I started writing for one simple reason: it was the only way to deal with the stories in my head.

I woke up one morning, for instance, and there was a pilot in my head. What was more annoying was that I already had a pilot for that series, carefully planned and plotted out. I’d had the scenario outlined for almost two years, beginning as a novel and then morphing into a treatment, and thought I knew what I wanted to do with it. But here was a story, much cooler and more accessible than anything I’d made in my waking life. I didn’t even dream it, it was just … there, one morning.

As soon as I woke up, I had to jump out of bed and write it down. As my wife is my witness, I never get out of bed in a hurry unless there’s a disaster, like cats fighting or a diaper that needs changing or some drunk trying to break into the apartment because he thinks it’s his own.

Working on the treatment, I was trying to make sure that things happened because they had to happen, not just because I had a plot I wanted to follow or a protagonist I wanted to glorify. All my creations lived and suffered in the fate I’d made for them. They had very little choice. That seems to have scared the hell out of me, at some level, because a few months later, I had a nightmare. Actually, it was a nightmare within a dream. The nightmare was a movie, which gave way to a dream in which I tried to explain this weird movie to my friends, as if I’d just seen it.

There are nightmares, and then there are nightmares. By the latter, I mean the kind that make you, dear rational reader, get up and check around doors, sit up and turn on a light. Wake your mate.  This was one of those. There were lines that echoed in my head. As I wrote them down, I began to realize what they were talking about, and I was even more terrified. This shit came out of me. What the fuck is wrong with me? As I pieced together why a simple walk down a hospital corridor was supposed to be so terrifying, I managed to completely freak myself out. Now I know why, and would wish I didn’t if I weren’t exploiting it for a script.

Where did this come from?

I remember almost all of my nightmares. In fact, I remember nightmares from before the point where I have “complex episodic memories” of my own childhood. I recall entering a dilapidated house, in a nightmare I had when I was two or three, where the walls were hung with paintings, some of which were alive and trying to get off the wall. But the most terrifying of them all was a simple color. A solid panel. That’s when I woke up screaming. I remember another dream in which I was outside the apartment where we lived in 1974 and one of the characters from H. R. Puff ‘n Stuff walked up the stairs with a hatchet. I could hear the cartoon character hacking my mother to death well clearly that, in her dying moments, I knew that she thought her assailant was me.

After I’d worked on the script for a while, with its nonsensical working title provided by a dream, I slowly grasped why I’d had this nightmare. I say “slowly,” because I resisted the truth of it. The nightmare/movie was an inversion of the TV treatment I had been working on for a few months. I had, while asleep, put the human race through an experience analogous to the backstory for the one extraterrestrial species that was to figure in the first two years of story arc. A cannibal holocaust, patterned after James Cooks’ death in the Philippines, as seen from a bottom-up perspective like Cloverfield.

Apparently, I’d been scaring the hell out of a part of myself that I keep forgetting is there. After working on nightmarish material, with the express purpose of scaring the shit out of a TV audience, my subconscious cowriter had written back a note saying, more or less, “thanks for all the trauma, now fuck you very much.”

Message received and understood.

So now I’ve reached the point where I need to reconsider writing for the screen at all. The acid test for screen writing used to be that if music was the most important concomitant, the idea went into courier and was intended for the screen, preferably small. But if smell was an important means of exposition and characterization, then into the novel file it went. Which was more demanding? So far, I’d say screenwriting, and not just because of the formatting. In screenwriting, you have to learn to direct on paper (which you’ve probably never done in real life) enough to make the story visual enough for the reader, but without stepping on the director’s toes or those of your actors. If you have to write REVERSE ANGLE all the time, your plot isn’t clear. If you have to add “(sarcastic)” to a line, your dialogue probably needs a new approach.

But the more I look at TV, and the more I read about the difficulties of media companies, the more I’m convinced this is a dumb way to go, even if TV is going to be an important means of escape in a contracting economy. Think of it this way: you are trying to convince people to throw money at a project, and then more money, so that still more people can stay up all night getting the scene right, and then again when it’s re-written, in the hopes that enough people will want to watch it that they’re likely to be exposed to TV advertising, despite their best efforts, so that there will be more money coming back to the first people with the money.

Alternately, you could convince a smaller group of people that readers will want to read your story, and will pay for dead trees in order to do so. Dead trees go out the door, some of the money trickles back to you.

Which seems like a more stable business model to you?

I thought I could justify writing for the screen for the same reason I used to be a musician: I was creating the stuff I wanted to experience, since no one else was. But there is a reason you don’t like what you see on TV, and there’s a reason it’s hard to find music you can give a shit about (until lately, thank you, Long Tail): the industry is part of the medium in the same way that many instruments “accoustically couple” with the player, or the way that rock ‘n roll would have been impossible without broadcast compressors and analog tape’s harmonic distortion. Pace, Marshall McLuhan, but the industry is the medium.

Almost ten years ago, I was surprised when a friend sat me down and practically forced me to watch Hush. Why was she making me watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I thought she was intelligent and well-read. By the time the credits rolled, my perception of TV had changed, I thought, for good. Look what you can do with this medium. You can speak on more than one level at once and have fun while doing it. Amazing! TV is a literary medium!

But this was misleading. Joss Whedon’s struggles with his instrument are legendary, and I am no one.

Novels it is, then, I think. Nightmares work better in novels.

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