Sunday, September 18, 2011

Writing for the movies - The story of how I wrote screenplays that didn't set the world on fire.

Over the last year I've written a kids' book, and a good portion of an adult novel (adult meaning for grown-ups, not because it has objectionable content) and it doesn't seem like I've accomplished much unless I also give myself credit for writing blog posts and emails and promotional stuff and two screenplays.

The screenplays were a surprise, even for me. When A Scattered Life was optioned for film at the end of 2009, someone asked me if I was going to write the screenplay and I was like, "Are you kidding? I can't do that!" And that's just how I felt at the time. Writing screenplays was a whole different thing from what I was used to doing. Novels are words on a page, screenplays create images on a screen. And then there's the formatting and the whole "FADE IN" and "FADE OUT" and "MOS" and other lingo that seemed like secret code to me. The thought of writing a screenplay intrigued me, but that's where it ended.

I'd just gotten used to the idea that people wanted to read my books. It seemed presumptuous to think I could write a screenplay.

But an interesting thing happened then. I attended a social event hosted by RedBirdRedOak in Milwaukee (a reading by various writers at a coffee shop) and someone there said, "You really need to meet Dave Thome. He's had screenplays optioned," and so we were introduced and I found out that Dave had a lot of great stories about the movie industry. He's had meetings with producers in L.A., had scripts optioned, won prizes in competitions. No movies yet, but he's had some serious stuff happen. Far more than most writers ever see. And he said to me, "You should join the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum." He told me about the organization and I explained that I wasn't a screenwriter, but he seemed to think that wouldn't make a difference.

I was intrigued, but didn't do anything for several months. During that time I had a conversation with another writer friend, Gail Grenier, and we were talking about a screenplay she'd written and her attempts to get it produced. I told her she should look into the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum and she knew all about it, in fact she was a member, but she'd never gone to their monthly meetings in Madison.

To make a long story short, the three of us have been carpooling to the Madison meetings since then. I missed one month and the next time we drove, suddenly Gail and Dave had private jokes about things that happened during THE ONE TIME I missed, and I felt like the odd man out, which is ironic since they would never have met if not for me. It was sixth grade all over again.

I've been writing for a long time, and have gone to a lot of writers' critique groups, workshops, conferences etc. over the years, but WSF was like nothing I'd ever experienced. First of all, the members are serious, goal oriented writers, dedicated to the craft and determined to help each other succeed. Secondly, mirroring the movie industry, the majority of the members are men. No one differentiates or discriminates at WSF, this is just something I observed. For me, it gives the group a different sensibility.

Only slightly off topic, if anyone reading this is interested in writing screenplays, the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum is not limited to those living in Wisconsin. They have members from all over the world and there are some nice benefits to belonging, even if you can't attend the meetings.

I became interested in writing a screenplay after attending a few meetings. To prepare, I read dozens (hundreds?) of screenplays online, read numerous books about the craft of writing for film, and bought the necessary formatting software.

It was exciting to learn something new that would take my writing in a different direction.

And then I wrote a screenplay, an adaptation of my book, Favorite. I thought it was pretty good, but then Dave read it and gave me notes indicating it needed work. "Too much chit chat," was one of the things he said. So I revised the thing and wound up cutting nine pages. I guess there was too much chit chat. I didn't make all of Dave's suggested changes, probably because I'm too attached to the book's plot. That can be a problem for writers adapting their own work, I've heard.

Since then I've also written another screenplay, an adaptation of my book, Celia and the Fairies. I've made countless revisions along the way and this one, I think, is better, but I've learned that writers are often not good judges of their own work, so who knows--maybe both screenplays are terrible. I hope not, of course, but you never know.

And then, I attempted to get my screenplays into the hands of someone in the film industry, and you know what? It's almost impossible. No one cares that I wrote a screenplay, and I say that with no bitterness, it's just the way it is. The studios and production companies usually only look at things submitted by agents and agents only consider things by referral. There are smaller production companies and lesser-known agents who may be open to unsolicited queries, but I didn't feel savvy enough to navigate that terrain. A lot of writers get their foot in the door via contests, but contests charge fees and take months to make decisions (understandably) and some of them don't accept adaptations of other work, which was a problem for me.

You think it's hard to get a book published with a traditional publisher? Try getting a script made into a movie.

Of course, I'm always up for a challenge. I sent email queries to a bazillion production companies and agents. None of the agents responded, and only a handful of the production companies got back to me. One producer took the time to tell me why my project wasn't for them, which was exceptionally nice, given all the emails they get.

I realized that seeing this thing through could be time consuming, if done correctly. And I really wanted to concentrate on the novel I'm currently working on.

So I decided to upload both my screenplays to Amazon Studios. I had wondered if the fact that my books are with Amazon Publishing would make this a problem, but I read the rules and nowhere does it say that I couldn't enter. My understanding is that all the scripts are judged by blind reads, anyway, so a screenplay has to stand on its own merit.

Going with Amazon Studios ties up my work for eighteen months, but you know what? Eighteen months goes pretty fast for me, nowadays. And in each of those eighteen months they'll be eligible for monthly prizes. Some of the scripts on the site will be optioned by Amazon Studios for $200,000. Most will not, of course. Most will be up on the site for a year and a half and not win anything or get optioned. Nothing will happen at all, kind of like what the screenplays were doing stored in my computer before I uploaded them.

I like the concept of Amazon Studios and I enjoy the site. I haven't posted on the message forums yet, but I get a kick out of reading the discussions. I like the fact that other people can review your script and that you can then make revisions and upload a new version. I also appreciate being able to read other people's screenplays, especially the ones that have placed in the monthly contest. It gives me some insight into what the judges want (so far, none of them are like mine), and which ones stand out.

I told my husband that doing this feels like the early days of Kindle for me. Back then I had a "here goes nothing," attitude, that eventually led to everything I've gotten so far. It's always risky putting your work out in the world, but it's worth doing. You never know until you try, and even if it doesn't go well, at least you have your answer. Obscurity is far worse, to my mind.

If you're curious about my screenplays you can read them here. Even better, read some of the winning scripts. When they're made into movies you can say you knew about them way back when.


dark_opus said...

Sounds like quite an interesting journey so far with still plenty more to come. Also seems like you are enjoying the process and experience of the screenwriting craft form, which is always a Good Thing.

I actually did the reverse order. I took a short story and expanded it to a screenplay. Shortly after, I converted it to a novel, my first. I found each step in the story's transformation very enriching, like injecting a new life into something familiar thus morphing it into something unexpected and fresh.

But I wouldn't recommend authors use screenplays as some kind of substitute for outlining. Too darn much work.

Jon Olson said...

This is fascinating, Karen. Good luck with the screenplays. I used to work with Dave Thome, knew he wrote, but didn't know him well. Persistence!

Jon Olson
The Petoskey Stone
The Ride Home

Sean McCartney said...

Very interesting Karen. When I started out writing I did a few screenplays but I didn't find they were good enough. A few years ago I talked with a writer friend about adapting his novel into a movie. He said I could have the rights for $1,000 which I did not have but I said I wanted to try and work with it anyway. He said go for it.
Well, I took his 279 page book and made into a 195 page screeplay. Gone With The Wind was shorter! So I put it up on the shelf. Every now and then I work on shortening it. Your post has me thinking about adapting my books into screenplays. Not sure.
Great info. as usual.


Karen McQuestion said...

dark opus, I'm glad you got that I enjoyed the process. It was a mind-bender at times. I'd have a chapter in the book that wasn't very visual and I'd try to come up with a scene that did the same thing but in a more visually interesting way. Phone calls, for instance, don't make for good film moments.

Interesting that you did it in reverse order. My friend Gail did the same thing. These conversions are certainly not the easiest way to create a story. Are we all crazy, or what? Heh heh.

Hey Jon, I didn't know you knew Dave! And from work, not Redbird.
Small, small world.

Sean, I agree--195 pages is a little too long for a screenplay. Maybe it could be a mini-series on TV?

Sean McCartney said...

The book is more R-rated humor that would be a great HBO thing but then again I don't think they want a mini-series to last forever. :) I am working to gte it down to 90 pages which will happen someday.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I hope they make Celia and the Fairies into a movie! I can picture it in my head already. Tell them they have to!

Karen McQuestion said...

Oh Anon, if only it were that easy! Thanks for your enthusiasm. I think it would make a great movie too, so keep your fingers crossed.

Bill B said...

More than a few times I've finished a really great book and thought there was no way to make a decent movie from it -- the result would be terribly disappointing. And then someone would come up with a way to translate it to film, and it worked. Sometimes even the author -- Sherman Alexie wrote his own screen play that turned his collection of stories (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) into the good (& moderately successful!) movie Smoke Signals. I agree, quite an interesting journey you're on, Karen! Sounds like you're enjoying the ride! ツ

Karen McQuestion said...

Bill, you're entirely right, I am enjoying the journey. I hope it keeps going, although I've already gotten more than I deserve.

Thanks for the movie rec. I just added Smoke Signals to my Netflix queue!