Writers, you know the feeling: mind racing, heart pumping, fingers flying on the keyboard. That’s creative flow. I have fallen into flow while writing novels, short stories, screenplays, poems, and blogs, beginning with the picture books I wrote as young as age four.
But last weekend, something remarkable happened: I fell deeply into flow, but I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t even typing. I was using iMovie to edit the video I’d shot earlier that day on my iPhone.
Despite having written several screenplays—my husband and I sold three drafts of our adaptation of my novel The Good House to Fox Searchlight—I had never edited video. Last year, when I shot a book trailer for my novel My Soul to Take in my basement, I did it in one take precisely so I wouldn’t have to edit video. When I noticed something bothersome in one of the scenes, I went down and shot the whole thing again.
But my ideas for a book trailer for the upcoming novel I co-authored with my husband, Steven Barnes, were more elaborate than a single take would allow. Although the trailer would be short, I wanted to sew it together in the style of the horror movies Steve and I love. And since I wanted to recruit my 8-year-old son as the star, I didn’t necessarily want him to be present during scenes I thought might frighten him.
Our novel, Devil’s Wake, is a YA/crossover novel about teenagers seeking safety and community after an infection that mimics a zombie outbreak, although we never use the word “zombie.” The trailer is intended to create a mood more than to convey the plot.
I could have taken a YouTube tutorial on how to use iMovie 11, but instead I signed up for a free workshop at my local Apple store. In a single hour of furious note-taking, I learned enough to get me excited and ready to work. (If you don’t have a Mac, you can use Windows Movie Maker.)
I started small, using iMovie’s trailer template. While it didn’t allow me the flexibility of adding my own sound, it had a polished look that gave me ideas for how to splice the rest together. And although the template only allowed for several two- to three-second clips (approximately), I discovered that if I continued the next clip where the last one left off, I could create a sustained shot—for instance, my son walking down the stairs for several seconds.
I know, it doesn’t sound like much—but I was ecstatic. I was obsessed. I examined clips in tenth-of-a-second increments, looking for the right places to splice, the way the film majors in my dorm used to when we were undergraduates at Northwestern. I hunted for just…the right…spots.
I was in flow.
That day, I learned that storytelling is storytelling for me, whether it’s written or visual. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Stories don’t have to be told in words.
When I teach my screenwriting class at Spelman College this fall, I’ll give my students a short assignment to shoot and edit a video themselves—so they can experience filmmaking from the inside out while they write their screenplays.
That’s especially important in an industry that makes precious little space for projects by people of color—but all screenwriters should realize that writing a script is only the first step. If they ever want to see their movie made, they might have to shoot, direct and finance it too. (That is also true for novelists hoping to be discovered by Hollywood.)
No, I don’t think I’m Spike Lee or Kathryn Bigelow. My little trailer is just a newbie effort. No crane shots or tracking shots—yet. To me, the important lesson was the realization that I had no reason to fear the technology, and that I could use editing to create illusions and impressions that would tell my story.
I hope to shoot at least two more trailers before the book is published in July, this time without the safety wheels of the template. Next time, I want to use sound.
Tananarive Due, the incoming Cosby Chair of Humanities (2012-2013) at Spelman College in Atlanta, is an American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award winner. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com.