It’s now been exactly 30 years since I got a story idea that still occupies much of my creative heart. I wrote this blog post to show how long it sometimes takes for a story to reach its moment, its fullest potential, and how to never give up.
I was 14 and waiting outside my violin teacher’s driveway, waiting for my mom to pick me up after a lesson (a rare week when she was late, likely running errands). The next student had already arrived and entered. For those few extra minutes as I stood in the driveway, I got an idea for a tense scene between a teen violinist and her older instructor.
Around that scene I found myself building a story — around this girl, who I called Kate. A violinist like me, but British, from 1940’s Somerset, and one who would go much farther than I would in the instrument.
Out of a childhood both sweet and tragically difficult, Kate would emerge and become a world-class performer.
Around Kate I built a core group of characters: her temperamental brother, Neil, a pianist; her best friend, Anne, a cellist; her great love, Colin; and other friends. They would meet at conservatoire in London in 1959 and stay there into the tumultuous early 1960’s, when the British rock invasion, Vietnam and so many other changes transform their lives.
We would follow Kate, Neil and their circle for the next thirty years, their careers and loves, their heartbreaks and triumphs, onstage and offstage, across the world.
I spent the next year or so outlining this story, which I knew had to be on screen — it had to be visual, aural, given the storyline about musicians whom I often showed performing, auditioning, practicing, competing. I thought it should be a screenplay. But I was distracted — around this time I also had started writing stage plays, and began training in acting at the Old Globe.
Four years went by, and I was now in my freshman year at Stanford. In between all the other homework, adjustments, and my first stage play being produced (another topic entirely), I found myself drawn to this ‘musician’ story again, and in the wee college-hours after homework, pizza and hallway conversations, I snuck into the computer room with all the Apple II’s and wrote my first screenplay, of Kate and Neil’s story, calling it The Last Ovation.
It was crap. Absolute crap. But at least it was finally down on paper. I tinkered with it but didn’t do much else through the four years of college, because I was doing all the other things college students do, and writing other plays which were getting produced.
Jump to age 24: two years after graduating Stanford and now 10 years since I first got the idea. I was in Armenia, teaching English to college students and taking Armenian immersion classes, and touring the country of my forefathers. You’d think my mind would be solely on my culture, my faith, my family, and largely it was.
Except this idea came back like a tornado while I was abroad, and I couldn’t get away from it. I outlined an expanded version of the story, and when I got back from Armenia, I spent the rest of that summer writing a six-part, six-hour, television miniseries — the expanded story of violinist Kate, her pianist brother Neil, and their circle of music school friends in 1960’s-1990’s London — some British, some American. I called it The Conservatory. (See my blog post Stories in Storage, Re-Discovered).
I applied to and received approval to travel to London to further research and refine the script and its historical background in depth, at the British Library.
Truly a glorious and unforgettable time. I planted myself there in the Round Reading Room for more than a solid week, straight, also visiting the great conservatoires of the city, though I would eventually use a fictional name, the Royal School of Music. The ‘final’ script, all six episodes, came out to more than 300 pages, revised dozens of times over, who knows how many thousands of pages.
Through some of my writing/publishing contacts I got the script into the hands of a very well-known film and theater producer in London. I also got it to the agent of a BAFTA-winning actress for whom I envisioned and wrote the lead part. She liked it and wanted to see what happened with it. But the big producer (and others, later) dismissed it for similar reasons:
“Miniseries are not original. They’re based on something: a bestselling book, a famous historical figure! You know — Roots! The Thorn Birds! Masterpiece Theater!”
I had to believe a great miniseries was possible without being based on a book — especially when the story has a great historical backdrop. But of course this is before original series like Bramwell came on ITV/PBS (still two years away) — and a full 15 years before Downton Abbey. I’d like to think I was anticipating a trend of original miniseries not based on famous books — and the trend of mingling British and American characters and plotlines.
But for then, the answer was no.
And the other suggestion was: “Write it as a book instead.”
So I did. But not right away. Life, other theater productions, friendships, community work, dating — lots of other things took hold for the next several years.
Five years later, I got married, in 2000, and moved from LA back to my native San Diego. I wrote and produced/directed other plays for theaters in SoCal during this time. Blessed with a season of not having to work outside the home (but still editing and freelance writing), I took the ‘advice’ to heart from a few years prior and decided to write the story as a novel, my first. I titled it The Music We Made.
Thousands of pages of revision later, I had an amazing experience of discipline, longevity and going deeper into the story and characters I had already loved for 16 years at that point. Just when you think there can’t be anything new, right? But it gave me unexpected insight to dive into the characters thoughts’ and musical processes in narrative form more than a script could allow — especially during performance scenes, where musicians’ minds and hearts race all over the place. New scenes and situations found their way into the story — other minor characters and plot lines formed. The experience gave my story and characters new life and richness. I kept working on it for the next four years.
In 2004, the 20-year-point since getting the original idea, I tried getting the novel published and largely got the same two answers from several agents or editors:
- Gosh, if only it were nonfiction, based on a true story — then I could sell it!
- We could tell you’re a playwright/screenwriter — too much dialogue and too fast-moving.
But my ‘beta’ readers at the time couldn’t put it down and wanted more. So go figure. But then our first child came, as did other play commissions and projects. More life. A few more years went by.
Since I created new scenes and situations for the novel, I soon went back to incorporate the changes into the original television script version. Revisions I’m still working on now.
When our second child arrived, all hell broke loose in terms of finding time. Time? Time?? In those first couple years of managing life (and a few other paid writing gigs for theaters), the project had to wait.
But not for long. As our youngest turned three, I found a little more room to breathe, and found myself, my heart, my mind, again returning to this story — this, my love letter to classical music, my valentine to musicians.
After two more years of work, I completed the novel and worked with a professional editor. My final title, Bravura.
But I decided that the story, the characters, had to continue beyond the one novel/script. So I decided to create a novel series, called “The Music We Made” series, to continue the story of Kate and Neil Driscoll and their circle of friends and family. This past year I wrote the second novel of the series, Appassionato, and outlined the third novel, Cadenza, following the next two generations of Driscoll family musicians, in London and across the world. As hard as it is to pound out 100,000 words a pop, the process has stretched and thrilled me like few others have.
Now, with our youngest daughter age five, and a full 30 years since I first got the idea in the driveway of my violin teacher’s house, I’m also finally completing the revision of the television series adaptation, with the guidance of an industry professional I supremely trust. It has become a long-form series, not a miniseries, with new twists and turns, and I’m growing again by leaps and bounds on the continuing journey of this idea.
Ironically, two decades after writing the original script and getting it to the original actress I admired for the lead, we’ve become friendly chatters on Twitter, following each other and DM-ing about each others’ lives, now farther along into life and motherhood. Who would have known. When the time is right, I hope to re-introduce the project to her. Perhaps now she can play the main character a bit later in life, in the second novel/series. Who knows what’s in store.
If the idea had not kept resurfacing time and time again, I wouldn’t have gone back to it. I have so many other projects going on. But this one does not go away. It feels like one of the big passion projects of my life, a story I have to tell — and to tell in a way that incorporates, finally, every single part of who I am (see my blog post How My Faith and My Art Fit Together.)
And even if my story doesn’t find its readers, or viewers, for another 30 years — or for another 300 — I’ve written it and will get it out there. And I will not stop with it until it reaches its fullest potential while I’m here. The rest I leave to God — the story will find the right audience.
Bravura will be released on Kindle on October 15, 2014 and in paperback soon after. It can be pre-ordered here. Next’s week blog will feature the opening chapter. You can also watch the book trailer, below.
Do you have an idea that’s stayed with you a long, long while and won’t let go? Then never, ever give up on it.
[Book Trailer music credit: Anne-Sophie Mutter with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic — Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, 3rd Movement.]