I wrote my first screenplay at 24. It was based on a book I read when I was in the third grade. THE SECRET OF CROSSBONE HILL, by Wilson Gage, followed the adventures of 12 year old David and his ten year old sister Kathy during the summer of 1959 when the two stumble on what they believe is pirate treasure in South Carolina. My teacher, Mrs. Knight, gave me the book after the class finished reading it. I still have the book in my library. When I decided to become a writer, I just knew THE SECRET OF CROSSBONE HILL was the book I wanted to adapt into a screenplay. I sent Wilson Gage (Mary Steele) a letter asking her for rights to the book and couldn’t have been more thrilled when, as an adult, the woman who wrote a book I must have read a hundred times when I was a kid, said yes.
I grew up passionate about movies. They were a great escape from a family life that was often tumultuous, so if I wasn’t reading, I was watching movies. Both seemed to keep my mother’s unpredictable temper at bay. I knew every Nancy Drew book by heart, could quote every line of dialogue from THE WIZARD OF OZ or THE COWBOYS verbatim, and dreamed, repeatedly, of the day the novel I would write when I got older was turned into an Academy Award winning film and I would take my place among the great screenwriters of our time.
Only, I didn’t understand structure, or theme or character arcs, so adapting a book where an author did the hard work of doing everything seemed like a great idea. I did an okay job – even sent the script to Nicole David, who was Drew Barrymore’s agent when Drew did E.T. But for years….and years….my scripts fell so far short of the mark I decided I wasn’t a writer after all and became an artist instead.
Art is immediate. People see it, and they either like it, or they don’t. And for a long time, people either liked my art, or they didn’t.
Writing was a different animal. I studied writing, and movies, and movies about writing and when I won an eight week screenwriting scholarship at the New York Film Academy I was thrilled, but also discouraged. By that point I’d been writing, off an on, for close to twenty five years. Movies seemed to be getting worse and my writing was getting a LOT better, but I still didn’t have an agent, and I was no closer to selling a screenplay than I was to getting run over by a car. Actually, getting run over by a car would have been easy by comparison. I’ve been throwing myself at the film industry for over thirty years now and every time Hollywood manages to dodge out of the way.
A few weeks ago, I used some of the grant money from the Sloan Foundation award to hire a script consultant to tear LUCKY 13 apart and help me put it back together again. Diane Drake is a successful screenwriter (WHAT WOMEN WANT, ONLY YOU), who teaches screenwriting at UCLA and wrote a book about screenwriting called GET YOUR STORY STRAIGHT. She shoved me, kicking and screaming, out of the box I’d built around LUCKY 13. It’s mortifying to think that after thirty years I STILL don’t know how to tell this story.
Only I do.
And that’s the problem.
I haven’t read THE SECRET OF CROSSBONE HILL in ages. But fifty years later, I can still remember every detail of the summer David Vance and his sister Kathy spent searching for pirate treasure.
For the past few days I let the characters I met thirty years ago – even though they are characters I created – start to tell me their stories as though I’d never met them before. And somewhere in there, with Diane’s help, I rediscovered the reason I fell in love with these girls to begin with.