I wrote a book.
Four words I never thought I’d ever say. Writing a book was always intimidating to me. Ever since I was a kid, authors always seemed like super geniuses. Back then, a ten page, handwritten book report was nearly impossible and that attitude remained in place firmly until well into my adulthood.
Stage plays and screenplays seemed less intimidating to me. I am one of those many many people who would watch a movie and think, “I can’t write a novel but I can write a movie.”
The first play I wrote was pretty shitty but what distinguished me from most of my contemporaries was that I actually finished the play and moved onto another writing project. Two of my stage plays were produced before I switched to screenwriting.
Fast forward to today. I have an MFA in Screenwriting and about a dozen unproduced spec screenplays under my belt and yet, I felt like I was standing still. An unproduced screenplay just sits in a drawer (or archived on a hard drive), completely unknown to the world. Writing a good screenplay is important but it’s not the prize. The dream of filming my screenplay was quickly moving beyond my grasp. [One of my screenplays was produced as an indie film, but that's another blog post.]
Throw a rock in Los Angeles and you stand a 100% chance of hitting someone who’s writing a screenplay. However, the odds of any screenplay getting made into a film has gone down significantly in the past two decades for a few significant reasons.
- The consolidation of the entertainment industry into about a half a dozen media conglomerates means fewer buyers for screenplays.
- The reduction of output per studio to about a dozen films per year means fewer projects coming through the pipeline.
- The loss of various funding sources (such as hedge funds) due to the economic collapse.
- The dependence on large international box office receipts as a revenue stream dictates a certain kind of film that can be made (ie, action, star dependent vehicles).
When the cost of an average studio picture (including P&A) exceeds $100 million dollars, producers have to consider if your screenplay will have enough domestic and international appeal to make that money back and then some. Indie films have an uphill battle not only to raise funding to make the film, but to find distribution so audiences can see the finished product.
We’re living in an age when even well-established writers and producers are having difficulty getting their films made. Projects with A-list stars attached are getting shut down by nervous, cost conscious studios.
I had to come up with a different strategy. Fortunately, a UCLA MFA Screenwriting buddy of mine, Jody Wheeler, provided me with one.
“Hey Isaac, I just created Digital Fabulists, an e-publishing company. Have you written any books you want published?”
“No, but give me a couple of weeks.”
Jody and I had entered the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program at the same time. I’ve always admired his chops as a writer but I envied his ability to see into the future. Creating his own e-publishing company was just another example of his clairvoyance.
Every screenwriter I know became a writer because they wanted to tell stories. They wanted to share their love, fascination or obsession with a world, a character or an obscure moment in history. Of course we all aspired to make a living at it but wealth and fame was never the sole motivation for writing.
One of the nice things about writing original screenplays on spec is that I don’t need permission to change them to another form. This particular screenplay I’d written had been recycled a few times to suit what agents and producers were looking for.
The Repatriation of Henry Chin began life as an original pitch for a television pilot, born out of my fascination with conspiracy theories, Constitutional law and a few dark chapters from our nation’s history. When that pitch failed to get any attention, I stuck it in a drawer until I was searching for an idea for a feature film spec. Working on the treatment. I discovered major revisions were needed to change the open ended story engine of a TV pilot into a transformative closed ending for a feature film.
Once the treatment was done, I began producing the script pages. After vetting the completed draft with my writers group and some trusted friends I began pitching the script to agents and producers.
I had gotten some feedback about the script and why it wasn’t right for this producer or that production company. Some of the feedback was encouraging, some wasn’t. Ultimately, the script failed to get any attention, so I stuck it back in a drawer.
Until the email from Jody I had never seriously considered writing a book. It was intimidating and it was frightening. I am and always have been an avid reader but realized I knew virtually nothing about the business of books.
Being a science fiction fan, I had consumed a fairly large quantity of Star Trek novelizations and movie tie-ins. My thought was that if novelists could adapt films into a novel, how hard could it be to adapt a screenplay for a film into a novel? As a child I had recreated my favorite movies and TV shows as stick figure drawings (and sometimes Lego fortresses) based on my imperfect recollections (we didn’t have home video back then). I figured that was great preparation for adapting a screenplay into a novel.
It wasn’t… well, maybe it was.
I had to trick myself into believing that writing a novel was easy.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had a mere 77,325 words. A Tale of Two Cities had 135,420 words (though it seemed much longer back in high school). One of my favorite thrillers was Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle which had 103,655 words. I looked at my collection of movie tie-in novels and calculated that a typical one ran about 80,000 words. My screenplay weighed in at 20,000 words. Generating four words for every word in my screenplay didn’t seem insurmountable. I had all the confidence in the world I could do it. You can easily convince yourself you’re the world’s greatest lover until you lose your virginity.
Making the conversion wasn’t as simple as adding fat and bloat to an existing story. A screenplay contains only the elements of the story that you can see and hear. What a novel has room for is the inclusion of what the characters think and feel.
Screenplays are incredibly condensed versions of the story. Characters that appeared in one scene in the screenplay were given full arcs and personalities in the novel. Subplots that were hinted at in the screenplay were now fully dramatized. Events that happened in the past could be brought into the present to comfort or haunt the characters.
And then there is detail. Describing the landscape, the vehicles, the technology, the clothes and the behavior so the story becomes vivid and real rather than a recitation of facts and events is a necessity for novels but not always required in screenplays. Following Ken Follett’s advice to thriller writers in a lecture at the 92nd Street Y he said, “Putting in a great deal of authentic detail about something … is a terrific way to distract the reader’s attention from the essential implausibility of the story.”
Having the story all plotted out in the screenplay, the action was already in place. Moments of reflection could be added and distributed throughout the novel to help set the pacing, build the tension and communicate the stakes. Motivations became important as well as painting word pictures to immerse you in the world.
I had created these characters for the screenplay but now I could show you much more about them in the novel without requiring the high cost of hiring on an actor or a director to interpret the experience for you.
Writing the novel was singularly the most difficult and most ambitious writing project I’ve attempted to date. Without knowing how it will be received, it has already proved to be the most rewarding. Not because Hollywood seems more impressed by novelists than with screenwriters (a nice perk) but because characters I loved are no longer destined to die a dusty death at the bottom of a desk drawer.
I wrote a book. Four words that seem command as much respect in Hollywood as as “We got funding” or “We have distribution.”
I wrote a book… and I’ll write another.