Archive for March, 2014

joeaugustyn-NLFM

For over two decades I worked in Hollywood, writing “spec” screenplays and fulfilling assignments from major companies and indie producers. Screenwriting is a very specific medium, requiring a strictly adhered to format based on a “one page equals one minute of screen time” formula. In the past, many a newbie made the mistake of ignoring the required format to accommodate his or her unique style. Others used an incorrect format after getting their hands on commercially available versions of screenplays that were (unknown to them) in a compressed format designed to save printing costs. The introduction of Final Draft and other screenwriting software (Celtx, Open Office with templates) helped to clear up these problems and get new screenwriters off to a solid start.

On the creative side, aside from creating a solid three act story and great characters there are occasional shifts in what is fashionable in the industry. In the mid-80s screenwriters like Eric Red had success with flowery prose and  Lawrence Kasdan scored big with the densely written screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was not only overloaded with action but thick with verbiage. Since then screenwriting has become a bit leaner, particularly for new writers hoping to break in.

Established screenwriters with agents hawking their work have a thousand-fold easier task to get their works read at companies. Screenplays by unagented unknowns can and do get read, but they are usually given short shrift by busy readers. Keep in mind that most companies either have inhouse readers or freelance readers they hire, who are the first to read any submission and write a “book report” that is submitted to the story editors and other development execs. Screenplays only move up the ladder only if they are approved at each level of advancement. The first level readers are often saddled with ten or more scripts and books to read each week, so a ponderously written screenplay with excess details is not likely to win favor. Even worse, information is shared freely by networking d-girls, so a screenplay that gets axed at one company might find itself dead in the water across the industry. Sad, unfair, but true.

Another consideration is that directors do not like to be told how to direct. Many writers write detailed stage directions that they think are critical to telling their story but in fact are almost always unnecessary. Not only are they superfluous, but they usually have negative consequences–based on my personal experience,¬†a director will often do exactly the opposite of any stage direction the writer has dared to inject in a screenplay. Directors want to make a script their own. Some will even rewrite perfectly good material just to gain a writing credit.

About a decade ago, I set out to reinvent myself as a writer of books. That includes both novels and non-fiction. I had some trepidation, because for two decades I hadn’t had time to read many novels. I read much more than the average person, but most of what I read was usually non-fiction material for research. I began buying books by the bag load and dove in, and frankly was turned off by much of what I read. Used to reading and writing scripts, I found many novels to be bloated, with redundant passages and rambling story lines. In some cases, there were so many characters that appeared, disappeared for several chapters, then reappeared, that I found myself having to search back through the book to find the original introduction of these characters. It occurred to me that many of these writers started by writing short stories and articles where they were paid by the word, and it became ingrained in their style.

I tried using Amazon’s reviews to help winnow down my selections but these are often unreliable, as you surely know, peppered with phony rave reviews from friends and ugly attacks by trolls.

It took me a few years just to find my voice as a novelist. I had to break habits I’d learned to be a successful screenwriter, and discipline myself so I wouldn’t get lost in the freedom that novel writing offers–freedom from the structural restraints of screenwriting and the necessity to externalize every facet of the characters and plot. Novel writing is like a vast open universe compared to screenwriting, which is more like a road with many tolls and a speed limit.

Another obstacle in transitioning to book writing was the sheer volume of work required. The average novel has about six times as many words as a screenplay, but this is at best a coarse generalization. When working on my first few books I realized at a certain point that I was unconsciously padding my work in my haste to “complete” something. Luckily I had gone through the same process years earlier when I first starting writing screenplays, and this helped me recognize that problem and squelch it.

Again, as I did when I first started writing screenplays, I learned the value of putting down a “finished” piece for a month or longer, letting my head clear before reading through it. Without doing so, it’s much harder to be objective. The only alternative is to hire an editor to read it and make suggestions, and this is expensive and is as much a subjective gamble as an objective maneuver.

Like many beginning novelists I was confused as to what constitutes a novel, lengthwise. Here I had the great fortune to live in the same area as Jonathan Maberry, a NYT bestselling author who generously shared his knowledge through the Horror Writers Association of New Jersey and Pennsylvania (HWANJPA). Jonathan shared such technical details and other important info gained through his own experience at the group’s weekly meetings. I was flattered that he not only knew my movie Night of the Demons but was a fan of it.

Now, having completed nearly half a dozen books (most in the final polish stage) I realize that there is no one proper length for a novel. Every story has a unique pace depending on the plot and the characters and how much development is required to tell that story most effectively.

One thing I haven’t shaken from my screenwriting days is my adherence to certain rules of drama and the basic structure. I use reversals and plot points and a three act structure, which I find work well for me, allowing me to build suspense and keeping my stories on track.