Actor-turned-writer Gina Sorell: How “Method Writing” led to my first novel

 

Long before I called myself a writer, I was an actor. Even though writing had been my first love, it wasn’t how I made my living. I’d attended performing arts schools from the time I was 9 years old all the way through high school, and I went to college at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Although I’d devoted so much of my life to being an actor, the part that I enjoyed the most were the stories that my characters got to tell. I loved building my characters, writing elaborate histories that explained how they came to be the people they were at the moment the audience met them. A script can only tell you so much about the character, presenting them as they are in the here and now. Maybe there will be clues, or lines about their past, but it’s often up to the actor to decide the rest.

A character breakdown on a casting notice might say, “A divorced, polished, hard as nails lawyer, who clawed her way to the top without anyone’s help, she knows her way around a man’s world.” And I’d wonder: What made her so hard? How did she claw? Intellectually, sexually, ethically, mercilessly? What did that sacrifice cost her? Is she polished in her appearance? Did her Armani pantsuit put her over the top on her credit card, maxing her out after paying student loans and the debt from her deadbeat ex-husband who gambled away all their savings and slept with her best friend?

I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal.

The script may give insight into her past, but it might not, especially if the role is small, and it would be up to me to imagine the rest. I’d write pages about who my character was and what had gone before the audience met her, a back story so detailed that I knew what music she liked, what her favorite drink was, what her politics were, and what her secrets were, even if I never got to share this information with the audience. These details made the characters real, made them complex and fascinating, and I often wondered what adventures they’d have beyond the time I got to spend with them.

Now, as a writer, I still do all of this work, and much of it never makes it to the page. I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal. But it’s through this exploration and examination of the people in my work that I can come to really understand who they are and what motivates them.

But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together.

In that way, my acting work was no different than my writing work. I strive to make the pages and the people who inhabit them come alive, finding their way into our hearts and minds long after we meet them. But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together, and if I’ve really done my work, they will not only reveal themselves to me, but will lead the way I write the story or novel as well.

When I started writing my debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers, I was still working as an actor, but slowly transitioning out of it. On set I had found myself increasingly talking more about the script and the story than about my own particular role in the projects I was cast in, and it was clear to me that I wanted to spend more time creating my stories than acting out someone else’s.

As I began to write, I spent a lot of time thinking and walking and getting inside my characters’ heads, trying to see the world through their eyes. I’d improvise dialogue that they’d say and conversations they’d engage in, and wonder about the people that really lived beneath the exterior they presented. I came to know  intimately the cast of characters that I created, reserving judgment in order to allow them to be flawed and complicated and often broken.

And because of this I think I was able to stay true to them, even in the face of outside concern or criticism. There were times when early readers told me that Elsie, my troubled 39-year-old protagonist, who had endured an unhappy childhood at the hands of her cruel and narcissistic mother, was too depressed, too bitter, her dark humor too biting. Why would anyone want to spend time with her, when she seemed so unlikable?

I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked.

But in my heart I disagreed. I saw her as a survivor, trying to find her way in spite of the scars her childhood had left, her humor a coping mechanism, her struggle with depression understandable and real. I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked. I trusted that by knowing who she really was, I could take the reader inside her head, so that they could understand her, and in doing so, come to love her as I did. I strive to do this for all my characters, so that even the malevolent ones, responsible for the psychological wounds that Elsie carried, would be worthy of some empathy. And I believe that they are.

As an actor, my job was to bring my characters to life off the page, and now as a writer, my challenge is to bring them to life on the page. The medium may have changed, but the goal — creating lives that give us insight into the hearts and minds and world of others — has remained the same.

*****

Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Gina Sorell now resides in Toronto, and lives in a world of words. Some of those words are: writer, namer, creative director, artist, daughter, sister, wife and mother.

After two decades as a working actor of stage and screen in NYC, LA, and Toronto, Gina decided to return to her first love–writing, and graduated with distinction from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Gina likes to balance out the long solitary hours of novel writing with her work as Creative Director of Eat My Words, a SF-based branding firm, where she collaborates with innovators and entrepreneurs whose identity she establishes with only one word, their name. 

Three years and five drafts: Stephanie Gangi on the writing of THE NEXT

stephanie-gangi-sidesmile_tr-002  the-next


In a recent conversation, this blog’s proprietor, Bill, asked me a question about my debut novel, The Next (St. Martin’s Press): “How do you combine a fast and complicated plot with character study and writing that is ‘literary fiction’?”

That gave me pause. Did I do that?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the question. Because I wanted to write what I love to read, Bill’s classification of The Next as literary fiction is gratifying. To hear from a reader (and Bill is a voracious reader) that my novel delivers a complex story at a good clip about human beings of depth, with lyrical prose … that’s thrilling. That’s what I was going for!

But I have to stop and think. How, exactly, did I make it happen?

Let me count the ways. I bought a dozen craft books. I made an outline, a timeline, noted my key themes, embarked on character studies, defined plot points and subplots, made and hit my word count goals, created a climax and then another climax, and knew the ending in my bones before I even began. I workshopped, I recruited beta readers, I integrated feedback, I wrote and re-wrote my ideal “review” as a kind of mission statement. I had notebooks full of, well, notes, and titles, character names, playlists, chapter descriptions, on and on. I wrote and re-wrote two, three, four drafts.

Two years after I began, I felt finished. I had a draft I was happy with, and serious “interest” from a renowned literary agency. I handed The Next over and waited in a state of high anxiety while four professionals read it. An email was received, a meeting was set, and I turned up nearly giddy with hope. With readers’ reports and notes in hand, the agents said, in the kindest way possible, You’re not there yet. Try again.

Try again. Try again? I’d decimated my social life, neglected my real job, spent money I didn’t have on classes and readers and craft books, forgotten to return calls and pay bills – all to get to this point. I’d given it my all and my best, my very, very “good student” best! I had followed the advice and experience of real writers; I had been committed, meticulous, thorough. I thought I had cracked the novel-writing code, and yet: Try again. Now I was exhausted, sick of the whole enterprise. I sunk into a funk. After weeks of wallowing, I went back to the craft books for wisdom, for encouragement, for a solution. It was unanimous: Step away.

Ever the good student, I set the manuscript aside (literally, as I can write on screen with no problem but cannot for the life of me revise and edit on anything but paper) for three long months. When anyone asked me how it was going, I went stony, I shrugged, I shut down all conversation. (Pro-tip: Tell as few people as possible anything about anything if you are writing your first novel. Resist all urges. Shhh!) I busied myself. I binged on Netflix and endless “Law & Order” reruns. I concentrated at work, I went out with friends, I threw a couple of parties.

One evening, I poured myself a glass of red wine and sat in my favorite blue chair with The New Yorker in hand. I was unable to focus. All I can say is, I was called back. Something compelled me to physically set aside that wine glass and toss the magazine and reach the high shelf where I’d exiled my manuscript.

Okay, I didn’t really set aside the wine. I drank and I read and at some point, I got a pen and I started marking up the pages. A lot of pages. All the pages. The story seemed new to me, and rife with challenges and obstacles, but as those appeared, so did ideas to solve them or navigate around them. For the first time, I grasped the mechanics, the tactics, the behind-the-scenes of my own novel. It was a puzzle! It had taken me four drafts to create all the pieces, and I hadn’t realized there was more to do: fitting them in place.

When I sat back down after the long break, I was a different writer. I ignored outlines and timelines and reports and feedback. I started again. Draft five, page one.

With distance, I’d gained the confidence to rely on my own critical eye and ear. I got out of the way and let my characters live through dialogue and action rather than back story. I read out loud and listened closely for the rhythms of “my style” and then I applied my beat to sections that felt flat or expositional. I didn’t shy away from writing about sentimental things or angry things or pain or grief. I meditated (yep) and tuned in to the way my body responded to what I was writing. When I got teary, or raced along, or felt bored, I realized it was time to ramp up or tone down or create a conflict to maintain my own interest. Many, many times, I closed my eyes and typed like a madwoman, typos be damned. When I’d “come to,” I would be disoriented and shocked at how time had flown. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being high while not actually being under any influences.

Here’s Bill’s question again: How do you combine a fast and complicated plot with character study and writing that is “literary fiction” level?

Here’s what I think I did:

  • I learned as much craft as I could.
  • I applied my new craft knowledge to building the world of The Next.
  • I failed to make that world come alive.
  • I walked away in disgust.
  • I rested.
  • I couldn’t stay away.
  • I had an epiphany – it was all part of the process.
  • I recognized my own particular style and applied it to enhance the story.
  • I discovered my rhythm. Dare I say my breath, my heartbeat? Dare I say the “literary” aspect of my fiction? And I let it beat strong and consistent under plot and character.

Quite simply, I screwed up and tried again. I learned to trust myself. I would not quit. It is only now, in the writing of this piece, that I realize that is exactly what my characters go through, too. That is a major theme of The Next.

Damned good question, Bill.


STEPHANIE GANGI lives and works in New York City. She was born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, and raised her own kids in Tribeca, Rockland County and on the Upper West Side.

Gangi’s first publishing credit, many years ago, was a children’s book, Lumpy: A Baseball Fable, co-written with New York Mets pitching great Tug McGraw. She ghostwrote a tell-all about Liberace in 1984 but left the only copy in a taxicab. She has written jacket copy, pitch letters, business plans, speeches, mortgage checks, absence excuse notes, letters to editors, hundreds of poems, dozens of story starts, dating profiles, countless emails, texts, sexts, and random tweets. She once chalked a love note on the wall of a Paris alley in the rain.

Her poem, “Four,” was a 2014 award winner and appears in the anthology for The Hippocrates Society of Poetry and Medicine. The poem “Talking to My Dead Mother About Dogs” appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the New Ohio Review.

The Next is her debut. She is working on her second novel.