Saturday, February 15, 2014

From Screenplay to Novel and Back Again

In a two-part post titled, Driving In Reverse, I wrote about the journey of turning my screenplay, Delta Legend, into a novel. From the number of views that article gets, I'd say there are quite a few other screenwriters making the transition.

Now that Delta Legend is out in paperback and growing a whole new audience, I've gone back to do a major polish on the original spec. Revisiting the source material after such a long time has been interesting to say the least. Obviously, having written a novel, I'm a different writer than I was when I wrote the screen version. I'm relieved to report that the spec wasn't as inchoate as I'd anticipated and I wouldn't be completely mortified if an original version were unearthed in an archeological dig of Hollywood.

When I wrote the screenplay, Delta Legend, I was living in Los Angeles with my then husband, Michael Bertram. We met working at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. While neither one of us had lofty ambitions of a Hollywood career (he'd already been there and returned) as magical as Skywalker Ranch is, it can also be a lovely little fish bowl. When the opportunity arose for Michael to take a more challenging position with a major studio, we left our beautiful hippie house on the Petaluma River in Marin and joined the hive in Los Angeles. Talk about culture shock.

Image from
Originally a playwright, I decided to adopt a "When in Rome" approach to finding myself in LA. As Michael began carving out a career in Post Production Sound at Fox, I immersed myself in learning to write for television, and eventually features. I truly had no idea of the fortress I was naively preparing to storm.

I met and teamed up with Bob Crane (yes, his dad was that Bob Crane, with all the fame and notoriety that brings). Bob was dating Michael's sister, Leslie, at the time and we ultimately wound up in-laws. He was also my first Hollywood "connection." He'd co-written the only authorized biography of Jack Nicholson, co-written a screenplay that actually got made into a TV Movie, and was a regular contributor to Playboy. Bob was far more experienced in writing and all things Hollywood—he'd grown up in that culture. We clicked and had a similar sense of humor. So when we came up with the idea for a mockumentary-style book based on the OJ Simpson case, we went to work.

Bob Crane fends off a tiny spider in typically subtle fashion.
Bob and I reveled our own private writer's bullpen, working five days a week. It was some of the most fun "working" I've ever had. We brain-stormed, laughed our asses off, lunched at Jerry's or Solley's, and drank a gin at the end of the day, congratulating ourselves on our brilliance.

I thought if I can do this for a living, I will have died and gone to heaven. Our book, No Stone Unturned did not land a traditional publishing deal and self-publishing wasn't even on the map back then. We also pitched a TV spin-off concept around town but no one was biting. No Stone Unturned was ultimately serialized in the now defunct print magazine, 111, and online in the first incarnation of MidnightBBQ—a company name I still use today.

I soon returned my focus to cranking out specs for the "Must See TV" era and tried to get "people who knew people" to read them and take them over the wall. I eventually landed a writer/producer gig on a documentary-style series about night workers and went on the road with a crew, shooting all across America. Hearing Ed Asner speak the V.O. dialogue I had written was a thrill. But, alas, as with lots of shows, We Never Close never saw the light of day, and "close" we did.

Check out the size of that monitor, not to mention the chin. 
With my assistant Jasmine in the Writer's Studio, Studio City.
After seven years of toiling away in Hollywood with lackluster results, I boxed up dozens of TV specs along with a few features and called time of death on my screenwriting career, and ultimately, my marriage. Michael had found his place in Hollywood. I had not. Longing for home and missing the lifestyle of our past, I returned to Northern California and didn't write a single creative word for several years. I opened a shop called The Junkman's Daughter, went back into catering, dabbled in branding and marketing for the wine industry, returned to school for HR Management and did pretty much anything and everything to make myself forget that what I truly wanted to be was a writer.

It was the loss of my dynamic sister-in-law, Sandy, to breast cancer that finally pulled me from my state of denial. This life we've been given does not come with any guarantees. If there's something you want to do, you'd damn well better get to it. And what I wanted to do was give my strongest story, Delta Legend, a chance at life outside the cardboard file box of unwanted specs.

A lot of water had passed under the bridge of my writing career by the time I finally sat down to write the novel version of Delta Legend. But if you think any experience in life has been a waste of time, think again. It's been said of my work as a novelist that I bring "vivid imagery" to the page—I have my seven years in Hollywood to thank for that.

The original spec of Delta Legend was a straight down the line teen horror. If you've read the book, you know the story has become so much more than that as a novel. Incorporating all that growth back into the screenplay was challenging—a bit like trying to pack nutrient-dense ingredients into your favorite donut and still have it taste delicious.

 Dun Well Vegan Doughnuts, Brooklyn, NY

While it's been fun wearing the screenwriter hat again, I'm eager to get back to my preferred gig as novelist and give my full attention to ______ Legend. Coming full circle from spec to novel and back again has made me a stronger writer in both mediums. The two versions of Delta Legend will soon compliment each another.

The original spec was a sound and solid blueprint from which to build the novel. The discipline of screenwriting brings concise story structure and a cinematic quality to the book.

Post novel, the screenplay now has a back-story richness it didn't before, and while the bulk of this remains unseen, it's not unfelt. At the time of this post I'm taking one more pass through the screenplay. Let's hope one day there will be an "Option" option. If so, there's a solid script ready to deliver.