The Mark Blog

Mark Faculty Interview: Alan Watt

Alan Watt is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and publisher. The 90-Day Novel, Watt’s nonfiction guide to writing, was published in 2010. His novel Diamond Dogs (Little, Brown) was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and was recognized in The New York Times list of “New and Notable Books.” Diamond Dogs has won numerous awards, including France’s 2004 Prix Printemps. Watt recently adapted Diamond Dogs for the French film company Quad. In 2002, Watt founded LA Writers’ Lab to help writers of all levels unlock the story within. His 90-Day Novel workshops in Los Angeles are now taught online to writers worldwide. Writers Tribe Books, his publishing venture, will release four works of literary fiction in the winter of 2012.


 The Mark: You have a very successful writing workshop at the Writer’s Lab. How does the Mark Program differ from other writing classes?

Alan Watt: I was speaking with an author friend of mine recently, and he said that most writing classes tend to focus on the sentence-by-sentence movement of the story, which can sometimes lead to faulty assumptions, and I think that’s true. The tendency to focus strictly on the words, rather than on what the writer is attempting to express through the words, can limit the work. Hopefully the goal for most writers is to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but by focusing on the immediate passage to the exclusion of how it serves the whole, a conversation can begin that has little to do with the author’s intention. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the author to be unclear on what he’s attempting to express. But by employing a Socratic method of probing into the nature of his impulses, breakthroughs can happen that are often missed when a group of writers simply offer their opinions on the "writing."

M: What is the key to getting to the heart of a story?

AW: Our idea of our story is never the whole story. It’s not that our idea is incorrect, it’s just that our brain can’t contain the whole story. Einstein says, “You can’t solve a problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem.” Every story begins with an ‘apparent’ problem, and it becomes clear through the protagonist’s journey that underlying the problem is a dilemma. It always comes back to the dilemma, because dilemmas are visceral. They are problems that can’t be solved without creating another problem. We want intimacy but we don’t want to reveal ourselves. We want success, but we don’t want to overshadow our fathers. We want forgiveness, but we’re afraid to confess.

There is a dilemma at the heart of every story. When we get a sense of what that dilemma is, we connect to the tension or conflict in the work. Problems are solved, while dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception – and that is really the purpose of story, to reveal a transformation.

M: What elements from your book The 90-Day Novel are you using in the Mark workshop?

AW: Writers often eschew story structure because they see it as ‘plotting,’ and that can feel formulaic, but when story is explored through the dilemma, structure becomes purely about character and theme, and it’s from this exploration that plot is revealed.

The 90-Day Novel workshops were started because I had some writers in the workshop who were dragging their feet in completing their first drafts. There's a paradigm shift when writers discover that the story that was impossible to write in ten years becomes possible in three months.

M: You have the earned nickname the Writer Whisperer. How do you feel about this?

AW: I like it, though it’s probably a little too kind. When the whispering doesn’t work, I can get intense.

M: The Mark Program is broken down into three parts: the Defense, the Mid-Project Review and the Final Review. Can you tell us how this structure helps a manuscript that is in the revision process?

AW: I think writers need guideposts and deadlines. The Defense demands that the writer clarifies what she’s attempting to express. (It’s not so much a "defense" as it is sort of a voluntary intervention, with snacks.) The Mid-Project Review is great because the writer doesn’t have to be finished yet, but the pressure is mounting. Her work-in-progress is going to be read and critiqued, and there’s something wonderful about knowing that your work will be read, because you’re no longer so precious with your words. You’re more inclined to slash and burn, and distill what you’re trying to say. The rewrite process is sort of like coming out of this dream-state and becoming aware that this dream must now be translated into a language that everyone can understand, but without losing the ineffable spirit of the first draft. The Final Review is like the closing arguments in a trial where you’ve been working your tail off preparing your case in hopes of a pardon from the Governor.

M: How does teaching help your own writing process?

AW: I preach process, and staying out of the result, which makes me a hypocrite. I have a book that I’m publishing in the next month called The 90-Day Rewrite, which my website claims to be due back in November. What kind of credibility am I expecting when I write a book with that title -- and I’m still rewriting it?! I guess you teach what you need to learn.

M: How did you establish yourself as a writer in Los Angeles?

AW: I came out here from Toronto via New York, where some comedy managers thought they could get me a series. My passion always fell more to the writing than the performing, and when I sold my first novel, I hung up my jokes and I’ve been writing screenplays and fiction ever since.

M: What are you working on now?

AW: I’m just finishing a novel called Days Are Gone about a woman who leaves her marriage only to fall in love with a man who is recently paroled for committing an unspeakable crime. The book is about regret and starting over, a topic that I’ve come to know intimately through writing the thing. I’m putting it out through a publishing company I started last fall called Writers Tribe Books, which is really just three other novelists and myself. Our first release is Death By Sunshine, by novelist and screenwriter Allison Burnett, which just got one of the most over the top reviews I’ve read in years in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

M: Who would you recommend apply to the Mark program?

AW: The Mark is for any serious writer who is looking to complete his or her manuscript in five months with the goal of getting published. But be warned, it is a rigorous pace.

The application for the next Fiction/Non Fiction cycle will be released in September 2013. Please visit the Mark tab under programs for more info.