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My ostrich eggs have travelled with me across three continents. They are big (6 inches long, 5 inches wide), have a beautiful creamy colour, and are lovely to touch (the shells are pitted, not smooth!)
I find it fascinating that hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari still use ostrich eggs as water containers and that there is a statue in an Egyptian tomb of a Ptolemaic Greek Princess riding an ostrich...
Many years ago, my husband bought this Ekipa when we were on holiday in Swakopmund, Namibia and had it made into a pendant for me. It is more than 70 years old and it is my favourite piece of jewellery, from my favourite country. It brings me luck. When I wear it, it takes on the warmth of my skin.
Ekipa amulets (omakipa) are unique cultural objects of adornment, carved by local craftsmen. They are found only in Namibia and Southern Angola and are traditionally sewn as buttons onto leather straps, which the wearer wraps around the waist or wrist. Because they are made from ivory, their sale is strictly regulated by the Namibian government and can only be bought inside Namibia and only from certified dealers for non-commercial use. Each ekipa is gorgeous and unique. A true one-of-a-kind. www.kirikara.com/ekipa.html
The sexiest lips in the universe. The original can be found on the face of Michelangelo's David in The Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence.
Not that I dress up in an evening gown when I write — more like sloppy T — but in my heart I live in velvet and lace...
I am passionate about music, so much so that I even wrote a book, The Other Side of Silence on this topic. My mother is a voice coach for opera singers and when I was a little girl — even before I could read — she would tell me the stories of the great operas while playing the music. Come to think of it, this was pretty strong stuff! Azucena burning her own child alive as vengeance blinds her; Madame Butterfly waiting in vain for Pinkerton and cutting her throat with her father's hara kiri knife, Lucia di Lammermoor in a white night gown stained with blood going mad after killing her bridegroom. I listened spell-bound, fell in love with Verdi, Puccini and Bizet and developed a liking for characters who are larger than life and who live extraordinary lives.
But my taste in music is like my taste in writing: eclectic. For inspiration, I usually listen to Nina Simone: voluptuous sophistication and crystalline purity — it never fails. Loreena McKennitt sings the way I wish I could write: her compositions are magical. Any soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer is wonderful background music for writing, as is the music of Shahin and Sepehr. I like the old guys: The Rolling Stones (is there anything better than Gimme Shelter?), Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Led Zeppelin. When I'm homesick I listen to Splash, Patricia Majalisa or the Dalom Kids: they're all great performers of 'Mpantsula Jive' — a hybrid of South African Mbaqanga township music and Western dance influences. In the gym anything goes: Eye of the Tiger (yes it's cheesy but so what), Dio, Skid Row, Three Doors Down, New Order, Bruno Mars.
A creation of the Liuligongfang Glass Studio, it depicts a dragon rampant. It is made of the most exquisite green-coloured glass and it is so heavy I have to use both hands when I pick it up. I bought it in Hong Kong and it brings good luck, serenity and creativity to my home in London.
I have four pairs and they are all pink. They look sweet but they pack a punch. They usually smell of baby powder because talcum is the only thing that stops them from smelling sweaty. Before you giggle: I picked up this trick from a guy who has shoulders as wide as a truck and a fearsome reputation as a fighter.
If you are interested in my involvement with the CPAU Fighting for Peace movement, which is teaching Afghan women how to box and feel empowered in their lives, click here.
I am blessed to have a talented brother who is responsible for designing my website and my games, and a mother whose imagination and creative energy is boundless. Together the two of them have created The Peony Lady for me. She is a collage built up of (modified) images by Caravaggio (my favourite painter), and her head is a pink peony (my favourite flower in my favourite colour). You will find her lurking in different poses throughout my website. Play around with her — she may wink at you or do something interesting! I also use her on my business cards and memo notes.
I receive many queries from writers — published and unpublished — about the business, as well as the creative side of writing. This section is for you. Some of the topics below are taken from my blog, others are answers to frequently asked questions.
There are many how-to-books out there but if you read only one, let it be Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees.
Will I ever get published?
The bad news
When I started out, I received twenty-seven rejection letters before I managed to find an agent willing to represent me. Even with his assistance, I still had to cope with another bunch of rejection letters before my manuscript finally found a home with a publishing house.
It has always been difficult to get published — not to mention making a living from writing — but never more so than at this point in time. Legacy publishers (the big six) are struggling financially. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing down.
E-books are the future but authors are getting squeezed. On the one hand the legacy publishers do not like paying their writers more than 25% royalties and on the other hand, readers do not like paying for content and think books should be as cheaply available as music. If you consider that it can take years to finish a book, a set price of 99p or in many cases 49p will make it difficult for writers to practise their craft with commercial success. In addition, authors have to cope with torrent sites and intellectual property pirates who insist that free content is a human right.
This is the dark side.
The good news
The bright side is that the rise of the e book means there has never been a greater opportunity to showcase your work. In the past, self-publishing was called vanity publishing and was sneered at as the last refuge for those who couldn't make the cut. This is no longer the case. Even mega bestsellers are considering going it alone. Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 advance from St. Martin's Press in favour of self-publishing (he ended up signing a deal with Amazon instead) and his friend, JA Konrath, is the stuff of self-publishing legend. Follow this link to get the full picture. Fascinating stuff.
If you are a published author with a backlist, which is nearing out-of-print status, I would strongly recommend that you try to get your rights back from your publisher and self-publish these titles. I have decided to go this route myself. Your publisher is no longer promoting your backlist titles or making an effort to distribute them. You can do a better job yourself.
Do I need an agent?
If you want to publish with a legacy publisher, you probably do. If you self-publish, you don't. An agent will take between 15% and 20% of your earnings but his help is invaluable in getting your manuscript read by an editor. If you send it in cold, your novel will in all likelihood be trapped in the slush pile or read by a very junior assistant or an intern who may not be a very good reader to begin with.
How do you find an agent? Read the acknowledgement page in novels you admire: most authors thank their agents. Find the agent's address online or in Writer's Market. Send a short, sizzling (not boastful) query letter in which you introduce yourself and your work. Give a five line synopsis of your novel and include the opening chapter — no more. Do not query agents until your novel is finished. If they are interested, they will not be happy to hear they have to wait another year or two before they can read it.
Should you phone? I never did as I was told agents find it irritating. Besides, I write better than I speak — most writers do. I suppose the answer is to play to your strengths. If you can charm the birds out of the tree on a phone, then go for it.
A few common misconceptions
Editors are there to nurture talent
Many editors do not have the time any more to do a thorough editing job. This is why your manuscript has to be near perfect before it will be accepted for publication.
As disappointing as it is to have an editor who doesn't spend much time on your manuscript, it is even worse to have an editor who is a frustrated writer and who insists that her voice shines through every sentence. It can happen.
Do you have to take on board every change your editor wants you to make? No, but there is a clause in your contract which says your publisher does not have to publish you if they feel the manuscript is not ready for publication. And if you act like a prima donna, your publisher may simply decide you are too much trouble to publish the next time around.
Authors published by the same publisher receive equal treatment
Not so. Very little money is spent launching the career of a fledgling writer unless he/she is paid a huge advance fee (unlikely) and the publisher needs to spend even more money to recoup that investment. Bestselling authors receive the lion's share of attention and promotion money. It doesn't seem to make sense — after all why spend money promoting JK Rowling or Thomas Harris when their names alone will sell books? But the fact is that the commercial well-being of a publishing house is very much dependent on its star authors. They pay for all the many writers whose work do not sell.
Your editor is crucial. She is your champion and must fight to get you marketing dollars. Unfortunately, not all editors have equal status in-house. This is important to remember as you may have a keen, enthusiastic editor (good) instead of a bored, jaded editor (bad) but the enthusiastic editor may not have nearly as much clout as the more senior, jaded editor in which case you can be sure the senior editor's writers will receive more inhouse TLC than you.
Your publisher will promote your work vigorously and see to it that your book is available in all the book stores
It is a rude awakening for most first time writers to discover that a) their book is nowhere to be found and b) no-one seems to have heard of you or your book because it hasn't been reviewed.
Publishers can't force the book stores to carry your book, they can only cajole book buyers to give you a try. As a first-time writer you have not yet proved yourself and a book store manager may therefore be reluctant to give you valuable shelf space. If the store does take you on and — oh, lucky day — position your book with the jacket faced to the front, you can be sure that after six weeks this will change and all left-over copies of your book will be returned to the publisher (in case of weak sales) or reshelved to show the spine only.
Those eye-catching posters on the walls of book stores? Paid for by the publisher. Why isn't your book advertised this way? Because this kind of promotion is so expensive, it is reserved for best-selling authors only. This also goes for the book dump (stacked books on the table as you enter the book store) and very often the space in the display window.
As for reviews: Your inhouse publicist will mail advance copies of your book to major publications but hundreds of books get published every month and newspaper reviewers must pick and choose. It is more likely that they will choose to review John Grisham's book than yours.
But all is not lost. Authors these days can do a lot to promote themselves and if you manage to create a buzz on the internet, you're set. Work the social networking sites, create contests on your website, team up with other writers in the same genre and guest blog. The poster boy and girl for self promotion are JA Konrath and Amanda Hocking. It takes a lot of time — time that you might rather want to spend writing your new book — but I'm afraid no working author today can afford to leave the promotion of their work in the hands of their publisher only.
Should you hire an outside publicist? I am in two minds. I've worked with outside publicists — some of them have been good, others not so much — but they always cost a lot of money. If you have the funds, then by all means, but try to get a reference first.
Once I have published my first book, all my other books will get published as well
Sadly, no. Whether you will get your second book published, depends on a number of things — the most important of which, is sales. If your sales are strong, you can be assured your publisher will renew your contract. If your sales are weak, you stand a strong chance of being dropped from the list.
Paradoxically, the more books you have published, the more precarious your position can be. If you are an author who has several books in the bag but only an average sales record, your publisher may come to the conclusion that you are unlikely to garner more readers in future and may decide she'd rather take a chance on a new writer who has the potential to set the world on fire.
General advice for first-time writers
Write the best manuscript you can and do not send it out until you know it cannot be improved. All writers, I believe, experience a high when they have finished a book. The temptation is strong to introduce your baby to the world without delay. I find it best to lock the manuscript away for at least three weeks. Go to the movies. Visit friends. Go walk in the park. Organise your sock drawer. Do all the things that got pushed to the back burner while you were slaving at the desk. Then take it out and give it another read-through. You will be surprised at how different you experience your words once the first mad flush has died down.
The good writing is in the rewriting.
On the other hand, fear of rejection can lead one to getting locked into a never-ending cycle of always finding room for improvement. It is possible to tinker too much. Write it, edit it, send it.
Send your manuscript to your 'first readers' first.
Of course you are going to give your manuscript to your mother and your significant other to read, and they may be (in my case they most certainly are) excellent critics of your work. But most writers have a circle of 'first readers': people who are passionate about books, who like to read and who can be trusted to give you an honest reading. Note that I use the word 'honest.' It is pleasant to bask in glowing praise but you are looking for readers who are gifted: who can identify and articulate problems in your book and who have read widely enough that they have a frame of reference to guide them in their feedback.
On the other hand, stay away from toxic readers: poisonous friends and relatives who set out to erode your self-confidence because of envy. They may appear to have your best interests at heart but in fact are following a stealth agenda to undermine your confidence. If you belong to a reading group and share your work with other aspiring writers, you will almost certainly come up against this problem.
Do not send your manuscript to your first readers with a blanket: 'Let me know what you think.' Ask very specific questions. E.g. Did you find your attention wandering/were you bored at any time during the narrative? If so, where? Did you get confused or lost at any time? Do the characters convince? Did you find any examples of clunky dialogue? Was the ending satisfactory? What is your favourite part of the book? What did you like least about the story?
Now query an agent (see above) and once you have received permission to do so, send him the manuscript. In fact, query more than one agent at a time and send out multiple submissions. Many how-to books warn against this practice but believe me, it can take months for an agent to respond. Life is short.
If, after an agent has read your manuscript, he rejects it, make notes of what it is he found unacceptable but send the manuscript out again immediately. If another agent comes back with the same criticism, then fix the problem before submitting it again.
All of the above holds true for editors as well. If your agent is submitting your manuscript, ask to see the rejection letters. They will make for uncomfortable reading but if you receive the same criticism more than once, you need to do something about it. Unfortunately, most editors don't take the time to write a considered response and you may simply get the standard; 'Not quite right for the list.'
Start on your next novel. Don't sit around waiting for an agent or publisher to take you on. You may be waiting for months or years before this happens.
Your manuscript has been accepted for publication.
Hurrah! Open a bottle of champagne and tell your family, your friends, your enemies and strangers in the street about your good fortune.
Now, gird your loins as this is when the real grind starts.
Writing is blood-on-the-keyboard hard but it is creative work, and you are allowed to dream. Once your book is taken on by a publisher you realise your idea of publishing has been widely off mark. But do not despair. Remember, there are many others out there who would love to be in your shoes and have a work accepted for publication.
The following links are to blog posts, which deal with the writing life:
A truly reprehensible book: The Bunker Diary
As an author myself, I rarely rubbish any novel, but I do have a short list of books I find beyond redemption. Brett Ellis's 'American Psycho' is one. This YA novel by Kevin Brooks is definitely another... Read more→Careful, or you'll end up in my novel!
A while back I was given a T-shirt that says CAREFUL, OR YOU'LL END UP IN MY NOVEL. I smile every time I look at it, but the truth is, I have not had the guts to wear it in public as I don't want to scare off my friends... Read more→Digital Media: Authors, Readers and a Paperless World. The End of the Love Affair?
The relationship between writers and readers is a grand love affair. But hell hath no fury like a reader feeling cheated. Authors recently saw their star ratings decimated... Read more→To Blurb or not to Blurb
Many years ago, when I was growing up in Johannesburg, a relative gave me a copy of Joyce Carol Oates's novel, Bellefleur. He had purchased the book while on a trip to the United States... Read more→The Oddest Book Title Award
One of the more interesting literary awards is the annual prize for The Oddest Book Title. This year's winner is Dr. Daina Taimina for... Read more→Cheetahs and Smoking Dutchmen
As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, this had been a special Christmas for me. It was the first time in seven years that I had both my brothers in the same room when we opened our Christmas presents. It was also... Read more→Greetings From South Africa
I'm still in South Africa and will be until the end of the month. It is hot here in the Cape! The ocean is sparkling, the vineyards are green and I'm eating and drinking way too much... Read more→AT LAST: We have a jacket for Keeper of Light and Dust!
Like most cliches, there is some truth to the saying that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. In reality, of course, we almost always do. Nothing can sabotage the chances of a book more than... Read more→The New Book is Finished!
Before I get to my news, let me share with you the following. I recently came across a quotation by someone called Edmund Bergler: 'Every writer without exception is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an injustice collector and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity... Read more→The Not So Secret Lives of Authors
In my previous blog entry I wrote about what authors get up to in private: hanging around the house in sweats, eating too much cheese, talking to themselves in the mirror. This blog entry will be about the public life of a writer: the interviews, the book signings, the literary festivals... Read more→How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors
Years ago, I read an interview with Dame Barbara Cartland. As I have never read any of Ms. Cartland's novels, I cannot comment on her work, but two things about the interview struck me forcibly: the lady's work ethic, and her pale blue velvet sofa... Read more→
Writers are often asked to name the one book, which triggered in them the impulse to write. I am unable to pinpoint such a Eureka moment but the reading experience I remember best is Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For a girl just entering adolescence, this novel had everything: passion on a grand scale, dark eroticism (remember the priest's wanton desires for the fair Esmeralda?) and a powerful myth at its heart. I still consider this tale of beauty and the beast the most romantic book I've ever read.
At that time, I was already a serious addict: reading and writing with a voracious, if untidy energy. I wrote pages of overblown prose and read everything -- from Louis L'Amour to Hemingway -- with a joyous, uncritical eye. The child reader/writer is a tiresome child. Either exhaustingly precocious or seething and sullen (I went through both stages), our imaginations run riot. We're the ones with the imaginary friends. And even as children we tend to prefer books to people.
Ah, books. Both potion and poison. Reading is the creative core of a writer's life, but your attitude towards reading changes as you age. Once the insidious thought enters your mind that maybe you could get published as well, innocence is lost. Of course, you'll continue to read in order to make sense of the world. And you'll always be seduced by the beauty of words. But now you're not just reading...you're competing. Every time you open a book, you are measuring yourself against the voice of another writer.
Despite the pinpricks of envy, writers rely on each other for wisdom. Whenever I'm writing a passage which, frustratingly, refuses to soar, I try to remind myself of what G.K. Chesterton wrote about angels and flying. They fly, he believed, because 'they take themselves lightly...'
In My Study
Years ago, I read an interview with Dame Barbara Cartland. As I have never read any of Ms. Cartland's novels, I cannot comment on her work, but two things about the interview struck me forcibly: the lady's work ethic, and her pale blue velvet sofa. Ms. Cartland wrote more than 700 novels. I manage to finish a novel every two years. Ms. Cartland dictated her books to an assistant, while lounging in a silk gown on a pale blue velvet sofa. I have no assistant and no silk gown but these things matter not. It is the sofa I covet.
I mean, think about it. Who has a pale blue velvet sofa in their living room? It is demurely decadent. More than a little unpractical. Frivolous and glamorous. And at some deep level it confirmed my suspicion that other writers lead far more interesting lives than I do.
I sometimes receive emails from readers asking me what my day looks like. Let's just say, it is a walk on the tame side. My working day begins shortly after I have made my husband a cup of tea in the morning (around 5.30) and it ends when I make him dinner. In between these two highpoints are squeezed in roughly nine hours of writing and research. I write creatively every day except weekends although this is now starting to change and my Saturdays are becoming writing days as well. What exactly do I do in those nine hours? Well, I type. I stare at the screen in quiet desperation. I wrestle with the hero of my book, who is often disappointingly lazy and inarticulate. I eat Haagen Dazs Belgian chocolate ice cream from the tub and I melt Marks and Spencers shredded Mozzarella cheese in a microwave and eat it straight up. I know, disgusting. I'm sure Ms Cartland insisted on Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches. When I can't stand it any longer, I go to the dojo and kick a bag or punch my trainer, Carlos. Before you give him the sympathy vote, he is a former WKA European light-heavyweight kickboxing champion and can take care of himself.
Surely it must be different for other authors? Think of Bruce Chatwin exploring far horizons; Hemingway wrestling bulls and doing manly things; Ann Rice ferried in a hearse through the streets of New Orleans; Bret Easton Ellis, OK...let's not go there. But the point is, these authors obviously required more than ice cream, a punch bag and a room of their own to write. They needed adventure, bull runs and designer clothing to keep the creative juices flowing!
It was therefore with trepidation that I accepted an invitation by Dan Crowe, former editor of the literary magazine, Zembla, to contribute to a book called How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors. I was also thrilled, of course - how could I not be? I would be rubbing shoulders with A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates. Am I cool, or what. But my apprehension was acute. Sixty-four of us were asked to contribute an essay on something we consider to be essential to our writing lives: something we simply cannot do without. It could be anything - an object, a memento, a ritual - anything, which helps us arrange words on a page. I was convinced my fellow authors would be writing about Cristal champagne, yoga in the desert, smoky jazz bars, balloon rides at sunrise. Not Haagen Dazs and stringy cheese.
So what does inspire my illustrious colleagues? Hot showers (Jane Smiley), chocolate (Douglas Coupland), post-it notes (Will Self), cigarettes (Anthony Bourdain), a large desk (Alain de Botton). Good grief, their lives are as boring as mine. Seriously, all the contributions in this book are wonderful and written with imagination and flair - Nicholson Baker, e.g. manages to make ear plugs seem almost unbearably sexy - but they do bring home one inescapable truth: to be a writer, you have to be able to sit in a chair.
My contribution? I decided not to go for the mozzarella cheese, but I did choose my trusty boxing aid. No, not Carlos, but a speedball, which is attached to the wall in my office. It has a potent, plum-like shape and it beckons me several times a day. When my brain is sagging and slumping, I tap out a triplet beat and then no more sagging and slumping but swaying and spinning...
Is not the brain shaped like a pair of boxing gloves?
How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors is published by Rizzoli and is now available (see below). Edited by Dan Crowe.
After ten years of writing novels, I decided to try my hand at writing a screenplay. It was going to be a breeze. After all, I'm used to hammering out 400 pages of text so how hard can it be to write 120 pages of dialogue, right?
Writing a screenplay is a wild, exasperating and challenging ride. For those of you who are interested in scriptwriting, here are a couple of thoughts on the adventure. (And no, the Nicholas Cage movie, Season of the Witch, is not based on my novel of the same name!)
1. Selling on or selling out?A few years ago I sold the movie rights to my novel, Season of the Witch. As I signed the contract, I had the same doubts that plague most authors who find themselves lucky enough to catch the eye of Hollywood. Would the scriptwriter understand my characters? Would the story be butchered/dumbed down/changed beyond all recognition? What if my novel ends up a B grade horror movie with shoddy production values? Is there any way I can retain creative control?
The answer to the last question is a resounding 'No.' The contract you sign is pretty much boiler plate and the one most authors are required to sign.
Once you scribble your name on the dotted line, you relinquish all rights. The film makers are allowed to change your characters, plot and even the genre. Your gritty drama may be turned into an escapist fantasy with characters brandishing laser swords. Your dark, poignant ending could be transformed into a relentlessly sunny one.
If you absolutely hate the movie, you may have the option to ask the studio to remove your name from the credits. If you are a best-selling author and the studio relies on your name to attract moviegoers, your contract will in all likelihood state that you are not allowed to do so.
So why take the risk?
Name recognition. This is probably the biggest carrot. An author's name recognition skyrockets after a successful film and book sales may increase substantially.
Money. The upfront money is usually not a fortune but it is still a nice windfall. There is also the promise of a bigger pay check in the future if the movie gets made, which is by no means certain. More about this later on.
The hope that the filmmakers will make a fine movie, which will introduce your story to a far wider audience than your book will ever reach.
Season of the Witch is still in development. If it makes it to the big screen I will be buying my ticket and popcorn along with everyone else. Fingers crossed.
2. How does it work when you write your own script?Two years after selling the rights to Season of the Witch, lightning struck again and another one of my novels was optioned to be made into a film. And this time I was asked to write the script. Happy days! I get to retain creative control. Right?
Ah, control. A lovely word, but not a concept, which features in the life of a Hollywood scriptwriter. This was the first thing I discovered — almost right off the bat.
The second thing I learnt was that even though you are paid to write the script, this does not necessarily mean a movie will be made. Hollywood's vaults are overflowing with commissioned scripts, which for one reason or another, never went into production. Who knew? Not me.
I also discovered I would not be allowed to talk about my good fortune and write about it in blogs and newsletters (half the fun) because writers are required to sign a contract with a clause, which forbids them to talk about the project until such time as the studio gives them the greenlight to do so.
The fourth thing I discovered was that I was going to have to learn to use Final Draft, the scriptwriting software, which is the Hollywood standard. Writers of screenplays do not use Word.
And last, but definitely not least, it dawned on me — rather quickly — that whereas a novel writer is pretty much queen of the castle, a script writer is low-woman-on-the-totem pole. A Hollywood script writer is a writer for hire.
What does this mean?
It means that even though you are the scribe of record, your vision is almost always subservient to the vision of the studio executive and the producers. Producers have the right to remove you from the project whenever they feel like it and engage the services of another writer. It happens all the time and to the very best of writers. Think Gladiator, which started off with David Franzoni, who was then replaced by the great John Logan, who was then replaced by the great William Nicholson before Franzoni was brought back on board again. It is rare these days to see only one writer's name in the credits. So much money is involved that studios try to hedge their bets by attaching more than one screenwriter to the project — the argument being that if one is good, two must be better. By the time writers three or four get on board there may be very few of your precious words left. Remember, it is in the interest of these writers to try to change as much of the original script as they can in order to win WGA accreditation.
Once the producers have a finished script — after many, many, many rewrites — a director will come on board and will often exercise 'the director's pass.' He may stick the script under his arm, disappear into his cave and come out with something that bears scant resemblance to the screenplay, which had required such backbreaking work from so many different people over so many months or years. I am told the only director who shoots the script as is, is Clint Eastwood. Terry Rossio, the writer for Pirates of the Caribbean, once complained humorously about a film reviewer who commiserated with a director for 'struggling manfully with a pedestrian script' when in fact, it was the director who had turned a good script into a mundane one.
Pretty grim, huh?
Yes, but the process is also exciting and you get to work with talented and creative people. But it is true that you cannot allow yourself to get too attached to your source material
Do I always agree with the changes I am asked to make? No. But I also understand that it is so tremendously expensive to make a movie, that there is no way the scriptwriter will be allowed to dictate which direction the film should go.
If you're thinking of becoming a scriptwriter and feel you'll be compromising your artistic integrity by accepting the situation as outlined above, then this job is not for you.
3. There is no guarantee that your script will be made into a movie, even if the studio has paid good money for it.
I find it extraordinary that there are many writers in Hollywood who have made their living over decades selling scripts — but who has never had even one of these scripts turned into an actual movie.
Even the most illustrious screenplay writers have sold scripts that went nowhere. When I attended a lecture by William Nicholson at a BAFTA event I was startled to learn that he had written eleven screenplays, for which he was paid very well, but which never went into production. Nicholson calls them his 'stillborn children' and says he had to make peace with the fact that they are buried in the vaults of studios all over Hollywood with no hope of resurrection.
Before you sign on to do a screenplay, therefore, ask yourself if you'll be OK with working long and hard on a creative project (even if you get paid), which may, in the end, never see the light of day.
4. Scriptwriters have to network more than writers of novels.
If you're a scriptwriter you have to make contacts. Check out e.g. events at BAFTA. The London Breakfast Club hosts luminaries of the scriptwriting world. Here is a piece I wrote about legendary Frank Spotnitz – he of X Files and Man in the High Castle fame.
5. Are authors better at adapting their own books than professional scriptwriters?
The sad fact is that authors often suck at adapting their own books. You'd think it would be exactly the opposite. After all, I know my characters as intimately as if they were my relatives. I know their shoe size, their neuroses and their most private thoughts: including the ones they do not share with the reader.
But authors can be very wordy. We forget that screenplays and literature are two wholly different things. We forget that a screenplay is never going to be read for its own sake. Literary merit is not what makes a good movie, which is probably why Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald did not shine when they slummed it in Hollywood.
A screenplay isn't even about dialogue. It is about the picture. True, there are lines that come to define a movie: 'Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,' and even 'Hasta la vista, baby' but a movie is not theatre. Words take second place.
6. Is it easier when you adapt someone else's work?I have since also been asked to work on scripts based on another author's work. In this case the challenge is twofold:
a) do not change the original story so much that you will alienate the author's fan base
b) do not — because you are intidimidated by the success of the novel — stick to it so rigidly that it turns into poor cinema. Some scenes and concepts simply do not work on screen. Get rid of them.
In other words, be sure to square the circle.
Useful links for aspiring scriptwriters
Check out THE BLACK LIST and subscribe to its newsletter. THE BLACK LIST also now offers screenwriters the opportunity — for a fee — to upload their script for review and rating.
John August's blog is a great resource for aspiring scriptwriters and covers almost all aspects of the life of a working writer in Hollywood. August also does a regular podcast with fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin. Find it on iTunes.
Terry Rossio: Wordplay. Another good resource, although Rossio doesn't keep his blog as current as August does. Whereas August is super short and sweet in his entries, Rossio likes to chat.
Final Draft. When you buy your Final Draft software (expensive) you also get to receive their newsmagazine, which is great stuff and gives you an overview of all the recent deals in Hollywood plus features written by Hollywood insiders.
- Looking for movie scripts to read from first drafts to shooting drafts? Here are a few resources:
BAFTA: To find out about events and lectures on screenwriting, visit the BAFTA website.
London Screenwriting Festival: Every year wannabe writers and those who have already made it get together at the London Screenwriting Festival
You can follow Natasha's Blog at: http://natasha-mostert.blogspot.com/
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