When I was in college at Northwestern University, I asked Stuart M. Kaminsky the best way to break into screenwriting. His answer: write novels. (Nowadays, when adaptations comprise at least 50 percent of produced films, his advice rings just as true.)
In my case, he turned out to be right. Almost as soon as my first novel, The Between, was published in 1995, I got calls from producers—including Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks—who were interested in producing it as a film. It was eventually optioned for a year by Longbow Productions, which produced A League of Their Own. Then it stalled.
I got closer to the screen with my second novel, My Soul to Keep, which Blair Underwood optioned for three years before it was in development for seven years at Fox Searchlight. It once got so close to production that the studio exercised its option. (Translation: Instead of renting to own, they bought it outright.) “We will make this movie,” the studio president told me in the commissary one day.
After the rights to My Soul to Keep reverted to me last year in the midst of my mother’s long illness (and her death this past February), I weighed several options. I was tempted to option it to a producer and director I know and respect who wanted to pitch it as a television series.
Then I was offered a screenwriting class at Spelman College, where I am the 2012-2013 Cosby Chair for the Humanities, and I got an idea: Why not write a screenplay for My Soul to Keep?
I earned membership in the Writer’s Guild of American (WGA) based on an adaptation of my novel The Good House I wrote with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes. We developed the script with the production team that had brought My Soul to Keep to Fox Searchlight—Blair Underwood and Nia Hill and D’Angela Proctor of Strange Fruit Films. With Forest Whitaker attached to direct, we sold three drafts.
But, as with My Soul to Keep, it never got made. And in all of those years of development, I had never written my own adaptation of My Soul to Keep.
If you teach a subject you love, you know how the teaching experience can energize you, and I needed a boost of energy. Steve and I had developed a dramedy called Inauguration Day (a family drama centered around President Barack Obama’s inauguration), a horror script called The Pack, and pitched everything from an adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Patternmaster to a zombie television series we eventually wrote as our most recent novel, Devil’s Wake.
After years in Hollywood, hearing everything from “Do the characters have to be black?” to suggestions from producers that were so far afield that they sounded like kiss-offs (though never at Searchlight or from my own team), screenwriting came with a sting. As I told my screenwriting students on the first day of class, screenwriters can’t just self-publish a screenplay and expect people to read it as if it were poetry or prose. Screenplays need a major element—production, which can cost a fortune—to see the light of day. Beyond that, screenwriting is so collaborative that it’s a very different experience from writing a novel.
Because my screenwriting has been so speculative—and I needed to make a living—I haven’t written a screenplay since 2009.
But suddenly, a perfect storm.
I don’t have a novel under contract. I’m leading a class of eager screenwriters. We’re studying screenplays, talking to screenwriters and trading ideas. It’s the perfect laboratory for writing.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve barely written a word of fiction since my mother’s death, beyond the deadline heat to finish my latest suspense novel with Steve (and in partnership with Underwood), South by Southeast, which will be published this Sept. 18th.
But I am going to write a draft of My Soul to Keep. Probably three or four. Maybe five or six. Or twelve.
Steve is also a good influence on me. He has been developing a screenplay with a major producer over the past few months, and watching him work has inspired me. He’s on his third draft and still going strong.
But don’t expect me to post a writing diary and updates on this blog. This is the last time I plan to write about it. Too many writers spend precious time talking about our projects when we should be writing. Like Nike says, I’m going to Just Do It. (Journalism students, I’m also setting a blogging example, as you can see.)
The road is long between the decision to write a screenplay and the final project on the big screen—much of which is out of my control. But that’s show business.
As a twentysomething Miami Herald reporter who aspired to write novels, I had an idea for a book about a woman who discovers that her husband is a 500-year-old Ethiopian immortal. But when I sat at my keyboard to face the blank screen, fear paralyzed me. What made me think I could write such an ambitious story? What if I failed? The same fears haunt me now.
Now, as then, I recall words from the I Ching: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Students, let’s walk together.