To give you an idea of how long I’ve been writing screenplays, I still have a box of brads that I used to bundle mine up in (top and bottom holes, never the middle) and mail to places that requested to read them. In addition to the brads, I have a lot of encouraging rejections, some decent contest placements, and a short film I wrote that was produced and selected for a few film festivals.
But have I ever sold a feature-length script?
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, right? In my case, I’d say yes … and no.
A few years ago, I had just finished another feature. Maybe my thirteenth? I’m not completely sure, and I don’t go back and count anymore because it just got to be depressing. It was an animated feature about a metrosexual Asian cockroach who developed an unlikely friendship with a 12-year-old girl, and together, they save the world.
To this day, I’m not sure why COCKROACH SAVES THE WORLD! wasn’t received with more open arms! Maybe because people don’t like cockroaches. I don’t see why not—rumor has it they can survive for 45 minutes with their heads chopped off (and you can bet your ass that little factoid made it into my story)!
But one kind exec I pitched this story to shut it down pretty promptly. And then he asked, “So, what else are you thinking of working on?”
Now, there was this story that I had been thinking of writing for years. Since I was in seventh grade, actually, as documented by what I had written in my diary.
When I was 12 years old, my parents sent me to Japan by myself to live with my stern grandmother and attend Japanese public school for five months. Honestly, when this exec had asked what else I was working on, I didn’t have a clue and kind of pulled this story out of the depths of my memory, so we’d have something to talk about.
It was lucky that I did because he responded, “That is the story you should be focusing on.”
And then—I didn’t exactly give up my screenwriting dreams—but I decided to put them on hold and … cross over into the book world.
The above-mentioned story didn’t scream “screenplay!” to me. Taking place across two continents, during the mid-80s, bilingual, and a true story about the time I was twelve. It was clearly more suited to being a memoir than a movie (this was before the success of The Farewell), and since the protagonist was twelve, “middle grade memoir” was what I felt it should be.
The thing is, I didn’t have the slightest clue how to go about writing something like that. I knew about 12 pt. Courier font, hiding the exposition, keeping descriptions short, entering the scene late and leaving early, leaving a lot of white space, and keeping everything to 100 pages if at all possible.
I had no idea how to write a middle grade memoir.
So, I took a class. To be specific: a “Memoir Writing Boot Camp.” I also networked with local book writers, who suggested I join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I attended its regional conference and learned how to put together a query. I listened in at the agent panel. It felt a little bit like starting over, but it was also exciting to explore a new way of writing.
For the longest time, I told myself that “writing” for me had to be screenwriting. But as I traveled farther down the path of writing my middle grade memoir, it was still “writing,” it was still creative, and even though it took me a while to find my footing, after a 9-month process, I muddled through until I had a 55,000-word first draft.
On Twitter, I found other book writers, and through previous screenwriter contacts, I was informed about Pitch Wars, a free 4-month opportunity in which experienced, published authors mentor yet-to-be-published authors. I was extremely fortunate to be chosen by manuscript wizard extraordinaire Rebecca Petruck.
Over the next few months, I worked harder than I ever had, turning down friends for coffee dates and holiday get-togethers, working evenings and weekends, and every spare moment in-between. At one point, I remember telling someone why I couldn’t join them. “I’m really sorry, but I have to rewrite 80 pages over the next 10 days.”
Some takeaways I have from the experience include the following:
Crossing over isn’t the same as starting over.
A lot of what I already had learned from screenwriting translated to book writing. Plot is still plot, whether it’s in screenplay form, or book form. Characters are still characters, and dialogue is still dialogue. With screenwriting, my strengths were character and dialogue.
Guess what? In writing my memoir, it carried over.
With screenplays, my weakness was structure and pacing, and had been critiqued as episodic. Sadly, this also carried over into my book writing. (But I’m working on it!)
Also, with screenwriting, I learned how to take a note. With book writing, this was a very handy skill to have because it was a steep learning curve, switching from screenwriting to writing for middle grade, and there were a lot of notes.
I learned that I very much “under-wrote” everything. “Describe this more!” and “What is your character thinking and feeling in this moment? Please elaborate!” and “Slow down!” were comments I often received by book writers who read my early drafts. Incidentally, I hardly ever received these comments with my screenwriting.
At first, making these changes felt contrary to so much of what I had been used to. After a while, though, the flexibility of being able to write more was freeing in a way. But I still am very happy when my editor points out something in my writing and says, “I can see your screenwriter background shining through here!” (and she means it in a good way).
The preparation is similar.
When writing screenplays, I watched a lot of movies, read produced screenplays, and offered notes on fellow screenwriters’ work. And then I wrote.
In developing my middle grade voice, my mentor gave me this very simple, yet effective advice: read as many middle grade books as you can … and then write.
Although it had been years since I had done so, I dove into reading books intended for my target age range (8–14). Every single day. And it was pure delight.
I pursued screenwriting because of my love of movies, but I had also been a bookworm. Turns out there have been a lot of great books published since I was a kid, and I loved catching up on them. And while I did that, lo and behold, almost like it was through osmosis, my writing improved and my voice became more distinct.
The path is also similar.
Write drafts, receive feedback. Rewrite. Query agents. Get rejected. The road to selling my first book was very similar to when I was pitching my screenplays. Only with literary agents, in my experience, I’ve found that they are more accessible in terms of querying. Manuscript Wish List (or #MSWL on Twitter), a handy site that shows what agents are looking for, includes directions for how to submit your work and contact information.
After submitting, however, it might take a long time for an agent to respond to your query, or to read your work, if requested. Like screenwriting, there’s a lot of waiting in the publishing world, too. But there are also a lot of free contests on Twitter such as #PitMad, #DVPit, #SFFPit, and many more through which plenty of writers have found their agents.
Don’t get me wrong—publishing isn’t an easy path, and I received plenty of rejections for my book along the way as well.
But it was all worth it.
Through the Agent Showcase at the end of the Pitch Wars experience, I found my agent. After two more drafts with her, we went on sub (submission) and editors at publishing houses showed interest. After a few weeks, my book went to auction, and my agent was able to arrange a 2-book deal with HarperCollins/ Quill Tree Books.
My debut novel While I Was Away published this January 2021, and I’ve started to receive letters and communication from kids, yes, but people from all walks of life who have enjoyed it.
With my screenplays, I think I was lucky to get a dozen eyes on one. With my first book, I have many, many more.
I also have a second book, Dream, Annie, Dream, which is set to publish in 2022.
Am I working on a third? You bet I am! And I have ideas for a fourth, a fifth ...
And one final takeaway:
Just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean you’re not also writing a movie …
Think of all the books that have been made into movies. I’m not saying I won’t ever write another screenplay—if I’m inspired by a story that fits uniquely into screenplay structure, I’d love to return to it at some point. But I’m also thinking of how my books can be more cinematic.
I’m hoping to write another article someday about how I’m finally getting a movie deal … for one of my books.
Stay tuned for my next article in which I describe the road to publication from when While I Was Away was acquired to its launch.
*Feature Image: While I Was Away by Waka Brown (cover by Tracy Subisak) / HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books