Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Screenwriter Turned Novelist

by Ernessa T. Carter

I find it particularly funny that we're talking about Hollywood this cycle, because I live in Los Angeles. A little over seven years ago, I came out here with plans to become a screenwriter. I had even spent two years getting a hard won MFA in Dramatic Writing with the intention of eventually becoming a screenwriter.

"So what happened?" you ask. Good question. Well,  have you ever really, really thought that you wanted a particular job, only to find out that your personality and work ethic isn't particularly well-suited to that job?

I don't like to network. I don't like to talk about my writing with someone who hasn't actually read my writing. I don't like to work hard on things that might never be seen by other people. I love receiving feedback -- from a few people. Feedback from a ton of people gets on my nerves. Being told what to do by the talent makes my head explode. I have a good personality, but I don't want to depend on it to get a job.

Warning flags should have gone up in my head the summer before my second year of grad school when I read two stories fairly close together in which my two favorite head writers at the time, Alan Ball and Joss Whedon told horror stories about being staffed on shows where the talent was in charge (Grace Under Fire and Roseanne respectively). I remember thinking  that I could never deal with being mistreated by "a star."

I found out later that I was right. Hollywood has a reputation for being ego driven, but I've never in my life met so many people who are okay with being tyrannized by stars, producers, directors, and other big personalities. If you are really talented, have a small ego, and are okay with being told what to do, then you should come out to Hollywood. You could make a lot of money out here.

If you are like me, someone who likes people well enough, but prefers to work alone, and really, really doesn't like to be bossed around, then maybe you should be a novel writer. So I made the switch, which wasn't particularly difficult, because before I started writing my first novel, my attempts at a screenwriting career had tapered off to entering one or two prestigious screenwriting contests every year.

I love being a novelist. I like working with a small team. And I really love not having to depend on my personality to sell my writing -- to sell books yes -- but to sell my writing itself, no. And I love, love, love being my own damn boss.

But strangely enough, working in Hollywood first made it way easier to navigate the literary world. Some writers complain about editor and agent notes. I'm just ecstatic that I'm only getting notes from two really well-qualified people. No one yells at me in the literary world. I never get in trouble with the boss. I don't have to deal with the talent if I don't want to. In many ways I am the talent, except I don't have to wear makeup, be on 24/7 or stay on a diet to keep my job. My editor will never make me take a note or ask me to go on a coffee run. My publisher can refuse to buy my next book, but they can never ever fire me. Living without the fear of getting fired is just the best. I really don't think writers appreciate that enough.

So yes, I'm am Team Novelist all day. But I'll admit that every so once in a while, I read a great book, and I can't help myself: I start turning it into a screenplay in my head. I think about how to make the novel's interior passages visual, what plot points to cut out, and who would play who. Then I remember, "Wait, Ernessa, you're not a wannabe screenwriter anymore. Stop that." I get the feeling that though I've quit screenwriting, screenwriting hasn't necessarily quit me. But we'll see.

How about you guys? Have you ever had a dream job that you really thought you wanted, but then it turned out that you weren't a good match? Sound off in the comments!

In addition to running FierceandNerdy.com, Ernessa T. Carter is the author of 32 CANDLES, which is totally worth picking up at your local bookstore or at Amazon.com

Flickr image credit: Profound Whatever 


  1. I wanted to be a lawyer since as long as I could remember. As a kid, I'd argue cases for my brother and myself in front of my parent, and as I got older, there was no question I'd be going to law school.

    I graduated, passed the bar, and then got a job at one of the most prestigious law firms in Manhattan. And then a funny thing happened: I was miserable.

    It was then that I started pursing my other dream-- to write books!

  2. Brenda, I went to law school and I LOATHED it. There's quite a few lawyers who are now writers.

    Ernessa, I LOVED this post. I like hearing all those inside Hollywood tidbits. It didn't occur to me that screenwriters were so mistreated. Glad you're a novelist now.It suits me too. I was a special ed teacher for several years and I didn't really have the patience for it.

  3. Every so often my husband shows me an interview from a newspaper or a business magazine where the interviewee (usually a successful business executive) confesses their dream career: fiction writer. I have an MBA and worked as a commerical loan officer (VP) in a super regional bank for nine years. Fiction writer was my dream back then. Somebody pinch me!...

  4. From age 10 thru sophomore year of college I thought I wanted to be a psychologist. Then I really thought about it.

  5. @Brenda aLawyer was my fallback job when I started pursuing my degree, then I dated three different lawyers, and I knew that field would never be for me.

    @Karin Let me point out that screenwriters aren't necessarily mistreated. Many of them would point out that they make a lot of money and get to touch way more people than I ever will. It really is a personality thing. Not everyone needs to be completely in charge of their stories, and those are the people who make great screenwriters.

    @cindysjones I still have a vague plan on to get an MBA someday. I find business fascinating and think I might have been good at it in another lifetime.

    @Lauren My mom had the EXACT same story. She was three years into a degree before deciding to switch to accounting.

    @Carleen Hahaha! I was just thinking the same thing the other day! And I have to admit that I had to stop writing the OM&H screenplay in my head quite a few times while reading it.

  6. Ernessa-loved the post! I've done other things and always come back to novel writing. I've been looking into scriptwriting and pilots, so your post was very timely for me. I would think your experience would work well with novel writing. And I hear ya--on being your own boss! That's me too. Enjoyed your comments!

  7. Yeah I'm a little chagrinned now, b/c I started out wanting to write novels when I was a kid, and now everything else seems like avoidance of my one true path.

  8. This was great to read. Working in LA and being in "the biz" always sounds amazing and glamorous, but like you, the reality of it would never suit the way I am and the way I prefer to work.

    Kudos for chucking that life for your current one. As many of us know, it ain't easy!

  9. Hahaha, well it was way easier for me since I wasn't succeeding at it. But I would like to believe that even if I had made it onto a table, I would have eventually wanted to write my own stories.