Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.
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.)