Thirty-plus years ago I published two books, hit the wall as a young writer and shifted gears to teach and work as a roofer in Philadelphia. Two years later, I drove to LA to write films, which I have done for over thirty years, and now I’m shifting gears again, making the transition from the familiar conventions of the screenplay form to the uncharted terrain of a new novel.
Through all the years writing scripts, I wondered if I had another book in me, if I had developed enough as a writer to ever have a novelist’s voice. The question was terrifying, but now that I’m into it, the process is liberating.
In the film business, there’s always some producer telling the writer to get to the Act Break sooner, some director who doesn’t quite get the joke, no matter how many times it’s explained to him or her, or some studio executive ready to bring in another ink-stained wretch before the signatures are dry on the first writer’s contract.
Writing this novel, the decisions are mine alone and the only person not getting the joke is me. Instead of the forced pace of a two hour film, the writing can go anywhere it wants for as long as it wishes, deeper and deeper into the story, or into the labyrinths of both my own and my characters’ minds.
Most film producers want all their answers out front. They expect prospective writers to walk in with fully-detailed three-act pitches, laying out the deepest themes from the start. But the longer I work on my novel, the less I know about it. The story is constantly shifting and its tangents are as significant as the through-line of the tale. Nearly two hundred pages in, I have no idea how long this book should be, and with the words themselves the whole point of the enterprise, the pace of the work is unnervingly slow. I might write three pages and take a week to try to get them right, until the next edit, when I’m right back at it again.
Screenplays top out around 120 pages and are relatively contained, but writing this book is shaping up as a journey of years, testing my inner resources and my nerve. For solace, I think of the words of a great blues musician who said, “If you ain’t scared, you ain’t right.”