On July 28, over on the blogsite Murderati, Paul Guyot had a funny post about people he calls the “Seed of Satan”:
He was referring toÂ film executives.Â Â Â
That made me laugh because, eons ago, way back in the Ice Age, I wanted to be a screenwriter.Â This was in the days before I found success as a novelist, in the days when I thought that writing for the movies just had to be the ultimate glamorous job.Â And so much easier than writing books!Â You come upÂ with a measly 120 pages, made up of mostly dialogueÂ and lots of white space, and youÂ earn what I considered a stupendousÂ fee,Â the minimum dictated by the Writers Guild of America.Â (For theatrical releases, it was a whopping $35,000.Â As IÂ said, this was back in the Ice Age.)Â And then there was the whole Hollywood thing.Â You know, hanging out with the stars, the beaded gowns,Â the Malibu beachhouse.Â Man, that was the life.Â Why chain yourself to a desk and sweat over a 400-page novel when you could be writing for the moooovies?Â
So I wrote a script and sent it off.Â And Hollywood called back.
I won’t bore you with the details ofÂ my long and winding road to my first screen credit.Â In a nutshell, I managed to land a Writers Guild – approved L.A. agent andÂ I got the attention of a pair of producers.Â While they didn’t buy that particular script, they did come calling a few years later, asking if I’d write something for them, based on my original premise, but with a somewhat different story.Â Â They themselves had very little money to work with, so they asked me to write it on spec.Â Since I wasn’t a member of the Writers Guild (which frowns on that sort of thing) I said: “OF COURSE I’LL DO IT!”
A few months later, IÂ sent backÂ a finished script.
Here’s where Tess’s Excellent Hollywood Adventure turns into a cautionary tale for would-be screenwriters.Â
It started off with the story conference.Â Which was, essentially, a meeting between me and the producers.Â Â Now, if you’re a writer of any chronologic maturity, the first thought that will probably strike you when you get a close look at HollywoodÂ producers, is: “Where are the adults?”Â Â Â These guys were THAT young.Â IÂ was in my 30’s at the time, andÂ I felt like their mom.Â (Conversely, they probably wondered who this old lady was.)
I’ve since heard, from a seasoned Hollywood veteran, that this explains the quality of films now being made.Â “Incoming scripts are screened by lowly script readers.Â And who gets hired as script readers?Â Why, the Valley-girl girlfriends of these boy producers.”Â
So there I was,Â the decrepit old screenwriter, in a room with two hotshot young producers.Â And the purpose of the meetingÂ was for them to tell me all the ways the script needed to be fixed.Â I filled pages and pages with notes.Â Â Can we make herÂ younger?Â Can we make him aÂ judge?Â How about we make them … whoa, SISTER AND BROTHER!Â How about we change the dog to aÂ parakeet?Â Â Â Dutifully, I noted their suggestions.
Then I went home, re-wrote the whole damn thing, and sent it in.
A week later, I get a call.Â They want more changes.Â How about we make her older?Â Does he have to be a judge?Â Hey, maybe the parakeet should be …Â a cat!Â
Another re-write.Â More changes.Â
Another call.Â More needed changes.Â And by the way, they’ve decided they’re going to do the final polish.Â It would mean they’d be credited as the principal screenwriters — but, hey, that’s how it goes.Â
And that was the last I heard for a long, long time.Â Months, I think.Â
Then suddenly, a call out of the blue: they’re headed down to New Zealand because theÂ film’s going into production.Â My movie’s getting made!Â Â
I’m gonna get paid!
In 1993, “Adrift” aired as a CBS Movie of the Week, starring Kate Jackson.Â I got story credit and third-screenwriter credit.Â Yes, it was pretty cool, seeing my name on the screen.Â
But I don’t plan to ever write another screenplay again, and here’s why: for me, itÂ feels likeÂ writing by committee.Â Producers throw in ideas and want them executed.Â Then the director wants changes.Â Then the actors want changes.Â Then the producer’s girlfriend wants changes.Â I didn’t feel like a writer; I felt like a secretary.
As a novelist, I have control over my story and characters.Â It’s my universe.Â I created it, I get to say what goes in it.Â Yes, I get input from my editor, butÂ hers are merely suggestions — and almost always insightful ones.Â Â No dogs-into-parakeets.Â Over the course of writing 20 books, from romances to thrillers, I’ve worked with terrific editors who haveÂ respected my vision.Â Their revision letters were to show me ways to make my story stronger — not to wrestle control of that story away from me.Â Â
Yes, I’ve sold the film rights to a number of my novels.Â But I have no desire to write the screenplays for them.Â My philosophy is: take the money, walk away, and get to work on the next book.Â Because, ironically enough, a successful novelist can make a heckuva lot more money selling the film rights to his books than he ever will writing the screenplay.
So I’ll stay a novelist, thank you.Â
I never did like Malibu anyway.
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