When Your Book Becomes a Movie: Rewards and Pitfalls

Carol Pinchefsky has an article under the title Wizard Oil on the Intergalactic Medicine Show website about the pros and cons of having your book become a movie. She is a freelance writer of technology, games, and geekery for various publications living in New York.  Extracted below are some of the key points she makes.

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Carol Pinchefsky

The Lord of the Rings films and the combined Harry Potter films have earned $7.3 billion. Both sets of movies were adapted from books.  Royalties from her adaptations have helped make Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling the second richest woman in entertainment, as well as the richest author in history. This number is higher than the gross domestic product of some small countries, including the Bahamas and Mongolia, enough to keep an author in orchid-scented paper and gold-dusted typewriter ribbon for several lifetimes. Most science fiction and fantasy authors are happy to get by on a fraction of that amount.

“Here’s how it works: a producer or production company ‘options’ a book — that is, buys the rights (typically for several thousand dollars) to adapt the book for a period of time (typically from eighteen months to two years). If the producers have not adapted the book when the agreed-upon the period of time lapses, the rights revert back to the author.  Few books that are optioned are actually produced; some books get optioned more than once. Although most optioned books languish in “development hell,” with promises of big-name stars dangled in front of the author, only to have the project stymied for years on end, sometimes these promises come to life.  . . . For some authors, seeing their books turned into extravagantly funded film is the culmination of a dream.  But is having a book adapted a good experience for the author?

“Financially, yes. The option fee is like free money: thousands of dollars for what amounts to almost no extra work. And if the book gets produced, the author receives royalties–even more free money.  Plus, books adapted for film or television also get an exposure and recognition that other books do not; curious cinephiles often find their ways to original material of a show they’ve enjoyed. This can catapult an author from a position of moderate success into bestsellerdom.

“But adaptation is not without potential hazards: comically bad acting, stupefying dialog, and a complete and utter lack of understanding of the original book have made their way into the cinema and onto the television…all bearing the name of the author.  (This happens with such frequency that fans of a particular book are reluctant to watch adaptations of their favorite books. Even though they would like to share their passion with the world, fans can bitterly resent shoddy or inconsistent portrait.  The author has no recourse, except to divorce him/herself from the production. But by then, her/his name has become linked to a disaster. For some, no amount of money can heal a wounded reputation.

“However, several authors can proudly bear witness to successes, where they’ve sat on set, consulted with the director, and even contributed to the script. More important to them, they have seen the characters and the worlds they’ve created come alive. “I went to visit the set, and my characters are there, only everybody else can see them too,” says Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files, now a new series on the SciFi channel.  Butcher’s joy did not end there. ‘I got to be an extra in one of the shots, I get to be one of Butters’ assistants and morgue guys and I help carry out a coffin.’

“Tanya Huff, author of Vicki Nelson Investigates series, says that not only was she treated well by the producers and asked her opinion on casting decisions, ‘I was so incredibly honoured to be asked to write a script for the show.  I’d never written a script…writing for television being very, very different than writing for print.’

“Despite their positive experiences, some authors were not completely unscathed. Although Mike Mignola, author of the Hellboy, was not present during initial talks with producers, he found that part of the process slightly uncomfortable: ‘They’re dissecting and reassembling your child. You don’t want to be in the room for that.’ For Butcher, ‘if anything, the worst thing has been critics. Apparently now that there’s success, the critics feel much more free to whip out the scalpels and go at you to draw blood.’  But those negative experiences pale next to the worst-case scenario that happened to acclaimed author Ursula K. Le Guin.  The adaptation of her Earthsea series had only a passing resemblance to her original material, for example, dark-skinned characters were made white. Le Guin disowned the made-for-TV movie.  ‘Despite lavish ‘promises’ of consultation, I was entirely excluded from the process. Both films were exploitive, using my books merely for the name and some character names and ideas, but arbitrarily changing and ‘stupidifying’ the story,’ says Le Guin.

“Authors find it flattering to know that people with money care enough about their book to spend months of their lives and millions of dollars on it. But this balm to the ego should not replace common sense. The authors whose books have been adapted have advice:

“Butcher says, ‘Make sure you’re working with an agent you can rely on. Make sure you stay in close contact with your agent. Make sure you read all the contracts, because they say things and you think you know what they mean and you don’t.’

“Le Guin says, “When it comes to the actual contract: If they tell you they love your marvelous book and are going to put it straight onto the screen just as it is, if they promise to send you the screenplay and listen to your reactions to it because they know you are greater than Shakespeare, if they give you a fancy title such as Creative Consultant–even if they give you some money to be Creative Consultant–if they tell you they will consult with you on all important points–don’t believe them…. Mostly the rule for the author is ‘Take the money and run.’ And never look back.’

“Huff says, ‘If the process goes off the rails, as sometimes it does, give your readers credit enough to realize that you had nothing to do with it. And if, as in my case, it’s a wonderfully realized extension of your work, smile and say thank you.’

“Authors with a specific vision as to how their works should be portrayed, and are not willing to compromise, should not allow their books to be filmed–no matter how tempting the financial reward (potentially billions of dollars, but more likely in the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands). Know yourself.  Mignola says, ‘You have to remember film is an entirely different medium…. I think hopefully nobody is so naive that they think their work is going to be preserved as is on screen. And you don’t want them to mess with it, don’t let them have it.’

“But many authors would like to see their books reach a larger audience while concurrently lining their pockets. How does an author get her/his books turned into the next Hollywood blockbuster?  In all cases, my interviewees were approached by a production company, rather than contacting a production company themselves.  Literary agent Joshua A. Bilmes says this is almost always the case. ‘Just about every project that I have sold to Hollywood has been from somebody finding their own way to a property and wanting it.’

“‘You have to contact someone who has contacts in the film industry. There’s not a lot of forums for unsolicited work to get seen by the film industry,’ says Eli Kirschner, who works for Created By, a management company that specializes in adapting popular books into movies.  Kirschner says the best way for an author to get his/her works adapted is ‘getting your books publicized…. If a writer isn’t really well known or doesn’t get an Entertainment Weekly and Publisher’s Weekly review…I’d say that they do kind of have to know someone in the film business.’ Failing that, ‘If an author believes in his work, he can make a trip to LA and get his book in the hands of people who can do something with it,’ says Kirschner.

“Having a novel adapted is an arduous, lengthy process for an author. And for those who create their own universes and tend to work alone, the loss of control can be unsettling.

“But for some authors, the potential rewards outweigh the very real risks. As Huff says, ‘I have had my character, Henry Fitzroy’s, teeth at my throat. It doesn’t get better than that.'”

 

Writing Contests: A Cautionary Tale

Warren Adler published the following article, extracted below, on the Huffington Post Books page in June of last year.  Until I read it, I hadn’t realised there was such explosive growth of on-line writing contests.

Warren Adler is best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. Adler’s international hit stage adaptation of the novel will premiere on Broadway in 2016. Adler has also optioned and sold film rights for a number of his works including Random Hearts, The Sunset Gang, The War of the Roses – The Children,Target Churchill, Residue, Mourning Glory, and Capitol Crimes.

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Warren Adler

“When I started the Warren Adler Short Story Contest in 2006 I had rather lofty ideas about integrity and fidelity to the goal of resurrecting the popularity of the short story which was in decline. I appointed qualified people, meaning people who were either authors themselves or teachers of literature or creative writing with the taste and experience to judge the submissions honestly.

“It was a difficult chore at best and I wanted to guarantee that those who were the chosen winners were the very best of those who submitted their work. I offered cash prizes out of my own pocket. The first Prize Winner received $1000 and prizes were offered for our second and third choices. The submissions were free of charge.

“In addition to the cash prizes I promised that the prizewinning stories would be published as an e-book anthology on Amazon and offered for sale with royalties given to the authors of the stories. My hope, of course, was to give a boost not only to the short story format but also to the writing careers of the talented writers who participated. The book, as promised, is available on Amazon.

“The digital publishing revolution was in its infancy and I believe I was the first novelist to ever create such a contest on the Internet. As the cyber world grew so did the submissions. It became difficult and time consuming to read all of the offerings and finding enough quality judges to devote the time to honest assessment was becoming exceedingly burdensome to administer. The last thing I wanted to do was jeopardize the integrity of the contest.

“Eventually I had no choice but to begin charging a small submission fee designed to perhaps curb the number of submissions as well as to provide judges with a stipend that would make it worth their time. Above all, the goal was to maintain the integrity of the contest and further the original goals of the enterprise.

“After seven years of sponsoring the contest, I opted for a hiatus. It was a victim of its own success. To do it right required time, personnel and resources. I finally suspended the contest. I had no desire to create a startup and it was interfering with my own busy writing career.

“What I didn’t imagine was the tsunami of writing contests that it inspired. Worse, I never suspected that it would serve as a business model for entrepreneurs to get into the game just for profit.

“I am somewhat suspect of the value these contests hold for participants.

“Self-publishing requires self-promotion. It is an absolute necessity and comes with the territory, requiring time, effort and funding. The goal is “discoverability.” Most never achieve it, regardless of the quality of their work.

“The rise of self-published fiction authors has been spectacular. Unfortunately the glut has made it difficult for them to stand out from the crowd however excellent their writing is. Genre writers with promotional skills along with lots of money and time might find a niche, although the odds of making enough money to give up their day job is long.

“These writing contests, with their prestigious sounding names, offer the impression of quality promotion for the winners and, of course, bragging rights which can be dubious and of suspect value. One wonders who the judges are that are taking on such a massive amount of submissions. Few of these contest sponsors reveal their methods or the people who read this mass of material and make their judgments. It is often true of the most prestigious awards like the Pulitzer and the Nobel and I often wonder how some of the winners have reached the attention of the judges and who makes the screening decisions.

“By and large, internet-based contests tend to always charge a submission fee, which accounts for the sponsor’s profits as well as its proliferation. Considering that these contests are expanding they must be profitable for the sponsors and are inspiring others to create mirror image money-making opportunities using a similar business plan. Their targets are vulnerable, aspiring writers desperate for recognition and the realization of their dreams.

“Most of these contests are based upon dreams of literary glory, popularity, riches and movie adaptations on the part of authors. All truly believe that their work is deserving of recognition, popularity and prestige. Many probably fit that description. Indeed the sponsors know this and exploit it. It is the key to their monetary success.

“There is a great deal of literary talent out there who go unrecognized and do not attract the traditional publishers. Of course it works both ways. The traditional publishers sometimes gamble on first novels and often lose their bets in the sales arena. Such is the nature of the beast.

“This is not meant to be a blanket condemnation of writing contests. But since the Internet is a vast swamp of snake oil salesman hawking worthless schemes, products and ideas, consider this a cautionary tale.”

My experience of writing contests is very similar to the picture Mr Adler paints.  I have entered a number of contests with most of my books, and I have won some ‘awards’ – but no money.  Even winning first place in a genre did not merit a financial award.  So, I have a wall covered with award certificates.  Invariably, I had to pay an entry fee.  To me, this doesn’t seem unreasonable: there are administrative costs and (presumably) judges fees to be paid.  But, I have never learned how the judging would take place, let alone the identity of a single judge.  I attended one award ceremony in London, at which I expected a journalist or two to be present: there were none.  Attendees consisted of some of the authors who won awards and two low-ranking admin people representing the contest.

Having said this, I still try out new contests that appear to offer more value, particularly those that offer a critique of the work submitted.

Critiques: Giving and Getting

Chris Coward (on the editorial staff of The Florida Writer) has an article in the latest issue of the magazine on the subject of Critiques.  He imagines a writers group called ‘Excellence’.  He says, “Some members of Excellence were traditionally published.  Many had advanced degrees.  There was even a literary agent in the mix. It was a good group, with a single flaw, but a good group, as I said, and the meetings were wonderful . . .

. . . except to those members who bolted after a stinging, ad hominem comment.

. . . except to those who eventually drifted away, discouraged.

“What went wrong is something that can happen with any group.  The members focuses so hard on the craft of writing that they failed to cultivate the art of the critique.  Make no mistake: critiquing is an art that involves far more that having a room full of smart people reciting ‘rules’ of writing and passing judgment.

“How to get and give the moist from a critique was the topic we posed to several experienced Florida Writers Association writers group leaders.”

Alison Nissen, Leader of the Lakeland Writers Group said:

“The best way to give and to receive critiques is to remove your ego.  It’s also the most difficult thing to do.  Critiques are not about being right or wrong or how well someone is liked – that’s ego.  Instead, great critiques are about the craft of writing – about fluency and content.  When offering a critique, review the work thoroughly and avoid personal attacks.  When accepting a critique, remind yourself that someone else’s ideas are valuable.  And whatever you do, check your ego at the door.”

Dona Lee, Leader of the Manatee County Group said:

“You can’t just say, ‘I don’t like it.’  You have to know what’s wrong with it.  We make a great effort not to change a writer’s style of voice.  Suggestions are welcome, but in the end, each writer is responsible for what he or she chooses to keep or change. I have been in groups where the writer wants to defend their work.  Somehow we have gone beyond that.  No one wastes their time defending it.  They agree or they don’t.  They don’t even comment on what they will end up doing.  We suggest.”

Bria Burton, Leader of St. Petersburg Writers Group said:

“When critiquing, don’t focus on every little thing that might be wrong with a piece.  If the author hasn’t asked for specific suggestions (such as tension, voice, characterization), then you decide what needs the most work.  Let that be the focus  of your critique, and leave the rest for the time being.  Use constructive criticism in tandem with positive feedback.  All authors need positive reinforcement.”

Jamie White, Co-Leader of the Gulfstream Writers Group said:

“For me, it’s simple.  Giving the best critique possible means being honest, yet kind, in your critiques.  No one gets anything out of ‘yes man’ comments or ‘this is stupid’ comments.   You need to be open-minded and realize the the comments are what will help you make your piece that best it can be.”

The Florida Writers Association is open to writers who are not resident in Florida.  I join it for the monthly magazine and their numerous awards programs.  Residents of Florida can benefit from a wide range of meetings, and there is an annual conference.

Publishers Have a Lot to Learn from J K Rowling

Allison Pearson had a column in The Daily Telegraph last Wednesday under the above title.  Ms Pearson is a Welsh author and newspaper columnist. Her novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, published in 2002, has been made into a movie of the same name  starring Sarah Jessica Parker.   Her second novel, I Think I Love You,  was published in 2010.   A sequel to I Don’t Know How She Does It was announced in 2015.  The column will amuse all of us who struggle to receive a contract from a first line publisher.

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Allison Pearson

“J K Rowling has shared a rejection letter from a publisher for her first adult crime novel, written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.  The publisher suggests that The Cuckoo’s Calling could not be published ‘with commercial success’, and adds, for good measure, that the author might be helped by a writing course.

“Rowling is to be congratulated for not immediately conjuring a Harry Potter spell, such as Avada Kedavra (Killing Curse) against this dimwit with no literary judgement.  As it happens, I am addicted to Rowling/Galbraith’s novels with their wonderful Caliban-meets-Columbo detective, Cormoran Strike.  The quality, both of writing and observation, is evident from the first page.

“Rejection, alas, is the lot of the new writer.  I am currently judging the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize and am reading the entries with tender  care – so well do I remember the sting of being rejected myself.

“Fourteen years ago, I sent some chapters and a synopsis to a celebrated editor of women’s fiction.  I was quietly confident that the story of a stressed-out working mother would strike a chord.  The editor emailed back and said that the novel was not for her.  Should I seriously wish to become an author, I might like to go away and read a recent novel by one of her writers.  Was I familiar with her work?

“I was, indeed.  Ah, rejection dejection.  The slump lasted a while until I was lucky enough to be snapped up by a couple of brilliant women editors at Chatto and Vintage.  The book they published, the same one rejected by the first editor, was I Don’t Know How She Does It.

“When that novel was number one on Amazon in the Unites States, did I think with quiet satisfaction of the nitwit who had rejected it?  I did, dear reader, I certainly did.  As J K Rowling would probably tell you, revenge is a dish best served cold with an international bestseller.”

Review: The Past

I bought Tessa Hadley’s latest novel, The Past, because of a very favourable review in Time Magazine.  Ms Hadley is the author of five previous novels which have achieved recognition.  She has also produced two short story collections, and her writing appears regularly in The New Yorker.

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Tessa Hadley

The Past is about the journey of three sisters and a brother, all adult, to their grandparents’ run-down, abandoned, old home in the Somerset countryside.  They meet there for three weeks of holiday in the summer to decide what to do with the house, now that their parents are dead.  The house is filled with memories; their mother took them there as children when she left her husband.  Conflicts, jealousies and attachments emerge during the three weeks.  Fran’s two young children, Ivy and Arthur; Molly, Roland’s sixteen-year-old daughter; his third wife, Pilar; and Kasim, the twenty-year-old son of Alice’s ex-boyfriend, add interest and complexity.

Ms Hadley’s writing is beautiful.  The descriptions of the Somerset country are almost poetic: her fondness for rural England is unmistakable.  The characters are real and well-drawn, with the possible exceptions of Kasim, who often seems petulantly distant for a man of college age, and Ivy, whose behaviour seems unaccountably contrarian.

The only problem I had with The Past is that nothing of real significance happens.  There is plenty of interaction among the characters which sheds light on their personalities and values.  Personal histories emerge.  The most significant events are the children finding a dead dog, Kasim and Molly making love, Harriet making a pass at Pilar, and one of the sisters estranged husbands’ being sent away.  The inside of the dust jacket says, “small disturbances build into familial crises”, but the crises are neither grand, nor ultimately meaningful.

However, if one is seeking a comfortable, quintessential British story about family, The Past would be a very good choice.