Sunday, February 25, 2007

What’s in Your Trunk?

Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.

—Sylvia Plath

I’m loath to admit that anything about screenplays is superior to the novel. After all, a screenplay isn’t a finished work; it’s a blueprint. And the nature of a visual medium keeps the storytelling closer to the surface, and tends to make the point of view very diffuse. Few successful movies manage to stick to a strict point of view—at some point there is simply too much temptation to show the viewer something of which the protagonist is unaware, or jump for just a moment into some minor character’s point of view for the convenience of the storyteller. Two notable exceptions to this are A Clockwork Orange—which has to rely on voice-over—and Robert Townes’ Chinatown. The latter is widely regarded as one of the best screenplays ever written, but few people bother to note that it is the rigor of Townes’ control over POV that gives the piece such unity. (Polanski, Chinatown's director, doesn't even use the term "point of view"; to convey that it is seen through one character's experience, he describes it as "highly subjective".)

You may have noticed by now that I tend to digress. The point I wanted to make was that, while the screenplay in my opinion is a markedly inferior form, the whole screenwriting business is in some ways less insane than the business of prose. And one way in which screenwriting makes more sense is that unsold/unproduced material is considered to be a resource and a measure of one’s maturity.

An agent, producer, or director looking at a spec screenplay may well say, “I can’t use this, but I like the writing. I’d love to know what else you might have in your trunk.” The ‘trunk’ is where unsold scripts live, and it is thought of as more of an asset than an embarrassment; despite Hollywood's infatuation with youth, it is expected that a screenwriter talented and experienced enough to write a decent script will have some things—possibly very valuable things—stashed in the trunk.

Prose people don’t have ‘trunks.’ At best, we have ‘drawers,’ and you are well-advised not to talk about yours; it can hardly be a coincidence that the term is also a slang expression for one’s underwear. (Well, okay, it probably is a coincidence. So shoot me.) An agent for a screenwriter might be pleased to hear the writer had a dozen screenplays in the trunk—it points to a dedication to craft, a significant amount of experience, and just possibly a cache of material to be mined and marketed. Tell a literary agent you have a dozen unsold, unrepresented novels stashed away, and she is likely to assume you are a loser who couldn’t write his name on the back of a royalty check.

The prevailing myth of the ‘promising’ novelist is that the ‘first novel’ and ‘debut novel’ are one and the same. On occasion, they are. But many novelists of every stripe had a considerable amount of material in their drawers before they were published.

Sue Grafton completed four novels before getting published. Novels one, two, three, six, and seven remain unpublished.

Stephen King wrote three novels before the fourth (Carrie) was accepted for publication.

John Gardner was unpublished for ten years, and had five completed novels when he finally found an enthusiastic editor, who bought all five (Gardner still hadn’t found an agent).

Jonathan Kellerman has eight novels still unpublished.

George V. Higgins, a master of dialogue, anecdote, and simile, wrote for seventeen years before a novel was accepted for publication; the novel accepted was his fifteenth (!). If you ever want to read a rather embittered book about the craft of fiction, check out Higgins' On Writing.

Michael Connelly was quicker off the mark; it was his third novel that was published.

Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has five unpublished novels, forty unpublished short stories, and twelve unproduced plays.

John Nichols, famous for The Sterile Cuckoo, and The Milagro Beanfield War, claims to have written over eighty books, of which only fifteen have been published.

Some of the unpublished prior works of these authors were later published to considerable acclaim; some are still in the drawer.

I’m disinclined to take Hemingway’s advice on most matters, but on the topic of how to learn to write, I think he may be quite sound: “Write a million words.” I think most writers have a few books in their drawer.

But don’t tell anybody. Unpublished screenplays are an asset. Unpublished prose and poems stink. (No wonder Sylvia killed herself.)

Oh, my trunk? Three completed novels. Smite the Waters is my fourth.

And what of you, Gentle Readers? If you managed to publish your first effort, you’ll hear no one cheer louder than me, but 'fess up. What's in your trunk? (And no elephant jokes.)


Matt Curran said...

Hi David

The Secret War is my...

...fifth book.

Books 1-4 are unpublished, as are books 6 and 7 (though book 7 is currently being written and I have high hopes for book 6).

I don't have a trunk but a shelf that bows a little in the middle. And that doesn't include the reams of paper I have on ideas for books - including the 2 ideas I had this weekend.

David Isaak said...

Hi Matt. Sounds as though we're traveling much the same road.

(I have a trunk, but my manuscripts aren't in it. Mine are stacked on top of a bookshelf where you need a chair to fetch them down.)

It sounds as though you might have passed the Hemingway "million word" barrier.

Lucy McCarraher said...

Well, I should stop moaning then. "Blood and Water" was my first novel - indeed first three chapters of an unfinished novel, when it was picked up by MNW through the Richard and Judy competition. Now I've just got "Kindred Spirits" sitting in the PC (and in various agents' in trays). I've just posted an idea on my blog ( about a website where writers (published or very nearly published) could post as yet unplaced works so they could at least be read by the general public and advertised to publishers and agents. Have a look and tell me what you think, all you with bulging drawers, bowing shelves and stacked piles. Also found another writer's methods with index cards, for your delectation....
Lucy x

David Isaak said...

>>Well, I should stop moaning then. "Blood and Water" was my first novel<<

Yep. And I think several MNWers first published novels may also be their first novels, which is great--but also not all that common. But I believe several MNWers--Matt and Roger and, of course, Me, to name a few (maybe it's a guy thing?)--have learned to thrive on rejection.

As Nietzche said (I quote from memory), "That which does not kill me makes me really cheesed off."

Or something like that.

Jake said...

I, uh, have some crappy short stories stashed away in places where I never look at them. Nothing worthy in the metaphorical trunk, though. Chalk it up to the whole callow youth thing.

David Isaak said...

I've always really liked the word "callow," though it seems to show up almost solely as a modifier of the word "youth."

I wondered where it came from, and though it's current meaning is of course "immature", it is derived from words meaning "bald".

The bald youth? If that's to be taken as immature, it muct mean very young indeed.

Anonymous said...

Three Things About Me was my fifth novel. I used to flirt with the romance genre, and am now feeling grateful that none of those efforts got published. The best of the worst involved a Hollywood superstar taking part in a Karate competition against an English artist who was being stalked. Actually, it sounds quite good when I put it like that.


David Isaak said...

"Actually, it sounds quite good when I put it like that."

It does indeed! Quick, dig it back out of the pile...

And I'm perversely pleased to find you amongst the ranks of the long-unpubbed. I was beginning to worry it was a boys-only club.

cate sweeney said...

I have a mountain of stuff, but then I've been writing a long time. I was at one point going to wallpaper a bedroom with rejection slips, (plyas, short stories mostly) but though it would be too depressing rather than funny...
So Selfish Jean wasn't really my first but I suppose my third, if you count a romantic try, then a prenetious try before it, so I shouldn't be worrying about my second novel at all, it isn't?
Best wishes
PS David another weird anglo/american divide with trunks, which are swim wear for men here, and old fashioned enough to be laughable!

David Isaak said...

See, now you can stop worrying. Maybe.

You do call those things people used to travel with "trunks" though, don't you? (As in "steamer trunk"?) Or not?

We also have swim trunks over here, though they aren't old-fashioned--they're just anything that covers up those parts that you aren't supposed to show in public. They can range in size from tiny to huge.

We also have trunks in the backs of our cars (rather than boots).

And hoods rather than bonnets. In fact, ya'll seem to have a problem with "hoods". My P Chem professor, Dr. Frances Chapple, who was this tiny lady from Bristol, insisted on referring to the hood (the ventilation device you worked under with dangerous chemicals) as the "fume cupboard."