Hollywood writers turn to Plan B: the novel
Back-burner literary projects move to the forefront as the strike continues.
By Marc Weingarten
Special to The Times
January 28, 2008
As the writers strike drags on, there's at least one small corner of the industry that hasn't been grinding to a halt over the last months: literary departments at the major talent agencies, which are getting inundated with book proposals and story ideas for novels from out-of-work screenwriters.
"Some of our writers who have ideas but never had the time are turning to their book projects," said Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, an executive vice president of the William Morris Agency's literary department.
Lydia Wills at Paradigm agreed that "back-burner projects" are now getting more attention, noting a surge in "book pitches and novel writing" among her agency's Hollywood clientele.
But although the strike has given screenwriters who've long had novels percolating in their heads the impetus to finally get the darn things written, there's also a cruel reality: Because book fees are small change compared with the big payoff of a Hollywood script, it's a treacherous hedge, a gamble on something that might not even cover one month's rent, let alone a house note.
Most are undeterred. Screenwriter Mark Haskell Smith ("Playing God," "The Inheritance") is using the downtime as an excuse to get his fourth novel finished. There may not be a big check waiting for him, but he's content that the tome will at least find its way to bookstores. He turned to fiction, after all, because he didn't want to see another good spec script languish.
"I had an idea for a movie," he said. "I thought rather than hear an executive tell me that the writing was good but the story was too dark, I would just write a book instead. I didn't want another rejected script."
Besides, Smith said, it's not like there are any guarantees for screenwriters, strike or no strike. "The job market for screenwriters has shrunk dramatically over the last few years," he said. "I've been hot, then not, then hot again."
A fan of the novelists Donald Westlake and Ross Thomas, Smith writes in the "comic noir" genre. "Moist," the story of an employee in a pathology lab who falls in love with a woman on the tattoo of a severed arm, was published by Grove Press in 2001, and he's had two subsequent novels, also published by Grove.
"The Writers Guild is gonna kill me for saying this, but a script is nothing more than a blueprint for a film," he said. "It's a road map and can't stand on its own; it needs others to make it a movie. Books are more holistic. They're less about plot and more about character, emotions, nuance. It's refreshing to just write about people for a change."
Screenwriter Wesley Strick ("Doom," "Arachnophobia") is using the strike to work on his second novel. "I write in the morning and picket in the afternoon," he said. Although his scripts pay the bills, he enjoys the process of writing fiction, the discursive nature of the storytelling.
"As a screenwriter, you're always looking for things to cut," Strick said. "Scripts are all about economy and forward momentum, whereas novels can be big, baggy receptacles for a story. When I go back to screenwriting, I feel like I've been put back in my cage."
A former advertising copy writer, Jim Jennewein has written the films "Richie Rich," "The Flintstones" and "Getting Even With Dad" with his partner Tom S. Parker. But even for a successful writer like Jennewein, the "spin cycle" of endless story meetings, dumb notes and production green lights that turn to red has taken its toll on his muse.
"The process is less than satisfying," said Jennewein, who grew up loving the adventure stories of Jack London. "You get tired and burned out, and I always wanted to write novels anyway." So Jennewein and Parker are focusing on a trilogy of books for the young-adult market. Tentatively titled "Rune Warriors," the series, which will be published by HarperCollins, is a Viking saga that Jennewein describes as a mix of Harry Potter and "The Princess Bride," "with a little 'Python' thrown in."
Like Smith's "Moist," "Rune Warriors" was plucked from an old script idea that Jennewein and Parker had. Since the strike started, they've hunkered down to finish the second and possibly third volumes.
"Authorial ownership of the words just doesn't happen with screenwriters," Jennewein said. "Everyone treats it [the script] as a suggestion, while writing fiction is a pure form of expression. There's no one to interpret the words from the writer to the reader."
Still, the transition from writing action slug lines to smooth literary prose can be bumpier than a jump-cut in a Tarantino film. According to book agent Mary Evans, the fact that a screenwriter has written a manuscript has no bearing on whether his or her book will have even a modicum of writerly competence.
"Oftentimes, you shudder when a screenwriter sends you a novel, because they tend to be strong with dialogue but crappy with context, and novels are all about creating the proper context for the story," said Evans, whose clients include Smith and Michael Chabon. "Screenwriters are attracted to novel writing because they can let their freak flag fly and just write what they want, but the truly talented novelist-slash-screenwriter is very rare."
Then there's the money, which is generally lousy, with a few exceptions (such as Tom Wolfe's recently announced $7-million advance). Smith was paid what can be charitably called a low five-figure advance for his first novel, and his payout has hovered around that level since. "If your previous novel didn't sell, the publisher isn't inclined to give you a bigger advance."
To pay the bills, he's been teaching and helping edit a custom-published magazine. There are also occasional copy-writing gigs.
"I feel really lucky that I have a book agent and a publisher who believe in me and I can still keep writing the stories I want to tell, even if it means I have to pick up other jobs to supplement my income," Smith said. "But it's not easy. That's the truth."
There's also the small matter of time. Scripts can gestate quickly, sometimes within weeks. A novel can take years to write, and even then it may only be a first draft. "It takes me two years just to get the manuscript into good enough shape for my agent and editor to look at," Smith said.
The hope is the books will eventually find a large audience, and Smith, Jennewein, Strick and their like will make a decent living from that sweat equity. "My editor tells me that it took Carl Hiaasen six books before he hit, and Elmore Leonard waited 30 books into his career," Smith said.
In the end it may be Hollywood that helps him sell books -- a couple of producers have optioned "Moist" for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct. "You don't make a lot of money in publishing unless you're wildly successful," Jennewein said. "But it's freed us of the shackles of one medium and opened up another."