Why I feel sorry for screenwriters

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 to film executives.   

That made me laugh because, eons ago, way back in the Ice Age, I wanted to be a screenwriter.  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.  And so much easier than writing books!  You come up with a measly 120 pages, made up of mostly dialogue and lots of white space, and you earn what I considered a stupendous fee, the minimum dictated by the Writers Guild of America.  (For theatrical releases, it was a whopping $35,000.  As I said, this was back in the Ice Age.)  And then there was the whole Hollywood thing.  You know, hanging out with the stars, the beaded gowns, the Malibu beachhouse.  Man, that was the life.  Why chain yourself to a desk and sweat over a 400-page novel when you could be writing for the moooovies? 

So I wrote a script and sent it off.  And Hollywood called back.

I won’t bore you with the details of my long and winding road to my first screen credit.  In a nutshell, I managed to land a Writers Guild – approved L.A. agent and I got the attention of a pair of producers.  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.  They themselves had very little money to work with, so they asked me to write it on spec.  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, I sent back a finished script.

Here’s where Tess’s Excellent Hollywood Adventure turns into a cautionary tale for would-be screenwriters. 

It started off with the story conference.  Which was, essentially, a meeting between me and the producers.  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 Hollywood producers, is: “Where are the adults?”   These guys were THAT young.  I was in my 30’s at the time, and I felt like their mom. (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.  “Incoming scripts are screened by lowly script readers.  And who gets hired as script readers?  Why, the Valley-girl girlfriends of these boy producers.” 

So there I was, the decrepit old screenwriter, in a room with two hotshot young producers.  And the purpose of the meeting was for them to tell me all the ways the script needed to be fixed.  I filled pages and pages with notes.  Can we make her younger?  Can we make him a judge?  How about we make them … whoa, SISTER AND BROTHER!  How about we change the dog to a parakeet?   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.  They want more changes.  How about we make her older?  Does he have to be a judge?  Hey, maybe the parakeet should be … a cat! 

Another re-write.  More changes. 

Another call.  More needed changes.  And by the way, they’ve decided they’re going to do the final polish.  It would mean they’d be credited as the principal screenwriters — but, hey, that’s how it goes. 

And that was the last I heard for a long, long time.  Months, I think. 

Then suddenly, a call out of the blue: they’re headed down to New Zealand because the film’s going into production.  My movie’s getting made!  

I’m gonna get paid!

In 1993, “Adrift” aired as a CBS Movie of the Week, starring Kate Jackson.  I got story credit and third-screenwriter credit.  Yes, it was pretty cool, seeing my name on the screen. 

But I don’t plan to ever write another screenplay again, and here’s why: for me, it feels like writing by committee. Producers throw in ideas and want them executed. Then the director wants changes.  Then the actors want changes.  Then the producer’s girlfriend wants changes.  I didn’t feel like a writer; I felt like a secretary.

As a novelist, I have control over my story and characters.  It’s my universe.  I created it, I get to say what goes in it.  Yes, I get input from my editor, but hers are merely suggestions — and almost always insightful ones.  No dogs-into-parakeets.  Over the course of writing 20 books, from romances to thrillers, I’ve worked with terrific editors who have respected my vision.  Their revision letters were to show me ways to make my story stronger — not to wrestle control of that story away from me.  

Yes, I’ve sold the film rights to a number of my novels.  But I have no desire to write the screenplays for them.  My philosophy is: take the money, walk away, and get to work on the next book.  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. 

I never did like Malibu anyway.

18 replies
  1. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Wow Dr. G, so heated! That’s a good point about scripts in Hollywood. There are not that many good movies nowadays and when you go to the movies and you hear some of this dialogue you think WOW, who came up with this crap? But anyway, I’m seriously dying to get my hands on your new book! Because we all know who’s the best writer…

  2. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess, apart from enjoying your novels I like this blog a lot too, partly because you contribute to it so much yourself (many other writers only do so occasionally) but mainly because you always provide a lot of useful information that can and will save strugglers such as myself time and money in the future. And talking of money, I really appreciate the fact that you’re willing to talk numbers, which in other blogs and sites seems almost a taboo subject. I also like the fact that you talk about writing as if it’s a business – which it IS, of course! I have been working on the preparation for my first novel for a couple of years now, and I’m taking a long time because I really want to make it work, I want to earn a living from it full-time. So thanks again for all that you do for your bloggers, and I’m sure that for every one of us who tells you so, there are countless others who you don’t get feedback from but who value it as much as I do.

  3. guyot
    guyot says:

    You’re right.

    And I wish I had the guts (or checking account) to walk away. Because the thing that jumps out more than anything else when I talk with my prose writer friends is this:

    When we discuss the “What are you working on?” stuff, they talk about story problems, character traits, plot twists, etc. And I talk about the 26-year-old executive who wants me to put a helicopter in my pilot because he saw Keifer Sutherland hanging off one last night on “24” and thinks it would be cool.

    True story, by the way.

    I rarely get to solve story problems or character issues – because I’m spending my energy trying to put out the fires set by studio and network executives who (MOST of the time) are giving a note, not to improve the script, but to justify their job. They give notes in order to prove they are useful and needed.

    All that being said, there are some very intelligent executives out there. I’ve even worked with a couple. They care about the project, they understand and accpet the fact that the writer knows more than they do about storytelling, and they simply try to offer help.

    They do exist. For real.

    But they are usually the ones higher up on the chain, and to get to them you have to go through the ones who watched “24” last night.

    I yearn to write novels because of the freedom. That’s it. I know there’s rarely a lot of money in it, but the freedom of creativity is so seductive to me.

    But apparently not hot enough for me to try it. Goes back to the discipline thing. If I really wanted it bad enough, I’d be writing prose during those times when the executives are taking 5 days to read 60 pages of dialogue and white space to see where I can add a Silver Hummer going off a bridge because they just rented some action movie the night before….

  4. Jennifer Elbaum
    Jennifer Elbaum says:

    Wow, this post rang true. I gave up on my screenplays and turned to novels after working with a director who was CONVINCED that the character who was investigating the crime was really the murderer? huh?
    Too many chefs and all that.

  5. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    when i read this blog i was reminded of the time i went to a lecture by adrian cronauer,the man on whom robin williams’character was based in “good morning,vietnam”-cronauer said that if he had done half the stuff in the film,he’d have wound up in leavenworth.he said that once you sell your story to hollywood you lose all control over it.a case in point would be “la confidential”-a really good film,but if you read the book ,which is the second of a trilogy,the story is radically different-so much so that reading or seeing one doesn’t provide a spoiler for the other-on the other hand “the friends of eddie coyle,”a superior crime film from 1971 is totally faithful to the novel by the late george v.higgins.tess probably can do fine without having to put up with self important little snotrags who seem to populate hollywood in droves-the most versatile actress in the world(my opinion)is maggie cheung-she’s made 82 films and is not yet 42;has won all kinds of awards;and yet turned down roles in “heat” and “memoirs of a geisha”because she won’t work in hollywood-this might also make her the world’s smartest actress

  6. Ghasem Kiani
    Ghasem Kiani says:

    Dr. Gerritsen, I would like to thank you for the useful information you post on your weblog and the honesty with which you write these posts. Some of the comments are interesting, too, notably those by struggler. This weblog is currently the best weblog I read on a regular basis.

  7. struggler
    struggler says:

    Even when I think of some of the best movies I have seen, I have to admit that the books on which they were based were invariably better. Joe’s mentioning of Memoirs of a Geisha gives me the opportunity for a mini-rant: as my wife is Japanese (and had read the novel) we went to the cinema as soon as the film was released, despite some well-founded scepticism. To have the central and other key characters as Chinese was infuriating at best and made a nonsense of the whole idea on-screen as the very concept of a geisha represents one of the most iconic symbols of the Japanese identity. Half of the written story was simply cut out in the film (what happened to Sayuri’s successful independent business career?) and although my wife wasn’t bothered, personally I found it annoying that the geisha should have blue eyes! Complete and utter Hollywood drivel, especially for anyone who truly understands Japanese culture. So hats off to Maggie Cheung for turning down such nonsense.

    I had to remind myself that there have been more than a few Anglo-American crossing overs (e.g. Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon and Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones) but in the case of Memoirs of a Geisha I felt it to be a serious casting error and a failure on the part of the producers to recognise the gulf that exists between the Chinese and Japanese psyches.

    OK rant over.

  8. claytonh2
    claytonh2 says:

    Tess I have often wondered why you haven’t had a novel produced as a film. Now I know and what a disappointment it is not to be able to sit in my living room ,with friends and a box of pop corn, watching one of your remarkable stories. Joe ,I remember the film ” The friends of Eddie Coyle.” It was a great film.Robert Mitchem and Peter Boyle were the stars of the film A scary thought but I’m not sure they were acting. I especially liked the Bruins hocky game.

  9. Peggy Payne
    Peggy Payne says:

    I love the irony that writing novels can make you more movie money than writing movies can.

    It’s one of the rare moments in the current book industry that is, in tennis terms, “Advantage Novelist.”

  10. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    struggler-the chinese-japanese issue was another reason cheung turned down the role-she was pretty vocal about it in an interview-strangely enough she played a half-japanese half- chinese woman in “song of the exile”,but that was based on the true circumstances of the director,ann hui’s life and was a challenging role
    clayton-i think the hockey footage is the legal bugaboo keeping the film from ever having been released on vhs or dvd

  11. Lee Goldberg
    Lee Goldberg says:

    Great post. You’re right…it IS writing by committee. And that’s why I like it. No, not the part about getting notes from executives …but being in the writers room, cracking a story with a staff of clever, creative, and enthusiastic writers. And I like production, collaborating with directors, actors, editors, composers, set designers, location managers, casting directors, and everyone else who brings the story to life. Does the episode turn out exactly as I originally envisioned it? Can I claim it as all mine? No, but that’s also part of the fun…and yes, sometimes, the disappointment. Which is why I happily work both as a screenwriter and as a novelist.

  12. Rob Gregory Browne
    Rob Gregory Browne says:

    As one who has made the switch from screenwriter to novelist — although my screenwriting career was less than stellar — I have to agree with you about that feeling of control when writing a novel. The knowing that this is your baby and will stay your baby and you won’t pick it up in the bookstore and suddenly realize that they hired someone else to rewrite it.

    I keep kicking myself that I didn’t make the switch a long, long time ago.

  13. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess – you seem to have a growing fan-base not only for your written work but also for this blog. I must agree with the others, it’s the best author-provided blog I have found, and that’s due in no small part to the excellent contributions of its members. The standard of these contributions is way better than the puerile nonsense I often find on most of your peers’ web-sites. Is there any way that you could expand it in such a way that your members create their own subject lines/threads? Sorry to raise this topic on a thread about screenwriters but that’s my point – I would like to start threads or exchange views with your other members about topics that interest them as well! I am not suggesting that you change your existing blog, I am suggesting that you run another in parallel. One for you, and one for the masses, or something like that. I have a feeling that you’ve been thinking about this already, haven’t you!

  14. nursdurkin
    nursdurkin says:

    I just read my first Tess book…Body Double and can’t wait to read them all! Love this blog as well…am glad she is writing books as well! The book that got me on the road to this type book many years ago was Red Dragon by Thomas Harris…I was hooked. Body Double did not disappoint and I really could not put it down…

  15. Craig
    Craig says:

    Boy, nursdurkin, you certainly picked a doozy for your first Tess book. I’ve already posted that the scene in the basement where they’re spraying the luminol on the staircase scared me worse (actually better) than I’ve been scared in years and I’m talking about hair standing up on the back of the neck and goose bumps at 2 in the afternoon. Were you affected the same way?

  16. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Yeah Dr. G, you should ask your website designer to add a thread for you on this blog…that way we could all start threads and it’d be more of a community thing and you wouldn’t have to read each of your posts every day to find out if there are new submissions b/c there would be a thread for the type of things we’re talking about, etc. Anyway, Struggler and I think it’s a good idea if you do that! You’d benefit too!

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