From Screenplays to Novels and Beyond

screenplay-to-novels
Since a child, I always loved movies and television more than books or any other kind of art. Film was my favorite form of art because it encapsulated all other art forms: music, photography, cinematography, acting, writing, storytelling, painting, makeup, clothing, fashion, costumes, sculpture, props, architecture, computer graphics, animation, etc… The list goes on. That’s why there are so many names at the end of a movie. Almost all those people are artists in their own right, contributing to the master artwork that is the film.

Towards the end of high school, I thought I wanted to be involved in the movie industry in some way as a career, but I didn’t know how. Certainly not as an actor. I was more interested in working behind the scenes. I didn’t know if I could handle being a director—the one in charge—so I looked for other roles. I just wanted to be one of the hundreds of names in the credits; I didn’t need to be the first.

I used to love watching the special features on DVDs about the making of the movie, especially the special effects. I was also interested in computers, so I entered college as a computer science major with hopes of becoming a CGI artist. That didn’t last very long, however. My computer science courses were dry,  boring, and difficult. It was all coding, which was basically like learning a new language, with very little artistry involved, so I switched majors after my first semester.

I was undecided for a while, taking courses in various subjects to figure out what I wanted to do. In the middle of my sophomore year, I became an Economics major, mainly because it seemed like it would be a useful degree, but by my junior year I was dreading that decision. The upper-level economic courses were heavy in math and formulas, which wasn’t my strong suit, and my grades dropped as a result.

I wanted to switch to a subject I enjoyed more—to get back to my passion, which was always movies. My college didn’t have a film major, but the Communication department had film-related classes. The reason I never became a Communication major in the first place is it required a Public Speaking course, and I had such severe social anxiety at the time that I avoided that major just to avoid that class.

By then—the middle of my junior year—it was too late to become a Communication major anyway, so I majored in History, primarily because it was the only subject I could switch to and still graduate on time. I’d already taken several History courses, generally enjoyed them, and got better grades. I felt much more comfortable writing papers and essays than taking multiple-choice tests. Plus, I had plenty of free electives to take film classes in the Communication department. A minor in Communication did not require the Public Speaking course, which seemed like a better option for me at the time.

In my senior year, after taking all the other available film courses, I signed up for a screenwriting class—though I wasn’t very enthused about it. Writing wasn’t an aspect of filmmaking I was particularly interested in. However, upon learning about the process and writing my first short screenplay, something clicked. I realized screenwriting was not only a job I could do but one I enjoyed doing. Creating a story, plot, and characters in my mind was fun and came naturally to me. I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life: become a professional screenwriter and write my own original movies.

After college, I wrote screenplays in my spare time while working a part-time job for money. I did this for several years, writing around ten original scripts, which I’d send off to screenwriting competitions. I never won or anything, though I did get some positive feedback. I also tried querying agents and managers, but most didn’t accept unsolicited query letters. The conventional way to break into the screenwriting industry is to be in Los Angeles and make connections in person. That may sound old-fashioned in a world connected by the internet, but that’s the way the movie industry still works. So when I had enough money saved up, I decided to move to LA.

Actually, before moving, I also decided to give writing a novel a try. Since book agents actually accepted query letters, I thought I might have a better shot at breaking into writing through the book industry, then I could use that leverage to break into screenwriting. So I adapted one of my screenplays into a novel and queried dozens of agents. Again, I got some positive feedback, but ultimately all rejections. I later realized that writing a book as a means to write screenplays is foolish. If you write a book, it should be an end in itself.

Even though my first novel (and second) wasn’t good enough to be published, through writing them, I realized I actually liked writing prose. It was difficult at first—much more difficult for me than writing screenplays—but I got better over time. I was never a big book reader as a child; I always preferred watching movies. It wasn’t until after college that I started reading books for pleasure. In the years since, I’ve come to enjoy reading novels as much as watching movies, if not more so. (The same for writing novels over screenplays.)

After living in Los Angeles, being embedded in the film industry, and developing a script with an indie producer, I realized I would rather write books for a living than movies. I had no desire to get into the drama of a Hollywood screenwriting career, taking pitch meetings with executives and producers, which seems like a waste of time and distraction from the art of writing. Much of the job of a screenwriter has nothing to do with writing—it’s networking and pitching. I’m not interested in doing any of that. I just want to write. Being a novelist allows you to do that (for the most part). You may still have to deal with editors and agents and do other business and publicity related things, but ultimately you get to write alone and do what you want—which is exactly what I want to do: work on my own time at my own pace, writing exactly what I want to write.

What I want to write are completely original stories. I’m sick of remakes, sequels, and things based on video games, board games, and toys. Sure, I like movies based on books, but I’d rather be the author who writes the original novel than the screenwriter who adapts it. For me, creating the original story is so much more fulfilling than recreating it.

The problem today in Hollywood is the studios are almost exclusively making movies based on preexisting material. If you want to write original movies (unless you are directing it yourself independently or are Christopher Nolan) you’re better off writing a novel, comic book, or short story, then waiting for Hollywood to come calling. That’s still extremely rare, but not any rarer than getting an original spec script produced. If you write a great original screenplay, it probably won’t ever get made. Even if it’s fantastic and you sell it for six figures, still, the studios would rather hire you to write a new screenplay based on preexisting material with brand awareness and a built-in audience. In most cases, no one will ever be able to read or see the great original screenplay you wrote except for a select group of Hollywood executives, agents, producers, and other movie industry insiders.

Philosophically speaking, if you are making a piece of art—any art, be it a song, poem, painting, novel, or movie—you should want that art to be experienced by as many people as possible. Not for fame or money, but for the pure desire to share a unique emotional experience that you believe is worth sharing. So if your art is writing original stories, Hollywood movies is not the best route to take (even if you love movies).

I started my writing career exclusively through screenplays, then shifted to writing both screenplays and novels, but now I’ve shifted to exclusively writing novels and short stories. Prose was more difficult for me at first (screenwriting came more naturally), but I’ve gotten better over time, and continue to get better with the more prose I write. I can now look back on the first two novels I wrote, recognize the flaws and mistakes I made, and understand why the agents rejected them. I also realize what I have to do to fix them, though it will take a lot of rewriting and editing.

I’ve been writing prose for about six years now (screenplays for eleven), and each year my work is better than the last. Early on, I always thought my writing was great at the time, but I was inexperienced and didn’t realize the mistakes I was making—but I needed to make them in order to improve. Perhaps people who started writing when they were younger, getting their mistakes out earlier in life, are good enough to be published straight out of college. I wasn’t. I never wrote creatively until that final year of college. For some reason it was never encouraged by my teachers in grade school, middle school, or high school. I rarely had creative writing projects assigned, so post-college, creative writing was new to me. I had a vivid imagination and some good story ideas, but I didn’t have the craftsmanship as a writer to execute those ideas to their fullest potential.

Aside from that one screenwriting class in college, I was mostly self-taught as a writer. I read books, blogs, articles, listened to podcasts, and watched A LOT of movies (at least one a day). My early years of writing, I learned so much about screenwriting and movies, but I knew little about anything else. These past few years, I’ve spent less time studying writing and more time studying what to write about, such as science, philosophy, and history. Being more intelligent and knowledgeable overall has improved my writing more than simply studying writing.

At a certain point, you figure out how to tell a story: three acts with a beginning, middle, and end, plus character arcs and plot twists, etc. With time and practice, that structure becomes second nature—instinctual in a way. Once you learn the basics of story structure, reading more books about writing won’t help you as much as actually writing. The hard part is finding a subject matter worth telling a story about and making the theme and message meaningful. That is not something you can learn from movies or books about writing. Otherwise, you’ll just be repeating those who came before you. Much of my early science fiction screenplays were inspired by science fiction movies as opposed to real science. To find an original story, you must read nonfiction books, watch documentaries, and listen to podcasts with experts, especially about science and human nature. Plus, aside from reading and writing, you need to live—gain life experience to share.

After deciding to solely write novels and short stories, there was no sense continuing to live in Los Angeles, especially because of the high cost of living. The great thing about writing books is you can do it from anywhere in the world, so I figured I’d move someplace less expensive. Most writers don’t make a lot of money, but I’d be happy to make enough just to get by, so it would make sense to live someplace where you can get by on less. As someone who doesn’t go out much, I don’t need to live in a big city. I’d prefer to live closer to nature—create my own Walden. I don’t know where that will be yet, but I’ve moved back with my family in New York until I figure it out.

During my time in Los Angeles, I didn’t fail in becoming a screenwriter; I succeeded in realizing I didn’t want to become a screenwriter. Throughout my life, my true passion has always been storytelling. At first, I thought movies were the ideal medium to do that, but now I realize I prefer prose. I want to write novels and short stories first and foremost. Later, if someone else wants to adapt them into movies, that would be nice, but I’d rather stay removed from the process and just do my own thing and write.

In Los Angeles, I also succeeded by growing as a person, learning to live completely on my own. I had lots of time to read and write, joined a couple of writing groups, and went to various writing events, lectures, and Q&A’s. My four years in LA were like graduate school for writing (without the degree and tuition). I learned through books, blogs, podcasts, videos, and in-person writing groups—all free, except for the cost of books (which you can get for free at a library). The critique group I joined was especially helpful because they pointed out mistakes I was routinely making yet unaware of. The criticism often stung at first, but it helped make me a better writer.

Ultimately, the best thing I did to improve my writing was simply writing. The only way to learn how to write is to write. You will naturally get better over time. Living alone in LA, I had a lot of time and did A LOT of writing: screenplays, novels, short stories, novellas, poems, blog posts, essays, journal entries, and more. Each word you write makes you a better writer. So if you want to be a writer, WRITE.

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