Friday, May 06, 2011

Moving from writing novels to screenwriting

I've had 20 novels published. When I tell people that, they're often amazed. But quantity is no signifier of quality. They were media tie-in tomes, based on licensed properties. Getting 20 novels published proves I'm a competent writer who tells a good yarn and can write to specification. I was adept at hustling, a jack of all trades.

In 2005 I had a revelation: I wasn't enjoying what I was writing. I went into novels because an opportunity arose. As in so many aspects of freelance life, one job led to another. Before I knew it, I was hacking out four novels a year - plus a bunch of other stuff. My productivity peaked in 2004, when I had 600,000 words published.

But, as noted above, quantity does not equal quality. It's hard to care about your work while churning out so much of it. I decided to retrain with the goal of becoming a TV drama writer. I did a Screenwriting MA at Screen Academy Scotland, and a fistful of short courses, workshops and other opportunities. You name it, I probably did it.

Six years on from my revelation, I'm now working as a TV drama writer. Not by any stretch of the imagination exclusively for TV drama, but I'm getting commissions. [I also write radio drama, computer games, comics and graphic novels, children's TV, teach creative writing to postgrad students part-time, and a bunch of other stuff.]

Elsewhere, fellow blogger Lucy has been going in the opposite direction of late, moving from screenwriting to writing novels. So we decided to blog about the differences between the two narrative media from our different perspectives. Here's a few of my thoughts on the subject, for whatever they're worth. [Mileage may vary.]

All my novels were written to commission. That meant I was required to produce a convincing synopsis or chapter breakdown first, to prove I had enough story to fill the requisite word count [and that it meant sundry criteria linked to the licensed property in the case of tie-ins e.g. no shagging for the Doctor in Doctor Who].

So I was never a Journey of Discovery writer, one of those scribes who start a novel with little more than some inspiration and a what if? I prefer a roadmap approach to prose fiction. I know my destination before I set off, and I have a bunch of places to stop en route [i.e. plot points and twists] that sustain my story on the journey.

I've been known to write a full plot synopsis of more than 5000 words for a 80,000 word novel [plus other supporting material - character outlines, etc]. Some will say this runs the risk of crushing all the spontaneity out of a novel. Why bother writing it if you already know everything that's going to happen? Not an issue for me.

To me, writing a novel is like that guy in Man On Wire who walked between the Twin Towers. It's a high wire act and you can fall off at any time. Now imagine trying to do it without knowing where the other end of the wire goes - or if it even leads anywhere. Me, I like to know my destination, and have a safety net for mishaps.

Pre-planning doesn't have to be a straitjacket for prose fiction writers. Every chapter is a fresh adventure for you and your characters. My best novels came alive when characters rejected the fine print of my pre-planned journey to choose their own path. A synopsis should be flexible, not commandments carved on tablets of stone.

If you're not working to met a commission or contract, the challenge of writing a novel can be overwhelming. Why? Because your choices are infinite. You can do whatever you want, take your characters wherever you want. But here's a fact: you can never fill an infinite canvas. You have to make choices, put a frame round your narrative.

I find speculative writing - creating something new without a specific purpose or deadline attacked - problematic. I need restrictions to make me write purposefully, otherwise it's just some stuff I'm making up that needn't go anywhere. As a result, I've never written a novel on spec - and I'm probably never going to, I suspect.

Why? Because writing a novel is a lot of work. It's at least 80,000 words long, unless you're writing for children or young adults. Specific genres expect much longer books, so if you're writing high fantasy then 120-150,000 words might be needed. That's a lot of work to undertake on spec. You will be writing this for months, even years.

I have screenwriting projects I've been nudging along for years. My new calling card pilot script The Specials is at least two years in the making - but with huge gaps during that time in which I did no work on it. I devoted several short, sustained bursts of energy to the project, most of which were spent on pre-planning elements.

The actual first draft took maybe ten or twelve days, doted around other commitments. When I was writing prose, I could comfortably crank out 4000 words a day [like I said, quantity, not quality]. That was 20,000 words in a working week. First draft of novel would take four to five weeks. But a spec novel would have taken me far longer.

So never underestimate how long it takes just to physically write a novel. Every scene is another choice, another opportunity to fumble the tone or misplace your narrative position. The Specials was just under 60 pages. I can read the whole screenplay in a fraction of the time it took to review the manuscript for an entire novel.

The joy of prose is readers will forgive some sagging and bagginess in your writing, if the story's compelling or the characters engaging enough. A novel is the finished narrative, you speaking directly into the mind of your reader. A screenplay is merely a blueprint for work still to come, the plans for a narrative yet to be filmed.

With a novel you can be author, auteur, director, set dresser, camera operator, sound recordist, special effects supervisor, producer and everything else besides. With a screenplay, you can influence decisions but they remain largely beyond your control. You are just the beginning of the process as a screenwriter. Novelists are everything.

One of the things I disliked in writing prose fiction was the apparent need to describe everything. Frankly, I couldn't be bothered. I'd rather say a room was plush and move on. When I read prose, I find it easy to skip the descriptive passages. To me, that's just set dressing - I want story and characterisation, first and foremost.

As a result, my prose fiction was lean to the point of being Spartan. [One editor once told me I had no poetry in my soul. I don't know if that's true, but I certainly don't have any poetry in my writing.] Looking back now, it's kind of obvious screenwriting was the more natural medium for me. I can focus on the things that matter most to me.

Having said all that, the transition from prose to screenwriting wasn't painless. Like most novelists, I tend to overwrite screen description. Keeping that spare and lean is a conscious act of will for me. My dialogue was never exactly effusive, so cutting that to the quick has proved less testing. The biggest overall difference is brevity.

Everything is edited to within an inch of its life for screenwriting. Get into scenes as late as possible, get out ASAP. In prose you can linger inside the thoughts of your characters, in screenwriting most everything needs to be externalised. Show, don't tell your story. For me, prose was a lot of story telling, not showing.

Moving into screenwriting required learning a lot of new craft skills, and I'm still just getting to grips with the tip of that iceberg. But it feels more like a natural act, whereas writing prose fiction was an act of will. Screenwriting is all about the quality of the writing, not the quantity of words that I can produce. Onwards!

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