“Your novel would make a great movie! Why don’t you turn it into a screenplay?” Part 2 by Jackie Blain
You really really want to adapt your novel into a screenplay. It’s visual, it moves, there are great characters, the plot is strong. But you really really don’t have the time it’ll take to learn how to write a different genre. (I’m been a screenwriter for nearly 20 years with dozens of produced scripts, and I’m still learning.)
You’re also not sure you could bear to make the kinds of changes it would take to go from novel to script. I don’t blame you. It’s hard to, as Hemingway wrote, “kill your darlings.”
So you want to hire a screenwriter to do it for you. But how do you know that a screenwriter “gets” your novel, and that they can do a good job of translating your vision to the rest of the world?
Glad you asked… Here are some things to keep in mind.
Before you meet with someone:
- Vet their credentials. If they say they’re in the Writers Guild of America, they’ll be listed on the WGA.org site. Look them up on IMDB.com – the Internet Movie Database. It’s a great site, not always up to date on credits, but at least you’ll know if they’ve been produced.
- Decide how involved you want to stay in the process. Some writers may want to option your book. My advice is to not let them – it ties up the rights for however many years they want, and you don’t have any say over what they write or what they do with the script or your source materials.
- Decide if this is going to be “work for hire” or a joint effort where you’re going to send it out into the spec market together. This matters: WGA members can’t do work for hire (it’s against our contract) but we can do all the spec work we want as long as we stay attached during the sale. Non-WGA members won’t know anything about this, so you’ve got a choice to make.
- Ask what their favorite genres are to write. We screenwriters like to think we can write anything, but that’s no more true for us than for novelists. (We know that; we just don’t want to admit it.) If your book is a romantic comedy, you probably don’t want someone who prefers writing horror.
- Ask what their favorite recent movies are and why. Same reason, but it’ll give you an even better feel for how aware they are of the current market.
- Copyright your book. If you haven’t already, do it now. Not that a screenwriter would steal it, but it’s always good to be safe.
- Give them the book to read. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve had people approach me to adapt their novel but wouldn’t give it to me, and a verbal description isn’t the same as the actual pages.
- Ask them to prepare a pitch about how they’d adapt the book. What do they see is the spine? Whose story do they think it is? What do they think needs to be eliminated? Etc.
When you meet:
- Be flexible. The writer may have what at first glance looks like a cockamamie approach, but hear them out. They may have seen something you’d never have considered.
- Be protective but not defensive. Remember that they’re looking at your book with a screenwriter’s eye and knowledge. Discuss it with them, ask why they’d make those changes, suggest other approaches or ideas. In other words…
- …collaborate. That’s what the movie business is all about.
- Trust your gut. If you get a bad vibe from either the person or their ideas, walk away.
If you want to work with them:
- Ask for a one-page synopsis and/or a short (5-page) outline/treatment before you make a final commitment. If it’s work for hire, it’s part of the deal. If it’s a joint spec, then it’s also part of the job. Then meet again and make sure you’re on the same page.
- Put it in writing. Set up the rules for the working relationship as well as fiduciary matters. Putting things like schedules, deadlines, specific rights, etc., on paper will make things a lot smoother in the long run even if you never have problems.
- Let them do their job. See what happens. Be prepared to collaborate. You’re not re-purposing your book; you’re creating a new work of art, together.
Bottom line: if you’re clear on what you want and flexible enough to be surprised, you may end up with the next Silver Linings Playbook.
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