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.

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.