SLEEPWALKERS from television to books.
In a recent discussion with my editor, I explained that I would, ideally, like to ditch my television work and be able to concentrate exclusively on books.
She laughed at this, pointing out that many writers are apparently trying to move in the opposite direction. I’m sure the biggest reason for this is financial, but I was still intrigued. Is this just a case of the grass being greener on the other side?
I know a bit about television. I’ve worked as a writer, script editor and producer for most of my career. I know virtually nothing about books. My first novel. SLEEPWALKERS, comes out in August. It’s a thriller and it’s based on a television idea that I couldn’t sell. I have had many of these, I can tell you, but this was the one where I kept thinking – no, you’re wrong. This is really good. This is a story worth telling. I guess I’ll find out if I was right over the next year or so.
What has struck me most about writing a novel rather than writing a script has been the similarities, not the differences. Sure, you obsess about different things (word count and repeated phrases on novels, ad breaks and swearing in tv…) but the notes I received from my editor were eerily similar to those I get from my producers. They’re couched in a different language but they’re often saying the same thing – is it clear to the audience/reader? Do I relate/empathise with this character? Is the opening ‘grabby’ enough etc. etc.? Now, of course, I’m working in commercial fiction and maybe the more refined realms of literary fiction don’t have the same rules but I have a sneaky suspicion that they do.
Should we be surprised? Not really. For a start, all great stories are engaging, accessible and universal. Of course, there will always be a Finnegan’s Wake to confuse matters but in general, what editors demand from their writers is original, entertaining material that has a real sense of an authorial voice. That is what I asked of scriptwriters when I was sitting on the other side of the desk as a producer, and I imagine this is still the case.
One big difference, for me, is about the pace with which you write. Television writing is a sprint compared to the grueling marathon of a book. I read somewhere recently that Jennifer Egan deliberately limits the amount of time she writes in a day because she needs to be able to continue to do so, week after week, year after year. In contrast, I received a text yesterday from my script editor about my latest project saying – "if we commission you now, when could you deliver?" The expected answer was less than three weeks. Three weeks of late nights and fevered typing. And for that, I’ll earn more than I’ll get for the eighteen months’ slog of my novel. And yet I still want to end up in books.
Why? I’m not entirely sure, as I love television. Sure, there’s some dross out there but in every field – lawyers, dancers, builders or chefs; take your pick – there’s only ever a few talents at the top who are really special. And I love the top TV writers’ work and I adore the way a television series can run for six years so that, by the end, you have a relationship with characters that is unmatched in any medium. But I also love not being able to decide for myself what Jack’s Ma looks like in Emma Donoghue’s incredible Room, and don’t think I would want to watch that perfectly implied horror were it transferred and made real, onto screen.
Many have said before that we have a special, personal relationship with the books we read. I have found that, as an author, I have a different relationship with the prose I write than the scripts I write. It’s not that I think one better than the other, more that I write scripts for actors and directors and expect them to take the script on a stage further and make it ‘real.’ There are plenty more notes and ‘compromises’ in script work too which means that you feel you are part of a joint-project and perhaps that is why people think that a novel is a more personal project than a script. I’m not sure I’ve felt that – the failure of a television series I wrote cut me deeply, even though I was well aware that its failings were shared by many. (Success has many authors, failure is an orphan…). But that said, the splendid isolation of many months with a novel does mean that you send your manuscript out a little more gingerly.
The key, perhaps, is that the characters in my scripts will eventually be owned by actors who will scrutinize them in far greater depth than I ever could. I am the architect of the whole story and the wonderful, forensic examinations that the actors do always amaze me and delight me. My book, however, has no one except the reader to take it further. And, for that, I feel a little more protective about my characters as they sit and wait for you on that bookshelf. Maybe this is a God complex, but I do think I love them a little bit more for it.
June 25th 2012
SLEEPWALKERS by Tom Grieves is published by Quercus on 2 August, hardback £16.99