It used to be the great (not exclusively American) dream to, ‘someday write that novel’. Over the last decade and a half or so it has increasingly become ‘I’ve got a great idea for a movie’, which has given birth to countless cottage industries and competitions for aspiring screenwriters. There are enough books, mentors and competitions out there to put any normal person in debt and confuse the H. E. DOUBLE TOOTHPICKS out of ‘em, in the process crushing their creative drive and spirit and making them jump on the rip-off bandwagon.
But hang onto your dreams there are some good words of wisdom too…
When I stepped outside of my 11 year-old cocoon at a major motion picture conglomerate and began writing [for myself with no contract binding my every creative thought] I started with picture books, because I was ‘developing a children’s picture company’ and had recently won a membership via a writing contest into SCBWI (THE SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS). It wasn’t until one of those ideas exploded into a Middle Grade Novel that touches on some heavy unavoidable issues in today’s media climate, that I came to the realization – duh, this should be a screenplay… maybe.
I got my first manuscript request from a pitch at the WILLAMETE WRITER’S CONFERENCE one month after my first draft. (the Willamete conference is hands down THE BEST writers conference for screenwriters and novelists and well worth the investment). The request was from a big lit house, so I was really stoked and spent the rest of the conference hanging out with peeps representing the film industry. After the agent read the manuscript she said, ‘I think this would be better as a film.’ It was a forest-through-the-trees-moment, only in my case the branch came down and smacked me so hard I immediately wrote a screenplay for it. (I knew how to do that). Sometime later I pitched a [different] screenplay to a film exec and mentioned that I was also developing it as a graphic novel, again I was stoked that my pitch begat an immediate request (that contest I won btw was for pitching, so the ‘in the room’ quality that all in the biz look for is not a problem for me, the problem is, my material is ‘risky’). What do you know? The exec came back and said, ‘great stuff, sell it as a novel 1st and we’re in’.
Can you say spinning your reactionary wheels much? I’ll summarize the rest of my journey to date by saying – Many screenplays and a few novels later I now know that screenwriting, and the economy, structure of story, character and plot that it demands, is the perfect way to hone a story BEFORE writing a book.
Which is why I love the ADAPTING SIDEWAYS story and concept so much.
A few weeks ago, I read (somewhere that I cannot recall) about Jon James Miller, and how he won a screenplay competition with his script GARBO’S LAST STAND. I immediately sat up, because I had read that script (for another competition) and fought for it to advance, I loved it. Anyway, after winning Jon attended the expo conference as a part of his prize, and apparently in a panel, William Goldman remarked, ‘you won a contest, now what? Go write the novel.’ (I paraphrase, because I don’t recall where I read the initial article). Eventually the notion of turning his script into a novel in order to sell it as a script, led to him finding his writing partner for ADAPTING SIDEWAYS and not only did GARBO get a novel but us writers got a much needed fresh perspective.
For me, the stars aligned – here was a guy whose screenplay I loved, joining forces to write about a process I thought was the key to not only selling a story but creating a brand repertoire for that story.
And the bonus for me is even though I had been through this process before, the current screenplay that I am ‘adapting sideways’ has been giving me some doldrums lately – and now I know why.
What it’s all about:
Jon partnered with Charlotte Cook, a writer, publisher and well-respected consultant and speaker to create a game plan for screenwriters to adapt their work into novels.
HOWEVER – this book is a much more organic step-by-step than say a ‘novelist structure for dummies’ approach. As such, it is also a valuable read for any screenwriter that has been told ‘your work is over-written, or too prose heavy…’ AND for any novelist that has a hard time with framing point of view or finding the core of your story.
At its best, ADAPTING SIDEWAYS bridges the gap between screenwriter and novelist and helps make sense of their differences so they can exist as one, stronger entity.
Peppered with ‘A-ha’ moment insights that help you frame the purpose of any scene in your novel vs. what that same scene’s purpose was in the movie.
In addition to thorough examples, they take you through the B.I.R.T.H. [ing] process (standing for Breakout, Isolate, Render, Translate and Hook) I personally enjoyed the Render section, it puts you in the director’s chair. This is a secret aspiration for many screenwriters and a lot of times an insisted hyphenate, but for an aspiring novelist it is a huge undertaking.
So, where a screenplay’s job is to provide a filmable story – It’s adapted novel’s job is to become publishable and the birthing process pinpoints and takes you through the needed focus and steps of why the two are different and why most readers of novels usually aren’t readers of scripts.
The best way to describe it is taken from one of the book’s examples; With a screenplay being a blueprint for a slew of filmmakers that will join together to interpret and build a film, the novel version requires the writer to be the entire crew for the sake of the character whose story is being told to inform the reader. Think about that – that is why this book is also for novice screenwriters that have no desire to write novels. To help them not put too much prose into their screenplays. (A common novice mistake)
If there’s anything I don’t like about the material introduced it would just be the notion implied early on; that screenplays don’t necessarily get to the heart of a writer’s story – good ones clearly do – I give the perspective from a novelist’s world the benefit of the doubt, it’s takes a unique type of reader (much less writer) to enjoy reading screenplays. I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked if I’ve seen a movie and my response is ‘I’ve read it.’ Those that don’t know what I do, think I’ve had too much wine or have lost my hearing completely and move on. (note: hearing loss comes from spending an inordinate amount of time with one’s head in a p.a. stack at concerts listening to the most abbreviated form of story that existed before twitter) I would also say, that the idea that screenwriters don’t network (with their kind – and do it for the love of visual story) may be hard to swallow for some – but thank goodness we’re all so thick-skinned and used to reading between the lines of notes – we can let this inference slide.
There are instances in ADAPTING SIDEWAYS where observations do apply to both screen and page, such as the notion of ‘the end informing the beginning’. But the explained approaches in these cases are specific to the art form of adaptation and make very valid points.
Of course, many writers successfully write in both forms, there’s not enough web-o-sphere to mention Stephen King or his Pen name Richard Bachmann, more recently Nick Hornby successfully traversed to the other side from novelist.
But take Jessica Bendinger, she started as a screenwriter-director with a tremendous cult following and last year released her first novel THE SEVEN RAYS in which she in turn held a competition for screenwriters to pick any scene and adapt it. Every scene in that book was a filmable moment – her writing style is that visual (you did notice the hyphenate after her name right?) She is currently adapting the novel into a screenplay the she will most likely direct. (If you click through above, to the book’s site, you can download the first chapter.) Her example is one that is most useful to today’s writers because even with her noteworthy success, she decided to use one platform to jump off into another – and came up with a nice marketing technique in the process. Something all writers must be aware of these days.
The point is, no matter what type of writer you claim to be it is natural to switch hit and makes perfect business sense. And with any business move or expansion, you need as much help as you can get.
ADAPTING SIDEWAYS has given me the spark I needed to finalize the structure of my latest novel at a critical juncture, let’s see what the decision makers will say this time…