WHO’S REALLY A NOVELIST?
by Melodie Johnson Howe
In today’s (I’m writing this on Monday) Los Angeles Times I read that screenwriters are taking the time, due to the strike, to write the novels they’ve always wanted to write. However, many of them are coming up against the stark reality of the publishing world. Money. Forget the big advance. There is another stark reality. Many of them are not novelists. Now there are some excellent screenwriters who are also good authors, but making the transition from one medium to other does not usually work.
The agent, Mary Evans says, “Oftentimes, you shudder when a screenwriter has written a manuscript. Because they tend to be strong with dialogue but crappy with context, [you can tell the agent by the adjectives she uses –MJH] and novels are all about creating the proper context for the story … Screenwriters are attracted to novel writing because they can let their freak flag fly and just write what they want, but the truly talented novelist-slash- screenwriter is very rare.”
Hmm. Freak flag?
In the Sunday L.A. Times Book Review section, it seems according to Richard Shickel that ex-CIA spies have a hard time making the transition from wet work to storytelling. Of course there are ex-spies who have turned out to be great writers. John LeCarré and Graham Greene come to mind. But Schickel does make some thoughtful observations.
He writes, “Truth, particularly in genre fiction, is a greatly overrated commodity. It is the business of spy novels — or, for that matter, detective stories, sci-fi epics and Western adventures — to create persuasively absorbing alternative universes, places to which we can repair without feeling like perfect fools while the airplane idles away in its gate hold.”
Alas, we poor genre writers will always be creating for that numbing period of time between waiting for the plane and take off.
“That’s why the best of these novels tend to be more stylishly and energetically written than most popular fictions; why indeed, they deploy many of the more interesting devices of the classic novels (you can nearly always find trace elements of the great 19th century novelistic tradition in them) …”
Schickel goes on to say that this ex-spy had none of these qualities in his work.
So what do to these two articles have in common? Something that seems rather obvious to me … not everybody can write a novel. You may have lived a life that is worthy of a book (as many wanna-be writers seem to have had), but that doesn’t mean you have the ability to capture it, to give it a universal meaning, or to make a reader want to spend their time in your life.
And as for screenwriters who do create with words? Well, so do poets, but that doesn’t make them great prose writers. I think in the heart and soul of the screenwriter there is a special longing to be a novelist. To be in control of your creation. To not be rewritten by others. I also think that if you are used to or conditioned to being rewritten, it creates a mind set that is difficult to let go of when you sit down alone to face the computer and try to figure out how to fill 350 pages. Or as the agent put it, “wave the freak flag.” What does that mean?
Mark Haskell Smith, one of the screenwriters in the article who did make the transition, is published by Grove Press. But he also has to take on odd jobs such as teaching and editing to pay the bills. “I feel really lucky that I have a book agent and a publisher…. But it’s not easy. That’s the truth.”
It’s not easy. But if you have the glorious disease of being a fiction writer then you can’t help yourself. You just do it. Big bucks or no bucks. Acceptance or rejection. You write. That’s what your life is about.
When I lived in trendy Brentwood in Los Angeles I had a Maytag repairman (don’t listen to the commercials) who came to fix the dryer. When he finished he walked into my office and saw me sitting at the computer.
“Are you a writer?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m writing a novel,” I replied.
He looked at me in total dismay and said, “Well, maybe one day you’ll write a screenplay.”