? I am doing my practicum in a primary classroom, where kids just want to do everything all the time really well. It’s when they get older that they lose it, that it gets taught out of them. Younger children are inherently intrinsically motivated; older children have learned to depend on something else to motivate them.

I guess I never grew up because I still like homework. Last year was the first year I wasn’t in school. Instead of basking in free time, I decided to create a project for myself. I decided to create the biggest project possible. I decided to write a novel, which I’ve read on average takes most authors 2-10 years to write, any less or any more so incredibly rare that it is statistically irrelevant. So that’s what I did in my year off. I assigned myself a 2-10 year project.

Now I’m back at school learning how to never leave school and how to convince students to never leave school either. If we really did our job as teacher, students shouldn’t want to leave school, or at least shouldn’t ever want to stop learning. They should fall in love with the act of learning.

I don’t know that I ever fell in love with the act of learning, but I did fall in love with the act of producing. I love making projects, I love writing essays, I love doing homework, I love writing anything. I love drawing things. I love finishing things and handing them in. I love finished products, but I also love drafts. I’ve kept everything I’ve ever done at school. Only a few years ago I threw some things out. I miss them, my PoliSci and History 12 notes, as though if I had them I would read them all the time.

Why am I like this? I like to think that it’s because I’m a writer. School was practice, it was preparing me to write a novel. My fingers have typed enough papers now to write a full-length book. My English Literature brain has pieced together enough book themes to make one of my own. Enough evenings have been spent working at some project that I know what it’s like to plug away.

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And my motivation was never purely intrinsic, of course. Yes, I was working hard at school because I wanted to improve on skills, so that I could eventually, though I didn’t know it, write a novel. But I was also working hard at school because I wanted to see my name on the final product. Because I wanted to see the A next to it. So I knew that what I had done really was an exceptional effort.

And my motivation now is not in itself to write a novel, though a lot of it is. Yes, I want to improve on my skills. Yes, I would be happy if I wrote this thing in a cabin in the woods and no one ever saw it. I would still feel something; I would still have done it. But there’s something else too: I want to see my name in print. I want to see a positive review next to it. I want to be published so that I know I really did do something exceptional.

So right now it’s still weird that I like homework. Right now it’s weird because we’re trained out of liking homework. I hope to bring this love of learning and producing to my students, so we can all be in on it together, this weird thing called motivation.

Journals of a Novel

I might have already written a post with the same name! That’s an exciting thing that happens when you’ve written 100 POSTS! I took a picture of my computer screen yesterday when WordPress announced this milestone. No I didn’t take a screenshot, I don’t know how to do that. I used an actual digital camera to take a picture of my computer screen. Like when we used to pause the television to take pictures of Tommy from Power Rangers.

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I called my blog A Novel Journal because I wanted to call it Journal of a Novel. That is what I call pages in my journal where I take notes about my novel. I took this idea from a book on writing called Write Away by Elizabeth George. She quite clearly took this concept from John Steinbeck, who actually has a book called Journal of a Novel.

(image from Wikipedia)

So every once in a while I open up one of my two notebooks (one stays at home, one travels with me if my bag is big enough) and I open to a blank page. At the top I write Journal of a Novel (like this is the first journal, but like I have many novels on the go). Then I write down the reason why I opened up the notebook in the first place. For e.g., “Medicine Wheel”. Then I close the notebook and not once ever again do I look at the pages called Journal of a Novel.

This is my next step. This is what I should be doing. I need to take my Journals and apply them to my Novel. I need to find the place where the idea of the Medicine Wheel can be applied and then I need to just apply it. I need to stop thinking of my novel like Point A to Point Z and remember that actually Points D to Z need to be rewritten so I should just get in there. I should stop rewriting Points A, B and C and congratulating myself and trying to show them to people. Points A to C are not a novel! They are like an awful short story with no ending!

I really like that I write these pages called Journal of a Novel. The notes actually give me a lot of clarity. When my ideas aren’t tied up together in prose, I am better able to see how they are connected. The ideas in my novel are closely woven themes, and it’s only by writing little notes and discoveries about these themes that I realize they live on without me. It’s these themes that are ruminating and building upon one another as I let my novel sit. I keep rediscovering these themes in other pieces of literature – in life even – and feeling like I’ve caught on to something real.

My Journals of a Novel let me realize my novel is good. It’s a complex story with important characters and human discoveries. It’s almost a piece of art. Though the prose isn’t yet the prose I want to be reading, there are moments where paragraphs and lines could stand their ground. My novel has a few characters who are fully-formed and others who are getting there. There are moments where I reread bits of my novel and I feel pride. I feel myself thinking, I wrote this?

My journals of a novel help me remember this. They help me realize I’m making something real. At least I can open up to a blank piece of paper in my notebook, write Journal of a Novel at the top, and feel like my thoughts are productive. They are a part of something bigger, something that though not yet done, will someday be great.

Back At It

Sometimes I complain about how I’m writing a novel and sometimes I just write it. Today I realized something really important: the simpler I make my novel, the easier it is for me to come back to. So I started cutting.

I so dearly, so naively keep the writing I cut in documents called “ThingsRemoved_Draft5,” “Extra_Things_Novel,” or even more tender, “Bits for Later.” Cutting does something incredible: it zeroes in on the core. And if the core is really the core, it’s usually pretty good.

So today I cut big things. Chapter One is now three pages, which I understand means nothing to you, but which you can tell is short. I’m back at it. Chapter One now sounds good. I read it out loud a few times, boastfully.

Coming back to my novel requires a necessary perusal through the folder I call “Jillian.” I worked on my novel straight for one year and this is the first time I’ve let it sit (and is it ever sitting). Looking back at it now is like finding a cute card I made when I was little. I’m impressed because it feels like someone else did it.

These are some finds:

A strange file called “Character Introductions” where I’ve made a cast list like you might find on imdb. I actually specify “in order of introductions,” which I should change to “in order of appearance.” Then I find things like this, which I’m happy I made on rainy days where I felt like writing peripheral things:

Peter’s hands were those of a musician. He used them to explain things, then hid them down next to his body, so they would stay, so they wouldn’t run away with the circus. Peter’s hands seemed to be the only adventurous part of his body; the rest seemed ready to give up: his receding hairline, his tall, slouched frame, the various fatiguing gestures he made in response to words or moments that exhausted him: hands on head, eyes closed, body sighs.”

One folder is called “extra material,” which ends up being three truly superfluous documents. One is called “bits I haven’t yet used” and contains one paragraph from my very first draft. It’s a horrible paragraph. Another document is called CHAPTER 0, which I can’t wait to open. It’s a phone call, as though I would start my whole novel with a phone call. The third line is “Okay Danny Tanner.” What? The third document is called “themes/philosophies.” I don’t find a gem, but I find this (formatted this exact way):

“-you have to find yourself in order to be creative             you have to lose everything first             you have to have some kind of discovery            then everything comes together and you can be truly creative”

I delete the three documents, losing everything first in order to be truly creative.

I like the images I saved in the Jillian folder. This one is how I imagine (and hopefully get you to imagine) Jillian’s house:

And the poplar tree outside of Jillian’s study:

And then Cape Breton, where Part 2 of my book takes place:

I like this folder of stuff I’ve made up. I like that there is a document titled “GIANTToDoListforJillian” which contains a list that is only two pages long. I like that I attempted to call a document “Leitmotivs.” I like that I did this weird thing called “Green Add Ons” where I highlighted things in green on my third draft and then went back and wrote little descriptions to insert in those spots. For example,

Mea’s closet was like a bag of jellybeans.

Mea adopted things like children do: she read about something, or had some gossip told to her, and suddenly it might as well have happened to her for the level of factual detail and intimacy you’re going to get from the story. This caused problems when the story was yours, and Mea seemed to have usurped it.

Li and Gro moved like a windstorm.

This type of man wears his emotions on his manicured stubble, his gelled hair, his ironed dress shirts: I am available, his items say, and I am not very complicated.

I tried to prepare an answer for people asking me what I did: I do, I thought I’d tell them, a lot. I do so much. I do things on weekdays and weekends. I do them a lot. I just do it.

I like looking into these weird little folders I made and realizing that they’re a part of my novel writing process but they’re not necessarily apart of my novel. I like knowing that I can cut my novel down to a new novel and still these folders and documents exist to prove I’ve been working at a process. Now these documents might not exist forever – I do have a 2007 MacBook – but I will soon buy an external hard drive and I will soon finish my novel. Then I’ll get to look back at these, shamelessly, thinking that it was super cute when I was scribbling nonsense but I’m so glad that I worked at it and really learned how to write.