The Fear That Freedom Can Bring
When I decided to pursue screenwriting, my mom got a shit-eating grin on her face. Apparently, she predicted this for years. When I was just three years old, she began to tell everyone she knew that I was going to be a writer because I once asked her to write down a story for me.
I have no memory of this, and proof has been lost to time.
Throughout my childhood, I was always writing. I spent summers in Middle School at “Writers Camp” (it’s a thing). My teenage years can be summed up by a collection of journals with overly emotional poetry and song lyrics. When I wasn’t taking history classes in undergrad, I took English classes and wrote my fair share of personal essays and short stories. But for some reason, writing never truly clicked as anything other than a hobby until I took my first screenwriting class where I finally wrote something that was more than five stanzas or 10 pages. I created characters that arced and threw obstacles at them. I wrote hundreds of pages with complex storylines.
I had never been able to do that before.
Clearly, screenwriting was for me, and that’s been the case for the last twelve-ish years. However, over the past few years I’ve begun to think of stories that don’t work as a screenplay. They are either far too personal or don’t work in the perimeters of a script. So, I decided to switch mediums and turn my stories into novels. Admittedly, when I started, I had a bit of hubris. I’m a fucking great screenwriter. Some people who have read my scripts may disagree, but I truly believe that. I’ve put in the time and worked really hard at my craft.
When I sat down to write a novel, I came with that energy. My mentality was I’m a fucking great writer, though I had no proof of that.
That was my first mistake.
Here’s the thing about the craft of writing—the differences in our mediums aren’t as obvious as the differences in other art form’s mediums. Not every painter is skilled at both acrylics and oils. There’s an obvious difference in how to use them. But as writers we’re all using the same basic tool—words. The difference is so subtle that you don’t think about it until you’re in the thick of dancing with the prose.
My dream of the words pouring out of me as I wrote my first novel crashed within a few pages.
What I’ve always loved about screenwriting is the clear boundaries it gave me. I have to hit certain plot points at certain times. I need this character to arc at this moment. My action/description can only do certain things, and if I’m going to use a device, I better just use one. Everything has to push the plot forward. Adding on top of that, the necessity (though I’m sure some will argue) to outline each script or build a bible with each pilot. There’s a clear process and boundaries with screenwriting, all of which help me focus my story.
What can I say, I was a kid who liked to color inside the lines.
When I sat down to write a novel, those boundaries didn’t exist. It is a pure freedom that I had never experienced. I know many writers love that, but that’s not my process. My process was stringent, and that stringency was gone.
Staring at the blank page, I was afraid for the first time. The freedom immobilized me. I struggled to hit five pages ... and then stopped.
Two months later, I tried again, rewriting what I had already written. I made it a few more pages ... and then stopped. For about six months, I went through this cycle until I realized it wasn’t working. So, I stopped writing and decided maybe it needed to be a script after all.
I haven’t written anything on that project, script or novel wise, since.
I had failed so spectacularly, but was determined not to fail again. So, I took an approach that I had done previously whenever I got stuck. When writer's block strikes, I take an old project and do a rewrite. It’s like a soft landing. I’m not creating something from scratch, so I can ease myself back into the creative process. That’s part of why I love rewriting. The heavy lifting is done, and now it’s just about execution.
As a perfectionist, that’s what I live for.
I took one of my pilots that I knew was in good shape and decided it could be turned into a novel—a loose Jane Austen adaptation. I borrow her characters and some tropes, blending them together, making this project a bit easier. But I still struggle. I know where it starts and ends. While the pilot isn’t going to get me through the whole book, I have a bible telling me where season one ends, hence where book one will end. I know the plot.
What is still tripping me up is the freedom that comes with this form of writing. I can add in as many devices as I want and take my sweet time in scenes.
I’m not rushing through the story, and in a way that scares me—taking my time goes against the process I have spent so many years developing.
I’ve worked more on this project than any previous one. A big part of that is because I have a blueprint, creating a chapter list as an outline, but I’m only starting to learn my process as a novel writer. After 10+ years of screenwriting, I had forgotten the fear I had in those first few scripts. Back then, I didn’t have a process or a plan—I was just a 22-year-old student, figuring it out in between the required courses of my undergraduate degree.
I don’t know if I was even fearful then. At that age, you feel invincible.
Now, at 34, that feeling of invincibility is gone. My previous writing process came so naturally, but it’s a process that may not work in this new medium. And I have to admit that conquering a new medium when I don't even remember how I conquered the previous one is terrifying.
This fear isn’t going to go away anytime soon. The fear will linger until I sort out my process, which isn’t something I can figure out overnight. Though fear gives me pause, and makes me hesitant to come back to the page, it won’t stop me. I have to keep going because I know some of my stories are better suited as a book.
I have to do right by those stories.
Maybe by this time next year I’ll have sorted through my process—and fears—and figured out what works best for me in terms of writing a novel.
The only way to know is to keep trying … or I could make “Writing Camp” a thing again.
*Feature photo by Min An (Pexels)