Folks seem surprised, and a little distressed, to discover I've written a novel. Why? I wrote for The Simpsons. I wrote movies starring Drew Barrymore and Ben Stiller and Steve Martin and Daffy Duck! What possible reason could I have for putting words on paper bound in cloth, sold by homeless people on the streets?
My mother naturally assumed it was because I could no longer find real work. She worried, as she did when I left the television show to write movies, about health insurance. My friends figured I had gone a little crazier, or had finally figured out how empty and soulless Hollywood was. What my mother did not know, and please don't tell her, is that I can never find real work, until I do; and what my friends forget is that I was always pretty crazy and that I despised Hollywood before I got there, and so have been mostly pleasantly surprised.
Here's why I wrote a novel: Sarah made me.
I've always wanted to write one, of course. Or have written one. What prevented me from doing so until now is there was nothing stopping me from not writing it. There were also significant barriers. Novels are long. My first novel also needed to be better than Thomas Pynchon's V., and later at least as good as Don DeLillo's White Noise, and then as funny as Bruce Robinson's The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. I'm a reasonably industrious guy, but not the kind you find awake at 4 a.m. scribbling on legal pads for a few hours before leaving for his advertising job.
Then in the fall of 2005, I had this dream: I'm giving my high school graduation speech, but I veer off text and declare my love for a girl I had a crush on in the Seventh Grade. That's an idea for movie, I thought. I work up about a hundred pages of a script/outline and show it to my movie agent, who shows it to a couple of producers I've worked with. They all agree: it's
"too small" — Hollywood jargon explicitly meaning a character-driven story without a commercial hook, but can also mean they didn't like it;
"execution dependent" — a curious Hollywood concept that means that if it's not done well, it won't succeed. It's curious because it implies its opposite: that there are ideas that will sell well even if they're executed terribly. You've no doubt seen some of these movies, which is why they keep making them. Saying something is "execution dependent" can also mean they don't think you can execute it, or that they didn't like it;
"not castable." This means there's no part for Will Ferrell. Someone suggested that perhaps one of the characters who hangs out with the teenagers on graduation night could be a former graduate, with a nickname like "Wooderson" or "Tank" or something. I thought having a 35-year-old in the backseat of a teen sex comedy might alter the tone somewhat.
Nobody thought they could sell it. I Love You, Beth Cooper was dead.
Then I received an email from Sarah Burnes, a literary agent at the Gernert Company. I had met her a couple months earlier, and had promised her I would write a novel. She wanted to know where it was. I sent her the ILYBC outline, saying that I had wasted my time on this instead. She called me a couple days later, and said, "This is a novel." And more importantly, "I can sell this."
I wrote a hundred sample pages, which took me only 20 pages into my outline. She sent it out, and folks were interested. I arrived in New York on a Monday in March 2006 to meet with book publishers, and got a call from my film agent. Everybody in Hollywood had the 100 pages and wanted to talk about making it into a movie.
We sold the book to Lee Boudreaux at Ecco Press, who was the only editor to offer me a Diet Coke. (One publisher told me I could have water, either hot or cold.)
I had to actually write a novel.
As you might imagine, this is a bit harder that writing a screenplay. I have some experience writing prose, but the longest piece of fiction I had written to that point was about 5,000 words, and awful. Fortunately, though, I had a deadline, and I am much better at doing that.
My original outline changed in myriad ways as it unfolded on the page; the characters deepened, and their complicating relationships changed the course of the original story. The book also became a commentary on the very movie I was going to write, which I now realize would not have been great.
I never had as much fun writing something.
So now I've written a novel.
Oh, and we've sold it to the movies. I found real work after all.
GRATUITOUS PLUG: I have a humor piece in the New Yorker today — and it's interactive! The piece is a website devoted to wedding plans of one particularly ambitious bride, crammed with links both real and fabricated: to her blog; to a new movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lopez; to a site on how to treat stab wounds. Once you've bought the magazine and read the story, go to gwynnanddavesharetheirjoy.comand poke around (You need to read the story first, or the website won't make sense). You can also read the story for free online, but where's the fun in that?
Books mentioned in this post
Larry Doyle is the author of I Love You, Beth Cooper