Palate Cleansing: The Art of Writing Novels and Screenplays

Palate Cleansing: The Art of Writing Novels and Screenplays

Palate cleansing is normally thought of as a food or beverage served between courses to prepare diners for the next course. But I like to apply it to my career as well. In imagining my career as a full-course meal, it’s necessary for me to break up the palate by switching from novels to screenplays. The death knell of a writer is to become bored, or even worse, blocked. I’ve avoided this plague by keeping myself challenged and engaged in different mediums. I may even want to add playwriting or, who knows, directing eventually, if I ever become ambitious enough to expand this lifetime meal.

Even though I first published as a novelist, I began as a screenwriter. Back in junior high school, I was obsessed with the show Twin Peaks and began to write my own TV series, Kapok Hills about a similar town where a girl is found dead, except instead of being wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer, mine was found in a sleeping bag made of kapok that came from the mill that sourced the town’s main export. In classes, when I was bored, I would write out the dialogue. Four seasons later, I had over a thousand pages of my made-up town, and I knew I was hooked as a career.

Back then, I played around with writing a few more screenplays: one about cloning, another about acid rain, but my first foray into novels was about a woman who, literally, believes her husband is the devil. She shoots him and goes on the run, convinced he’s following her.

It was very different to write prose instead of screenplays, and I found it a more invested challenge. While I could write dialogue very quickly, description didn’t come as naturally, but it felt more rewarding to finish that book. It would be a long time before I wrote a script again.

My first novel, Slow Down, came out in 2015, a neo-noir about a guy who will do anything, even murder, to make it in Hollywood. My second novel, The Mentor, was released soon after. Initially, there was some interest in The Mentor as a film. A script had even been written, but I learned it wasn’t very good and ultimately killed the project. I figured if I adapted it as a script, even if nothing wound up happening, at least it would be on me, and I couldn’t blame anyone else.

It’s not easy adapting your own work. Writers often talk about the difficulty of “killing your darlings,” but converting a 350-page novel into a 100-page script means a lot of darlings had to go: secondary characters were shuttered, and sub-plots tossed aside, to get to the real meat of the story and nothing else. Writing it is still something that’s ever evolving, but once again, I was hooked.

I really enjoyed screenwriting as a break from novel writing. It helped that the plot was already there in the most intricate outline possible (i.e., the book itself), but I was so much more refreshed when I went to write my third novel, The Desire Card, than if I jumped right into it after penning The Mentor. I decided I’d keep up this strategy for all of my works.

In addition to adapting my novels, I’ve worked on some original screenplays, too, which I find even more rewarding to tackle. Between writing The Desire Card and one of my latest novels, The Ancestor, both very dark and in-depth thrillers that are over 400 pages long, I worked on a project called Lacerta with a friend and co-writer, Margot Berwin. I had the idea for The Ancestor marinating in my skull, but I wasn’t ready to commit to the year it would take to write the whole thing.

I like to let ideas, especially for novels, sit around in my mind for a while, before I even start an outline. It allows me to get to know the characters and situations so they become as real as possible. Both Margot and I were astounded that nothing was ever found in regards to the Malaysian flight that disappeared, so we came up with a more science fiction take. Instead of a plane going down, our script is about astrophysicist whose wife’s plane goes up, and his pursuit for answers as to where she went.

I had never collaborated on a project before. Novels are usually a solitary undertaking, although these days some writers partner up. We got a place at the beach one summer and slowly Lacerta was formed. Now the script has been finished and we’re thinking of adapting it as a novel, a reverse process to how I’ve usually written, but we believe the story begs to be bigger than just a script.

Thinking of your work as bigger than just a lone book or a script is important for writers these days. As a writer, you are your brand, and it allows people interested in different mediums to experience your stories. My latest novel, Orange City, is a sci-fi tale about a hidden city that gives a second chance at life for those who come, but you are bound to the city forever, and you can never leave. It’s a project I’ll write most likely as a TV series when I find the time, but it would also make a great video game. Now, I just need to network with video game developers, a world I have no clue about, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have a chance.

I have a Young Adult book called Runaway Train coming out soon about a grunge girl in the 90s who runs away from home after her sister dies to meet Kurt Cobain. It’s a love letter to the grunge era and will be the first book in a series. I will definitely try to write them as films or a TV pilot, but I also think it would make a great musical.

It’s important to see your work as the beginning and not just the end, even once you're published. I know for myself that working on all these various projects in different mediums keeps my neurons firing and the dreaded Writer’s Block at bay.

It’s part of what I find so fascinating about this career. You never know what you might be working on next, what new world you may enter to keep you full from a full-course meal.

*Feature Image: "Fond of Reading" by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)

Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of six novels: The Ancestor, The Mentor, Desire Card, and Slow Down. He has been published in multiple languages. Runaway Train and Orange City forthcoming in 2021.
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