Why? I’m not sure.
But in this quarantined time I found myself thinking about my writing projects that never saw the light of day.
I’m not counting the stack of never-published short stories and poems. Instead, I’m talking about the bigger projects that, at least while I was writing them, I thought might end up leaving the nest.
In some cases, they were projects that I threw myself into but never finished. Others were efforts that I finished — or, at least, seemed in somewhat finished form — but never reached an audience.
Even though their stories haven’t been told, perhaps the process for each — how they didn’t happen — has a story to tell.
So here goes.
1. There was the High School Screenplay whose title I don’t remember. I spend something like a year writing it (Keep in mind, this was pre-computer so, yes, typing) and it centered on, what else, a high school student. The core dilemma: What do you do when you find yourself not liking your best friend?
That still sounds like an interesting idea worth exploring. But I can’t rewrite that script because I loaned it to a friend to read. That friend, when going to his car, left it on the roof and started driving, sending pages flying all over the street near my school. Rather than try to round them up, he didn’t.
Yes, it was the friend who, in part, had inspired the story in the first place.
No, I didn’t have another copy.
Yes, I realize that it’s kinda similar to a plot point in “Wonder Boys.” But it happened.
I barely spoke to that friend through the rest of senior year. And beyond.
But at our fifth reunion — by which time I realized how bad the screenplay probably was — we hugged it out.
2. If you recognize the phrase “Folded Arms and History Books,” then you are probably a fan of Van Morrison. My novel of the same title has nothing to do, however, with “Madame George” or any of the other songs on “Astral Weeks” (as much as I love that album.
What does my college novel have to do with?
A college student, of course. He’s out of place during a holiday with his high school friends who opted out of higher education in order to move to Florida. While stranger-in-a-strange-landing there, he becomes involved in a mystery of sorts when one of his pals disappears.
It started as a short story written for a Temple U. English class and grew from there. When the Florida story idea reached what I thought was its end at novella length, I wrote an equal-sized section that took place earlier, back in his hometown. And then another that happened after, making it a three-parter with a different style in each.
I still have it somewhere in manuscript form but am kind of afraid to do a deep dive into it. I do appreciate my willingness to break form but I’m still not sure if my breaking form is an aesthetic or a crutch.
Then or now.
3. With “Rise Again,” I was, once again, lifting a lyric from a songwriter, this time Stan Rogers.
And, again, the play has little to do with the song. It tried to be a Bill Forsyth-esque oddball character play about a too-long-in-graduate school filmmaker who tries to make a documentary about a guy try to raise his sunken pleasure boat. There were good parts in it for Catherine O’Hara, John Heard, and Daniel Stern.
At least, I thought there would be. I never got further than a few scenes. Might revisit this one.
4. My friend Mindy believed strongly that we could collaborate on TV scripts. So we spent a few months writing ones for “Seinfeld” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.”
The closest we got to having them read was when she gave one to someone she thought was Seinfeld’s limo driver while Jerry was performing at a venue next to her apartment. Surprise: We never heard from him.
I appreciated the exercise in trying to write for that form. And since I have little memory of the specifics of the “Seinfeld,” I’ve entertained the idea of having a cold reading of it for a fundraiser for a theater company at some point. I’ll be the guy in the corner, cringing.
5. I had hopes for “The Giant Slide,” a young adult character-driven (I thought) thriller that I tried as both a screenplay and a novel. Troublemaking teen returns with her mother and younger brother to the town she grew up in. Alcoholic mom took the kids away from abusive dad years ago and, now that he’s dead, they are returning to take over the seedy hotel he ran. While trying to get the business up and running, taking care of her brother, and trying to make things normal for her brother, she discovers that her father was murdered and sets out to try to find out what happened.
In one week I got two rejections, one from a publisher saying that they loved the unique location (my first effort to write about Wildwood, NJ) but thought the plot was trite. The other thought the location was overly familiar but dug the plot. Such is the publishing life.
At one point, I thought about changing the villains to vampires.
But I did learn that I like writing female characters more than I like writing men.
6. “Nine Square Blocks” sort-of survived, albeit in very different form. It originally was my effort to write a modern Frank Capra screenplay with thriller and science fiction elements with a father/son story at the core.
Yes, I know…that again.
Flash forward and Eric Pfeffinger and I were kicking around ideas to follow up our novel, “The High-Impact Infidelity Diet,” which had sold to Random House. I showed him “Nine Square Blocks” and he said, “Let’s do this…only lets get rid of the characters, the plot, the location and the tone.”
What did he want to keep? The idea of characters whose neighborhood is trapped under an invisible dome (well before Stephen King gave it a shot).
The result was our unsold-novel-turned-produced-play “Midwestern Hemisphere.”
7. On Amazon.com, you can still find “Behind the Screen: The Big Lebowski.” You just can’t read it.
The book was written, the advance paid, the cover designed, and everything peachy…until the publisher went out of business.
It was a fun idea, exploring scene by scene every reference in the film.
My biggest regret here is that my very talented co-writer, Tim Farrell, didn’t get a published book to his credit.
8.”Anybody But Annie” was a heart breaker for me. About a quarter of the way into drafting this one, an editor at a publishing house expressed interest in it but wanted it shaped in a very different way.
Eager to please, I tried to write it to those specs but failed miserably. Rather than address the problem directly, I let the project drag out until it disappeared.
By that time, I had lost the drive of the original and that, too, faded away.
I’m just glad I had the chance to apologize to the editor who I still feel I failed.
I still dig the story, though. It’s about the rise of a young stage actress, taking her from production to production. But after losing her father, she refuses to play orphans.
9. My third novel attempt with Eric Pfeffinger was “Only You…and You…and You,” which explored the lives of a quartet of characters stumbling their way through unconventional relationships. By the time we finished it, though, our editor at Random House had moved on and the novel didn’t find a home there or elsewhere.
I later rewrote it as a play, but it has yet to see a full production. It did have some rollicking readings, though.
10. Sam Stall, who I have happily collaborated with on a number of book projects, partnered with me for “How to Win at Everything.” I still think it’s a solid manuscript but, after being paid for it, the publisher ran into problems with a distributor. The publisher still has the rights but we can get them back if there’s a publisher out there interested in taking a look. Anybody? Anybody?
I’m sure there are others I missed. If I think of them, I’ll add them.
How about you?
What do you have in the drawer, yet to reach the eyes of strangers?