5.16.2007

Oh here, let me help you

Dear Mistress of the Highest Snarkitude

I'm in the early stages of querying my mystery novel, and a top New York agent is currently reviewing the full manuscript. Meanwhile, an acquaintance of mine recently read my manuscript and gave it glowing reviews. Knowing she'd be too polite to tell me if it sucked, I smiled and moved along. But apparently, she was serious. She's contacted a friend who works for a production company that develops movies for, ahem,well, a women's cable network. This person is now asking for a screenplay based on my novel, which she has NOT read by the way. I have no screenplay, and creating one would take precious time and effort –time I'd allocated to crafting the novel's sequel.I've tried to politely decline this request, but my acquaintance is pushing the issue.

What to do?
-Should I drop everything else to write a screenplay? No

-Am I correct in suspecting the production-company contact is just being polite? Yes

-Even if the interest is genuine, would you advise an unpublished author to pursue this?No
I mean, if the story is "used up" in a made-for-TV movie, will it hurt my chances to have the book published? No Will it piss off my dream agent(s)?Yes

-Am I a snob for wincing at the thought of my masterpiece appearing on a woman's TV network? In the book, the love interest is a delightfully dangerous hottie who owns a gun store. I fear the TV folks would transform him into a first-grade teacher who owns a
little antique shop. Now, I like teachers and antiques as much as the next gal, but my guy's an alpha male, and I like him that way.

- On a scale of one to ten, how paranoid am I? The voices tell me not to worry, but they also suggested I seek your advice.

I'd be eternally grateful for your insight. All of us– me, the voices, and my fictional hottie - send you and Killer Yapp our kindest regards.


First, you have no clue how to write a screenplay and if you think writing a novel was good practice for that, you're wrong.

Second, you don't want to go anywhere near film people without an agent. That industry works on much more stringent rules about what they'll consider (and I think that most legit places require you to register your work before they'll look at it). And, film rights are in important piece of the package for a novel. You write a screenplay, send it off, and you've just made it a LOT harder for an agent to sell film or TV rights. Do NOT do this.

Clearly this friend of yours has badgered her friend at the production company and this is the standard brush off.

What you need to do with this clueless friend is say "thanks for your help. I appreciate it" and STOP talking to her about your novel. Her "helpfulness" does not oblige you to accept it or report back on your progress. Once you're published lots more people will have "helpful" ideas for you. Some of them are good; 99% are not. This is good practice for how to deal with them politely. Respect the intention, but that's it.

26 comments:

G said...

I'm not questioning the actual advice, but how do you presume to know this woman doesn't know how to write a screenplay just because she's written a novel?? Yes, talent at one does not equate to talent at the other, but still. Some of us turn to novel writing because we grow tired of the creative limits of the screenplay format after years of doing it.

Petrea Burchard said...

A production company usually has readers who do coverage of screenplays. The first step often consists of a first 10 pages and last 10 pages read. If you pass this test, they'll read further--but only until they're turned off. That screenplay has to be perfect for a company to put millions into it, and "name" actors to stake their reputations on it. (And of course "perfect" is defined differently at every production company.)

Whether or not you're skilled as a screenwriter, I wouldn't put in the weeks/months of work in exchange for moments of consideration unless you're just dying to write a movie.

Anonymous said...

I've wrtten 15 feature length screenplays, and I agree with The Snark on this. Like the literary world, screen writing has its own rules, and they leave no room for straying from the path. No producton company is going to waist time (which is money) having their readers (which are paid) look at a screenplay by an unagented/unproduced writer, whether they have a friend or not in the business. Every thing they look at has a complex release of liability form signed by the writer to avoid lawsuits.

on an aside: I have witnessed a few of these hook contests of late and read the worries of craming it all into 300 words. a screenplay has to be compressed into a one or two sentence hook.

you are on target oh Snarkiness!

Anonymous said...

Any reputable production company would have asked for the manuscript itself -- not for a screenplay from somebody who presumably has never written one. Red flag. Their preference is usually to assign a writer of their own choosing to a property.

And G -- if the questioner knew how to write a screenplay, s/he probably wouldn't have asked this question at all, because s/he would have had some experience with Hwood already and known what to do.

Anonymous said...

You've got a great friend trying to help you out. Thank her. And don't do it.

I'm a screenwriter (unproduced) and I urge you to NOT think that you can simply "learn the screenplay format" as if it is that easy. It is not.

You're talking about two types of writing that are VASTLY different. (I am a published novelist, too, so I do know whereof I speak).

Concentrate on your novel. And buy your lovely friend lunch. Or give her my number. I'm not above selling a script to a "women's" channel.

Matt said...

g-
like all true agents, miss snark has strange, magical powers we can only pretend to understand. woe betide those that doubt them.

Ryan Field said...

If you've never written a screenplay you will be in for a shock at how differrent it is from writing a novel.

But, there are excellent resources that have been written over the years that will give you the basic standard format...the tools you need to present something that's professional. There are rules to follow; just like with writing a novel.

Aside from whether or not this is a valid request from the TV acquaintance (I tend to lean toward Miss Snark's general advice here because the request sounds too good to be true), I must strongly state that learning to write a screenplay can't do you any harm in the least. If nothing else, this is a wonderful vehicle to truly meet your characters in ways you've never imagined.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Miss Snark! I hold an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA, and I want to bash my head against the wall when I talk to many novelists about screenwriting. They seem to think all they need to turn their novels into screenplays is a free weekend and a few formatting tips. An Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay is sure to follow. They never seem to pause to think that if a school like UCLA is offering graduate degrees in the subject, there might be more to it than that. Ouch.

Jon said...

I think that most legit places require you to register your work before they'll look at it

Well, almost nobody actually requires you to register your script with the WGA, but they do usually require you to sign a scary-looking disclaimer form before they'll so much as read FADE IN. (It does vary, though; I've had successful producers say "just email me the PDF.")

If you think writing a novel was good practice for that, you're wrong

I'm a published novelist and aspiring screenwriter, and I can confirm, yep, that, squared.

Kanani said...

I don't understand why you'd give the MS to a friend and also to someone in the film industry when it's already in the hands of an agent!

Didn't you get feedback from a critique group prior? Was it not enough? Seems to me the best thing to do is to let the novel go, wait for the agent and if she gives feedback, then take it.
But for now, turn on the computer and start on your next novel or article.

Aynathie said...

I can't answer for Her Snarkiness, of course, but me, I'd assume that if the woman had screenwriting experience she would have mentioned it.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

If your acquantance works in the film business not sure why she is suggesting you do this.

If the cable channel were really interested they buy the film/TV rights for the novel.

If they want to buy the rights you give a heads up to the agent who is reading your material. Miss Snark is right. An agent should be dealing with any rights questions.

Production companies try to get writers to write for free all the time. Don't do it. You have source material (your novel) they should pay for it, not ask you to adapt it for for no money. That is not cool.

Also, I love how the exec has not even read the novel yet and asking for a screenplay.

Anonymous said...

Weighing in here as a former network production exec (and now a nascent "real" writer) -
even if that production company contact asked for a screenplay, the network for which s/he works won't (this would be a first, in this day and age, I think) accept the work for coverage (that is, someone to read it and say hey yeah let's put on a show) unless the work comes in through an agent or an attorney.
Just an ex-LA Snarkling (Snarkette?) sharing the love.

OpenChannel said...

Miss Snark only has a small space in which to comment, but in general I think she's right. I also gathered from the post that the author was not a former screenwriter.

I am in the group "G" mentioned, screenwriter turned novelist, but I still do both.

To the person who posted this question to Snark Central: I have experience in both areas and have two agents, a screenwriting agent and a literary agent. If you'd like to chat more about this, I'm happy to tell you about my own experiences and what I've learned along the way.

You can find me at:
www.theaccidentalnovelist.blogspot.com/

Michele Lee said...

So, how do you handle someone who gets upset because you don't take their advice? Besides not asking for it anymore.

OpenChannel said...

I forgot to mention that I've done the process the other way around. I turned an original screenplay into a novel in order to maintain more rights.

If you're not interested in being a screenwriter, then focus on writing the novel. In my experience, screenwriters have the least amount of rights of all writers. Studios will want ALL the rights associated with your story. They can even rewrite the story so much you lose any screen credit.

A colleague of mine wrote a teeny-bopper film that the studio later had published as a book without telling her! Turns out they were in the habit of doing this and were sued by a group of writers.

In any case, if you just write good novels, the studios will probably want to option them anyway. Tell your friend, if you’re still interested, that you want to publish the novel first.

PerpetualBeginner said...

Michele Lee - if you figure that out, please let me know. I have an otherwise dear friend who will not stop giving me unsolicited advice, and then getting bent out of shape when I don't take it. Our current detente (I won't take her advice, she won't stop pushing it) is over prospective brain surgery! If she's willing to push that (no, she's no kind of medical professional), picture how little her lack of knowledge about writing or the writing industry impedes her advice in that area.

Anonymous said...

From the writer who posed the original question:

Miss Snark was correct. I don't know the first thing about writing a screenplay. I explained this to my acquaintance, who assured me it would be "a piece of cake" since my novel is "heavy on dialogue."

This, I'm sure, is where the seasoned screenplay writers reach for the tar and feathers, and I can see why. I KNEW there was a lot more to it. As someone who can barely distinguish a screenplay from a turnip, I'm relieved to hear I should let this "opportunity" pass.

Thanks Miss Snark, and everyone else, for your insight. It's helped a whole lot.

Emmy Voter said...

Although the above statements that Stdios don't look at unagented spec screenplays is generally true, there IS a burgeoning business in low-budget made-for-TV movies, specifically for Lifetime, and specifically *very* low-budget, often non-union. I know producers in that field who will look at ANY pre-written script in the genre, hoping to find one that is filmable -- they prefer it to actually developing the property and hiring a (guild) writer. So the offer from the friend of the friend may well be sincere and legit.

Is it a good route to take? Highly unlikely. Unless you *want* to be in the TV business (which is largely separate from the movie business), this would be a distraction from your real goals.

You may also want to be more circumspect in passing out your ms., and ask anyone you give it to not to pass it on without your permission. If the premise of your novel is high-concept and producable, it's not impossible you'll see it as a TV movie yet -- without your involvement.

Demon Hunter said...

I must agree that writing a novel and writing a screenplay are two completely different things. They are crafts that have to be learned; they both contain certain degrees of difficulty.

LadyBronco said...

I know some folks have a hard time with the word 'No' but...

If you can't learn to put your foot down now, you are going to have a hard time ever getting your story published.

bob said...

I don’t know it for a fact, but I suspect your helpful friend doesn’t really know very much about movies. I find it amusing that he or she thinks a screenplay would be a snap for you because your novel has a lot of dialog. Dialog is more the realm of stage plays; films are more about plot and characters: it’s the idea that counts. I’ve heard the difference between the stage and screen compared to the difference between poetry and painting. And I think that’s pretty true. Very few successful films are mostly about dialog -- and most of those are adaptations of stage plays. The strength of your ideas, your plot concept and your characters, ought to be apparent from your novel -- or from a synopsis of it.

I think your friend is just trying to be helpful, but the only reasons I can imagine they would say the studio would rather see a screenplay than your manuscript is that they’re too cheap to option the book and then pay for a screenplay. Or the studio heads know nothing about this and it’s just one of their employees playing the big-shot-Hollywood-I-can-make-you-a-star game. Any decent studio (and any otherwise), has more submissions by professional screenwriters than they know what to do with.

As many have already said, screenwriting is way different from novel writing. They use completely different “languages.” Screenwriters are fluent in the language and conventions of motion pictures. To tell their stories they choose images, where novelists choose words. They follow strict structural standards that novelists would find stifling. They are different animals. And many of us do not do well around actual human beings.

Alphabet said...

Oh my. There's so much false expertise sold these days, at UCLA and elsewhere.

Ms Snark is perfectly right that movie scripts and novels are different media, and make different demands on a writer, and that converting a novel to a script is not just a matter of booting up Final Draft Pro and typing the whole thing in again.

But on the other hand: talent is talent. Consider Julian Fellowes. He won an Oscar for his Gosford Park screenplay, and his Snobs is a very fine novel. Or Neil Jordan, who started out as a short story writer, and went on to win the Oscar for The Crying Game screenplay.

My point is - the fatuous language of Hollywood, acts and protagonists and conflict and so on - might help you to write a medicocre genre script, if that's what you want to do; but if someone has the talent to write a novel, they should read a few shooting scripts, think as deeply as they can about the demands of cinema, and go for it. And avoid screenwriting classes! Those guys sell a dream, and maybe it's not the worst way to pass the time, but it has about as much to do with getting a screenplay bought as your local writing class has to do with selling a short story to the New Yorker.

Anonymous said...

alphabet said... "talent is talent" and then gives examples of writers who have done well in novel writing and screenwriting.

Thats all fine and good, but I think you are missing the point.

If the original questioner hasn't ever given a passing thougt to writing a screenplay I doubt now would be the time to start considering his/her novel isn't even sold (or agented).

I write both novels (published) and screenplays (no agent yet), but screenwriting was something I studied on my own for two YEARS and even then I didnt' tell anyone about it until after I'd made it into the Quarterfinals of the Nicholls Fellowship.

If you do not have the passion to learn an entire new way of writing -- but have to ask Miss Snark, gee should I write a script? -- then I'd say the answer ought to be Heck, No!

People with PASSION for writing scripts and the dedication to take years of their life to learn the craft don't need to ASK if they should write a script.

Twill said...

I take it on faith that Miss Snark is correct, but I do not understand precisely how having a completed screenplay could reduce the saleability of a novel. If the screenplay property has not been purchased by anyone, it is still owned and negotiable. What has changed by letting someone read it?

Miss Snark said...

Film agents are not keen on shopping "used" screenplays, ie those read already. That's almost the first question they ask: "have you shown this to anyone".

It can indeed damage your prospects of a film deal with your novel if you've already shopped it, and badly.