guilty of being ...

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Sorbet Course (with a side order of heroin)

I seemed to have a pleasant little career going. I had (finally) finished my fifth romance novel (that would actually be published, that is) and was feeling a little shaky -- sure, I'll admit that, it had been an emotionally gruesome rewrite process -- and I had no reason to believe the career wouldn't keep going and picking up steam.

And friends in Dallas were taking a screenwriting class and loving it, and they kept telling me I should take it, too. But I didn't want to, because I knew it was a waste of time, that no way was I going to write a script and sell it, and .... There was that "feeling a little shaky" thing. The fact that it finally occurred to me that every time I sat down in front of my Mac to try and start a new project I felt queasy. I was mentally flinching with every word I thought to write before I even typed it in. My hands were literally shaking. My confidence was shot and I suddenly thought, wow, this is writer's block. THIS is what it's about.

And suddenly a screenwriting class seemed just the thing.

A cleansing of the palate.

A project that I could write just for me, without worrying about an editor sitting on one shoulder making me murder my darlings and rewrite until she was satisfied, and the expectations of the romance genre sitting on the other shoulder constricting me in what felt like a creative straitjacket. (More on that in another post, I'm sure.)

Yes, irony abounds.

I took a screenwriting class so that I could write what I wanted to, so that I could control my story the way I wanted to, so that nobody would tell me what to write or how to write it.

I took the damn course so that I could be the boss of me.

(Okay, I'm pausing while everybody in Hollywood cackles in maniacal glee.)

I walked in the first night and because the only other students were friends who knew me all too well, it was "interesting." When we were asked to tell what we were going to write, I mentioned I was going to write a screen adaptation of the first novel I'd published, a story that had never let go of me even after it was forgotten by everybody else.

"Oh, no," said the instructor. "You don't want to do that. You don't want to write a western. A western will never sell."

I laughed out loud. "Excuse me? Do I have stupid written on my forehead? Do I look like someone who thinks their first screenplay is going to sell?" Driving home my point: "If I can't write what I want to on this script, on a script that I know will never sell, a script where I'm learning how to write scripts, when the hell will I ever be able to write what I want?"

Now, don't you agree that this is a freaking good point?

Evidently he didn't. He went on, "Yes, but this isn't a good idea for a first script, for a 'learning' script if that's what you want to call it, because it's hard to take a 600-page novel and boil it down to a story that fits in a 120-page screenplay. You're much better off coming up with a story that is designed for the length and format you're writing."

At this point the other students -- good friends who felt free to voice their opinions for my own good, ahem -- echoed his sentiments.

I stood firm.

He pulled out his big guns.

"Okay, let's be honest. You will never be able to pull this off well, because the real issue is that this is a 600-page novel that YOU WROTE. You'll never be able to be brutal enough to make the kinds of changes that will have to be made." He kept going, and my friends joined in, until they eventually ran out of steam, satisfied that they were right and they were saving me a lot of heartache.

And they WERE right. Everything he'd said was true, and I knew that as he said it, and you know what? I didn't give a damn. I walked into that class not just needing a break from being told what to write, but with a passion for a story that had yet to be quenched, damn it. I wanted to dive back into that world and those characters, and I intended to do just that.

And when he finished telling me what I "couldn't" do, I just shrugged and grinned and said, "Watch me."

I finished his class, stumbled across an online screenwriting workshop (the magical world of GEnie) and got battered again and again by critiques that said, "You write too much like a novelist," or worse, "You write too much like a romance novelist," until I was screaming into the ether with frustration, but eventually I managed to finish the damn script.

I finished it because of a deadline. I'm nothing without deadlines. And this deadline was for a screenwriting competition* sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar people) and I finished the first draft of my script three weeks prior to the deadline and waited for somebody to give me feedback. Only nobody had time because they were all fighting for the same deadline. And I finally just dove back in and did the best I could do and shoved the script into the mail.

And out of almost 4,000 entries, my script was in the top 100, a Semifinalist, and my phone started ringing.

And everybody who read it kind of went, "Eh, it's a western, what else ya got?" and at that point the answer was nothing. They wanted to read my next script, doors were open, etc. Except for one producer who asked, "Can I show this to a director who is looking for a project and I think she might like this?" so I said yes. I mean, I even recognized the director's name and that's saying something.

And then, "The director loves it, wants to show it to (Oscar-winning actress) who is a friend of hers, is that okay?" And I said yes. And the actress loves it and shows it to actors (whose names make me drool) and I'm hearing things like, "She's going to be having lunch with this British actor in NYC and she's giving him a copy of the script," and I'm wondering if somebody is playing some evil trick on this writer-with-no-connections in Dallas, because honestly, who would believe this? Certainly I had friends in the real world who looked at me with a tad of skepticism when I talked about it, and I couldn't blame them.

And then suddenly the script got people "attached." And I have an agent.

Okay, I'll cut to the chase. In case you haven't figured this out (which means you're not in Hollywood) the film never got off the ground, I never saw any money, etc.

But.

But!

This was my first script, my first attempt, and people. These phone calls? Saying famous people loved it? Wanted to be in it? Wanted to direct it?

Heroin.

Straight in the veins.

The "almosts" in Hollywood are much more exciting than the "almosts" in New York.

I haven't written a novel since. If somebody had told me at that time, "In the year 2005 you still will not have sold a script," would I have run back to novels squealing like a little girl?

I don't think so.

And THAT is the power of the Hollywood dream.

On an early trip to LA I called a novelist friend back in Dallas and warned her, "I may lose you, I'm driving on Mulholland Drive and I'll lose the signal any minute but I've got to tell you --"

"Bitch."

"Wait, I'm trying to tell you --"

"I know. You're on Mulholland Drive. I'm in the grocery store in Dallas. Bitch."

I love my life.

In October my agent handed me a printout of the stars' homes on Roxbury, above Sunset. He's a silver-tongued devil of the highest caliber, because it's not obvious that he's being a silver-tongued devil until much later, but he knew how to get to me. I'd just told him that in all my trips to LA I'd never done the tourist thing, had never seen the things most people see. And he handed me the printout and spun me a tale of why I needed to go see Lucy's house, and Jimmy Stewart's house, and on and on.

"Because this is why we're in the business, isn't it?"

And it is.

So yes, when people keep trying to convince me to dive back into novels, to return to the NYC fold, I just shake my head.

I'm a failure in that 12-Step program because while admitting I'm addicted is easy?

Kicking it is a joke. I don't even want to.

I realize this sorbet course has been going on entirely too long, but the next course is to move forward to the entree, not back to the appetizer.

Somebody pass the crack, please.

* I won in 2001. With a rewrite of that same western. And no, it still hasn't sold.

17 Comments:

At 11:28 AM, Blogger Rob said...

Heroin is a good description.

When most people in this world will gladly ignore you or tell you how much you suck, it's hard to say no to a field where you've got so many people saying great things about words you've put on a page.

I have no doubt that for you it's only a matter of time before the waiter arrives with the Entree. In the meanwhile, keep pushing that sorbet around the plate.

 
At 11:43 AM, Blogger Toni McGee Causey said...

You realize I'm gonna come over there and smack the crap out of you.

 
At 11:51 AM, Blogger pooks said...

Rob, you are an enabler.

Toni, I'd like to see you try.

 
At 12:21 PM, Blogger Rob said...

Oooh. Catfight!

 
At 2:41 PM, Blogger pooks said...

Well, there is a reason Toni thinks she wants to smack me, and that reason is that she's trying to tempt me back to novels. What is it about people who kick bad habits and suddenly want to make everybody else kick theirs?

 
At 3:16 PM, Blogger Candace said...

Pooks, I LOVED this post! It's a great story all by itsownself.
Oh, and check my blog. You've been tagged with a meme. :)

 
At 3:44 PM, Blogger Candace said...

Me again. Besides being Pearl Harbor Day, this was also my father's birthday. Which reminded me: the name of your blog, "Guilty of Being" reminds me of something touching the Old Man used to say to me in my childhood. Yes, Dad used to say, "What've you done that's constructive today besides occupy space?" So, oversensitive little soul that I was, I developed this guilt trip for ... being. Waaahhhh. That's not what your blog name means, is it? You're not feeling guilty for being, are you, Pooks? Please say not.

 
At 3:48 PM, Blogger pooks said...

Good lowered, no! Guilty of being "pooks in public" just means in public I usually try to behave myself but sometimes I just have to let my pook-flag fly!

 
At 3:53 PM, Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

Pooks, I'm with Toni. Hollywood is nothing but heartache.

I also think that screenwriting teacher was an idiot. It makes no sense whatsoever to tell someone not to write what they're burning to write. Hollywood has no real rules, so it's silly trying to pretend it does.

I wrote a book because I was sick of trying to tailor my stories to fit some kind of bogus saleability scale. Writing a book was liberating. No one looking over my shoulder.

The second one is much the same.

Come back, Pooks. Forget the Nicholl and come back.

Or not. Whatever works for you. :)

 
At 3:54 PM, Blogger pooks said...

(fingers in ears)

la-la-la-la-la-la!

 
At 6:31 PM, Anonymous Gwenda said...

I know an awful lot of people who have stories that are close to the reverse of this, and most of them feel like they barely made it out of H-wood with their lives intact. They would characterize LA as the sorbet.

I think it just depends on what kind of writer you are and what's important to you. (And that obviously changes over time.)

I still love scripts, but something I realized was how much I didn't like most Hollywood people (not other writers, obvs). And you can't really do that without having to deal with those people. I met some great ones, but so many were just shallow and obnoxious.

Plus, books are my first love, for all sorts of reasons. I suspect they always will be.

I dunno: I doubt there's much good to be had out of doing the books vs. movies smackdown (but you did throw the first punch).

p.s. But yeah, what Rob said: I've no doubt you're on the verge of entreedom.

 
At 7:16 PM, Blogger Toni McGee Causey said...

Wait. You're all being nice to her. Does this mean I can't smack the crap outta her now?

I want to read the books I know she'd write and she won't do it and that is just WRONG.

Can I at least kick her? I run really fast.

 
At 7:42 PM, Blogger pooks said...

Hey, watch it, kiddo. I throw punches!

 
At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Kathy said...

I say it's time for an intervention. Come on over to the dark side, Pooks, and we'll shine the light in your face, pull the needle out of your arm, and make an honest woman out of you.

oops, excuse me. I gotta go kiss my publisher's butt.

 
At 7:07 AM, Blogger pooks said...

Oh wonderful, next thing somebody is gonna come after me with holy water!

 
At 9:15 PM, Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

By the way, Pooks, were you at the Nicholl bash? If so, I missed you.

I didn't make the second night because of illness. Damn.

 
At 9:20 PM, Blogger pooks said...

(Careful -- Toni is going to smack you for being nice to me.)

We were there for the bash, but I wasn't there for the second night, either. Oh well, maybe at the 25th!

 

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