Someone in the film industry once told me that she never encourages novelists to adapt their own books into screenplays. She felt that novelists couldn’t be objective enough to do the work necessary to pare down the wordy wild boar of a novel and turn it into the teeny, tiny pork medallion in fancy sauce that a screenplay would need to be.
Sure, I could do that! I was a writer. A former journalist. I could learn any way of writing I needed to, such was my immense skill. I had written for video games, newspapers, magazines, PR agencies, educational reports, literary journals, live theater, blogs, websites ... I could figure this out. I had the confidence of the young stuck in the body of the not-so-young.
In other words, you don’t know how hard something is, so you just plunge in, head-first, trusting you’ll figure it out.
Then I started to condense my novel, Anna Incognito, into the aforementioned screenplay. Spurred on by a finalist spot in Book Pipeline's Adaptation contest, I eagerly volunteered to hammer that shit into what I knew would become an award-winning piece of scripting.
I sat down with my book, and a bunch of sticky notes, and after a long and satisfying talk with the Pipeline gurus, I was ready. Just needed a little more coffee first.
Okay, and maybe a gluten free bagel. We’re out of cream cheese? Better get to the store. Writing after. Can’t have a bagel without the schmear, am I right?
Right. Got the cream cheese, got the coffee (now cold), bagel (also cold). Heated all things up, ate them, sat down again, ready to write. Looked at novel ... and remembered that I had to call the pest control people because we saw some termite bites in our garage. Hmm. Gotta do that ... don’t want the house falling down. That would have a negative impact on my scriptwriting, wouldn’t it?
Made the call. Made a few more—you know, stuff I had to get done. Vital stuff, like health insurance and my son’s school stuff. I did have to check in on Animal Crossing also because my island inhabitants were probably wondering what happened to me. And I had DVR’d episodes of some "Masterpiece Theater" show on PBS, and those take up a lot of room because they’re British, so I had to watch those first to leave room for my husband to record the local news. So, after all that, I was going to get at it.
I got tired, so decided to start fresh in the morning.
And then I did that for about six more mornings.
I finally decided that if I didn’t just sit down and start, it would never happen, so I sat down. I started. I went page by page, reading my own writing and trying to decide what to keep, what to ditch, what to change. It’s like editing except even more painful. I started to develop a left-side-of-the-head pain that I called "Movie Migraine."
The first pass was—traumatic. I was re-reading every single word of my novel, dissecting where I could have written it better, second-guessing so many things. I had to stop that critic in my head just so I could get the work done. Then came the evaluation of which things could stay and which had to go. Happily, I’m good with dialogue, so a lot of that could be taken almost directly from the book to the screenplay.
Since my novel is a first-person story, a lot of the internal conversations my main character had didn’t work in a script. There could be voiceovers, of course, but the whole script couldn’t be like that.
The task of choosing, paring down, squeezing, economizing began. It got a little bit easier as I went through, but I was already spotting things that weren’t going to translate well to film, and I set my brain a task to figure this all out while I was sleeping.
My brain doesn’t like to work on its off time, so the next day I was still in the same place. I considered sending my brain a stern email, but realized it does not have a laptop, and it knows what I’m thinking anyway. I just stopped talking to myself in my head and sat down with the laptop, drilled away, added, subtracted, tweaked, moved, everything.
When I finally finished the first draft, I’ll admit I was elated. I thought it was a good start. I knew it meant much more hard work, because even as a novice screenwriter, I could tell it wasn’t right. I sent it anyway, knowing I’d need guidance, trusting that the Pipeline ninjas could help me make it real.
I have an entire enormous poster board spattered with all of my many non-specific rejection letters from agents, publishers, and contests. I guess I expected much the same from Pipeline, although my phone conversations with Matt and Peter [Book Pipeline execs] had been substantial, lengthy, considerate, and hilarious. Still, I thought, they were being polite (which was admittedly refreshing). I was only a finalist, so I probably wouldn’t get much further. They were kind and encouraging, but I expected a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ after my first effort.
I got real, practical feedback. I mean, for a writer, this is something special. And I got it from several people, not just one or two. Three, four pages of feedback! They had actually read what I wrote! They also read the source novel first, which was hugely important to me. They knew where I was coming from and honored it.
Most importantly, they told me to do something that was really easy to do: read scripts. Read ALL the scripts. Look at what the screenwriters did and how each one is startlingly different. They not only sent me scripts, but also pointed me to places where I could find all the award-winning screenplays.
I got discouraged along the way, of course. It was learning a brand-new skill, like trying to write with your left hand if you are right-handed. I absolutely didn’t understand that at first, and my first attempt now seems ridiculous to me. But they didn’t give up—instead, they guided me through multiple iterations until I finally understood: a screenplay and a novel are two completely different animals.
I started revising the script in chunks of 15-20 pages and was able to really concentrate on those sections in minute detail. I could finally understand that it was my job as a screenwriter to make a reader see, feel, hear, smell, and taste the things happening in the script—but not in the same way you do it in a novel.
I feel like I finally figured out this wordy Rubik’s cube.
Without the Pipeline gurus (and their resplendent coffee mugs) I would never have been able to do this. I’d have given up on it before I started. Now I feel like I am approaching a finished screenplay that is not only a real reflection of my novel, but a new piece of writing all on its own.
What an amazing gift.
*Feature photo by Olya Kobruseva (Pexel)