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 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.


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