Years In The Making; Weeks In The Tweaking

It’s sometimes the case that an idea exists in the mind of a writer years before it’s published, or sometimes long before it’s even committed to paper.

Larry Cohen, for instance, pitched his screenplay Phone Booth to Alfred Hitchcock three decades before it was made, but neither of them could think of a reason to keep the main character in the booth. Jilly Cooper lost the original manuscript for Riders in 1970, and it took until 1985 before the novel was finally published.

One of my own pieces took around 15 years to write. When I was in high school, I had a fragment that was supposed to be set to music:

Have I known you too long?
Are we too far gone
as just friends?

But I could do nothing with the fragment. I hadn’t begun writing poetry or even short stories at that point, and I didn’t pursue my interest in playing music.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I revisited the fragment, just when I was beginning to feel confident to call myself a poet. With help from online friends, I shaped it into its current form and it appeared on The Purple Spotlights EP in 2016.

I didn’t mean to write a companion piece. Over the last few months, I’d thought of another fragment I’d initially been unable to use, though I knew it would make a good refrain:

Let’s shag each other senseless.

The catalyst for the companion piece was when I found out something surprising about a couple of friends, which put me into a strange mood and then became entangled with the fragment above. The next day, I was due to take a train journey of 5½ hours each way, and I’d have access to pencils and paper, so I had the means, the motive and the opportunity.

On the trip, I remembered that Tied Up was about platonic friendship, and that the poem I was writing would be about a couple who couldn’t go back to being that way. The first draft was completed in around 24 hours; I named it Tied Down.

Some pieces feel finished once they’re on paper. By contrast, I pulled out this one every day and simply looked at it, trying to make sense of my own words, perhaps because it isn’t a sentiment I normally express in my work. Sometimes I’d score something out; sometimes I’d shuffle around the words.

It currently sits at 67 lines, longer than what I usually write. I haven’t modified it for around a week now, but I’ll probably come back to it in a month and see what changes need to be made.

 

 

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Second chance saloon.

In 1951, the acclaimed novel From Here to Eternity was published. Many readers were unaware that James Jones fought to keep in sexual content and profanity, but he was forced to give in to the demands of his publishers.

It was only in 2011 that the deleted content was restored by e-publisher Open Road, who also released his book To the End of the War for the first time. Unfortunately, it came too late for Jones as he died in 1977.

In the same month in 2011, Kate Bush was allowed to use text from Ulysses in an album, having originally been refused permission in 1989. A little-known Tennessee Williams play from 1983 was also given its premiere.

Perhaps it was just a golden year for second chances. But attitudes and standards are constantly reshaping, editors come and go, and even individuals change their minds. What was unacceptable or clichéd several decades ago might be in fashion right now.

Major delays are extremely common in the screenwriting industry, where ideas can knock around for several years waiting for the right producer and director to pick up the project, not to mention the protracted process of re-drafting the script – often dozens of times – plus the actual filming.

Phone Booth (film)
Phone Booth (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1960s, Larry Cohen first had an idea for a film set entirely inside a phone booth and he pitched it to Alfred Hitchcock. At the time, neither of them could think of a good reason to keep the character in the same place for an entire movie. When Cohen revisited the idea in the 1990s, he had the idea of using a sniper; the mobile phone had also been invented by then, and this is a major plot point. Within a month, he’d written the script for Phone Booth.

I’m aware that last week I discussed when to let go of work. But if you’ve had a manuscript languishing in a drawer or an unopened computer file from years ago, bring it out. Can you look over it with more experienced eyes? Have those who rejected it now moved on? Is the subject matter acceptable today, or perhaps even more pertinent than when it was written?

If you’ve answered yes to these, it might be worth another shot.

A minor word of warning, however. If Victor Nabokov had written Lolita today, it’s unlikely any publisher would have taken it on. And when an uncensored version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in that aforementioned golden year, many critics felt it inferior to the original.