I’ve been AWOL lately and here’s why. The first draft of Still UnNamed Burger Heaven #2 wasn’t going well. Shocking, I know because everybody’s first draft goes so swimmingly.
A flash of genius hit me on an acceptable form of procrastination. Plus, I really wanted to pursue it. Maybe you’ve considered tackling the same endeavor….
I turned my novel into a screenplay, then entered it into a contest.
Yep, Pennies from Burger Heaven the book, is now a screenplay. Squeals, jubilation, confetti falling from the sky!
Wrong. Groans, torture, I felt like I was burning in the pits of hell. Writing a novel is hard work, but writing a screenplay might even be harder.
It requires a whole different set of creative skills. We’ll talk about those, as well as the screenplay software (free) and books (not free) I used to make it happen.
The Austin Film Festival
Summer of 2015, I’d finished Pennies from Burger Heaven for the hundredth time, and abused myself with yet another round of, “Do I publish this myself, or query agents again?”
Then, I remembered the Austin Film Festival Annual screenplay competition. The Festival was founded in 1993. Its screenplay competition is very prestigious and receives a staggering number of entries. In 2015, they had a total of 8,627 scripts for Screenplays (film)/Teleplays (TV)! They have many success stories of contest finalists and winners getting their screenplays optioned (a production company paying for the exclusive right to hold onto your screenplay for specific period; it’s like having ‘dibs’.). Other contest scripts have made it all the way to the big screen.
Sadly, the contest deadline had already passed. Grrrrrr…
I thought, Well, I’ll just work on my screenplay ‘on the side’ over the next year. You know, in all my free time.
Ha. That didn’t happen. I didn’t type one word.
Meanwhile, I found SkipJack Publishing for my novel, and got lost in the whirlwind of a book launch.
Fast forward to March 2016. As first draft of Burger Heaven #2 struggled, I remembered the AFF Screenplay Competition once again. The deadline was May 20, 2016 — just 7.5 weeks away! I decided to go for it.
Here are the three main differences between writing novels and screenplays:
1. A Screenplay is a Compressed Version of a Novel
OMG. This is such a painful fact. You must delete portions of your book, entire subplots! For readers of Pennies, Mai Wong and Copper in their secret phone-booth hangout? Gone.
You must think of the central question to your story, then find the right visuals to illustrate that point, over and over.
For example, the central question to Pennies is, “Will Copper Daniels live long enough to find her mama?”
A typical screenplay is 90 – 120 pages since a typical movies is 90 – 120 minutes long.
My screenplay first draft was a whopping 168 pages!
There are 2.75 hour-long movies out there, but not for newbies like moi. The AFF doesn’t disqualify entries over 120 pages, but it makes you look like amateur, so I had to cut, cut, cut.
2. Novels and Screenplays are Different Formats
You know those rare but beautiful moments where you get swept away writing a novel? When the words just flow from you. I found that was impossible to do in the screenplay because I had to keep switching in my brain between: SCENE HEADING, DIALOGUE, ACTION.
See the photograph below:
SCENE HEADING: EXTERIOR OF EX PAWN – DAYTIME.
ACTION: Copper kicks the can…
DIALOGUE: COPPER and TURDMOUTH.
Please note, with the above example:
* Dialogue – is about three lines (look how much shorter dialogue is than the rest of the script!).
*Action – is about five lines.
You can go longer, but you should strives to say within those parameters.
3. Less is More for Screenplays
In novels, you’re encouraged to use sensory description to make the story come alive: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.
In screenplays, you only write what you can see or hear.
There’s no introspection.
Additionally, describe just enough to visually convey your characters or scenes. Do not over describe. That’s for the director to decide.
Copper Daniels is the heroine of my entire book, yet all I say about her: COPPER DANIELS, (11), wakes up in her sleeping bag, exhausted. A few red curls peek out from her hand-me-down hoodie.
A novel is the author’s finished product (with help from an editor). A screenplay is the film’s beginning blueprint. Big difference.
Free Screenplay Software
I already knew the basics of a screenplay writing because I did it once before. In 2001, my story Beyond East and West (another unpublished novel of mine) won Best Screenplay at the Southwest Writers Conference in Albuquerque. Still, that was over 15 years ago. I’d forgotten so much more than I remembered.
You need special software to write a screenplay. Whatever I used back then, that computer was long gone. I had to start over. Screenplay software can be both complicated and expensive. I like simple and found Amazon Storywriter. It’s free, with helpful tutorials.
I bought Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a short and user-friendly. I also read Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger. It’s longer and more cumbersome, but an actual screenwriter friend recommended it. It’s well done.
I think the only reason I was able to write a script in less than two months is because I had my novel complete, so I already knew all the plot points, or ‘beats’ as they say in screenplay lingo. My screenwriter friend planned to critique my screenplay. He wrote for NYPD Blue, Law & Order Special Victims Unit, JAG, and The Bold and the Beautiful.
That didn’t happen because he left for Europe for three weeks before I had a respectable draft completed. I was on my own. Yikes!
The talented Jennifer Archer, author of Through Her Eyes and Sandwiched is a friend. She sat through two readings of my screenplay (each session was 2.5 hours)! Reading my script outloud to someone else made all the difference in the world! It helped me hear and see what could be changed, compressed or deleted. Thanks to Jenny, I cut 50 pages!
The day of the contest deadline, I cleared my calendar, took the day off from work, and got to my computer by 3:15 a.m., still in my pajamas. Not intentionally, I just woke up and decided to take advantage of it. It was 4 p.m. when I turned in my screenplay — minus getting the kids ready for school, lunch and bathroom breaks, that was 14 hours of polishing!
My final screenplay is 105 pages!
It was a torturous process, but I’m so glad I did it.
To make it past the first round of judging. That’s a long shot with 8,627 entries in 2015 and only had 728 ‘Second Rounders’. Crazy! I’ll know by the end of September how I did. Regardless, I’ll receive about feedback from the judges.
I’m going to Austin, Baby!
I also signed up to participate in the Pitch Competition at the Austin Film Festival, October 13 – 16, 2016, in Austin, Texas. I’ll stand in front of a panel of judges and a room full of strangers to give a 90-second pitch of Pennies from Burger Heaven. I made it to the finals in 2005 when I pitched Beyond East & West to the judges, so I know how TERRIFYING it is.
Why am I doing this?
Insanity. Because you must be willing to go way beyond your comfort zone in order to make your dreams come true. Wish me luck!