The dwindling market for original screenplays in Hollywood has left aspiring screenwriters looking to the literary market to find an audience for their stories. But the process of adapting from a screenplay into a novel presents unique storytelling issues that have yet to be formally addressed.

This blog is the product of a year-long partnership between Jon James Miller, an award-winning screenwriter, and Charlotte Cook, publisher at KOMENAR Publishing, to develop one of Jon's award-winning scripts into a publishable novel.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Final Cut: How Film Editing Made Me A Novelist (Jon)

One of the first things I learned in film school was parallel film editing. Two strips of film on which you have an A-story and a B-story (or, an action shot and a reaction shot). For instance, on the first strip you have an image of a Pilgrim raising, aiming and firing his rifle. On the second strip of film, you have a pheasant flying through the air, then dropping to the ground dead. Intercutting these two strips of film creates an action (Pilgrim shooting) and a reaction (Pheasant getting shot and dropping out of the sky). A very simple story, but a story nonetheless. The technique is so common, that the film audience has taken it for granted. Only when a filmmaker doesn’t follow the rules, will the illusion of the hunting scene be broken. Virtually every modern narrative film employs this editing technique to create a story.

My screenplay “Garbo’s Last Stand” has an A-story and a B-story, which I’ve written about in previous blogs. Seth is in the present, telling James about when he (Seth) met Garbo on an ocean liner 70 years in the past. If I were the Director shooting the scene in Seth’s apartment and only had one camera, my first camera set-up might be shooting Seth talking (action) first, then pivoting the camera and shooting all of James’s listening (reaction) shots. Later, in the editing bay I would edit these two strips of film together to create the illusion that Seth and James are having a conversation in real or continuous time. If I speak film language fluently and flawlessly, the audience will be unaware that the two men were shot at different times. In film terms, the audience’s suspension-of-disbelief will remain intact.

When I set about adapting “Garbo’s Last Stand”, the screenplay to the novel, I unconsciously employed my film editing instincts and knowledge of basic film language to translate my story. Other than switching what was originally the A for the B story, I chose to tell my novel in an alternating first-person narrative by chapter: A Seth (action) chapter, followed by a James (reaction) chapter, and so on. I had adopted a film-editor mentality to adapt my screenplay and construct a compelling story structure for the novel. What I would only realize much later, is that the diegesis, or, story-world, in film is intrinsically different from the diegesis in narrative fiction. Characters are, after all, not strips of film and can’t be edited together in the same way to tell a story in a novel. But film language and novel writing, in many ways, have a lot of commonalities. And characters in a scene, especially in a dual first-person narrative, record moments much like a film camera does.


Director Stanley Kubrick said: "I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of film making. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit."

I never imagined my education as a filmmaker would have such an impact on my foray into novel writing. I knew only what it meant to be a Director of a film. So, I viewed myself as the Director and my two, first-person narrators as highly-specialized cameras recording the story. Cameras could record all the external action, as well as notice and record the inner disturbances of the being they personified. But each character has different sensitivities and internal measuring devices.

As a director, I could put characters in a situation and watch how they responded based on their prior experiences, upbringing, relationships – everything I knew about them before they came to the scene at hand. If I let them respond and record those internal and external responses, I knew that the “film” they produced could later be edited together into a compelling story using my foundation in the language of film. Even then, the results would surprise me. Thinking of my story as a film and how a film is produced gave me, the newbie novelist, a point of reference with which to move forward. I would follow this path I knew and see how far it took me.


As the Director of my film, it is up to me to interpret what the screenwriter’s intentions are on the page of the script. And, if these cues aren’t on the page, as is the case more times than not, I could use the script as a departure point in creating the story-world the characters will inhabit and where the story will actually unfold over time. But I’m adapting my own screenplay. So I knew exactly what my intentions were on the page. The words themselves became mnemonic devices, or placemarks, for remembering the emotional context of the characters and the story at any given point.

A screenplay, however, is like a good demi-glace. It’s been reduced down to essentials. I knew I had to reconstitute the story with all the ingredients necessary to make a wonderful soup of characters, setting, tension, plot, etc. And dialogue, my strength as a screenwriter, needs to be animated to give it life. Dialogue with attitude is the all-important spice to the soup. Without attitude, everything would be bland. No one would enjoy the meal. I’d be wasting the readers time as well as my own.


To writers, a first draft means you want to get the story down, then see what you’ve got. The same is true for Directors and Principal Photography. The advantage a writer has over a director is that film is expensive, or at least used to be, whereas paper and ink are not (or at least not used to be). But with the mind movie I was producing, I could afford to let my two characters – as elaborate cameras – record their brains out. Fitted with a special filter (their own biases, attitude, agenda), they could “burn” as much mental celluloid as they wanted.

This is, however, where a lot of writers and directors get into trouble. If they let characters run the show, filming will never stop. At some point, the director of his own mental movie has to yell, “CUT!” and move on to the editing (or rewriting) phase. Letting your characters run amok is an ugly waste of time and can ruin an otherwise worthy production. Writers and directors must enforce their authority over the story and make everything about the story. Staying on story, recording true action scenes (scenes that move the main character’s arc forward) is the single most important responsibility of a writer/director in this phase of production. And it will pay off with major benefits later.


A lot of writers hate rewriting and revising, but I love it. When you begin to refine and polish, you bring out the beauty of a well-constructed story and let it sing with the same rhythms and cadence to the reader. I loved editing in film school, too. The rigors of principal photography behind you, you sat down in a dark room with a flatbed editing bay and started reviewing the raw footage. Editing my first novel was the same experience.

The first draft of a novel is the same as a big bin of film strips, full of hidden treasures that become more than the sum of their individual parts once assembled. A movie and a novel have so much in common in this way. And parallel film editing was the key to my initial approach.

Daniel Arijon writes in Grammar Of The Film Language: “The task of relating two story lines, or two characters, or two events, or a larger number of story lines, characters and events, is assigned to parallel film editing. These types of parallel film editing could be defined as follows:

  1. The lines of interaction are close together, in the same space.
  2. The lines of interaction are far apart, in different places, and only a common motivation provides the link.

Interrelating two story lines in a parallel pattern gives them a mutual dependence, since the

average film viewer has been conditioned to expect such a response from this combination.”

Action and reaction shots – the building blocks of the cinematic language. The juxtaposition of images to create contrast and therefore drama. I knew these elements back in Film School, but it took me years and years of study to understand what modern movie watchers know by instinct. They know when a movie works, because it captivates them and makes them keep watching and wondering what’s going to happen next. A Director knows when to cut a scene, trim it down to the shortest amount of frames to increase the tension and drama by not overstaying his/her welcome. Now, I’ve learned the same is true in a novel. Getting in and out of scenes before they wear on the reader’s patience is paramount to effective storytelling.

Of course, many techniques the film maker employs don’t translate to words, and vice versa. But as the director/writer, your main job is to get the story out as succinctly as possible. Weighting scenes through the eyes of your main character is the same for film or novels. Whether you’re splicing together a POV (POINT OF VIEW) shot with a reaction shot in film, or, your PON (POINT OF NARRATION) Pilgrim is feeling how proud he is after shooting that pheasant with which to feed his hungry family – images or words – it’s the combination of elements brings about the story. The combination and the steady hands of the writer/director make the audience/reader confident and secure in the momentum of the story.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Setting: Make Your Own Reality (Jon)

Every writing teacher has said to know my strengths as a writer: “Knowing your strengths will help you overcome your weaknesses.” My particular strength is dialogue. My particular weakness is setting. I never understood how the former was going to help me with the latter. Never saw a connection whatsoever between the two. Then one day I realized what dialogue and setting had in common: Character.

When I was around six, my father took my twelve-year-old brother Tom and me to a carny in New Jersey. Not a circus, mind you, but a CARNY. Circuses are full of animals, some clowns and cotton candy. A carny is a traveling freak show. Going to a carny was like going to a family reunion. But I digress.

My brother and I were two introverted spectacled intellectual children whose idea of a good time was drawing for hours listening to the Star Wars soundtrack. Thrust into a world of sun-baked carny rides housed within death-trap double-wides operated by miscreants who drank and snorted their breakfast was not our idea of fun. More like hell. Needless to say, we were terrified.

Dad shoved my brother and me into a line marked “Haunted House.” My brother, ever the cautious one, used me as a human shield and let me go first. I stood my turn in line, my brain busy trying to process why it was called a house when in actuality it was a trailer truck with wheels. I wore green, corduroy overalls that day and, when our time arrived, Tom used my suspenders like reins, steering me into the dark chasm while dad gnawed the end of a Dutch Master cigar, laughing and smoking it up behind us.

The moment I was inside the pitch-black trailer, I freaked. I broke my reins and ran into the darkness screaming bloody murder. THWACK! My head connected with a wall. To my right a fish tank containing a bright pink skull lit up. I instinctively turned to my left and ran CRACK! into another wall. Another fish tank and skull lit up. Turn, THWACK, repeat.

By the time I saw daylight again, my overalls were down around my ankles, my underwear was bunched up my ass and a bump on my head had grown to the size of an ostrich egg. I cried for my mom, too young to realize I’d been scarred for life by that day at the carny. No different than a family reunion.

What the hell does the above story have to do with setting? For me, everything. When I first started writing seriously, I used to write myself into corners. I had no idea where my characters were in time and space. They’d smack right up against walls I didn’t even know were there. Just like I had back in the haunted dump truck. Except no skulls lit up.

A writer has to know where characters are before you or your characters know where to go. That said, character and setting are not mutually exclusive because they both co-exist in service to the story. Now let’s add dialogue.

Characters initially present themselves to me through lines of dialogue. Within the dialogue, I can discern what kind of character they are, what they look like and sometimes a clue as to where they’ve come from. But only recently did I realize that if I listened closer, they would tell me where they were when speaking to me.

Dialogue in a screenplay doesn’t have tags. You know who’s speaking because the CHARACTER NAME is above the line. PARENTHETICAL DIRECTION, the line placed between CHARACTER and DIALOGUE lines to describe what the character is doing or who they are addressing when they speak, is and should be a rarity. That’s up to the director and actor. But in novels, it’s imperative that tags be used to identify who is speaking, where they are (i.e. SETTING) and what they’re doing. That’s up to you, the writer, to tell the reader.

Setting is not something a fiction writer can afford to be sparse or vague with. Setting describes the character as much and as well as dialogue can. Remember, setting in a story is site specific for a reason. A richly rendered and accurate setting adds credibility to the writer so the reader knows they are in good hands. And what characters in the setting are doing while they are speaking can often illuminate what they are feeling when they speak.

Consider a character furiously hitting the table with his fist, screaming profanities while seated in a fine restaurant during the lunch rush. These actions will not only produce loud SOUNDS, but also VISUAL ECHOES reverberating and reflecting throughout the physical and emotional state they inhabit. Putting this action in the tag will heighten the reader’s appreciation for where the character is mentally as well as physically. How they are interacting with their physical environment gives the reader an added dimension to how they are feeling internally. What kind of material the table is made of (i.e. metal or wood) will produce a different sound, as will the china table setting, the walls, windows and furniture surrounding the character. Then you have the other patrons and how they react to consider. This rich detail will make the reader feel they are in the room with the character and be ever more emotionally invested in the outcome.

All characters, like real people, exist within a three-dimensional world. A writer needs to discover and reveal that space with as much detail as necessary to convey what kind of world the character inhabits. And when all three story elements – character, dialogue, setting – work in concert, a reader doesn’t have to work as hard to understand where the story is set and where it is going.

Setting is what grounds us all in reality, so it must be present in fiction, albeit a fictional reality. If not, the reader will just stumble around in the dark until they hit a wall, or, even scarier – they throw your book at one in frustration.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

James: Character Evolution From Script to Novel (Jon)

During the next couple of blog entries, I’m going to explore how my characters fared in their jump from script to novel. I daresay some of them were surprised in how the transition from one art form to another altered their standing, even their relationships with one another. For example the main character in “Garbo’s Last Stand,” the screenplay, was always Seth, the ambitious, cynical young tabloid reporter ready to cash in on a captive Garbo aboard the Swedish Merchant Vessel The Kungsholm.

In the screenplay version, James Pressman is a late twenty-something nobody living in Los Angeles, trying to make his Hollywood dream a reality. He’s spent five years toiling away in indentured servitude to Martin, a scumbag producer of cable docs by day, soft-core internet porn by night. Desperate for a coveted co-producer credit, James convinces Martin to travel across the country on the promise of an exclusive story about movie goddess Greta Garbo. But Seth, an old and dying tabloid reporter with the greatest untold story of the twentieth century, has something else in store for him.

James was part of the wraparound, or B-story of “Garbo’s Last Stand,” the script. A present day character meant to be a counterpoint to Seth, the old man telling the 70-year old story of Greta Garbo’s finest off-screen moment. A device to lead contemporary audiences by the hand into a previous era, where World War II loomed and Garbo reigned in glorious black & white. James’s plight bookended the larger, grander story of Seth’s life, told from the old man’s deathbed.

James’s character arc in the script was in keeping with his “screen time.” By the end of the movie he’s grown, but only in as much as his interaction with Seth has set his life on a new course. His emotions were limited to wonder, excitement, anger and sadness. His backstory was vague at best. The audience discovers the truth with James. Seth’s story is true. Then James can finally realize his Hollywood dream on his own terms. This was James’s climax in the script. I would find out later, his epiphany in the novel went a lot deeper.

When I first considered adapting the screenplay into a novel, I thought I’d drop James. Novels, unlike screenplays, can be set in another era and readers don’t necessarily have to be reminded what relevance the story has to today’s movie audience. In a novel, Seth could tell his story directly to the reader. No need for a wraparound, or bookend, at all. Simple, right?

Then I realized James was in the script for a reason other than giving a contemporary audience a point of reference. He had more to offer than that. A lot more. So much more that he ended up being the Main Character. But for him to ascend to a main character, I’d have to explore James’s world more fully than I ever had for the screenplay. Who was James and why the hell should anyone care about him? Least of all a dying old reporter who he’d just upstaged by becoming the main character of the novel.

Charlotte thought James had potential as the main character of the novel. Me, I wasn’t so sure. I decided to give him equal billing, have the story be told in dual first-person narratives with Seth and James taking turns, checker-boarding chapters. What Charlotte saw in James was that his arc was larger and therefore the advantage over Seth to be the main character. I just thought he was a snotty young jerk-off with a nasty temper who lacked backbone.

But James did have a backstory. A very interesting one that made him the arrogant, overeager individual in the screenplay. Once I listened to him, I understood his fear of pretty women, wariness of Seth and his inability to leave Martin and take charge of his career. Now, instead of a contrivance, James became a lens or focal point to ground Seth’s Garbo story. James grew by leaps and bounds, responding not only to what was happening to him in the present but what had happened to the characters he cared about 70 years before. James began having mini-epiphanies about himself and the world around him in nearly every chapter. He could be the main character. And I’d nearly thrown him out.

The most interesting thing about writing James now is seeing how he is different from the other characters and from me. The way he shows he cares for Seth, never straightforward and nearly always with a stinging touch of sarcasm. The way he holds grudges for decades. His incapacitating obsession with how things should be and not how they are. He’s totally there. Transparent because he doesn’t have a filter and therefore holds nothing back. James is flawed in a way that makes people laugh.

But what makes James a Main Character in the novel is how everyone around him conspired to make him whole. By the end, he wants to be whole too. Don’t we all.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Same Old Story ... (Charlotte)

Jon and I determined to write our book Adapting Sideways and take on this course of action only a few months ago, after almost a year of working together on his screenplay-to-novel endeavor. We’d been talking and comparing notes and watching movies and analyzing and deconstructing for months, all in an effort to better understand a world we intuitively and instinctively shared and loved--the world of Story.

We began with a common calling of writer and editor to bring out the best of Jon’s writing and story for his novel. Somewhere along the way, we discovered that we agreed that “great literature” was in Story and Characters and not limited to words on the page or film that captured performances and worlds. In fact we have a fairly liberal acceptance of the different mediums we accept as literature--because it all boils down to Story.

We’ve been functioning on the shared experience of what’s Story and what isn’t when we discuss a book or film. Writing Adapting Sideways made us stop nodding and question the fine points on which we do agree. Here’s the best of what we’ve assembled as a definition of Story:

Story is a narrative about a Character progressing through a series of connected incidents--often defined as Scenes--in a manner of increasing challenge to the Character’s well-being or in opposition to his/her goals or ambitions--often defined as Conflict--until, well, the momentum of the Character’s drive or fears culminate in a moment of Epiphany or Climax during which the Character chooses to do something, not do something, or deserts the situation (mentally, emotionally, and/or physically), which in turn brings Closure--often defined as Change--to the Character and wholeness--we like the word Integrity--to the work, all the while engaging an audience of readers, watchers, or listeners for the duration through the vulnerability of the Character to his/her circumstances.

Jon and I not only subscribe to this amalgamation of elements but feel that an appreciative or sympathetic audience is a critical but secondary component, thereby listed near the end of definition. Certainly an audience makes the challenge of creating the piece rewarding. But the Character and therefore the writer are not obliged to focus on the audience. Certainly not in place of drawing all the other elements from the Character him or herself.

Now, from what I understand about screenwriting, that audience’s engagement in the Story is THE critical component. James Cameron said in a recent interview that the movie is “for the audience.” So choices are made with the audience in mind.

As a story purist, I’d go the other way--I’d say that really playing out the Character draws in an audience. I think I can safely say that Jon and I are more likely to stake our creativity and storytelling on both the personality and dangerous, difficult or otherwise unfortunate plight of a Character. If we do our writer’s work well, the audience will find an irresistible dynamic, and we need do nothing gratuitous to garner their attention.

So, what do you think? Plenty of room for different views, particularly in how a writer defines Story. Want to take a try at this?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Wondering What's Next (Charlotte)

Last Sunday Jon and I finished our manuscript for the book Adapting Sideways. A stressful and fatiguing week to accomplish a final sorting out of ideas, graphics, concepts, rewrites. Even a 90-minute presentation of the material in front of an audience of fellow writers--thank you, Redwood Writers California Writers Club!--looking for any surprises. Well, we still have surprises ahead of us, I’m sure. But at that point, everything worked, fit together.

Different factors come into play at different moments in a partnership such as ours. Up until deciding to do Adapting Sideways, we’d worked as writer and writing teacher/editor, fellow students of film and fiction, filmmaker and filmgoer, screenwriter and fiction writer, and fellow fiction writers. We’re also friends because of our shared values and ambitions. And now we’ve become co-authors and workshop partners.

So we proofed and printed out a clean copy. Wrote cover materials. Annotated a table of contents. Assembled a statement of the market. Filled out mailing documents. Only the post office was left. Then the package was in the mail. We were done. Or were we?

When we mailed out our manuscript that morning, I had this familiar sense of false closure. I’ve been here before with new ideas and material--certainly other manuscripts, my own and that of the novelists I’ve published or edited. Even previous partners. Once again I knew something had been achieved--but nothing had ended. In fact more had begun than concluded.

Jon and I were at the start of a partnership more than at the completion of a shared project. We had come to agreement. The book and the workshop seemed to “seal the deal.” That was as big a deal as the completion of the manuscript. Awesome is the word that best fits my overall take--simultaneously inspiring and daunting.

Particularly daunting regarding what Jon calls “The Waits.” How do I occupy my time while we await word from our agent? What revisions will she want? What publishers will she contact? What will be their response? More and more screenwriters are being directed to write novels. Right now we are the only ones with a methodology track record--aren’t we? And all we can do--at one level--is to wait.

But, having been here before, I know that “The Waits” is valuable time too. All I have to do is turn to my calendar and stack of things on my desk to find valuable occupation. I can’t just wait. There’s so much work to be done. What if--worst possible case--our agent doesn’t take the manuscript? Then waiting is wasted time, lost momentum, a frivolous use of precious creative juices.

First, the Redwood Writers audience gave us an opportunity to realize we were fine together. Our timing and shared perspective could be informative, maybe dynamic. So, we need to look for tweaks to pursue. We need an alternative opening. We may have to revise the handout. We certainly need to capture any new concepts and ideas. Again, thank you, Redwood Writers. The event was rich for us.

Then there’s postings for our blogs. More concepts awaiting attention and consideration. Calls and emails to answer. Marketing materials, workshop logistics, clients . . .

And “The Waits” calls for something else as well. Rest and restoration. I’ve slept long hours the last few nights from fatigue. Enough fatigue to manifest dreams of sleeping within dreams while I sleep. And I need to put healthy food back in my refrigerator, meals again cooked from scratch. And then a little vacuuming and a stack of dishes . . . I need to be fresh to keep being creative.

After posting our manuscript to our agent, I realized that Jon and I had come together in thought and effort in less than eight weeks to produce a 250-page book. Being nonfiction, the word count is incidental. Not like publishing a novel where word counts range from 65,000 to 210,000 words. And not someone else’s writing that I had brought to publication.

This co-authored book was equally my work and experience. Two hundred and fifty pages of writing, several pages of graphics, a table of contents that lists some one hundred plus topics explored. And all accomplished with an equally committed, experienced and articulate partner. Lots of discussion and revision. No arguments, no ego.

What we did to get here needs to be kept together and nurtured because, as the book is our future, so is our partnership. The ideas and resources that combined for the book need to keep integrating and challenging us. If nothing else, we need to keep talking and keep writing--moving forward.

But it’s easy to look at what’s passed. Other opportunities and rites of passage hover before us. I must admit, awaiting our agent’s response to the manuscript casts a huge shadow on my life right now. Behind that is a tickling sensation that having now collaborated with Jon on the manuscript and preparing for our up-coming presentations and workshops, I’ve entered an important new phase of my own creativity as well as a new world of people and ideas. And just like the tension in a good novel or film catalyzes questions about the story, I’m wondering: And then what happens? Where are we going?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Subtext: A Rose by Any Other Name...or Picture

Talking to Charlotte recently, a screenplay term came up that had a different meaning for novels. This is happening more and more in our discussions involving terminology of the two art forms. I had to confess that what I thought it meant all these years for scripts actually is what the term applies to in novels. For years I had been toiling away using subtext in the wrong context. Or, was I?

Subtext in screenplays, according to refers to “messages that get across without ever being spoken.” The same website defines subtext in novels as something that “…creates depth in writing. It allows the writer to address and unify the themes in her novel.” The definition includes the following example: “For instance, if your novel is about a grandmother who feels abandoned by her family after she is placed in a nursing home, then the subtext of your novel is about how our society treats the elderly. Subtext can be addressed through your novel’s plot, characters, scenes, dialogue, literary tropes (metaphors, similes, etc.) and other literary elements. For instance, using one of the examples above, the elderly woman in the nursing home discovers that her roommate is being treated awfully by one of the hospital attendants. She reports the attendant to the hospital director, but her complaints are condescendingly ignored. This plot highlights the story’s subtext: that the elderly are often neglected and their needs ignored in society.”

On the surface, screenplay subtext and novel subtext would appear to be different. The definition for screenplays goes on to say that subtext is backstory to the characters relationship to one another and should only be hinted at in “vague” dialogue. The writer, Eric J. Seidman, advises, “Figure out the tone and be sure to note that as an action line before a conversation, or directly underneath the character slug.” I confess, I’ve been writing screenplays a long time and I have absolutely no idea what the hell Mr. Seidman is talking about. So, I naturally turned to my DVD player for help.

I popped in “Let The Right One In,” one of my favorite movies and I had just finished reading the novel from which it was adapted. I’d seen the movie many times before. A vampire story set in Sweden during the early 1980’s when that country was still half behind the iron curtain. But only after I read the novel, then re-watched the movie adaptation did I detect a recurring subtext.

Adults are present throughout the movie along with the children that are the main focus of the film. In almost every scene where they appear, the adults are literally looking the other way. The only thing that grabs their attention is when something terrible happens. The subtext in the movie is that adults are oppressed, desensitized and therefore oblivious to their surroundings. Only when the children reach out for them, or an event occurs that they can’t ignore do the adults act. This subtext is reinforced in one scene by a snippet of dialogue in which an adult says, “Yeah, life stinks.”

I went back and read passages of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I thought I’d find a similar subtext in the book, considering that Lindqvist adapted his own novel into the screenplay for the finished film. Even though all the adults in the novel are extremely fucked up and unhappy, the more prevalent subtext was found among the children: Oscar loves Eli even though she isn’t what she appears to be (a twelve year old girl) and suspects is an experienced killer. Even more amazingly, Eli loves Oscar. The subtext or theme of the novel is unconditional love.

Then I looked at the film again. Sure enough the theme of unconditional love was present. But was it subtext? Did the imagery reflect Oscar and Eli’s affection for one another without them uttering “I love you” while their adult counterparts were looking the other way? Yes. So, is the subtext of the screenplay that all adults are oblivious, or the unconditional love that exists between an innocent and a not-so-innocent child? The answer only became obvious after I asked myself what the story of both the novel and the screenplay is.

The story of “Let The Right One In” is the unconditional love between two children who are both more alive in their own way than the adults and the society surrounding them. And the only way to avoid a similar fate is in the strength of their bond. In this context, the unifying theme or subtext of the novel is supported by the recurring imagery or subtext of the film. So, it turns out the different definitions of subtext for either medium are not mutually exclusive when they are both employed in service to the story.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More Opportunity? As a Novelist? Really?

Finding a publisher for a first-time novelist can seem as hard a nut to crack as the screenwriting/film business. But it isn’t. Even in today’s chaotic book industry, opportunities abound. Especially for the talented writer with the strong story and therefore engaging book. Especially for any book that will find a reading audience and make the publisher money.

Unlike the movie industry, even in hard times and with the larger houses turning into imprints of even larger conglomerates, new publishing houses of all sizes pop up and many do well. And many existing publishers know how to regroup and therefore survive any market challenge. For the first four years of KOMENAR’s life, we did well. Not great but well. Well enough to start the novelist careers for six authors. And we are what is politely referred to as a “boutique” publisher.

Agents, acquisition editors and publishers are most often passionate readers. With our passion, experience and resourcefulness, nothing deters us for long. The joke here might be the number of us who have evolved from English Literature majors into industry professionals. We weren’t trained to do anything business-wise. Therefore we’re always “reading between the lines,” finding or making our world as times and needs dictate. Many of us move among various industry professions, some of us start and run publishing enterprises, some move from editor to agent and back again. We are fluid because we know and believe in the world of Story--and are willing to support writers and books in the darkest of times.

As a result, many more opportunities exist in publishing than in film-making. And contrary to the publishing-centric world of New York City, publishing happens anywhere and everywhere. For example: Can’t find a NYC publisher for a historical novel set in Wyoming? Try regional publishers in that state and any of the other Western states. Consider university presses looking for special interest, saleable great books as well. Then consider specialty houses that love your novel because of your railroad-Civil-War-wild boar connection. Think that’s far out? Well, it is ... and it isn’t.

And novelists network.

Writers of fiction need fellow writers of fiction. We need them as supporters, first readers, writers’ group participants, leads to agents and houses, and discoverers of little known information about the best writers conferences, the best editors, and the friendliest agents. We have competitive bones in our bodies, but not when it comes to sharing information. You see, if you make it on my info, generally you’ll share back as best you can in helping me achieve my goals. And vice-versa.

Yes, writers and authors exist who hoard info and don’t repay kind acts. I know several. But they are the exception--and by being the exception, they remind us of the advantages of not being an exception. Most of us give as often and as much as we can so that good returns to us when we need it. We’re alone when we write, but not in a community of our fellow writers after the same thing.

I’m an example of this networking phenomena among writers ... and I am a fellow writer, even if I’m a publisher as well. Right now my publishing house isn’t accepting submissions because we’re not in a position to publish any new titles. But my world doesn’t end there. Nor does yours with someone such as me. I now channel my expertise into helping writers get beyond the current chaos and status of my publishing company. Why? Because that’s what fiction writers do for each other.

And best of all, as a screenwriter, you already have a story, characters and story arc from which to draw a novel. Chances are you won’t be a polished novelist out the gate. But you have an all-important track record--focused writing, putting your talent to work, and reading people. That makes your chances of success with your novel higher than most writers. That makes you and your work, when ready to go, more attractive to an agent, editor and publishing house.

So, your experience as a screenwriter in the small, insular world of film could explode you and your story into the larger, more amorphous world of novels and publishing. I think that’s going to happen for my partner in crime ... and others who know how to adapt their screenplays sideways.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why People Don't Read Screenplays

"A script is a thing the audience never sees. While a film is a thing - not in the sense that they run up to the projection booth and view the celluloid - but it's certainly the thing the audience is seeing on the screen. The audience wonders Who made this celluloid thing I'm looking at? I need to know. But they never wonder, Who made the paper thing that the actors work from?"
- Steve Martin

I always thought it was funny when people would get excited about my winning a screenwriting award. They’d want me to tell them the story. So I’d tell them and they’d continue being enthusiastic. So I’d asked them, “Do you want to read the script?” And they’d always say, “No thanks.”

I like reading screenplays because I write them and can appreciate just how much effort goes into writing a good one. But I can see where most people wouldn’t naturally think of snuggling up with one before the fire or when in bed like they do with a novel. It’s because screenplays – no matter how well written – make the reader work to create the world. They are written for that very purpose.

Screenplays are written with a very specific audience in mind. Namely directors, producers and A-List actors. And even these folks don’t read them. They have them read by someone else who then tell them about the screenplay. About the only people who read screenplays are those who write them for a living, those who want to write them for a living, and those who read them to do coverage for a studio or producer. The last one is called a reader.

Readers have their own professional union in Hollywood and are retained to write coverage of scripts – usually 3-4 pages of coverage – and at the end recommend whether an original script is a “pass” or a “recommend.” I used to work as a reader in Hollywood. At the height of my reader career, I was making $40 a script. Out of the 200 to 300 scripts I covered, I think I “recommended” two. Why so little? For two simple reasons: (1) 99% of the scripts were really quite bad or (2) the story and characters were good but the formatting, spelling and grammar were atrocious. If I was going to recommend a script, it had to be not only be really really good but also “look” good. That means the screenplay format is not only perfect, but slug, action and dialogue lines are proportionate and leave a enough “white on the page.”

There’s a saying in Hollywood that no one ever lost their job by saying no. If I recommended a script that meant one of my studio executives would take that script home for “the weekend read,” and read it based on my subjective opinion. Most executives take home scripts from agents, but once in awhile they’ll take home a spec (short for “speculative” script). Said script was usually sent in cold by an unknown screenwriter, then covered and recommended by one of the executive’s in-house readers - someone like me.

Now, when Monday came around and you found yourself called in to sit opposite your executive you, it meant only one thing. The script you recommended was a piece of crap, and the one person most important to your Hollywood career could put you out of job. Not only did a script have to be the best thing since sliced bread for a reader to recommend it – it had to possess the meat, cheese and vine-ripened tomatoes that made up the best fucking formatted sandwich my hungry executive had ever seen.

Time is money for a studio executive. Writers, who usually have a whole lot of the former and none of the latter, need to know this about Hollywood before they even consider a career in screenwriting. I was taught that if you didn’t have the reader (remember, the professional one making $40 a script) by page 3, you where shit out of luck. Even people being paid, albeit a pittance to read your screenplay, will put it down by page 10 if it isn’t one of the best things they’ve ever read. And one of the basic requirements of readers is that the formatting be correct. Otherwise, your story, however brilliant, will never be read.

Now here’s the insidious part. Readers have to read so many scripts and write coverage just to make ends meet. These readers are most often screenwriters - and are already pissed off your script and not theirs are in the sludge pile. But wait, it gets worse. Readers don’t want to read scripts either. Reading scripts is tedious. All that white on the page must be filled in with their own imagination. Imagination is the most precious commodity to writers and they want to horde it to make their own scripts great – not yours.

Novels, on the other hand, don’t rely on the reader to do the heavy lifting. There is less left to the reader’s imagination, and that’s why novels are often more enjoyable to read. I covered a dozen or so books when I was reading for studios and remember them to this day. Each filled in the white on the page, so it was pleasurable work to read them.

Also studios paid more to cover novels with an already established audience. And novels have more complex plots, characters and settings, which require more effort to write comprehensive coverage. Novels lend themselves to a more fully-rendered experience - they are an artistic end, not a means-to-an artistic end as screenplays are.

That last remark may sound harsh, but it’s not meant to be. Screenplays by their very nature are intended to be translated and produced into films by a slew of artists before they are consumed by a mass audience. Novels are already the result of an artistic vision. They don’t rely on anyone interpreting them other than for whom they were written: the reader.

There’s simply no comparison between a 110 page script and a 400 page novel. The level of detail and time the novelist has to suck you into their world is so much more than a screenwriter. I’ve found even a bad book often had passages in it that worked. And novels don’t have to be perfect like an entire screenplay does – from format, to story, to page length – to get the same level of respect. And in a town where everyone is looking for any angle to getting their project in front of the pack that is a huge advantage. Just ask any reader.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Partners In Crime ...

I’ve sorted through thousands of submissions intended to communicate that the story and writer are ready for publication. Yet the number that were even close stayed somewhere in the less than 5% portion. Lots of talent and lots of fresh ideas, but frequently too few writers considered what a reader wanted, and therefore what a publisher needed.

After a year or so, I developed a pet peeve ... actually several, but only one applies here. Manuscripts that emulated screenplay devices and techniques without fully understanding their proper use or how little any reader will tolerate such brevity of prose and dialogue-dominated material.

One example comes quickly to mind: The opening chapter offers an array of untagged/unattributed dialogue without any attempt to establish the where, when, who and why of the world. Sometimes there’s an opening line ... that turns out to be a slug line (screenwriter speak of course) followed by dialogue, again untagged or unattributed.

Now I’ve learned that actual screenwriters would give me both a slug and action line before the dialogue ... and screenwriters do tend to tag the dialogue though without a real appreciation of the usage and benefits of doing so. Still, better any tag than no tag.

What I had encountered all too often were writers with just enough screenwriting consciousness to get into real trouble. You see, just as screenwriters know that screenplays are a blueprint for directors, actors and the rest of a production community, I know that reading a screenplay isn’t a substitute for reading a novel.

Readers have a whole world of expectation. My publishing house KOMENAR coined a potent mantra: Compelling story, engaging characters and evocative setting. Habitual readers like myself want a whole world of story, characters and, yes, world. We want to curl up and get lost in those pages. That doesn’t happen with screenplays ... screenplays leave so much to the imagination that most readers can’t escape their own limitations in putting that story together. And most of us want to be diverted, extended, entertained, perplexed, enticed, delighted, surprised. We look to a competent and talented writer to do all that. A bare-bones approach to story such as a screenplay just isn’t enough.

So, how did I meet Jon and begin this journey? I meet writers in several ways: submissions, writer events, classes. Jon showed up as a participant in one of my public classes. Straight from his day job with a submission in hand. And like a practiced and skilled writer, he offered up a piece that opened with a wonderful couple of paragraphs that created a world and time. Then he moved on to dialogue that worked really well. I was drawn in ... until the piece moved into one of the longest, densest paragraphs I had ever seen. And I stopped reading.

But the opening was so good I had to try again. Again I read an evocative presentation of a world of snow and people. And the characters talked. To each other. Revealing mental and emotional qualities distinct to each individual as well as tension. All good. And that was about 250 words in. Then came that paragraph that traveled across maybe two pages, and I stopped dead in my tracks.

Here’s the thing though, Jon had appropriated my attention and that was good. Even great. If only for about 250 words. He had done that. It’s just that he lost it again way too fast. But I was hooked. I wanted to see what the guy could do if he was coached beyond those first 250 words.

Now working with Jon, the payoff for me has been great. I’ve found a wonderful new world of talented writers who have been restricted to a small tight canvas of screenplays when they might have stories and characters and worlds to feed and grow a novel. Jon is doing that--making the adaptation sideways from screenplay to novel--and the explosion of his creativity has been such a dynamic experience. For both of us.


After That ...

Being in LA and writing original screenplay after original screenplay above a two car garage behind an aging and utterly forgotten TV star was never going to end well. I know that now. But what I did learn while inhaling gas fumes all those years was the structure of story. And I’m happy to still be around to say that the novel and the screenplay both have the same underlying story structure. The same principles apply to both. In this way, a great screenplay can be considered a first draft for a novel. Or, so I thought.

When I began this project, I thought I could transform my award-winning screenplay into a novel simply by changing the verb tense from present to past, add description of everything else that was contributed by the cinematographer, actors, costume and set designers, and be done. Great idea, right? As it turns out, it is a great idea, but a deceptively complex one.

Here’s why: Ever heard of the “auteur theory” in film? Filmmakers love to think a film can be the creation of a singular vision – their own. But – unless the filmmaker did everything from writing the screenplay, building and lighting the sets, making the costumes, playing all the roles, shooting the damn thing and editing it together a film is the product of many artistic visions working in harmony. That’s exactly what I found I had to do if I stood a chance of writing that first draft of the novel. I had to create a “mind” movie from my screenplay and adapt that movie into the novel.

A screenplay is only one facet of a multi-faceted, collaborative effort governed by someone else. A screenplay contains descriptions of the action (divided up into scenes and shots), sparse descriptions of the characters and their emotions, the locations, camera angles, costumes, etc. It also contains lots of dialogue. Everything else is left to some other discipline. The end result will be the visual experience of a film or theatrical motion picture.

Screenwriters don’t necessarily need to know how the action in their scenes will be blocked on location. Nor will they ever be asked to make decisions on a character’s behavior, beyond one line of parenthetical direction. Yet now as a novelist, you the auteur of your mind movie must create and in turn describe everything that appears in your story: the characters, their thoughts, emotions and actions down to the tiniest detail; the plot, the costumes, the atmosphere, the environments, etc. Each screenplay page equals one page of film time. I found that I quickly filled up many pages with words (250 per page) to describe one minute of my mind movie. I’m building a constantly expanding world where the journey of my protagonist’s arc unfolds over time and space. That’s why novels run on average 65,000 to 85,000 words and can be 250 pages to 400 pages in length.

Scared yet? I was. Then I remembered my crummy Hollywood apartment. There amidst the noxious fumes, left-over fast food and quiet desperation that hung on me like a cheap suit, I had made the commitment to be a storyteller, no matter what. The “what” turned out to be the reality that screenwriting, in general – is a fucking crapshoot.

As a screenwriter, you give birth to your creation and if you’re lucky, otherwise your babies are stolen and you never see it again. In fact, the only visitation rights you get will be years later, when you have to pay to see it along with every other Tom, Dick and Harry sitting and waiting in a dark room. Then, when that magical light shoots forth and you finally see your baby, it’s all grown up and changed so much you don’t even recognize it. What’s worse, it doesn’t know you, its biological parent – because your name’s not up there. You’ve been replaced a long time ago by a director. You go back to that crummy old apartment, lie in your twin bed alone and cry yourself to sleep wondering where your life went wrong.
Writing a novel doesn’t sound so bad after all, does it? Especially when you consider a novelist doesn’t have these problems. It’s your baby, from start to finish. And you’re much more likely to end up with something that is close to your original idea, because your baby doesn’t have to please some studio exec who says you should be writing to please males between the ages of 18 to 24 or females between the ages 12 and 23.

Having a finished novel under your arm looking for a publisher is the equivalent of having a finished film under your arm looking for a distributor. Once you find a publisher and are working with an editor, you will be at the center of the process, not jettisoned the moment you sign a contract. And the size of that contract (i.e. money) is also usually more for a novelist than a screenwriter.

Now here’s the best part of all. When you write a novel and it gets published, you stand a better chance of having a film adapted and produced from your novel than you ever would have as a screenwriter. And with your screenwriting experience, you could have the first crack at writing the screenplay! The screenplay you wrote before the novel. But this time will be so much better because you imagined the characters and world of your story so much better than when the story was just a screenplay.

Now, how interested are you in finding out more about Adapting Sideways?


In the Beginning ...

In November 2008 I flew into Burbank from Oakland for the annual Creative Screenwriting Expo held at the Convention center. I had won Grand Prize in the AAA (Access, Acclaim, Achievement ) Screenplay Contest run by Creative Screenwriting Magazine in March and was comp’d for the whole expo.

Forest fires had been raging for weeks in and around LA County. My lungs burned and my eyes stung as I walked from my hotel to the convention center amidst falling ash. I entered the building and got in line for my all-access pass and bag of swag. The writer’s strike was on everyone’s lips. I wiped white ash off my sport coat and headed into the first writing seminar. If ever there was a bad time to win a screenwriting contest, I had hit it.

Barely anyone attended to discuss the topic: Effective Marketing Techniques for Original Screenplays. The seminar played like a memorial service for someone no one liked. The speaker, a professional screenwriter and writing guild member, could not have been more demoralized. When asked by an audience member what he did all day while not writing scripts he said, “I’m writing a novel.” The four of us in the audience cowered in fear, the message clear: we were fucked. I had won my first major writing award for a screenplay whose prospects of selling looked as dim and foreboding as the dark and smoky skies over Hollywood.

Fifteen years after graduating film school and moving to LA, I’d managed to option two scripts, win one award and consistently place in the finals of numerous writing contests only to come to the realization the industry I hungered to be in was in chaos. I flew out of Burbank two days later with the three copies of my winning screenplay to hand Producers still in my suitcase. The screenplay I had worked to perfect over five years had never seen the light of day. As far as anyone in LA was concerned, it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

Or was it?

During the hour flight back to the bay area, I thought over what the speaker had said about writing a novel during the screenwriter’s strike. Why not write a novel? Better yet, why not write a novel adapted from the winning screenplay that I couldn’t give away? Industry people saw a story there. Writers were always adapting novels into screenplays. So why not do the reverse? That idea sounded a hell of a lot more reasonable than letting five years of research, writing and rewriting be for nothing. How hard could adapting be, right?

What follows is the ongoing story of my journey from screenwriter to novelist. Along the way I found the perfect partner in crime and together we created “Adapting Sideways: The Not-So-Straightforward Transition from Screenwriter to Novelist.” She will share her experience and insights on the novelization process. I’ll share the insights, critical junctures, setbacks and rewards I’ve found. We both believe that our collaboration has importance beyond our mission. What we share might help other screenwriters and novelists.