November is not a good month for me; in fact, I absolutely dread November. November is when I start to take account of the year that was, and without exception I always find it to be lacking. I always look at what more I could have done, I look at projects that stalled, and I look at deals that collapsed. The only thing I have to look forward to is that there’s only about eight weeks left in the year when, presumably, the slate is wiped clean and I can start the process all over again.
This year, however, November is different. It’s different for a number of reasons, but more than anything for the fact I can look back on 2010 and see the positives overwhelm the negatives. Work-wise; nothing really spectacular, but nothing I would consider to be an outright disaster either. Stonehenge Apocalypse was a hit, which makes me look good, and got better than average reviews for a SyFy Channel movie. There’s been some forward momentum on a project I optioned and later sold to a New Zealand company, and with the American Film Market kicking off, a couple projects I’m deeply involved in are being shopped and will hopefully lock in some development and production financing so I can eat for the next year.
There’s also been some positive development on a couple other projects, neither of which I’ll go into detail on, given I remain superstitious about blabbing about a new cool project publically, only to have it fall to pieces shortly thereafter. I’m actually ducking out early for a meeting on one of them today that, if all goes well, will mean a big announcement coming, so keep watching this space.
This is the life of a freelance writer; difficult at best and bloody impossible at worst. But what I’ve come to learn over the years is the value in having one project – only one – that exists for yourself. Something unencumbered by expectations and demands, something that you create for your own personal reasons.
A little while ago I came up with the brilliant idea to figure out just how much of my life has been wasted by other people; I got to the three year mark before I had to lie down for a while and rest my head. For a freelance writer, a lot of your day is spent waiting for someone to get back to you, for that check to show up in the mail, the works. We fill that waiting place by writing, partly because it’s the job, but largely to retain our tenuous grip on sanity. I’m pretty damn intolerable when I don’t have something to work on; some years ago, after a particularly grueling run, I bottomed out at the end of October and for the next two and a half weeks did sweet fuck all besides dick around on the internet, watch movies and read. Sounds nice, huh? It isn’t, believe me. I had zero energy, zero motivation, and with a mind roiling like the North Atlantic in January, turned those impulses on myself, decrying my life and my work and wondering what the point of it all was.
Things got so bad that my then-girlfriend-now wife made the decision that we were going away for the weekend, to snap me out of my funk. I was so listless and rudderless I agreed, and after only an hour in a different city, I felt normal again, walking around, taking in the sights and living my goddamn life again. On returning home I had my mojo back and commenced working on a project that ended up being one of my better efforts. Ever since, she and I have had a mutual agreement that whenever life gets to be too much for either of us, we go away someplace. It always works too.
But on this particular trip, I took stock of a lot of things and realized that 90% of my waking hours were devoted to movie writing, movie critiquing, hustling for meetings with movie people; the works. My work had become, well, work. And that’s when I knew something had to change. I knew I had to change.
I had been kicking around the idea of writing a novel for a while before that little crash; I wanted to be more than just a screenwriter, at a time when thousands would gnaw their own arm off for the opportunity to be one. Want proof? If you find yourself in LA, stop a random stranger on the street, act like you know them from somewhere, and ask them how their script is going. Chances are solid that they’ll start talking about it. But I’d already become a screenwriter; I wanted more. I wanted to take my time and tell a story that couldn’t be told in under two hours. I wanted the usual budgetary concerns to go out the window. I wanted to lay myself bare onto the page, and have it read by more than the producers and development executives who’ve thus far been the only people to actually experience my work first-hand, before rewrites and revisions and “director’s vision” muddied the waters.
But more than any of that, I wanted to do it to prove to myself that I could do it.
How many of us talk about things we want to do, but never get around to doing them? I know I do, constantly. The screenplay I recently finished drafting was a 7 year old idea. There are many more just like it; ideas in search of the inspiration – that spark of creativity – that it takes to bring it from your mind to the written page. So for me, writing a novel was The Thing to prove I could do it.
Makes sense, right? But I couldn’t content myself with just writing a quick and easy book. I wasn’t going to write the standard fictionalized memoir and pass it off as a work of great genius. No, I was going to make things difficult, because writing a novel isn’t difficult at all, right? No, my novel had to take place 500 years in the past, in a real time and place, and feature some of the greatest historical figures of the day embroiled in a mystery that only the greatest mind of the age can solve. It had to require months, if not years of research. It had to require me reading, consuming and digesting every bit of information I could find on the people, places and events of early 16th Century Europe. It meant I had to learn an entirely different skill-set and master it. It had to be the most challenging project I could conceive of, written in a format that was unforgiving of error or false moments.
This was to be my first novel. Screw the minor leagues; I had to bat for the Yankees.
Well, over the next three or so years, I wrote that damn thing, front to back, top to bottom, 600 pages and roughly 127,000 words. It was written in fits and starts, with some unfortunately large gaps in the writing of it as real life (i.e. stuff people were paying me to write). It was started in Toronto, and finished in New York, and finally, this past March, after nearly 3 years of on and off work, I finally typed The End. But it wasn’t the end – just the beginning. I put it away and focused on other matters, but a few months later I picked it up, turned to the first page and read it, from beginning to end, making my notes as I worked through it over the course of four weeks. And at the end, I was awe-inspired and humbled by it; inspired by the fact that I fucking did it – and humbled by the fact there was a lot more work to be done.
So, November is upon us, and I have a stack of manuscript pages – about 600 of them, plus a notebook filled with notes on that manuscript, and if I devote myself and focus, I should be through this new draft in less time than it took to write the first. That’s assuming what usually happens doesn’t happen; that the phone rings, that the email chimes, and one of those projects I’m waiting on finally crashes through the door to occupy my life. The novel has been the best friend I could have as I face the dying days of 2010; the physical embodiment of what happens when you say “fuck it, I’m going to do this.” Those 600 pages, 127,000 words did not exist until I put my ass in my chair and put words on the page.
And in the end, that’s what matters more than anything November can throw at me.