Saturday, January 28, 2012

Converting Your Script To A Novel

So what does one do with a brilliant screenplay that never sold? For many screenwriters, from amateurs to Academy Award winners, the answer is put it in a drawer and let it gather dust. Unsold scripts have some value as a "writing sample," something to send to producers and studio executives when going out for open writing assignments. However, even a popular unproduced screenplay will never get more than a few hundred readers. Considering the years of work that might go into a single script, that's a depressing reality. I'm liable to get more readers in a single day on my blog than I've had readers for my best unproduced screenplays.

Sometimes screenwriters consider converting a screenplay into a novel, but traditionally, this process has been difficult. Mastering one medium is hard enough. Mastering two is superhuman. Unlike screenplays, novels give far more weight to characters' history and inner life. Unlike screenplays, the quality of a novel is often determined by the writer's stylistic and inventive use of language. Novels tend to be vastly more complex, and often require ten or more hours of reading, while a screenplay can be read in under two. Furthermore, the publishing world has historically been difficult to break into. Getting a book published was not necessarily any easier than getting a movie made. 

However, with the advent of micro-publishers and e-readers, this may all change. What if, by spending a week or two changing formats, a screenwriter could "direct the movie in his/her head" and put it in novel form? Would movie fans like zipping through a book in two hours that gave them the experience of being in a theater watching the finished film? Would movie executives and producers prefer to read spec scripts in novel format? Could screenwriters use the medium to build a fan base online, making their story more attractive to studios?

I had a chance to interview Ed Gray, owner of Aisle Seat Books, who is doggedly pursuing this very idea of publishing scripts in the format of novels.

What is Aisle Seatt Books, and why did you decide to start the company?

 EG: Aisle Seat Books is a new trade imprint of the publishing Graybooks LLC, which publishes in four fields: food, fiction, memoir, and history.

I’ve been an editor and writer all of my career, and like many print people I’ve written a few screenplays, none of which ever sold. When I heard about the Amazon Studios contests, I submitted a script, DANCASTER’S PARDON, which has been a finalist three times. So I became recognizable in that new community of writers and filmmakers and got active in the AS forums where the question arose as to whether or not a writer could publish a submitted screenplay in book or novelization form.

 The legal answer -- it’s directly addressed in the AS Development Agreement -- is an unequivocal “yes.” Once I saw that possibility, I set about figuring out how best to do that using my own DANCASTER’S PARDON as a guinea pig. It worked beautifully, so I then got in touch with the other semifinalists, finalists and winners at AS and invited them to consider letting me publish theirs as well.

About half got back to me to express interest and Aisle Seat Books was launched. Right now we’ve got a dozen titles under contract and bunch more in the pipeline.

What is it like to read an Aisle Seat Book? How is it different than reading a screenplay?

EG: Reading an ASB book is like watching the movie it wants to become except that it plays in your head, not on a screen. It unfolds in the same amount of time --you can read one in 90 minutes to 2 hours. Like a movie or a screenplay, it unfolds in the present tense and includes no “unfilmables.” It’s beat for beat and dialogue line for dialogue line exactly the same as the underlying screenplay. No backstory, digressions, or internal monologue. No omniscient narrator telling the reader what a character is thinking.

What you see is what you get, or, more accurately, what you would see on the screen is all you’re going to get here. The biggest difference from a screenplay is the format -- ASB books look like books, not scripts. Dialogue is inside quotes with “he said” and “she gasped” instead of character slugs and tight indents. Action is described in normal paragraph form. Scene breaks are indicated by simple typographic arrows and the slug lines become descriptive sentences. It flows the way we’re all used to reading light fiction.

The other big difference from a screenplay is that in an Aisle Seat Book, the writer gets to direct with an unlimited production budget and full casting discretion. All those no-no’s in a spec script (physical character description, stage direction, dialogue coaching, beats and pauses, expensive locations, etc.) are all yes-yes’s here. If this little book is going to play like a movie in a reader’s head, it better look and sound like one there, too.

Who is the audience for Aisle Seat Books?

EG: Movie-goers. These are meant to be easy alternatives for movie lovers who find themselves in an aisle seat of a commuter train, bus, or airplane instead of an aisle seat in a theater. They’re also for people who want to have a vote on whether or not this unproduced movie they just enjoyed might actually get made. At the back of every one there’s a link to a web page where each reader can rate the tale and suggest a cast.

What screenwriters should consider publishing a book this way?

EG: How could it help them get a movie made? How could it help them reach an audience? Every good screenwriter should. But not necessarily with every script they’ve got. An Aisle Seat Book would be best for any script with real potential that has not yet caught traction. Aisle Seat Books are commercial products -- they’ll get widespread promotion, will be purchased, read, and discussed by paying customers, and the writer will earn some money, possibly a lot of money. And any ASB title that gets attention in the marketplace will certainly get attention from film rights acquisition folks.

Why should producers or studio executives read an Aisle Seat Book instead of a screenplay?

EG: Because it’s the same story, beat for beat, as the screenplay, but light years easier. Easier to read and much easier to get a copy. It’ll be seconds away from their iPad, Kindle, or phone, synced to each and always available where the exec left off reading. Plus there will be no releases to obtain or potential defenses to mount. They’ll just be buying a book, and a really cheap one at that. Right now an ASB ebook is $4.99 or less.

What does a screenwriter have to do to publish a book through Aisle Seat.

EG: Convince me it’s good. We’re an old-school, traditional book publisher in that regard. Writers don’t choose us, we choose writers. We pay very high royalties. If I decide to take on a title, we do all the work and front all the expenses.

What has been your most popular book so far?

EG: Some are selling better than others, but it’s way too soon to highlight them at the expense of the others. We’re still at a very early stage, building out awareness, so measuring popularity at this stage would be a bit like talking about audience metrics from a movie’s early film festival appearances rather than from its eventual box office. We’re barely past the focus group testing stage. But so far it really looks good across the board.

What is your relationship with Amazon Studios?

EG: Aisle Seat Books has none. As an individual I’m a contest entrant with three uploaded scripts. AS has been fully aware of Aisle Seat Books since I first proposed it and after hearing my pitch has unofficially indicated its general support of the concept, but beyond that we’re entirely separate and independent with no business affiliation, formal or informal. Of course the books are sold by Amazon, so in that sense I guess we’re semi-related. Second cousins by marriage or something like that.

What is the future of Aisle Seat Books?

EG: We’ll see. Right now it looks unlimited. But there are some near-term logistical barriers to beat down or evade, especially with our trade paperback versions. The old line large book publishers all got big not by carefully curating good books but by getting very good at manufacturing, warehousing, distributing, and controlling unsold returns of vast quantities of printed books. Ebooks and print-on-demand are now severing that money tree at the roots. It’s dying but not dead, and those with a lifeblood stake in its continuance defend its branches staunchly. Newcomers wanting to climb aboard and snack on a bit of that fruit don’t find many helping hands offering a boost. The answer, of course, is to find some fertile soil and plant some new trees. That’s what we’ll be doing in 2012.

What is the process of turning a screenplay into a book? What must the screenwriter keep in mind?

EG: The process is almost purely mechanical, since the hard part -- the structure, dialogue and action -- are already in place in a polished sequence that works. It’s a finished story. All that has to be done is to get rid of the screenplay-specific elements like slug lines and varying indentations. It takes a couple of working days.

The best way I've found to attack the mechanics of it is to make a new copy of the script in whatever software you use, then select all and change it all to "action" or whatever your software calls a simple paragraph describing action. Now you've got the whole thing set in prose margins. Export to Word as plain text or RTF. In Word, you then go through and (1) change all your slug lines to simple descriptive sentences preceded by ">>" as a standalone line indicating a scene change (the arrows in the paperback), and (2) delete all the dialogue character name slugs and enclose the dialogue inside quotation marks, adding "he said" or "she said" or "said Glenn" as appropriate for clarity.

The art form is in figuring out when to name a character. In a script you have to on character introduction, but that's for casting and dialogue ID. In a normal novel you can name a character any time because in a novel you can do anything you want. But an ASB book is a written movie that unfolds as if the reader is watching instead of reading -- only "filmables" are allowed. So when the blonde with the broken nose walks into the room, she's "a blonde with a broken nose," but not yet "Nancy" because that's all the audience can know at that point. Only after she's named onscreen can you call her "Nancy" in the book. BUT there are exceptions: Because your leads will be played by recognizable actors, you can name them right away, as you'll see I did with John Dancaster. There is wiggle room, but you'll find that using descriptions rather than names for minor characters is one of the real beauties of this format: Readers don't lose track of who's who the way a script reader sometimes does -- the blonde with a broken nose is the blonde with a broken nose, not "Wait, who is Nancy again?"

That, by the way, is another reason studio execs would do well to read the ASB version of a spec.

Sean Hood's take:

Having read several of the titles available at Aisle Seat Books, I can honestly report that Ed may be on to something. The novel format is much easier and more enjoyable to read than the screenplay format, and an Aisle Street Book actually gives the reader a BETTER sense of what it would be like to watch the movie.

The key is that the screenwriters aren't trying to compete with J.K. Rowling or Cormac McCarthy. The book is still a prose form of a movie; it just mimics a novel instead of a stage play. Since most movies rely on "underlying material" such as a graphic novel, a magazine article, or traditional novel, it actually may make more sense to read and evaluate potential movies this way.

My only criticism of the process is that I think that writers need to spend more that a few days switching formats. I think about two weeks would be necessary to "direct the movie in your head," adding all those nuances of image, sound, and performance that are key to the experience of watching a film, but are traditionally left out of movie scripts. I also am not a fan of the arrows used as transitions. It "takes me out" so to speak.

But the takeaway has to be that this is an exciting new option for frustrated scribes, and that a good story, well told, will always shine...regardless of format.

P.S. I apologize for the simplified format of this blog. Blogger is giving me terrible trouble, so I'm in the process of moving to wordpress.


Sean Hood said...

Teri Brown commented on Google +

"Did you know that Rex Pickett originally wrote SIDEWAYS as a screenplay, didn't like it, then converted it into a novel which got into the hands of Alexander Payne before it was even published? In fact, Rex Pickett didn't even write the screenplay for the film--Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne adapted it from the novel. How funny/backwards it all happened!

I guess it just goes to show you that there's more than one way to get your story told on screen."

Karen Mueller Bryson said...

This is very similar to what I am doing with my company, Short on Time Books, fast-paced and fun novels for readers on the go. The books are based on screenplays.


Kaz Drysdale said...

Yes Sean - I read Rex's blog over at Stage 32. Good information. Yours is more food for thought and will be doing what you said here. :) Cheers, Kaz

Kaz Drysdale said...

This is such a helpful blog Sean.

Yes, I read Rex's blog over at Stage 32. That too was insightful... makes a screenwriter re-think.


Eromosele Gideon Augustine said...

i so much appreciate your thought, i am a screen writer from Nigeria and would want to know if you can assist me in the sale of my unproduced script through AISLE SEAT BOOKS platform?

Sean Hood said...

You should go to the Aisle Seat Books website for more information. Good Luck!

Joe Augustyn said...

Having gone through the process myself I wouldn't recommend hacking through the conversion in an attempt to make a screenplay more tempting to development execs. Books and screenplays are two entirely different art forms. What works in one doesn't always translate linearly, but must be seriously reworked to be effective. If you're simply removing the screenplay formatting it won't make a screenplay any more sellable than it already was. And if you want to sell books, you need to create something more "literary" than a screenplay (as the blogger suggested in his wrap-up).

If you are a screenwriter and decide to convert your existing material to novel or novella form, take the opportunity to properly expand it and take advantage of the benefits the more open medium provides. It will make you a better writer in both fields.

Richard Garrison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Garrison said...

Nice article. I think it's fascinating to learn about movies that started out as books, like the DIE HARD series, or RAMBO, FIRST BLOOD, to name a few.

I have taken on this undertaking myself with my own screenplays. I believe it can help broaden not only your appeal as a writer but also your skills. I happen to write extensively about the process on my blog: Turn Your Screenplay into a Novel and Make Hollywood Come to You