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.

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.