Hey everyone, Carson here. I’m out of the office today (found an amazing script and helping the writer get representation!) so I’m putting up a guest article from my friend, Phil Taffs. Phil is someone who has tried and been frustrated with the screenwriting game. After seeing all these book authors become superstars, both in the literary and film world, he decided to give novel writing a shot, and has finished his first book, The Evil Inside. I asked him to share his experience so here it is. Don’t worry. I’m not telling you to stop writing screenplays (case in point, finding that screenwriter above). I do think, however, that writers should keep all avenues open. Especially since I just read a GREAT novel which I’ll be reviewing Wednesday. In the meantime, here’s Phil!
Why not turn your screenplay into a novel?
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know: There’s a certain inevitable cookie cutter-dom that comes with writing – then trying to sell – your precious screenplay.
Cue Nazi Commandant accent: “IT MUST HAVE: 120 pages; present tense; snappy (and now often ho-hum wise-ass) dialogue; 3 distinct Acts; clear character arcs; broad brushstrokes scene-setting…”
As you know – from all those hundreds of screenwriting books you’ve read and dozens of seminars you’ve attended – it’s a “formula”. And with all those baking instructions, it’s very hard to make your screenplay turn out any different, better or tastier than any other screenplay in your genre.
And unless you have a high-powered agent or a ton of studio contacts, getting past first base is far from a sure thing.
So here’s a wild thought: could your hot new (but indistinguishable) screenplay become a hot new novel instead?
For a start, with a novel, length can be as long or as short as a piece of string: from 1400 battle-scarred pages of War & Peace to the short and savage In the Cut or Less than Zero. From the doorstop Dystopia of The Passage to the lightweight but still heavy-hitting 1984 or Bright Lights, Big City.
Then within those highly flexible pages, you can write whatever you goddamn want! If you’ve already developed a good story for your screenplay, why not let it out of its 120-page cage and encourage it to roam free and frolic?
Because if you’re writing a novel, you can now extend and embellish those descriptions; deepen and refine your characterizations; play more games with your plot; (like introducing some more nifty sub-plots); key in more surprises and/or suspense; indulge in a little more lyricism; and in general just feel a whole lot more liberated and open-minded about your story.
Tired of living in the eternal present tense of your screenplay? In a novel, you can play around with the present, the past, the future, the pluperfect, future perfect, the imperfect…. The novel is a time machine and it’s heaps of fun to pull the levers up and down.
As long as you have a great story – this is the key – then with some extra effort and ingenuity – it’s possible to skin it either way: as a script or a novel.
(Or maybe even something else again: Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom was a hit play in 1984, a great film in 1992 and now it’s a super-successful 2015 musical.)
As the brilliant novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter John Irving said: writing is rewriting. The more you’re thinking about and refining your story, the better it will get.
No matter what form it ends up in.
What’s to lose?
You already have your screenplay – it’s not going anywhere.
So you can still try to sell that while turning it into a novel. And while you’re working on the novel, you’ll probably think of ways of improving your story that you can then also retrofit back into your screenplay as you go along… It’s a win-win.
Two years ago, Australian writer, Graeme Simsion, wrote a comic screenplay called ‘The Rosie Project’ – about an eccentric university professor who takes a left-field approach to finding love.
He decided to refashion it into a novel. The publisher sold world rights for $1.8 million dollars, Bill Gates gave it a blurb and Sony Pictures have just optioned it.
Like his character, Simsion’s left-field approach has paid off big-time.
A novel will become your calling card.
If you do manage to write and get a novel published then that’s going to help you sell your next screenplay.
Because hey, unlike all the other wannabe hacks out there, this guy/girl has actually written a book! So they must know about story. So it’s probably worth reading their new script as well…
With a novel under your belt, you immediately sound more impressive and credible than the thousands of other screenwriters you’re competing against.
So your next script is far more likely to get read and noticed.
Change horses for the hell of it.
You’ve already written one or a number of scripts – you know what that feels like.
Got a great new story idea? This time, why not try writing it as a novel instead?
Just for the experience. Just for the hell of it.
Even if the novel doesn’t pan out, you can always refashion it into a screenplay. Think of it as a longish first draft!
Writing a novel is great practice for scene-setting – always important for your future screenplays.
You might write a scene or sub-plot that becomes a whole other script.
It’s all good practice.
Grist for your artistic and commercial mill.
How I did it
Now I’m not for one second suggesting that writing a novel is any easier than writing a screenplay. And it’s definitely not any quicker.
The average length of a script is 95-125 pages whereas the average length of a novel is 80,000 – 95,000 words – or 300 to 400 pages.
That’s a whole lot of extra words, scenes, characters, themes, issues, challenges, and complexities to deal with.
Not to worry: the more you write, the better you’ll get – whether you’re working on a novel or your next script… again – what’s to lose?
The road to getting my novel published is a story in itself: I began writing my psych-horror ‘The Evil Inside’ in 2003. After writing more than ten separate drafts, I was rejected by more than 70 publishers across three continents.
In desperation, I decided (kicking and screaming) to self-publish. After selling all of 30 copies to family and friends, I invested USD $425 in getting an independent Kirkus Review. (Even though you pay for the review, they are very well-respected because the reviews are more often critical than praiseworthy.)
The gods must have been smiling: I got a great review and used that as ammunition to approach a new batch of British publishers. One of whom – Quercus, publishers of the famous ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ series – took the bait and signed me up.
Now of course your road to publication will undoubtedly be different to mine. But there are a few handy hints you can draw from my experience:
1 Think laterally: you’re very unlikely to get picked up by the first, tenth or even hundredth publisher you submit to.
2 Follow up any lead you get from anyone: determination is the bedfellow of luck.
3 Never, ever give up.
4 Never, ever give up. (That’s really worth repeating.)
No less a luminary than Cate Blanchett suggested I turn ‘The Evil Inside’ into a screenplay instead as I was still writing it…
But I have to tell you: the Elf Queen was wrong. As an unknown quantity as a writer, that screenplay would never have got up…whereas my novel is now selling solidly across a number of continents.
And now US producers are considering it.
Sorry I gotta go: I hear the phone ringing…
Philip Taffs has worked as an advertising copywriter in his native Australia for over twenty years. — He is a PEN prize-winning short story writer, and lives in Melbourne with his wife and his two sons. — The Evil Inside published by Quercus Books UK is his first novel.