Novel to Screenplay: Two Authors Tell Their Tales

SOF front cover--color--smallCWC Mt. Diablo members, Judith Marshall (Husbands May Come and Go, But Friends are Forever) and Alfred J. Garrotto (The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story) have active novel-to-film processes in the works. In both cases, the authors have written their own screenplays for the film versions. The Write News asked them to share with us their experiences and any tips they might have for other novelists. 

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Write News: How did you decide to write the screenplay for your novel?
.Judith:
Shortly after a Hollywood producer optioned my novel, she engaged a screenwriter to do the script adaptation. After three unsuccessful attempts, I elected to write the screenplay myself. Although I had no screenwriting experience, I felt no one knew my story better than I did, so I’d give it a try.
Al:
When I first started scouting opportunities to option my novel to a film company, I was told that film people don’t want to read books. They want to see a screenplay. Soon after that, a producer did get excited about optioning the film, but she had her own script writer. When that potential deal fell apart, I began putting feelers out again. A close friend who had just produced a sweet and touching film, Love, Concord (Concord, CA) told me I had to have a screenplay, or I wouldn’t get much attention. So, I began writing and quickly got the attention of another producer, who repeated the mantra, “Get me a first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Write News: How difficult was it to convert your novel into a screenplay?
Judith:
The most difficult thing for me was condensing a 425-page novel into 126-page screenplay. Deciding what to leave out without jeopardizing the plot was a real challenge.
Al:
I thought the hardest thing would be mastering the script formatting style. It isn’t that difficult, and Final Draft software took the boredom out of repetitive Scene and Character typing. The biggest challenges in writing the first draft were to (1) separate the novel’s dialogue from its exposition, abandoning page after page of cherished text, and (2) fight the temptation to get inside the characters’ heads. Film is primarily a visual medium. You have to tell your story in actions that are seen by the audience. Emotions can play a large role, but the actors must convey their thought processes with subtle visuals. In other words, I had to hang up my novelist’s hat and focus primarily on what the lens captured and on sound effects.

Write News: What, if anything, surprised you about the writing process?
Judith:
I found using the Final Draft software very helpful. I didn’t have to worry about formatting and could concentrate on the content. I was also surprised at how easy it was to strip away the exposition and hone in on the dialogue, which I didn’t need to change at all. Bottom line: I found it much easier to write a screenplay than it is to write a novel.
Al:
By the second and third (of five) drafts, I had become aware that the script was taking on a life of its own. I let go of the literal novel and decided to go where script was leading me. In plain English, this meant (1) adding/changing a lot of dialogue, (2) re-sequencing a major plot point to heighten tension, and (3) changing the ending of the story to tie up some loose ends more neatly.

Write News: Where is your film project now (as this is being written)?
Judith:
My producer has engaged a new producer/director/screenwriter who has read my screenplay and is doing his own adaptation which is due any day.
Al:
The project is moving forward in a positive direction. Both the producer and the proposed director have approved the screenplay. Names of actors have been raised and tossed about. So far, though, everything is talk. I do not have an option contract for the book and/or screenplay.

Write News: What do you expect the next step to be in the process?
Judith:
When my producer and I have read the first draft of the new screenplay, we will provide notes of any suggested changes we have to the screenwriter. Once the script is ready, it will be pitched to studios, TV networks and actors. (The book was sent to Meryl Streep before the decision was made to adapt it into a screenplay – pretty exciting!)
Al:
From my standpoint, I will begin to press for an option contract. After all, neither the producer nor director can go much farther with my property without my written consent.

Write News: How confident are you that your book/screenplay will one day make it to the big screen?
Judith:
My producer seems committed to the project, and the current screenwriter loves the characters and the story. But you never know. Things change often in Hollywood. For instance, when the book was first optioned, it was pitched to two well-known female producers who said they weren’t interested in a “women’s movie” at the moment because Eat, Pray, Love had been a box office flop. I just keep my fingers crossed.
Al:
I am more optimistic than confident. For some reason, this story grabs people at a deep level. It seems to want to be a movie and people in the business want to make that happen. I just keep saying yes and moving it on down the path.

Write News: What advice do you have for other writers who hope to have their story reach the big screen?
Judith:
First, ask yourself, Is my story screen-worthy? Be honest. Would you buy a ticket to see it on the big screen? What other movies would it be like? My producer says my movie is The Big Chill meets It’s Complicated. That’s how they pitch in Hollywood. If you’re interested in learning how to write a screenplay, then do it. But having a screenplay isn’t necessary to land a screen option. In my case, it was my pre-launch press release that caught the attention of my producer; that and the title of the book, which she loves. If you’re going the traditional publishing route, pitch to agents who also handle screen rights. If you’re really serious, you can go to a Hollywood pitchfest and present your story ideas to those directly in the business. You don’t need a screenplay to pitch . . . . You can Google “Hollywood pitchfests” for options. If you believe your work is screen-worthy, do whatever it takes to get it in front of the right people. See you at the movies!
Al:
Learn how to write your own screenplay and do it. I knew I could write the script. After all, who knows my story better than I do? Still, I deferred when offered the first shot at it thinking, “I’m not a professional screenwriter.” Big mistake. I could have saved myself months of anguish, if I had taken it on from the beginning. Working screenwriters want between $10k and $25k and will demand six months to produce a first draft. Even then, they may not produce a screen-worthy product. I wrote the script in four weeks at no cost to anyone.

Reprinted with permission from The Write News, monthly newsletter of the California Writers Club, Mount Diablo Branch (http://cwcmtdiablowriters.wordpress.com/).

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 (c) 2013 Alfred J. Garrotto

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About Alfred J. Garrotto

Alfred J. Garrotto grew up in a theatrical family. He began working in films (crowd scenes) at the age of seven. As an adult, life detoured him into Catholic ministry. He is the author of 12 books, seven of which are novels.
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