Seven Things Screenwriters Should Know About Writing Novels

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.