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Seven Things Screenwriters Should Know About Writing Novels

Mar 22, 2011 in Film, Guest Posts, Writing

After the unprecedented success of yesterday’s column, I decided I would flip it around and provide you the converse list of things screenwriters should know as they switch from Final Draft to MS word to scratch that prose itch.

1.  Publishers Want To Sell Books. It’s a common misperception that screenwriting is for commercial aspirations while novel writing is a place to pen esoteric ideas and ramblings.  The truth is:  publishers want commercial books.  They want to reach a wide audience.  The same forces that drive a spec script sale drive a spec novel sale.  Will this book attract a large number of readers?  You have to write a novel the same way you would write a movie:  with compelling characters, surprising plot twists, strong dialogue, and a unifying theme that encompasses all.  Sure, you don’t have to worry about set pieces and budgets and casting, but you’re going to have a hard time if you write for a very narrow niche.

2.  The Money Is Not The Same (At First). When I received my first book contract, I called a novelist friend of mine in London.  “How do novelists make a living?” I asked.  Her reply:  “They don’t!  They all want to be screenwriters!”  Unless you are one of those amazingly successful novelists:  King or Connelly or Grisham or Clancy, the money just isn’t the same as you would get for writing and selling a screenplay.  So don’t write a novel thinking you can quickly switch careers and won’t have to deal with studios and producers anymore but will make the same money.  Unless you write THE FIRM… then you can.

3.  Publishers are Your Friends. You know how, as a screenwriter, you’re constantly wary of your status on your own project?  Like at any moment, you can be fired for seemingly no reason?  How every word you write can be changed at the whim of a junior executive fresh out of film school?  It takes a little while to get used to, but your publisher actually likes your opinions on your work.  They treat you deferentially as they suggest… key word “suggest”… edits.  They consult you on everything from chapter breaks to the book covers.  And they are pulling for you and your book to do well.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop but so far, it hasn’t.  Not one word gets changed without your permission.  Somebody slap me.

Cursed & Loved4.  Reviews are Hard To Come By. We don’t lack for reviews on our films.  In fact, it seems like every blogger with a web-address has his or her own cutesy system for determining whether or not your movie sucks or is wonderful.  (I give it Five McNuggets!)  There are whole websites devoted to compiling these reviews and quantifying them even further.  (Sixty percent fresh tomatoes!)  Even a little movie gets dozens if not hundreds of reviews.  However, it is really difficult to garner interest from newspapers and magazines to review your book.  I thought I’d look at papers across the country and read the hundreds of reviews on my first novel, but I could barely get interest from my hometown paper, and that was only because I was returning there for a book signing.  Too many books coming out each week, too long to read ‘em all, not enough readers of the “books” section of the newspaper?  I don’t know… but that’s the way it is.  You have to work the press and wrangle any interviews you can that can help the same paper to print a review of your work.

5.  Release Dates are More Like Release Months. One thing I wasn’t prepared for:  the strange sort of fluid release that happens when your book comes out.  With movies, everything goes into that first weekend:  all the posters, marketing, commercials, give-aways, premieres… all geared toward getting butts into seats on that first weekend.  With books, they tell you the book will be released on December 15th.  Then you walk into a bookstore on December 2nd and there your book sits in the new release section.  Wait.  But the release isn’t until the 15th.  The bookstore manager will shrug and say, “we just put ‘em out when they come in.”  If you go on a tour, you will see book reviews sometimes months after the initial release, with no indication that the book has been available for a while.  No one seems to care about this week or that week, and sometimes books will hit best-seller lists years after their initial release.  That just doesn’t happen with movies.  It gives you hope if your book doesn’t take off right away, at least.

Seat Backs6.  Think Of a Book Tour as a Band Playing Shows to Build Audiences. Without being a breakout best-seller, tours can be discouraging.  You sit in a small bookstore in San Francisco and literally 6 people show up.  You think, “what the hell am I doing here?”  What you’re doing is building relationships… not just with the readers, but with the book store owners.   I’ve been lucky enough to sign books at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, a great store in a great city, where they’ve picked both of my first two books as their top ten thrillers for that year.  I signed books there, and although only a dozen people showed up, they had me sign 80 – 100 books.  And they promote my books to every reader who comes in looking for a thriller.  I may have played an empty house, but the promoters noticed, and continue to work hard for me long after I’ve left.

7.  Seeing Your Book On A Shelf is Everything You Thought It Would Be. When it’s all done and the book finally comes out, you’ll walk into a book store and right there on the shelf will be that cover with only your name on it.  No director taking “a film by” credit.  No producer trying to push you off the billboard.  No financier who tried to fire you thirty times.  Just your book title and your name.  And someone, somewhere is going to buy that book and read the words you… and only you… wrote.  It’s an incredible feeling.

That’s it… seven things you should know about writing novels.  Now get to work!

[Editor’s Note: We are proud to announce that Derek Haas is joining Mulholland Books with his novel THE RIGHT HAND, a fresh spin on the espionage thriller.]

Derek Haas is the author of the bestselling novel THE SILVER BEAR and the Barry Award-nominated COLUMBUS. Derek also co-wrote the screenplays for 3:10 TO YUMA, starring Russel Crowe and Christian Bale, and WANTED, starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, and Angelina Jolie. His forthcoming film, THE DOUBLE, starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace, is directed by his screenwriting partner Michael Brandt and will be released in 2011. He is also the creator and editor-in-chief of the acclaimed website Popcorn Fiction. Derek lives in Los Angeles.

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13 Responses »

  1. I’m always sad when I go to a poorly attended author event. I’m glad to see there’s value in it after all.

  2. I was invited to sign books at a Barnes & Noble in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. I thought… what the hell? It’s Vegas… I’ll get some friends together and we’ll go. I showed up on a Friday evening at 7, I think. It was December. They had me at a tiny cardboard table next to the local high school teens who were doing free gift wrapping. The store manager says “we’ll make an announcement.” I said, “oh, okay.” I’m not kidding, this is what the manager said, “Attention, Barnes and Noble Shoppers. We’re about to get going with our story book time, so all parents with kids head to the children’s book section for a reading of THE GRUFFALO. It’s a wonderful book so if you haven’t read it, let me tell you, you will love it! Also, there’s free gift wrapping up here by the exits… it’s for the local high school and donations are welcome. It’s a wonderful way to take care of all your presents this holiday season. Oh, yeah… and we have an author, um, let’s see… Derek Haas. He’s signing his book. Or books. Anyway, he’s here too. Thanks!”

    I sold one book that evening, to one of the high school kids who took pity on me.

  3. Last October, when Ian McDonald had been a guest of my publishing house in Belgrade, he had a book signing scheduled in one of the best Belgrade bookshops; only ten or twelve people came to the event and I was a bit embarrassed because of that, although Ian had signed a lot of books the previous day on Belgrade Book Fair. Then Ian told me about his joint book-signing once upon a time in England with two other authors, and only 3 readers came; then the writers decided to take all of their audience to dinner… Every word said above is absolutely true, regardless of the book market you are working in – and I can vouch for that both as an author and a publisher.

  4. When will Columbus be available on itunes bookstore, and do you think he could beat up Jason Bourne?


  5. CoolClay,

    I’m so glad you asked. COLUMBUS is currently available on itunes audiobook or as an Iphone/Ipad app. Say what? That’s right. As far as iBooks goes… I’m not sure why it is not listed on there. It is definitely available as an ebook on the kindle. And this gives me a chance to plug the paperback edition, which comes out on April 15th, at fine bookstores everywhere.

    As far as Columbus versus Jason Bourne… let’s just say that Bourne better be glad his name hasn’t come up on the top of the page on one of Columbus’s contracts. Then we’d be reading about The Bourne Requiem.

  6. To show the other side of the “author signing coin” – I have to say that Del Howison over at Dark Delicacies in Burbank really puts on a show for authors. When Don Glut and I went there to promote our first book together – BROTHER BLOOD – Del had tables and had already done a lot of promotion for the book, Don and my publishing company, Pulp 2.0 Press.

    We sold out of books that day, and were able to give out a lot of promo cards for our other efforts. We couldn’t have done it without Dark Delicacies. So if you’re a horror author, I can’t recommend Dark Delicacies enough as a place to go to promote your work.

  7. And we STILL promote your books – they’re among my all time favorite thrillers!

  8. Bill… that’s cool… thanks for sharing that information. I love to hear that about book store owners.

    And Janine… you and Fran at Seattle Mystery Bookshop are the best. I think you’re going to dig what I have in store for Columbus in DARK MEN.

  9. Writers, seriously, I love you guys.


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