Monday, September 3, 2012

The Nuts & Bolts of Turning a Screenplay into a Novel—Driving In Reverse, Part II

This is the second half of an article detailing the experience of turning my spec screenplay, Delta Legend, into a novel. Part I can be found HERE. 

Like Bill Murray’s character, Bob, clutching Dr. Marvin’s Baby Steps as he heads out into the world in What About Bob?, I stepped into the world of novel-writing clinging to my screenplay. But I no longer needed the format, just the core story. Hear that incessant beeping? That’s the sound of the Final Draft truck backing up and dumping Delta Legend into a Word Doc., leaving me to sort through the jumble and stare at all that wide open double-space territory to be filled.

I decided to start with something small—a scene with minimal action and only one character driving it. In the scene, Ol' Joe finds a fisherman who's ... well, let's just say he's half the man he used to be. Joe is one of those characters who's easy to write for. I've known the guy since I conjured him up back in 1999 and he still makes me laugh. What was a half page scene in the spec easily converted to a short four page chapter—my first. Hallelujah. This led to seeing how many other scenes could be converted directly into chapters. Surprisingly, there were quite a few and this gave me a sense of direction, a plan of sorts. 


You’ll notice the first chapter I wrote did not include my protagonist, Calvin Pierce. While I had no trouble whatsoever writing for Calvin in the screen version, suddenly I was intimidated. I knew I’d have to get inside his head and I wasn’t quite ready to take him on, so I danced around him. My hesitancy, however, ultimately ended up making him more believable since most of the other characters are initially hesitant to approach him as well. 

I decided early on that the novel version would be written in third-person. I didn't feel I could pull off writing a believable first-person narrative for a protagonist who’s such an extreme opposite of me (different age, race, culture, sex). Third-person felt right for the rest of the story as well. 

I quickly discovered that characters who were nothing more than bit players in the screenplay suddenly had lives and back stories, and I came to love them almost as much as Calvin—which made it rather hard to kill some of them off. Even the Delta itself became something of a character in a way it hadn’t in the script version.


It didn't happen overnight, but before long I was narratively storytelling. At first, it was anything but pretty. But after a while there were paragraphs I didn't hate, then pages, then entire chapters. My advice to anyone attempting to write anything has always been the same: give yourself permission to write utter crap. Crap can always be fixed, but you can’t do squat with a blank page. Now I had to take my own damn advice.

I remember being told once that in screenwriting, you are the camera. Well, in novels, you are the narrator with the mic. And oh, by the way, you're also an empath. You now have permission to say what the characters are thinking and feeling. You get to pop in and out of their heads and file a report, letting the reader in on the intimate details. 

As I got more comfortable with the process, I found my narrative voice changing from chapter to chapter, sometimes even within a chapter; it would alter ever so slightly to reflect the personality, speech, and thoughts of the different characters. When this first started happening I thought, “Well, I can’t do that, alter my narrative to match a character!” Guess what? Hell yeah you can. It’s called Free Indirect Discourse and it makes things way more interesting. Here’s a great article about it by Jon GingerichI try not to overdo it but having the freedom to do it at all is thrilling. 

I rarely read any of my specs out loud, but with the novel, it seemed only natural and proved invaluable in determining if the narrative flowed, had a cadence, had a soul.

Technically, the toughest part by far was turning the heavy action scenes into cohesive chapters that would keep the action alive while retaining the richer narrative of novels. Converting scenes that were nothing more than a series of quick shots into narrative prose was ... to put it mildly, a bitch. But it's not impossible, and if I can do it, you can do it.


Screenwriters are used to shuffling scenes around like a Rubick's Cube until things start to line up. This skill proved invaluable since the story didn’t play out exactly as it had in the film version. There were a number of instances where plot points had to be shifted slightly, but we’re used to that, right? 

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Great news—the dialog was a snap. It was already honed down to be punchy for screen, so I didn’t mess with it too much. Literary readers expect the same. They too, want dialogue that seems like the way real people talk, only better. Of course, with more back story and more character development you’ll find there’s way more for everybody to talk about, but best to keep it tight like for screen.
As screenwriters, we've learned to write creatively within a very limited format. This makes for a more deliberate novelist—we rarely wander aimlessly. And the cinematic quality screenwriters bring to a novel is undeniable. Most readers aren't able to put their finger on why, they just know they’re experiencing a richer, more visual read. More than a few reviewers have said things like, “I can totally see this as a movie” without knowing the book's origin. 

Initially, I didn’t want anyone to know that Delta Legend had been a screenplay, I just wanted people to enjoy it as a novel and think of me as a novelist. But once I began doing interviews on various blogs, it became too complicated to gloss over where the story originated and how I came to write a YA Urban Fantasy Adventure. A few book reviewers came dangerous close to unintentionally outing me as a screenwriter anyway. 

Paula Cotton of Reading Lark was one of the very first people to read and review Delta Legend and I was stunned when she said the book reminded her of one of her favorite movies, Tremors. I shouldn’t have been surprised really—Tremors was one of the screenplays I purchased and poured over as I attempted to educate myself on writing horror for screen. I too loved the movie and wanted to emulate its magical blend of unlikely heroes, a mysterious creature, and a bunch of whacko characters thrown in together. I simply didn't anticipate a savvy reviewer making the comparative leap from book to film so easily.


It took me just under two years to complete the novel. Frankly, even with a learning curve, it should have gone faster, but I fell in love about two-thirds of the way through and got knocked off course as I began a new life in a new area. 

When the novel was finally done, I began querying agents—50 to be exact. These were carefully researched and seemed the best match for this material. When the very first agent I queried asked for a "full" I was giddy. But alas, he ultimately passed and soon the “not right for my list” letters began to pile up. Keep in mind, this was two years ahead of the current push to have more multiculturalism in YA Literature. 

Having been through the rejection process in Hollywood back in the day, I had little patience for that rinse-and-repeat routine and quickly shifted my sights to going Indie. By initially putting Delta Legend out as an ebook only, it allowed me to test the waters and left the door open for a possible publishing deal. At the moment I gearing up to publish Delta Legend as a paperback. I know this is going to be a lot work but to have a physical book to hold and sign at readings would be amazing.

In this age of self-publishing, there's simply no reason to let compelling stories with great characters go begging in undiscovered specs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you abandon your screenwriting dreams the way I did—I’m encouraging you to learn to play another position. More than anything I’m imploring you, do NOT let your brilliant stories and great characters die without ever having the opportunity to live in the hearts and minds of people who will embrace them. There’s a huge audience of voracious readers clamoring for well-written novels. Yes, it’s a struggle to stand out from the crowd in what has quickly become an over-saturated market of self-published books. But those stories that began life as a carefully crafted screenplay have a slight edge—they are "tight and tidy" (thank you, Paula) built on a solid foundation by seasoned storytellers. 

It’s hard work being self-published—a tough row to hoe—but I have no regrets. I go to sleep each night with a feeling of satisfaction that my writing is out there, available to anyone who wants a great story. Delta Legend is finding a broad audience, getting some wonderful reviews, and building a following. 

Looking back, I guess I do have one regret: that I let Delta Legend languish in story purgatory for almost nine years. Will I be able to write the next Legend as a novel right out of the gate? Hard to say. These days, much of my time is spent marketing the first one, though I’ve written some decent chapters. And who knows, one of these days I might just open up Final Draft and start crafting myself a beautiful blueprint.