Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Novel Idea

Rebellious literature of mine.

When I got out of college, I was more or less a working class peon, living in a tiny, ratty, rent-controlled apartment and fairly discontent and depressed about the whole scenario.  That prompted me to begin writing; it's a sick habit artists have, trying to turn pain into Pulitzers.  I took pieces of my life and the lives of those around me and fashioned them into a novel about a discontent and depressed working class peon, living in a tiny, ratty, rent-controlled apartment and a group of horrific, hateful young bigots who were planning their next, righteous act of violence.  It was very depressing.  In fact, it was so depressing I couldn't finish it.  I put the book in a file cabinet and left it for another time in my life when I might either find some value in it or laugh myself silly over it.

Years later, that time arrived.  I had been writing screenplays for so long I was sick of them and went digging through my files looking for inspiration.  I found the file of this abandoned work, pulled it out and started reading, thinking it would be a laugh.  Wrong.  It was still depressing.  Most depressing was seeing the very angry, cynical and bitter side of myself—or my younger self—so obviously reflected in the pages.  Even what vague scraps of hope were implied by the notes detailing how the novel was to end left no room for question; it was to be utterly devastating.  If I had finished it, they would have had to give out free razor blades with every book.

I wondered if enough time had passed that I could turn the novel around; change its tone and make it less "Less Than Zero" and more "Bridget Jones' Diary".  So many things had happened to me since those disheartening days that the melodramatic hyperbole, though honest and poignant in its passion, struck me as just a little silly.  I started to see wry, ironic angles everywhere.  Thus, I began turning the tragic tale into a snarky celebration of bon mots and set pieces.  I threw out the ending and almost everything about the minority-bashing bigots.  I changed the main character from a bitter, depressed novelist to a witty, wavering poet.  I set a new tone and a new direction. Then, I got another idea.

I thought about why I wanted to write a novel as opposed to another screenplay.  If you've ever read a book you loved and then seen a movie based on it, you'll no doubt recall being disappointed by something the movie left out.  Movies always leave things out.  They have to or they'd be five days long.  It's just part of the difference in the two media:  novels have all the time in the world to fill you in on whatever detail will enrich the tale; movies that aren't by James Cameron have to be over in about two hours, so anything not absolutely crucial to the plot has to go.  I thought it might be amusing to do both, sort of side by side, and show what the novel has that the movie leaves out.  (It occurred to me, once it was done, that it could be instructive for future screenwriters, showing how novels "tell" and screenplays "show", though that was not the point.)  I merely hoped people would find it entertaining to see the disparity because, when you look at what a novel might tell you versus what a film ends up showing you, the gap between the two is often quite funny. 

Funny.  That was the point.  It seemed to fit in to the theme quite nicely and, so what had begun all those years ago as a traditional narrative, suddenly evolved into a multi-dimensional, unclassifiable opus.  For me, it was the most exciting thing I had ever written.  It was also the most maddening thing to try to get published.  Editors were baffled.  The responses all sounded similar:  "It's very talented and like it a lot, but I can't actually sell it."   Being an unclassifiable opus definitely had its downside.

         Nevertheless, published it was and, subsequently, honored it was by a Stonewall Award for Best Performance Literature (  It still doesn't sell like a Harry Potter book, but it never would; the non-conformist, candid, serio-comedic misadventures of a gay poet and his friends is hardly appealing fodder for the lowest common denominator that makes for best sellers.  I can live with that.  I enjoyed writing it, I'm proud of the finished product and everyone who reads it enjoys it.  

What more could a writer want?

Who said “Six figures”?


What?  You haven't read the book I'm talking about?
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