Thursday, February 23, 2012

GUEST AUTHOR POST: From Screenwriter to Novelist: One Writer's Journey by Jim Beck

From Screenwriter to Novelist: One Writer's Journey by Jim Beck, author of Patient Zero.

Even now, after publishing a few short books and my first full novel, I seem to be unable to consider myself a novelist. In fact, I'm not sure if that time will ever come, to be quite honest.

I ventured to California several years ago to take a crack at screenwriting. Like many writers, I had a number of people who told me my stuff was really good and that I could definitely make it, including a previously sold screenwriter from Los Angeles who had taken me under his wing and taught me everything he knew. Almost immediately after moving to the Los Angeles area, I began to creep closer to what I thought would end up being a sale. I did well in a few solid contests, which landed me a couple meetings with managers, including one of the top three managers in the industry. But I was very green and my ideas and screenplays just weren't ready for "Hollywood." I had a lot to learn, it seemed.

Through one contest, I hooked up with an immensely talented director. He basically made me a part of his family and together, we wrote a few scripts, made a couple faux trailers, and finally produced our first feature film. Admittedly, however, we made mistakes along the way, and unfortunately, those mistakes were quite large, and it's unknown if the movie will ever see the light of day. And to be honest (and he would agree with me here), we're not so sure we want it to at this point. It wasn't our best work, by far. We rushed the script, didn't have any name actors ... it happens. The project had potential, but it's nowhere near what we were capable of. And now, unless something huge happens, the idea of him taking time off of his highly lucrative editing job to direct another movie will probably never happen.

During these years, I kept writing, averaging two or three scripts a year most of the time. Each one was different than the last. I didn't believe in retreads, although I do have a few elements and themes that are pretty consistent. I got a chance to work on the Cartoon Network show Pink Panther & Pals for a short time, and although it was a great experience, it was odd to be lavished with high praise and to be told, "We need more scripts EXACTLY like this one," and then wonder -- if that was the case -- why they changed every single joke in the episode based on a script that had initially prompted one of the directors to immediately head into the executive producer's office and say, "I know we don't have any money, but we need to buy this RIGHT NOW." The industry is weird, let me tell 'ya.

I kept doing well in contests and finally landed a manager. I was TERRIBLE at marketing myself. I didn't want to send out letters and make phone calls ... I just wanted to write. But then I got a manager and thought I'd land a writing job out of it. There was a lot of excitement surrounding my scripts, enough to get me a meeting at Paramount, but nothing panned out, and then everything just kinda went stale. I thought about switching managers, and even got his blessing to do so, but after spending a considerable amount of time and money prepping and mailing more than 300 letters, I only got 4 responses. FOUR. Most agencies and management companies didn't even have the courtesy to send me an e-mail or letter saying they were too busy or whatever. Keep in mind ... the majority of these people never saw my stuff. So much for the idea that Hollywood is always looking for new writers.

Also during this time, I had a kid, found out that my (now ex) wife was having an affair and had become addicted to meth. I was awarded full custody of our son and took care of him by myself, with no family close by, until a few years later, when I met the fantastic woman who would become my new and improved wife. It all turned out for the best and provided me with a little more life experience from which to draw inspiration. So although what had happened with my ex was a pain in the ass and surely slowed down my career to a crawl, it was a good thing.

So why the switch to novels?

Honestly, there were two very simple parts.

First, I was frustrated. 300 letters and only 4 responses? It's enough to drive a person crazy. And I had realized something about breaking into the industry ... to do so, you had to mingle and go to parties and rub elbows ... and I had a son to take care of, which made a nightlife nearly impossible. Of course, I had friends who promised this contact and that contact, but never came through. Plus, I had realized something else that was very disheartening, indeed. To break in without contacts, you need to write a script that is ironclad ... nearly perfect in almost everyone's eyes. Every script is scrutinized like you wouldn't believe, but after your first sale -- as I'm sure you've seen evidence of at the movie theater -- you can write whatever tripe or mediocre story you want, and it has a high chance of selling. Then, after four or five pieces of crap, you write one solid script again, and then you ride those coattails for a few more years. That ... is ... nuts. But if you don't believe me, I give you M. Night Shyamalan, ladies and gentlemen.

Anyway ... the second reason was a recommendation from a friend. He's a novelist who was sick of the movie industry, so he pushed me to write my stories in novel form. And his suggestion has been great, because I've realized that what I've really wanted all these years was to simply tell my stories and make them available for people to read. And I've realized that I can do things in books that I could never do in a movie, and that excites me like nothing else ever has. Plus, the stories are all mine. Whether they're good or bad, I own every word, and no one is every allowed to rewrite me.

It's been a long journey. But then again, isn't everything?

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