Business Musings: Writing Screenplays (Hollywood Part 3)
The short version of this post: Don’t. Just don’t.
Don’t write screenplays, even if someone tells you “you’ll make more money if you do.”
The medium version of this post: Write screenplays only if you want to work in Hollywood. Otherwise, write the next book.
The long version of this post: Brace yourselves, and settle in for the read.
Before I go any farther, let me say three things. This really is part three of a series, so please read the first two posts before you go any further. If you only have time to read one, read the first one, and leave the second for later.
The second thing is that if you want to read the whole series, go to Patreon. I’m posting there about four weeks ahead of when I post here.
The third thing is this: when I say Hollywood, I really mean the movie-TV industry in the U.S. I’ll try to be clearer if I’m talking about the industry outside of the U.S. Hollywood never was the entire industry, but the shorthand is simply too seductive. I use it anyway.
In last week’s post, I made a cryptic statement about screenplays, and I realized I would have to explain it in depth. I wrote this:
So what have CAA and the other agencies done? They went around the WGA. They went to book agents for content. And then hired the writers of the books to produce the screenplays as part of the package. That’s not as nice as it sounds. Because these writers aren’t WGA members, so they don’t know about the niceties of contracts—how to negotiate for rewrite payments for example and credit and other issues.
So let’s unpack this a little. Hollywood deals are about as sharky as you get. The lawyers on the studio/production/agent side will use every angle they can to give an advantage to their employers. Note that I have no problem with that. Lawyers working for the studio/production/agent side have been hired to do exactly that, so they’re doing their job.
I have a problem with book writers venturing into Hollywood with zero protection. Or, well, whoops. I mean the “protection” of their book agent or their book agent’s representative in Hollywood.
Please read the previous posts to understand why I think that’s no protection at all.
Often, as part of a package deal, book writers are offered the opportunity to write the screenplay for their novel. Or, the “first draft screenplay” if someone actually as a bit of a brain as they negotiate. For that, the writer will receive some flat payment that comes out of their entire deal.
There rarely are protections for that writer. If the writer’s agent is truly dumb (and that’s most book agents on this Hollywood stuff), the number of rewrites is not limited or the writer is not being paid for any revision, even though revisions can be asked for.
If the screenplay is part of a package negotiated outside of the usual rules (like most of the post-WGA strike deals I noted last week), then the writer is also being paid less than the going rate for a screenplay.
So…paid less for more work. Gosh, who does that benefit?
But book agents are repeatedly telling their clients that they can’t make money writing books. (What? This from the people tasked with selling those projects? Fire that person! Oh, wait. Never mind.) Book agents are encouraging their clients to get a second job writing the screenplays for their novels, sometimes on spec.
This is a very, very, very bad idea. Very bad. Yes, writers going to traditional publishing in today’s climate can’t make a living writing books. But these writers can make a good living publishing indie if they have the patience to build their careers. (I’d link, but most of the content on this weekly blog deals with that topic. Poke around and find it yourself.)
So, writers can’t make a living, either because they’re in the wrong part of the business (traditional publishing) or because they’re in the early stages of their indie career. So get a job. One that won’t force you to move to L.A, one that won’t take all your writing time and energy, one that will allow you enough brain power to get your actual writing done.
I’m making an assumption here. It goes back to the medium version of this post. If you want to work in the film/TV industry, then by all means, take the opportunity. Write the screenplay. Get the credit. Learn how that industry works.
And kiss your book-writing career good-bye.
Have I written screenplays? Sure. Have I been paid for them? Yes. Have I written screenplays from my novels? Are you fucking kidding me?
The story is a novel. That’s how I wanted to write it. If someone wants to make that novel into a screenplay, more power to them (if they’ve asked me first, of course). I want someone with credentials to write the screenplays for my work. I want someone good, not someone who is practicing. And—spoiler alert!—if I wrote a screenplay from my own work, I’d be practicing. I’ve never adapted anything to that form, and don’t plan to.
I know a lot of writers who went Hollywood. Some still have book careers. Some, as they have gotten older, have revived their book careers. Several writers went to Hollywood when their book career tanked so that they could make money and come back to writing books.
It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Well, let’s look at the book-writing career of one Eleanor Catton who, in 2013, became the youngest winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize. We’re using her as an example, because the Los Angeles Times decided to profile her earlier this year, writing as if her experience was a positive thing, not a damn horror story.
The Man Booker prize launches careers like Catton’s or vaults an existing novelist’s career into the stratosphere.
Yet Catton hasn’t written a book since The Luminaries, the book that won the prize.
I see. Now you recognize the name of her book. Because it became a limited TV series that just aired on Starz. Catton wrote all six episodes.
The novel is 800 pages long. Screenplays are much shorter, even if they span six episodes of a TV show. (That’s about 300 pages for the entire show.)
The producer optioned the book before it won the prize, but couldn’t get a screenwriter to commit to the project.
“They would very sensibly turn it down,” recalls Catton, who would often send the writers “these slightly mad emails” where she’d make suggestions about how to tackle the book.
So ultimately the producer—or Catton—depending on who is telling the story decided she would write the screenplay.
She had no idea how to write screenplays, and taught herself using other people’s books.
She wrote, by her estimation, 300 drafts.
Three. Hundred. Drafts.
Of the pilot.
Then the project got turned down by the BBC. So, she revised again, focusing on a different character. This time, the project got the greenlight.
And she had to revise again.
This was 2016. There were more revisions, some to do with astrology (don’t ask) and some to do with costuming.
Finally, filming started in 2019, and the LA Times says this,
…even the shooting scripts of the series went through many changes thanks to the vagaries of TV production. “It was just devastating,” Catton says. “Sometimes the producers would come over to my chair and just say, ‘Sorry, we can’t afford this.’ And I’d be in tears.”
In other words, there is no way to know, without actually digging into the entire mass of pages that Catton wrote, how much she wrote trying to please some studio execs to bring this particular project to the screen.
She does acknowledge that she spent more time on the TV series than she ever spent on the original novel.
Oh, and she confessed this:
“I feel kind of ambivalent about some of the choices we ended up making in the show,” she continues. “It’s such a different experience to writing a novel, where you have a total sense of ownership over everything, for better or for worse. So if a novel falls down, then that’s your fault. And the successes of the novel are yours as well because you’re the sole author of it.”
Except that she hasn’t written another novel. Or at least another novel that’s been published. And the publishing industry in 2021 is very, very different from the publishing industry in 2013.
She has written another screenplay, for a Jane Austen work, and she’s probably working on more. She’s going to be a screenwriter now, whether she wants to or not.
Because that’s what happens.
So many of my friends went to work in Hollywood and stayed because of the money or the ability to spitball ideas in a writer’s room.
What they lost, all of them, was a belief in their own ability to write. I remember one writer, who had a similar experience to Catton’s, teaching himself how to believe in himself again, by writing a single paragraph every single day.
No matter what, he promised himself, he’d finish a paragraph. It would take him hours. He’d been so battered by the process of multiple revisions over stupid stuff (like horoscopes) that he couldn’t get the critical voices out of his head.
Another writer friend who had a very successful career in TV finally walked away and had to retrain himself in the art of description and character depth, two things that you don’t need in the prose of a screenplay.
I can tell you this right now. Catton did not get paid for her 300 rewrites. No one pays for 300 rewrites. No one. She might have made some money on the option, maybe even good money, and then there was the prize money from Booker which was substantial.
But if you read what was going on here, she was rewriting primarily on spec. The initial project was turned down by the BBC, so whatever fee she got for her “first-draft” screenplay did not turn into more money when she did some substantial revisions.
Was she paid for the later revisions, for costuming and horoscopes and needed on-set script changes? All of that depends on her contract, and given her naivete right from the start…and the fact she was working for the BBC, not Hollywood itself (with WGA rules)…possibly not.
Most likely not, in fact.
Because here’s the shark’s reason for hiring a book writer to write a screenplay. Book writers are so damn grateful for the work. They feel honored that someone in the film/tv industry is interested in their work. Book writers believe the rewrites are mandated because the writer is inexperienced, not because it’s standard procedure.
And believe me, a lot of those rewrites are bullshit rewrites. Some new line producer comes in and feels the need to pee in the pool, just for a little more credit. So the writer has to add something stupid to the screenplay because a higher-up with more money and/or clout said to do so. (Ask Dean about Klingon opera some time.)
Book writers are cheap, naïve and willing to work hard for all the wrong reasons.
Is Catton’s experience unusual? Only in that they kept her on the project from start to finish, probably because of the length of the book.
Oh, and it’s total bullshit that her book was too long to adapt. A Game of Thrones (the first book only) was 700 pages in hardcover. The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan, will premiere this year. The first book in that series is 800 pages in hardcover. And those are just two examples. Long fantasy novels get optioned all the time, and screenwriters adapt them. All. The. Time.
Yeah, a lot of those projects don’t get made, but neither do projects based on short stories or novellas or anything else.
Catton lost seven years of her life to this project. She’s lost some of her confidence. Will she write another novel again? I have no idea. I don’t know her. I don’t know what kind of writer she wants to be.
And that’s really critical if you ever get involved in movies/TV.
If you’re a novelist who only wants the extra money that they’re throwing at you, don’t write screenplays. Learn to negotiate. License less of your copyright. A lot less. You’ll make a shit-ton more money in the long run.
If you want to work in movies/TV, think long and hard about whether or not you still want to write books. Because all that criticism will destroy all but the strongest among us (and even them).
If you decide to work in movies/TV, then do that. Just that. Because it’s a completely different skill set.
I have only seen a handful of novelists take on Hollywood careers for the right reasons—or at least, a good reason.
The Los Angeles Times interviewed Walter Mosley, who has been working on Snowfall…which, by the way, is not based on one of his novels. He doesn’t adapt his novels. He was recruited to write Snowfall by John Singleton and Dave Andron.
Mosley decided to work in Hollywood for one reason, and one reason only: The size of the audience.
He told the LA Times:
“TV is a far better delivery method for a social justice message than a book. For every 10 people who read one of my novels, a thousand people will watch one of my shows. My hope is, maybe a show will get them interested in my books. People watch TV and forget it. They don’t forget books.”
Advertising. That’s what I’ve been telling you all along about licensing your work to film/TV. What’s important is getting your name out there, so that readers will see it and buy more of your books.
Read the part of the article about Mosley. He knows what he’s doing from when to walk away and what the difference is between his books and the movies made from them.
He also has a schedule that keeps him writing books. He told the Times this:
Every morning now, Mosley sets his alarm for 5 a.m. and goes to work on his latest novel-in-progress. At 10 a.m., he logs into his writers room. “No matter how I spend my time, I’m still a novelist,” he concludes. “That’s what makes me happiest.”
He’s prolific, and he’s having fun. He’s getting his messages out there, and he’s still writing books.
That’s so much more impressive than all those other novelists who get chewed up and spit out, just like Catton, like so many of my friends.
So…folks…if you’re ever unlucky enough to be offered the opportunity to write the screenplay for your book, think long and hard. What are you? A novelist? A screenwriter? Someone who wants to write books or who wants to write TV?
Are you someone with a strong stomach who can handle massive stupidity and lots of criticism? Or are you a control freak who needs to have the story your way?
If you’re the first type of person, you might survive in Hollywood—provided you know how to negotiate and you have a good lawyer.
If you’re the second, do not ever write a screenplay. Learn how to negotiate and hire a good lawyer.
Note the similarities? You need to understand licensing, copyright, and negotiation. Which goes back to the first post in this series.
Because that’s what it all comes down to. Surviving in publishing and surviving in Hollywood is all about learning how to survive in business. Which takes knowing what you’re licensing, understanding copyright, and learning how to negotiate for your own best interest.
I know half of you won’t listen to this. You’ll get the offer to adapt your book for the screen and you’ll jump on it, like Catton did.
I hope you fair better than she has…if you want to remain a book writer, that is. Her story is, to me, a complete horror story.
But some who want to work in Hollywood would see it as a complete success.
Figure out who you are. If you’re like me, run from that “opportunity.” If you’re like so many others who want to work in film/TV, take the opportunities where you can find them—and good luck.
You’ll need it.
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“Business Musings: Writing Screenplays (Hollywood Part 3),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / flint01.
[…] you dream of selling your book to Hollywood, read this cautionary tale. For the new people who joined, I started writing in English by writing screenplays, because the […]
Back in the 90s, when I was with a big name literary agency in London, I got talking to a bunch of screenwriters who wrote for the major TV soaps, crimes series and so on. This was a Christmas party with no studio execs and no publishers in sight, and everyone felt free to let their guard down.
To a man and woman, they felt frustrated and unhappy.
One of them said: “If you turn in a piece of genuinely fine writing, some studio person will butcher it. Guaranteed.”
They also told me I was lucky, even though I’d only had two books published at the time, for £5K advances… Probably the real luck was that I never had any desire to write screenplays myself.
Having said that, I know of one crime/fantasy novelist who seems to enjoy working in both worlds, though I’ve only heard her speak in public. Like Walter Mosley, she knows what she’s doing.
I remember attending a convention that GRRM was at in the early 90s. This was shortly after the period when he was in Hollywood, writing screenplays and making money but not seeing a lot of his screenplays actually produced. And I remember that he said he had returned to writing books because he wanted to see his own work out in the world again. This was shortly before he wrote “A Game of Thrones”. And now they’ve pulled him back in.
It is possible to escape the Hollywood trap … but not easy.
This was probably around the same time that I heard GRRM’s partner speaking on a panel (in Ireland, I think). The panelists were writers’ spouses/partners/children. (Todd McCaffrey said: “I learned to cook at an early age.” Todd and I are friends, and Anne was my friend and mentor… It made me laugh.)
GRRM’s partner Parris spoke about Hollywood parties, where she thought people would be impressed when she told them that George was a writer on the Twilight Zone. They disappointed her, of course. But their disinterest evaporated when she added, “Oh yes, and he’s also a producer.”
Suddenly, she’d be surrounded by people eager to talk…
Also, TV/Movie viewers don’t really become fans of screenwriters, the way they become fans of novelists. How many moviegoers remember who the screenwriter was, even for a movie they loved? But novelists can grow a reader base, and those readers will keep buying anything the author writes — as long as the author keeps writing books. In the movie biz, even if you write a few hits, if Hollywood stops buying from you, you’ve lost your audience.
In the late ’90s, I moved from Michigan to Los Angeles because I wanted to write for Hollywood. As one does in these situations, I got a non-writing job in the industry, working as a personal assistant to a producer, with hopes of using the connections I made to get work in the biz. The experience was so traumatic, I only lasted three days with this dude. Realizing what I would have to put up with to make a career as a screenwriter, I promptly turned back to writing novels.
I miss Los Angeles. It was a vibrant, invigorating place to live, and you couldn’t beat the weather. But Hollywood? No thanks. I haven’t written another screenplay in twenty years. Whenever the urge strikes me, I remember my little taste of the biz and quickly get over it.
I dabbled in screenwriting when I first seriously started writing. Learning the industry requirements/restrictions was hard enough. I felt like I was being forced to write in a tiny little box. I can’t even manage short stories, screenplays really stretched me. Then I started reading some behind the scenes stories and realized that it would always be a collaborative effort with strangers. That too many cooks would be seasoning my stew. And it is a world unto itself like circus folk or racecar drivers. Something you need to immerse yourself in, front and center, in LA. And that really doesn’t suit my personality. It was a learning experience that helped me realize that I love novels, reading and writing them. (Working on #16 right now.) So, from my living room, the encounter was benign. But the dazzle did blind me for a bit at the start.
Such wise words! Even successful, high-earning novelists can be lured by the siren song of Hollywood and end up getting sucked into projects that never make it to the screen. I’ve worked on a few film projects, and got paid for it, but all the time and energy invested in re-writes and trying to make everyone happy could have gone instead toward writing another book or two. I know a number of unhappy screenwriters who would love to be novelists instead.
You have given me so much to think about. I’ve got a window into the Hollywood environment but I’ve been very, very hesitant to knock. I really don’t want to be a screenwriter. So thank you for this series of posts. I’m gonna have to keep my head on straight if that window ever becomes a door.
I like this post!
What are your thoughts on writing screenplays for fun? I’ve written a few and enjoyed it, and find I learn a lot. I’m noodling with the idea of indie publishing them in case anyone out there (not Hollywood) is interested. Would love to hear your thoughts…
Take a look at all the opportunities to DIY with film, from YouTube to other places. You can write and produce your own screenplays, and then publish a book of them, if you want. I’m only telling you this because you find it fun. If it’s not fun, don’t do it.
A great piece. I always dreamed of writing for film/TV, but I’ve seen a couple of fellow writers go through the mill, and as you say, do you want to write novels or screenplays.
Back in the day, 1980s, I wrote the first three parts of a six part comic/graphic novel that the artist told me was undrawable. At least by him. I got disheartened, but came back to trying to finish it as a novel, against the advice of another writer friend, which I didn’t understand at the time.
I ended up writing another story instead, which became my first novel. After finishing a trilogy I went back to my first story and managed to convert it into a novel. Boy, was that a slog. I think I only managed because of learning from doing, and the courses I’ve taken with you guys.
So thank you.
BTW: Link to second article goes to your Patreon page not the post on this blog.
According to Mosley, TV is better than books are at delivering social justice messages. However, people forget what they watched on TV, but they remember what they read in books. That’s a problem.