What I should've said was....


This past weekend, I was privileged to sit on a panel of independent filmmakers and speak to the public. Now...I’m a writer, and not what one might call an accomplished writer, but a writer nonetheless. I write because I don’t speak well. My mind moves faster than my mouth and I tend to ramble and go off on unrelated tangents.
So what happened was this:  Michelle at HorrorHound asked me a question and I honestly don’t remember her exact words...so for the next minute or so I babbled. It was something about what it’s like for a novelist to cross over to writing and making films.

I think I talked about every other subject that was discussed prior and never really answered her question. I’m not sure I even approached the question. What a tool J



Still, I got to speak and that was cool. Now here’s the terrible thing. I had actually prepared some remarks on the subject, but they flew right out the clich├ęd window at that moment, so I’m going to scribble them here on my laptop while things are still fresh in my head. This will ramble and go on tangents as well, but I don’t care.

So to Michelle who was ever-so-nice to me and my family while we were there (as were all of the HorrorHound staff and the other panelists—rock on.), what I should’ve said was:

Writing when your end goal is a novel is a lonely place. You might research, ask questions of others, bounce ideas off of friends and family. You might sit in a writer’s group, or join one on social media, but it’s mostly you doing your thing. There are some quotes I keep handy at all times and I’ll get to all of them, but in this situation, Stephen King wins with the following (paraphrased).

Write your first draft with the door closed. He means it's your story, so get it down first without distraction. Naysayers gonna say nay. Everyone has an opinion. For the first draft, only yours matters. You can clean up your crap later, but for now keep that door shut.

Point two: Get the story on paper. All of it. 

As Kevin Smith might say,  Finish it, sir.

The second quote is from Hemingway who said something like:  The first draft of anything is shit.

Both of these bits apply no matter what you are writing. I don’t care if it’s an email, a poem, a screenplay, the blog entry, a novel or a technical document. Revise it. Then revise it again. Then do it again.

It’s a tough lesson to learn when you’re starting out and you think you have a grand idea and that anyone who thinks it isn’t grand is a moron. Here’s the truth, it probably is a pretty good idea, but your first attempt at saying won't be well thought out, won't be organized, will be full of typos, fragments and run-ons and all those other things that drove your English teacher to slip whiskey into his or her coffee mug, and doesn’t convey the thought you are trying to get across...not exactly the way you intended. 
It’s true and the sooner a writer breaks through that wall and gets to the point where they can see their flaws, the better.

I'm lazy and hate editing, so I've suffered the wrath of many a critic, many a seasoned reader, and my own self-loathing when I reread my own work. Ugh. Double ugh. Who says, "Ugh?"

This is why I suck at any public speaking (but I’m working on it). I can’t revise the words once they come out of my mouth. When some poor slob invents that technology, it’ll be a much better world.

So those are the ways in which writing both for page and screen are similar. Write alone, edit with help. Edit a lot.

There are some obvious differences in screenplays and novels. Length, format, etc.

A screenplay page equals about one minute of screen time, so you have about 100 pages to tell your story if you want producers/agents to give it a first glance. Novels are obviously longer. Do that editing and revising thing if you want a second glance. 

Those are some obvious differences.

A less obvious difference:  “Novels are usually written in the third person,” he said.

In a script, she walks. He reads. They fight.

The biggest difference and the hardest thing for me was the visual aspect of films. You cannot write it in a script if it can’t be seen on screen. No thoughts, unless they are going to be shown in some abstract way. No “he felt sad,” which honestly would be bad writing anyway.

You have to cut description down to a concise form. Give only visuals that can be created. Give your characters actions and dialogue that will tell the director and the cast enough so they might bring them to life and make these fictional people their own.

Act the scenes out and see if they feel natural to you. When I write, I talk aloud. I read my dialogue. I whisper to myself. I make facial expressions as my characters make them. I try to visualize everything. I look like an unhinged nutbag. (I do this when writing any form, not just screenplays).

Still—this is the lonely part.

This is where the second part of King’s advice comes in:  Edit with the door open.

So you write your first draft behind closed doors, alone. Then you let people in for the revisions. I firmly believe in this and am always begging people to proof my work (free editing!). My wife gets first crack at it.

With a novel, you revise, you revise, you revise, you publish and there it is.

This is where screenwriting differs the most. You revise, you collaborate (how many films credit written by Joe Bob, Cindy Lou, Billy Jack and Roscoe P. Coaltrain?), you revise some more, you put it up to committee, they make changes, then you revise again.

Then—maybe you get someone on the hook that wants to make your movie. They’ll buy your script and it’s no longer yours, or maybe they keep you on to do the revisions. 


Or maybe you decide you like your story just fine, you like your script just fine and you want to make the film yourself! Glutton for punishment.

When Clive Barker decided to make Hellraiser, he went to the library for books on directing because he'd never done it before. To his chagrin, those books were checked out...but it didn't stop him from creating an iconic horror film. 

Now you've decided to make your film yourself, and you found your book on directing...or your YouTube videos, but changes are still coming because the best actor for that role doesn't look exactly like the one you had in your head, so you make some tweaks to accommodate. 

And then you can’t find the perfect location and the budget won’t allow you to build sets to spec, so you tweak some more. You had written fifteen characters but the budget, schedule, and your group of friends and local film community will only support eight, so you tweak. And maybe ten other things aren’t going to work due to ten other limitations, and so you tweak. It’s not giving up on your vision as much as it is being flexible. Flexibility is key--so important. With a novel, rigid is doable...with a film, it may just be a death sentence.

So you could write a book and publish it with no more than a single person to edit. I'd say the average novel takes quite a few more than that on your team, but it's feasible. 
On a film, you are part of a family—hopefully a family that support your vision. They will be dysfunctional and need guidance. You will be dysfunctional and need guidance, but hey--It’s no longer lonely. Your phone is blowing up and your Facebook messenger is blowing up and your skull is throbbing from all the possibilities and the headaches, albeit good headaches. The creativity is flowing...lots of moving parts.

Again—you have to finish it, sir or ma’am. Finish the project. As a friend just reminded me on Facebook:  Stay the course!

Writing a novel is challenging. Writing a great novel is a herculean effort.

Making even a simple film is hard folks. Like quit and walk away hard. Like screaming pull your hair out hard--especially if you care. 
It is a flipping miracle that any feature film gets made. A miracle. It’s no wonder Hollywood relies so heavily on formula and remakes and sequels—they are safe. 

My little bit of advice won't get your film made or your novel written. There's no secret sauce, no easy button. It just takes effort and the ability to keep yourself motivated...and feed the cast and crew. Always feed them. Even if the budget is zero... No excuses.

So that’s my ten cents. Similar, but different. Each with its own learning curve.

Apply the following to both: 

Be hardheaded and stubborn, but not so much that you can’t hear good advice.

Learn to know the difference between good and bad advice.

Finish it.

Surround yourself with positive people. There’s plenty of negative out there—it has no business in writing or filmmaking. 

One more stolen bit paraphrased from Kevin Smith:  Be encouraging because you never know who might be the one to write your next favorite book, direct your next favorite film, or write that song that gets you through the tough times. Encouragement is free, folks.


I’m new to all this. I’ve been writing for about 30 years, but only 10 of those have been serious years. It takes that long to get pretty good. Longer still to get great and that’s daily practice, putting in the time. Words come easier to some than others, but only three hundred words a day equals a novel in a year. Three hundred words a day is nothing. This blog entry is longer than 300 words.

Dave Grohl said this about music, but it applies:

“Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they'll suck, too. And then they'll fucking start playing and they'll have the best time they've ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they'll become Nirvana.”

I don’t want to be Nirvana, but I'm glad someone did.

Images pilfered from Google.

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