Book, or Script, or Both?
by Skip PressWhen I took a hike from Hollywood, it was the best thing I could have done for my writing career. That was in 1990, after I'd sold two feature films in a row. Both were scheduled to go into production, with the money in the bank to make the films. I was eligible (at last) for membership in the Writers Guild of America, and life looked rosy. Luckily, neither script was ever produced, or I might still be writing only screenplays.
What I Learned in Hollywood
I spent 15 years working at becoming a professional screenwriter before I made an outright sale of a feature film script. Along the way, I was also a journalist, an editor, a musician, a legal secretary, a word processor, a carpenter, a how-to video writer & producer, and a game show winner. Being a winner on the NBC game show Knockout (hosted by Arte "Laugh In" Johnson), allowed me to make enough money to retire from the workaday world and learn the basics of screenwriting. And, since I'd always wanted to write a novel, I wrote a couple of those, one of my own, and one adapting a so-called professional screenwriter's script into a novel, in exchange for his turning a stage play of mine into a screenplay.
The Most Prevalent Degree is Hollywood is B.S.
Thousands of people worldwide know my book The Writer's Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors and Screenwriter's Agents (Prima). I recently completed a new version, which comes out this October. It provides basic information about what I learned over the years in Hollywood, as well as detailed listings about people who buy properties for filming. When I began, however, no such book existed. There were few books on the market about how to write a screenplay, compared to the dozens available now. So I got hoodwinked into believing that writing a novel from a screenplay was the equivalent of writing a screenplay from a novel. I bought the B.S., and I don't mean a Bachelor of Science degree.
The Difference Between Work and Reformatting
When I didn't know anyone involved in the film business, I didn't know any better when my "professional screenwriter" acquaintance offered to adapt my first attempt at a script (which I'd written it in the format of a stage play) into "a real professional screenplay." So I wrote an entire novel from his screenplay in exchange, adding material as needed with no thought for my own credit on the book. When he returned my script to me, I quickly recognized all he had done was reformat my script. That was before even word processors were readily affordable to the common person. These days, the reformatting would take about 30 seconds on one of my scripting software programs.
A Novel Is Not a Screenplay
When anyone who has actually completed a novel comes to me asking advice, I always grant them some time, if at all possible. It's hard work, writing a novel, particularly if you're the normal person juggling a day job, social and familial obligations, and life on Earth in general. Usually, I can tell in the first ten pages if the writer has done his/her homework and learned something about writing, or whether they have a natural knack for prose. Unfortunately, these days I see a number of screenplays in novel form. Attention to descriptive detail, thought processes of characters, and other things you can't show on screen are often missing. Intricately-developed plots? I don't see them that often. Instead, I see screenplays masquerading as books.
A Stage Play Is Not a Screenplay
Until I met writer/director Ed Hunt, I didn't realize that movies were not stage plays, where people usually talk a lot. Ed read the pages and pages of dialogue in a couple of my scripts and pointed out that movies are moving pictures. He said it didn't matter to anyone in Hollywood that I was a member of the Dramatists Guild. My dialogue was very good, but highly commercial movies are driven by scenes of action, not two heads talking. Even chatty films have something interesting going on, visually. Many beginning screenwriters write far too much dialogue, and it's often hard to wean them from it.
Television Shows Are Not Screenplays
If you're crazy about snappy dialogue, if you're good at coming up with funny scenes, and if you're under 30, you might have a good chance of writing for situation comedies, but you'll have to move to Los Angeles. You might be able to make it if you're over 30, or live elsewhere, but you'll be the exception. If you are good at writing gritty dialogue, like the idea of putting something on television that's never been done before, no matter how salacious, and don't mind living in Los Angeles, you might make it writing one-hour drama. If you make it, you'll get rich, but it's likely you won't feel satisfied until you've sold your first script for a feature film. I can give you examples of people I know in this position, but it's too long a list for this article.
Screenplays as Literature?
In interviewing Daniel Petrie Jr., the President of the Writers Guild of America, West for the second edition of my Hollywood book, he told me he grew up in a household where screenplays were viewed as literature. Dan's father, a highly accomplished director, tried to dissuade his children from getting into Hollywood, but they all did, anyway. The attitude in the Petrie household has apparently leaked into the culture at large. Screenplays of successful films are being published as books now, and becoming best sellers. The script of Pulp Fiction, for example, sold over 50,000 copies.
Choices, Choices -- Book or Screenplay?
I always advise writers, if they are capable and have a strong enough story, to write a book first and then the screenplay. My logic is simple: (1) your odds of selling a book, figuring number of books written to books published, contrasted against screenplays written to screenplays purchased, is a no-brainer; (2) if your book is published and then sold to Hollywood you'll make money several ways: (a) book sale, (b) book rights sale, (c) first draft of screenplay (most production companies will let you write it if you ask); and (3) book authors get more respect, period, and particularly in Hollywood.
My Hollywood Comeback
After selling two features in a row in 1990 and getting disappointed when neither of them went into production, I went back to journalism. I ended up writing a lot of articles for Boy's Life and Disney Adventures magazines, which led to my writing young adult novels and non-fiction books geared to teens. I had a knack for them, apparently, because I sold 17 YA titles in three years. Since some of the contacts I made while writing for kid magazines were actors and moviemakers, I inevitably resurrected my script ambitions, and got one of my scripts to Jim "Ernest" Varney, and he wanted to star in it.
The Non-Importance of Being Ernest
What I discovered, however, was that Varney was no longer enough of a box-office draw to get a film funded. I learned that when I contacted producer Tom Brinson, who was running a production company for Ed Gaylord II, the heir to the Grand Ole Opry fortune. When I told Brinson about my young adult books, however, he expressed an immediate interest and shortly thereafter some of my books were optioned (10% down, full payment if the option is exercised and a movie or TV show made). I got as much for the option as I did for writing one of the books, and I discovered that being a book author caused people to respect me much more than if I was a mere screenwriter.
Know the Rules and Win
Since my Hollywood book came out, I've discovered that top-level people in Hollywood will read my material, with or without agent representation. And, since I have a proven track record in selling both books and scripts, I don't lose my career if the Writers Guild chooses to strike. I'll just write another book. Versatility works for me, but only because I know the lay of the land in many areas of writing. And now I'm moving into TV. Last year I was a staff writer for the United Paramount Network (UPN) kids' series "Algo's Factory," and have been asked to write more scripts, now that it's renewed. If I teach a class, do a lecture, or give a seminar, I tell writers to write whatever they are passionate about. To sell it, they only need to know the rules of the particular game they've chosen to play. When you know the rules, any game is easier to win.
**Skip Press is the author of the Writer's Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors and Screenwriters' Agents (Prima), the second edition of which will debut in October, 1998. His How To Write What You Want & Sell What You Write (Career Press) is now available in electronic format. He is also a journalist and former Editor of the Los Angeles-based Entertainment Monthly magazine. His articles have appeared in numerous national and international magazines, including Boy's Life, Epicure, Pulp City, The Curious West, and Writer's Digest, who has dubbed him its "Cyberscribe." He is a former instructor at the UCLA Extension Program; his popular screenwriting classes are now taught online. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.