I just finished writing my memoir, The Unfinished Heart.
It started life two years ago as a film script called BlackBird, which is currently being made (production is set to start in May next year). The script took me 24 hours to write, and 12 to edit, it has 116 pages and around 17k words. There’s a blog post - Ireland-Based Screenwriter Options her First Script through Stage 32 - about how that all went and came to be.
Since this success story, that I would not have had without Stage 32, things kept piling up and piling up and piling up. I optioned another script, a gritty Irish gangster story with a kick-ass female lead, that is in development with an award winning female director.
I am currently working on scripts from different writers and producers, editing, advising, helping out (as far afield as the actual Hollywood, if I may say so).
Those gigs I got, because Stage 32 just kept on helping me, kept on pushing me. They made me insta-famous (which I’ve never been, which was awesome) and interviewed me live on @Stage32 - which in turn made people on LinkedIn take notice, which in turn now has landed me two gigs that I would not have had were it not for Stage 32’s continued support.
I was, from one moment to the next, a successful screenwriter.
But once the daily grind of working as a screenwriter moved into a comfortable, wonderful flow, I realized that I had a bit of story left to tell on my first big success. The story behind BlackBird was… unfinished. It needed more background. Not for the world, but just for myself. I needed to not only remember the 4 years that cover the movie, I needed to remember all 30 years that brought me to this moment.
Right now, I am looking at 144,000 words, 16 chapters, 30 years of life.
It took me 3 months to complete this magnum opus.
I began with a plan. When you pitch a non-fiction manuscript (or in the case of us filmmakers a non-fiction concept) to an agent, a buyer, or producer, they will want to know that you know the material. In the case of a documentary or a non-fiction book that requires expertise, this will be done with a proposal. In this proposal, you lay out what your plan is, what you think you will be able to do based on your experience, your know-how, or the situation you’re trying to document.
In the case of a memoir, or an autobiographical story… it’s a bit different. And a bit more… intuitive. Less structured. You’re the only expert in the world on you, after all. But that also means that technically, until you can make it interesting enough, you’re the only person who’s interested.
So the very first decision I had to make when expanding upon my script BlackBird was to decide: am I doing this for me, or am I doing this to get my next big break as a writer?
I’m a screenwriter by trade, so the answer was a mixed bag. I’d already optioned the movie rights, which is what interests me as a screenwriter the most.
But as a screenwriter, as anyone in the business, I knew that this whole game comes down to leverage. If I wrote a memoir, if I wrote it well, if it gets published, and if it does well in the marketplace: I’ll have a megaton of leverage. And the next script I sell or option will have the tag “best selling writer, award winning screenwriter” attached. It’s got a ring to it, hasn’t it?
That decision out of the way, I took the script and disassembled it.
In a script, you can only hint at backstory, a word, a line of dialogue must convey a whole experience.
In a narrative, in a book, you have the luxury of room. You have the curse of room.
I found 3 major “hints” in the script that I wanted to expand upon: my time in India, my parents, and my deeper relationship with the character “Joe” in the script.
I took those three parts, made them into the three acts of the memoir, tacked an epilogue on there that wrapped up the threads, and Voilà c'est ça! Right? RIGHT? Right?!
Therapy. SO much therapy. But that’s just me.
Because I was writing a memoir that dealt with traumatic events (boohoo, I know, but hear me out), I delved into all of it with the guiding (and kick-ass) hand of my awesome therapist.
But let’s keep this more general.
Once I had my major three points that I wanted to expand upon from the movie in place, I wrote (and then rewrote and rewrote and rewrote) a chapter list.
In this, I just very briefly wrote down the major points I wanted to address in any given chapter. Some experiences, I moved around. So for example, a mandatory trip I had to take to a concentration camp in Austria (Austrian schooling, y’all… it doesn’t mess around), actually took place in 2006, but it fit so much smoother into the narrative of 2003, that I tacked it in there. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story structure, I say.
Once I had those points, it was just a case of AIC. Ass in Chair.
Whenever I got stuck, whenever I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, I referred back to my chapter structure. Often, I reworked it as the story was developing, as I was realizing what the important points or characters were, and which background characters didn’t really need a shining role.
The chapter list evolved as much as the story did, and I regularly threw the old one out to make room for the new one.
I wrote day and night, on my lunch breaks, when my kids were in bed or getting their screentime. I wrote almost 150,000 words in the span of 3 months, while doing a full time job, while helping out with scripts, while raising two kids. (you thought I wasn’t going to be showing off, huh? Yeah, I’ma show off! Deal with it)
But the point is… I was able to do it, because I had four things:
And I know, this might not work for everyone, but it has helped me, and I am only at the very beginning of my career. I started screenwriting in 2018. I’ve optioned two scripts, there are several shorts being made that I’ve written, I’ve helped other screenwriters achieve their goals, I’ve taken on commissions to edit scripts that pay well. And now, I will publish a memoir that I have no doubt will find a place in the marketplace. Not because I deserve it or anything, but because I worked really hard.
Have a reason, have conviction. Have experience (read: work at your craft). Impose a deadline onto yourself. Structure your work.
Having placed highly in both the Nicholl Fellowship and the Austin Film Festival in 2019, I have since expanded my slate to now contain more than 10 feature scripts. My stories range from drama to fantasy to action, and are always centered around women like me: real, honest, heartbroken, and heartbreaking. My latest drama BlackBird, which is a reflection on my own journey from human trafficking towards a brighter future, has been optioned and is in the early stages of independent preproduction.
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