Thursday, February 10, 2011

For screenwriters who might be wondering....

I did a publishing panel at the Writers Guild this week and people have been asking me for the article and steps from a Written By article I wrote, so here it is. I'll find the sidebar of steps/process for rewriting a script to a novel, and post that, too.

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Bottoming Out... For Good

I was having too good a time to realize I was miserable.

For a while it was great – on the surface. My screenwriting partner and I wrote original scripts - thrillers, which mostly sold, and got hired to do assignments, sometimes off original pitches, some novel adaptations. I was getting paid well to do what I love, working with wildly talented people – and some assholes – but mostly, truly, incredibly talented and passionate and fascinating people.

Yes, I was getting frustrated about writing so much and not having anything made. Yes, it was always devastating to be fired off an original script. But we were taking steps to take more power.

We’d figured out that the best possible working and creative circumstance was to have a director attached from the beginning, so I had written a low-budget original script, a ghost story (or maybe not!) set on a college campus, that we kept control over to attach our dream director, and we got him right out of the box. He loved the script, and got it; it was a perfect working relationship. I hadn’t been so psyched about a project… maybe ever.

That original script also got us hired on an adaptation of a book my partner and I were both very excited about, a supernatural thriller based on a famous parapsychology experiment that had always compelled us. Two dream projects. I was on top of the world.

And then things started to go south. We lost our director to another movie that got its financing together first. And the production companies attached to the book we were adapting reversed power roles and suddenly we were faced with starting over, a page one rewrite, with no extra money offered for the extra work (a situation that seems to be happening alarmingly frequently these days, the “one-step deal” that turns into a neverending nightmare).

Coming on top of losing our director, it was just too much. I was crying every night, and I’m not a cryer. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so completely low and lost. I’d done everything I knew to do to take control of my career and creative happiness… but now here we were, slogging away at this book, on a subject that we easily could have written ourselves, and the author was collecting option checks while we were in the depths of development hell…

And I knew we would never get a director I loved as much as the one we had just lost…

But this is what was really killing me. What had become clear to me, through all of that despair, is that we only have a certain number of years to do our work. And so far, as a screenwriter (unlike when I’d been in theater), I was doing work that never saw true completion. My characters and worlds were languishing in some kind of limbo, unheard, unseen, unrealized. I owed them more than that.

That’s when I snapped. In the best possible way.

Okay, fine. We lost our director? I’d direct the thing myself. And I wouldn’t be begging anyone to please let me do it. I’d do it on paper. As a novel.

And so while we pounded out that adaptation that wouldn’t die, I took my original script, The Harrowing, and started adapting that - into a novel. Even if I could only write a paragraph at the end of the day, I would force myself to do it. And that paragraph would turn into a page, or two, or five… and in a shockingly short number of months, I had the first draft of the book. People always ask me if it was hard to make the transition from screenwriting to novel writing, but it was no harder than any writing ever is. Writing is writing. We screenwriters know all that internal stuff about our characters anyway – now I didn’t have to hold back.

I got myself into a great novel critique group and rewrote the book several times with their excellent feedback, and when I was making them gasp when I read certain chapters aloud, I knew I’d done it.

So I gave the book to my infinitely patient and supportive film agents at The Gersh Agency, and they hooked me up with a great New York literary agent within a week, and he sold the book to St. Martin’s Press in a two-book deal two weeks later.

That part was so fast and effortless I knew I had done precisely the right thing. And from there a whole new world opened up to me. I am so much happier writing novels. It’s grueling, brain-draining work, but the payoff is tremendous. Now the work I do is complete when I finish it, and every time a reader writes me about one of my books, it gives me the energy to keep plowing through the next one. All that rage that I was not even aware I had has disappeared, because I’m doing the work I was meant to do.

I can do the best writing I know how to do up front, undiluted. I learn and get better with each book I write. And my timing was – fortuitous, to say the least. I locked in my book contracts, plus multiple foreign sales, before the strike, so I had lots of work mapped out for me without having to worry about not being able to take film jobs. And I got three more book deals and more foreign sales before the, uh, global financial collapse, so I am peacefully, if judiciously, making my living writing while the economic situation gets better, which I know it is.

My only regret about it all is that I didn’t do this years ago.

From my time on the WGAw Board of Directors and various guild committees, and on the message board WriterAction.com, I know that screenwriters often feel powerless. We’re not. We have the ultimate power – we create worlds. And these days we have more media than ever to work in. The film industry is changing, the publishing industry is changing, and it all seems scary and chaotic - but we have the keys to the kingdom. We’re storytellers.

I know now that sometimes you have to bottom out to realize that even if things seem to be going along fine on the surface, what you are doing is NOT WORKING. Those moments of despair force you to confront what you really want, and to take responsibility for your own happiness, creative and otherwise.

No one can keep you from telling your stories but you.

Now I’ve written the book about that parapsychology experiment that’s always fascinated me. And anyone who wants it - can come to me.

- Alexandra Sokoloff


Former WGAw Board member Alexandra Sokoloff is the Thriller Award-winning author of the supernatural thrillers The Harrowing, The Price, The Unseen, Book of Shadows, and The Shifters. Her novels have been nominated for Bram Stoker, Anthony, and Black Quill awards; the New York Times Book Review called her books “Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre." http://alexandrasokoloff.com

11 comments:

Karen Elizabeth Brown said...

"No one can keep you from telling your stories but you" is a powerful mantra and I'm putting it above my workspace ao I can see it when I get frustrated with what I'm writing. I'm just learning how to tell stories, but am addicted to it already. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

G.R. Yeates said...

It's true what you say, Alex. I hit rock bottom in 2006 after unsuccessfully pursuing a career in music. I went through bands, three singing teachers and repeated attempts to master the guitar up until that point.

I then had a realisation after walking out of a singing lesson that I was at a personal crossroads and it was time to make a decision. Either get back on the treadmill and try more bands and whatnot or take another path. That path was being a horror writer and I chose it because my gut told me it was time to do something new. So far, it has proved to be the more satisfying and fruitful path.

.Greg.

HL Arledge said...

You are an inspiration, Alexandra. Welcome back to Cali!

Paula said...

Alex,

You always inspire me with your blog postings, and I am truly grateful. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

Paula

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Karen, thanks for excerpting that out. I really should follow my own advice more often.

Good luck with your WIP!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, your timing was pretty parallel to mine. I actually have shifted several times in my life - from acting to directing, from directing to writing (theater), from plays to film, and from film to novels.

And you know what? I use all of it, all the time. I know you do, too.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, HL and Paula. It helps to know it helps.

George LaVoo said...

Thank you so much for the inspiring post! Made my day to read it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

George, I need to find those steps, it's exactly what you're doing right now!

John said...

Wonderfulness. Thank you, Alex, for all of it!

Lisa Mondello said...

Great post, Alex. I started out in novels and have seen a lot of change over the years. I've always been drawn to screenwriting, but the lack of control over your story is really scarey. I'm glad you're finding fulfilment in novel writing!