The 90-Day Novel Workshop was born out of necessity. I had been teaching my ongoing workshops for years and was growing frustrated that some of the writers were taking years to complete the first drafts of their novels. They were having lots of fun in class, but it was apparent that for some, the class was the extent of their writing for the week. Although I encouraged them to write their first drafts quickly, there was no system in place to support this goal. The deadlines I gave them didn’t seem to make a difference. I knew that when I started writing my first drafts quickly, I stopped censoring myself and the work sprang to life. It took me around three months to write a first draft. It’s long enough to get plenty of words down, but not so long that we get buried by perfectionism. Stephen King writes his first drafts in three months. John Steinbeck banged out his first draft of The Grapes of Wrath in roughly ninety days. Over and over, we hear writers talk about the importance of getting the first draft down quickly. When we write quickly, we tend to bypass our critical voices and tap directly into the heart of our story.
It came to me: The 90-Day Novel.
I put out the word and the workshop filled up quickly. I rented a space at the Black Dahlia Theater on Pico Boulevard, wondering to myself if this was even going to work. Some of these people had never written before, while others had struggled for years on the same story. I feared I might be setting them up for disappointment. I decided to throw myself into it, and leave the results to the gods.
There was a weird giddiness in the group. They weren’t fretting over how difficult it would be; instead they asked, “Isn’t this impossible?” And I thought to myself…um yeah. It struck me that when we are confronted with the impossible, we let go of our expectations and that’s when miracles tend to happen. When the focus shifts from “Will it be good?” to “Will it get done?” our subconscious is free to do its work, and that work often bears rich fruit.
The excitement of the group was palpable. We had made a contract with our subconscious to complete a task that held a tremendous amount of meaning for us. A camaraderie quickly formed on the private group page, and although writing is a solitary act, the willingness of each writer to share his daily victories as well as his private demons created a spirit of support and encouragement that pulled everyone along in its wake.
Of the fourteen writers who signed up, only two did not compete their first drafts. (One has returned to work with me privately after a two-year hiccup, and the other dropped out early for personal reasons.) Which is to say that virtually every student that signed up completed their novel in 90 days!
SO, WHY DID I HAVE TROUBLE BEFORE?
It doesn’t help that we live in a left-brain society. We have been trained to second-guess ourselves, to be more interested in the result than the process. We are not encouraged to be curious, so it’s difficult to really get quiet and inquire. The decision to be creative is often met with concern, suspicion, and even outright scorn. Can you imagine telling your folks, “Well, I waffled between med school and law school, but I’ve decided to write tone poems”?
The prevailing attitude is that if you’re not great at something right out of the gate, then you shouldn’t bother. This type of thinking prevents countless creative people from ever getting started. Quite simply, the desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve. We are here to express ourselves. Creativity is not an occupation; it is our birthright. It is a way for us to make meaning of our lives, to reframe our relationship to the world, to communicate the deepest aspects of ourselves.
And quite frankly, most books about writing novels miss the point. They tend to be technical and dispassionate, and are often written by blocked creatives who shed their imaginations in graduate school. The advice is not even benign—it’s actually counterproductive, because so many of these books are result-oriented and actually pull you out of your imagination! I did find Walter Mosley’s book This Year You Write Your Novel, informative and inspiring, and I devoured Stephen King’s quasi-memoir On Writing. Stories are alive. They are nonlinear. The moment we leave our right brains, we’re dead in the water.
This book speaks unabashedly to your heart, not for sentimental reasons, but because this is where our stories reside. Why we write is as important as what we write. Grammar, punctuation and syntax are fairly irrelevant in the first draft. Get the story down…fast. Get out of your head, so you can surprise yourself on the page.
START WHERE YOU ARE
Our job as artists is to build a body of work. When we drop our preconceptions about what good writing is and we give ourselves permission to write poorly, everything changes. Permission to write poorly does not produce poor writing, but its opposite. We become a channel for the story that wants to be told through us. Rather than impressing our reader with our important writing, we can impress with our willingness to be truthful on the page.
IMAGINING THE WORLD OF THE STORY
The first step in The 90-Day Novel process is simply imagining the world of our story. When we attempt to plot out our story, we may likely find ourselves writing our idea of the story. It’s not that our idea is wrong, it’s just that it is probably not the whole story. The story resides in our subconscious, and when we allow our subconscious a period of time to play, our characters tend to spring to life and surprise us with where they want to go. Imagining the world means imagining our characters in relationship to each other and scribbling down the images, ideas and fragments of dialogue that emerge. I have created a lengthy series of stream-of-consciousness writing exercises (found on page 272) that have proved helpful in allowing the world of the story to emerge. When we write what truly interests us, conflict arises.
Conflict is central to drama. As we imagine the world of our story, we are naturally drawn to charged moments both large and small. We are not going to be drawn to what our hero had for breakfast…unless he’s on death row and it is his final meal.
All we need to do at this stage in the process is to very quickly scribble down whatever comes to us. It is thrilling to sit in front of the page and allow images to accumulate without having to immediately force them into our idea of our story. We want to allow ourselves a period of time to just explore these budding scenarios without making premature demands on a plot. As we remain curious and continue to write, more questions emerge and a world forms.
Let’s be clear: at this stage, we are not writing our novel, nor are we even outlining our story. We are simply allowing our right brain to play, to make connections we will only comprehend in retrospect. Without this initial step, outlining the story can become an exercise in limiting our options. We never want our idea of our story to get in the way of letting our characters live. There may even be times when it seems like we are going in the wrong direction. Rather than panicking, we can inquire into the nature of our experience and be curious about where this experience exists in the world of our story. As we allow our characters to live, we are able to explore the vastness of their choices.
HOLDING IT LOOSELY
Again, we are not structuring our story yet. We are just allowing our mind to wander around in the world of our story and writing down whatever emerges.
For example, let’s say I begin with the bare bones of an idea: I want to write a love story set in New York. I might wonder where these two people live, what their backgrounds are, and how they are going to meet. Hmmm. Okay. Jack lives on the Upper East Side and Jill lives in…the Bronx. Hmmm…I like that. That feels interesting. What else? Well, how do they meet? What if she is a bank robber and he is a lawyer? Maybe. What else? Well, he could be a banker. Possibly, but it feels sort of obvious and like something Elmore Leonard has done a million times. What if they meet in an elevator? And the power goes out? Hmmm. I kind of like that. What if they are on their way to divorce court (wow, where did that come from?) and they are both getting divorces and they meet at their divorce trial? Oh, wow. What if it is two couples and they start dating the other one’s former spouse immediately following their respective divorces? Ooh, that’s interesting—it brings up the question—did the marriage fail because of her or him? Whose fault is it? Or were they just poorly matched? Hmm…I like that.
Okay. So…I just scribbled that down in about four or five minutes—completely random, playing on the page. I just want to give you a sense of the experience of allowing your imagination to wander. If I were to continue writing, the premise might shift in all sorts of directions. I am simply trusting my curiosity. The moment we force it, or fear that we’re getting it wrong, we’re out of our story. One of the real challenges of this process is accepting the satisfaction that accompanies it. We aren’t writing at this stage, we are scribbling, allowing ourselves to dream on the page.
FROM THE GENERAL TO THE SPECIFIC
When we hold our ideas loosely, we can move very quickly, discarding one idea for another. Can you imagine if I decided early on that Jill was a bank robber and then started writing my novel? I would have eliminated all of the possibilities that followed. I would have immediately narrowed my options. And frankly, that is not the story I wanted to tell. It may have been my original idea—bank robber and banker, but, in fact, what I discovered was really interesting to me was the nature of an antagonistic romantic relationship. For my purposes, it may be more effective if I have two newly divorced couples and they swap partners. The nature of the relationship has not changed but the premise feels stronger as a means of exploring this question (a question I was not even conscious of a minute earlier).
There is enormous value to imagining the world of our story prior to writing it or even outlining it. We don’t have to waste weeks and months writing hundreds of pages about a banker and his nefarious sweetheart only to realize that our interest is waning. When we move from the general to the specific, we are far less inclined to write six-hundred pages only to discover that our story lacks a narrative drive.
Our subconscious is really good at making order out of chaos, and so our job is to give it conflict in the form of a story. It will go right to work, even in our sleep. As a sense of the world begins to reveal itself through imagining our characters in relationship to each other, we start asking the simple question, “I wonder what might happen next?” Scenarios begin to reveal themselves. We start to get a sense of the world, but we have not limited ourselves by making any demands on what must happen. There may be all sorts of disparate images and situations that seem to contradict each other. That’s okay. We are not writing our story yet. Oftentimes these apparent contradictions are leading us to deeper truths and if we were to start outlining right off the bat, we would never have allowed ourselves this depth of character. We are complex creatures; our behaviour is often utterly illogical, yet at the same time it makes perfect sense. Once we begin to develop a sense of the world of our story, we can begin to inquire into the structure questions.
THE STRUCTURE QUESTIONS
The structure questions are designed to invite images up from our subconscious at key points in our hero’s journey. When we ask universal questions, over time the framework of a story emerges. As we continue to inquire, a beginning, middle and ending reveal themselves to us. Nothing is forced through this process. Some of the images that emerge may seem wildly disconnected from each other. You might think, “How on earth is my hero going to go from driving a truck in Memphis to singing on the Ed Sullivan Show?” But as we continue to inquire into the structure questions, and we hold our story loosely, it becomes more specific.
The structure questions open us up to our subconscious, that deep knowing that stretches our imagination beyond the personal to the universal, places that might feel a little too exotic and frightening and just plain not nice to our well-brought-up selves. I sometimes witness writers limiting their stories by judging their characters, as if human beings ever navigated the world through logic. I’ve seen writers kill the conflict in their stories with statements like, ‘Well, I can’t have him cheat on his wife. If he got caught the consequences would be dire.’ Great! Let them be dire! Get excited about the conflict in your story, the sticky situations in which your characters lose themselves.
Don’t ever worry about putting your characters into situations that you can’t figure a way out of. It is not your job to figure it out. Trust that your subconscious will find a way to resolve it. Remember, this process is not linear. Allow yourself to be surprised by the wildness of your characters’ choices. Our job is to stay connected to what it is that our hero wants and to simply support the resulting actions. There is nothing logical about infidelity, high-speed chases, falling in love, climbing Mount Everest, or committing high treason, but these things happen every day.
As we explore the structure questions while continuing to imagine the world of our story, a series of images begin to appear. There is not yet a clear through-line, but there is a connection to the source, a sense that our characters are not merely functions of a plot, but are really, truly alive. As we continue to imagine, we may wonder, “How on earth does my character get from Portugal to Canada?” or, “I had no idea he spoke Farsi!” or, “Wow, why would she ask for a divorce when she just learned that she was pregnant?” We trust the images that are revealed. We relax and allow our subconscious to do the work. Storytelling is a right-brain activity. The moment we attempt to come up with logical solutions to human behaviour, we are out of our story.
EVERYONE’S PROCESS IS DIFFERENT
There are no rules. The creative process is as mysterious and as personal as each of us. It is about trusting our instincts in the face of self-doubt. Some people feel comfortable with a thorough outline before writing their first draft. Some writers want to outline very little and begin with the loosest sense of where the story wants to take them. Ultimately, the choice is our own.
Within this process, you will find your own rhythm. I’m simply imparting the principles to you. How you apply them will be discovered and refined over a lifetime.
WRITING THE FIRST DRAFT
After we have spent the first four weeks imagining the world and allowing an outline to emerge, a story begins to reveal itself. Armed with a sense of a beginning, middle and end, we can begin writing our first draft. We are going to write the first draft quickly. When we pause to edit, we tend to get stuck.
We are going to set small goals for ourselves based on the plot points from our outlines. We will write to these goals each week and by doing so we will reach the end of our first draft by Day 90.