Monday, August 27, 2012

Driving in Reverse - Turning a Screenplay into a Novel, Part I

If you're a screenwriter who’s been thinking about turning one or more of your specs into a novel, I hope this post will encourage and inspire you. Due to its length, I’ll be posting Driving In Reverse in two installments. 

When I began the journey of transforming my screenplay, Delta Legend, into a novel in 2009, I struggled to find any books or even blog articles on the subject. I knew it had been done, but no one was addressing the process or breaking it down in clear how-to fashion. 

A recent search, however, yielded slightly better results, the most popular being, Adapting Sideways - How to Turn Your Screenplay Into A Publishable Novel by Charlotte Cook and Jon James Miller. 

A couple weeks ago I purchased and read the ebook version of Adapting Sideways. This was akin to finding the missing instructions for a complicated piece of play equipment you assembled without them—one the kids have been climbing on for the last 10 months. Still, you just have to check it out; make sure none of those leftover parts were vital to the structure as a whole and hopefully weren’t load-bearing. 

Using Adapting Sideways as a litmus test, I’d say I managed to execute about 85% of their methodology. The rest I’ll claim as personal style. Would I recommend finding your own way or getting the book? Get the book or take their WebinarWhile Adapting Sideways isn't perfect, it's a solid place to start. Their methodology makes sense and probably would have jump-started the process, getting me to think (and write) like a novelists a bit sooner. Had the book been available in 2009, I would have happily snapped it up, grateful for any advice from people who’d actually done what I was attempting.

Ms. Cook comes from the literary world as a publisher/editor/writer and Mr. Miller is an award winning screenwriter, now novelist. Their different backgrounds provide a nice balance as both perspectives are represented and they explain the differences between the two platforms. They then present the transformation of screenplay to novel through samples of their own writing (mostly Miller's Garbo's Last Stand). Unfortunately, the final product, the novel version of Garbo's Last Stand, has yet to be published—traditionally or otherwise. Having it available as a sample of their applied methodology would complete the circle. 

I like that Cook and Miller place the two mediums on equal, though separate ground—hense, “Adapting Sideways.” Back when I was slugging it out on my own, I came to refer to the process as learning to drive in reverse. Sure we all know how to back down the driveway, but now imagine cruising all over town in reverse. It's not commonly done and requires a serious change in perspective—but it's still driving.

My first experience as a writer was creating character monologues for myself as a way to stand out in auditions, followed shortly thereafter by sketch comedy and one-act plays. A few years later when my then-husband took a post sound position at Fox, we relocated from Northern California to Los Angeles. I took this move as a sign from the gods that I should transition to writing for screen. Which gods would be so fiendish, I'm not sure. 

Since television was closer to stage, especially sitcoms, I started there; buying up books on writing for the small screen, learning the craft, and cranking out specs for popular TV shows. Soon after, I made the leap to features. I won't lie, it took the playwright in me a while to learn how to tell a story with slug lines,  an economy of description, and severely honed down dialogue—especially after all the unrestriced speech of plays. (Death of a Monologue.)

After seven years of giving Hollywood my best shot with minimal results, I threw in the towel and returned to real life, searching for my substitute calling. (I never did find one by the way.) But of all the stories I'd created during my never-was screenwriting career, Delta Legend was the one that continued to haunt me. I imagined the characters calling out to me whenever I walked past the drawer of unwanted specs, "Hey, don't forget about us. Don't let us die in here!"

Oh I talked about turning the story into a novel but never did anything toward that end. Then my life entered a time of loss: divorce, subsequent sale of our home, job outsourced—all things I could slog through and keep going, that is until my incredibly dynamic sister-in-law died of breast cancer. She was only two years older than me and her passing rocked our family's world. For weeks after, I did nothing but lie in bed, listening to the rain on the roof of my tiny Sebastopol cottage while comforting myself with every episode of Ballykissangel on Netflix. Then, almost two months to the day after Sandy died, I decided to act upon the heartbreaking “life's short” reality check I'd been given. I got up, opened my laptop, and made a start.


I'd never even taken a creative writing course in college and I wasn't what you'd call a voracious reader of novels. I’d authored and co-authored a few humor pieces and one mockumentory-style book, but nothing of this magnitude. Yet there I was, about to tackle what seemed like an impossible task: turning a visual story into a narrative one. 


The screenplay of Delta Legend had been my swan song in Hollywood—a desperate last-ditch effort to break through as a screenwriter. Teen Horrors were all the rage back then and I was chasing the genre. What I failed to take into account was that the bulk of these were shot on shoestring budgets. (Insert clip of teens running around in the dark woods with flashlights under their chins.) By the time I finished the spec of Delta Legend, it was such a budget-busting behemoth, no one in their right mind would have touched it. Tons of shooting in and on water, loads of SPFX (at a time when they were far more expensive) not to mention a cast of thousands—okay, I'm exaggerating but more characters than advisable. Thank god I was deep enough in denial to complete the screenplay, otherwise I never would’ve had the blueprint for what ultimately became the novel. Notice I didn’t call it an outline, because a screenplay is so much more than that. 


Back to my "how the hell am I going to pull this off" moment. I knew the novel version would require far more research, character development, and back story than the screenplay. But with no how-to books and no formula to rely upon, I felt lost. I realize some of you just cringed at the term formula, but I cling to it like a life raft. Once I'm out of the choppy waters I can always abandon it, but initially, I crave that rigid structure.

Fortunately, the thing that kept coming back to me was this concept that great storytelling remains the same regardless of the medium. And the story was neatly imbedded in the spec, all I needed to do was extract it and expound upon it. So maybe I wasn't a brilliant writer of prose, I was still a damn good storyteller and continually reminding myself of that fact gave me the courage to try. As far as writing sparkling narrative—I was just gonna have to learn.

For more of the "nuts & bolts" of turning a screenplay into a novel, Part Two of Driving in Reverse can be found HERE.