How can you exploit the unique in your stories, as well as amp up the conflict? John Gaspard gives writing and creative business tips based on movies and TV.
In the intro, Meta launches Threads, the new Twitter-like app — you can follow me @jfpennauthor; Possible Podcast episode with Ethan Mollick; Moonshots and Mindsets podcast about De-extinction; Copyright and AI with Kathryn Goldman; plus, adapting Catacomb to a screenplay, and I’m speaking in Paris in Oct.
Today’s show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at draft2digital.com/penn
John Gaspard is the author of mysteries and nonfiction film books, a podcast host, and film director. His latest book is The Popcorn Principles: A Novelist’s Guide to Learning from Movies.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- How to “exploit the unique” to help our books stand out
- Ways to add more conflict, regardless of genre
- Creating a satisfying ending for your readers — and when cliffhangers are a good option
- Contracts and the importance of reading the fine print
- Thoughts on the best way to get your book onto the screen
Transcript of Interview with John Gaspard
Joanna: John Gaspard is the author of mysteries and nonfiction film books, a podcast host, and film director. His latest book is The Popcorn Principles: A Novelist’s Guide to Learning from Movies. So welcome to the show, John.
John: It is so great to be here. I’m such a fan. I’m going to try not to fanboy out on you.
Joanna: Oh, thank you so much.
John: The podcast has been so helpful for me as I’ve gone along this journey. You do a great job.
Joanna: I appreciate it. So first up—
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and filmmaking.
John: Sure, I was given what was called a regular eight camera, which was a windup camera, when I was a teenager. I started making movies, and those grew into feature-length movies.
Even as a teenager, I was making things were 90 minutes long, with dialogue and sound and all that. And I quickly learned that if you’re going to make movies, you have to write movies. You have to know what it is you’re going to shoot.
So I started learning how to screen write, I was very lucky right out of high school to be able to take some screenwriting courses from a guy named Frantisek Daniel, who was one of the founders of the American Film Institute and a really good screenwriting teacher.
I just started making low-budget or no-budget feature films where I would write, I would shoot, I would edit, I’d direct.
As it turns out, if you’re going to be a novelist, that’s a really good way to learn how to write a scene and how to structure something, how to put pace into what you’re doing, and only write the things you need.
Because when you’re writing a screenplay, if you write a scene you don’t need, that means getting up at 5 am and casting it and shooting it. It’s a real pain when you get into editing and find out you didn’t need it. It’s a little bit easier as a novelist because you can just hit delete and you’re done.
So I did low-budget movies in my spare time and worked for about 30 years in the corporate world producing videos and meetings and events.
I did some writing for a TV series called Lucky Luke, which was very big in Europe. I took all that I had learned about making low budget movies and then interviewed about 60 filmmakers and put out two filmmaking books. Over the years, I’ve actually spoken to probably 100 or so filmmakers.
Then I segued into writing novels because it was a little bit easier. Making low budget movies, there’s a lot of lifting involved, and a lot of early mornings and late nights. So I’d always planned when I got close to and into my retirement years that novels might be the way to go. As I was learning how to do that—
I realized there are just a lot of crossovers between creating a low-budget movie and self-publishing.
More so today than ever before, the path we go down to do each of them are quite similar. I found that there were a number of things that I was doing as a novelist that were based on things I’d either learned from making a movie or I’d learned from interviewing filmmakers about their movies.
One of the things that I’d learned in my corporate life, listening to business speakers, there was a guy named Joe Callaway. And Joe Callaway would talk to different companies about how to improve what they were doing. He would use examples from other industries, and he would always end it by saying, “What’s your version of that?” And that’s what I’d been doing with the things I’d learned in filmmaking. I’d look at an idea and I’d go, okay, what’s my version of that in the world of novel writing?
Because of that unique crossover that I have between those two worlds, I’ve been asked to talk about it a lot, and I put together a lot of notes on it. That became the book, The Popcorn Principles, which is 25 ideas that filmmakers use that you can adapt and adopt for your own novel writing to make them better. You’re not going to learn how to write a novel from the book, but you are going to get some ideas, I think, on how to make your novel better.
Joanna: I like the way you’ve set it out. They’re quite short chapters, but they cover a whole load of important stuff.
So we’re going to pick a few of the craft things, and we’re going to come back to the business side. But from the book, you say, “Exploit the unique.” So what do you mean by that?
“Exploit the unique.” How can we find those unique aspects that can help our book stand out?
John: I always think that people downplay what’s going on in our lives when it comes to writing, that everybody has something that is unique about them that they should add to the book because it’s unique to them.
I have a songwriter friend who wrote a song years ago about a breakup, and it became one of her most popular songs. I asked her why, and she said, “I don’t know. These aren’t song lyrics, they are a police report.” By which she meant it was something very personal and very specific. And because it was personal and specific, it became universal, and people loved the song.
So you have to ask, what’s my version of that?
What do I have that is personal and unique that will make my story universal?
In the book I quoted Jasper Fforde, who’s one of my favorite writers. He writes the Thursday Next books and other great comic fantasy books. And he said, and I’m going to quote him here,
“Readers are interested in the way a writer sees things; the unique world-view that makes you the person you are, and makes your novel interesting. Ever met an odd person? Sure. Ever had a weird job? Of course. Ever been to a strange place? Definitely. Ever been frightened, sad, happy, or frustrated? You betcha. These are your nuts and bolts, the constructor set of your novel.”
I looked at movies that had done that same thing, that had made it very personal and had kind of, by doing that, created something that everybody was interested in.
There’s those obvious examples, Clerks, the Kevin Smith film from the late 90s, where Kevin worked in a convenience store and dealt with odd customers all day, and he wrote a movie about working in a convenience store and dealing with our customers. It was hit because it was very personal to him, but everybody could identify with it.
There’s another filmmaker named Tom DiCillo, who wrote and directed a movie called Living in Oblivion. And that was the trials and tribulations of a film director in a low budget movie. It was basically what had happened to him on his last movie. So he had very specific things in it, but because they were specific and real, they were universal and people glommed onto them.
Then there’s the idea of just stuff in your everyday life that you should be taking notes on.
From the movie world, my favorite example is George Lucas. When he was editing a movie before Star Wars, I don’t think it was American Graffiti, I think it was THX 1138. He was working with the editor and the editor said to the assistant editor, I need reel two, dialogue two, meaning he wanted the reel of edited dialogue from the second reel, so the second reel, the second dialogue track. But that’s not what he said, he said, I need R2, D2. And George Lucas went, oh, that’s interesting. So he just pulled something out of his life.
Another fun movie example is, I had a chance to talk to Dale Launer. Dale was the screenwriter for My Cousin Vinny. And in My Cousin Vinny, Joe Pesci and Marissa Tomei have a really interesting relationship, in that throughout the movie, I don’t want to say they argue, but they debate on any point that one of them raises. Did you turn off the faucet? Yes, I did. How do you know? And they drill down to it. And that becomes an important feature at the end when she’s giving her testimony.
And I asked Dale Launer, how’d you come up with that relationship? And he said, “I didn’t, it’s just two friends of mine and that’s the way they are. And I love that, and I took it, and I put it in the story.” And we all have that, we’re just not maybe willing or looking to take that out of our own lives and drop it in.
Joanna: I mean, sometimes I guess people worry about putting people they know into their writing, so kind of avoid that.
The other thing that springs to mind is that many of us have a lot of books. So I’m currently writing a book, which is like novel number twenty, or whatever it is. And I feel like in our beginning books, there’s a whole lot more of that, and then as time goes on, maybe our imagination stretches or things change a bit because we do use a lot of what we know. So, I mean—
How does this spin into a long-running series?
John: Well, I think it just comes down to being observant.
I mean, you’re right. I remember hearing a screenwriter talking about how hard it was to write her second screenplay because the first one was, she said, it was like going to a cocktail party and telling every great story and being a hit. And then at the second cocktail party, you’ve run out of things to say.
It’s just really a question of, well, A, letting your characters grow. That’s a huge part of it.
And also just constantly being on the lookout for what’s going on with me. How can I use that? I mean, when I wrote the second book about Eli Marks series, I was at the time, kind of out of the blue experiencing these weird panic attacks having to do with being in a situation of height, being anywhere near a balcony or anything like that. I don’t know where it came from, glad it went away, it was a pain while was going on.
I absolutely used that because it was something that I could write about, effectively and realistically.
It was also a great little twist for Eli, that all of a sudden he has to deal with this along with everything else. No one has ever come up to me and said, “Was that you? Did you have that?” Nobody cares. They just want to read the story and enjoy it. So it’s just a question of constantly being alert to the things around you that would help your stories and asking yourself, what is my version of that?
Joanna: Absolutely. So one of my favorite shows is Succession, which I know is kind of popular among some people and other people just don’t care for it, but I consider it one of the most violent shows on TV.
I have an interesting family, with various relationships. I mean, the family relationships in Succession are the conflict, they are brutal.
But compare it to a horror movie or something with a huge body count, and that’s not what we mean by brutal. But in terms of conflicts, Succession is all conflict, all the time. You say in the book —
“If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have to drama.” Can you suggest some ways we can add more conflict, regardless of the genre?
John: Sure, but first, I have to say we tried Succession and gave up because it was just so mean. We went, you know, yes, there’s a certain degree to which we can watch things that are horrible. I remember James Blatch said you’ve got to watch Happy Valley, but beware, it’s grim. And I went, well it’s called Happy Valley, how grim could it be?
Joanna: I couldn’t watch Happy Valley.
John: It’s a ride. It’s not a Happy Valley. As it turns out, they’re being sarcastic about that.
You know, TV and movies are a really good way to learn about how to create conflict, particularly when you see it done, I don’t want to say badly, but when they do it lazily. We’re currently working our way through the Inspector Lewis series right now, and I’ve noted, as has my wife, a couple of times when Inspector Lewis wants to interview someone how rude they are to him.
Now, I know there’s a certain Oxford thing going on there and hoity toity people and all that, but if the murder police come to you want to talk to you, it seems unlikely that you’re going to say, “I can give you five minutes.” It’s just not going to happen. Yet, they do that all the time because it creates conflict and it gives you drama. They can’t think of anything else to do to have conflict in that scene. I understand that that’s a long-running series and you got to come up with stuff.
But one of the things that I found from making movies was as I learned to write scripts better, I learned from my actors, because really good actors, when they walk into a scene, if you haven’t put it in the script, a good actor will make up a reason for why they’re there or why they want to leave or what they want. They will put an intention in. They’ll create an intention.
If they’re working with another great actor, that actor will have their own intention. And if you’re lucky, that creates an obstacle between the two. It really helps if you’ve written it for them, and you’ve given them that sort of thing.
The example I use all the time, because it’s just a masterclass, is just about any scene in the West Wing seasons 1-4.
Aaron Sorkin has a thing that he prays at the altar of intention and obstacle. Every character in a scene has an intention, every character has an obstacle. And if you watch the series, you can see that in every scene. Every character in that scene, even if what they want is not to be in that scene, they have something going on that they want and something that’s stopping them from doing it. And it goes from, you know, I hope to stop World War Three, to I wish I could teach the president how to use the intercom system. And it runs that whole gamut.
When you’re writing, make sure that everybody in a scene has something they want and something that’s stopping them.
With my Eli Marks series, it’s easy because it’s first person. So I always know what Eli wants. It might be generally if he wants information or he’s trying to figure something out, but sometimes it’s as simple as he wants a piece of candy out of a bowl and he can’t figure out how to get it. Or he wants to get out of the couch that’s hard to get out of.
You also have to know what everybody else in the scene wants and what’s stopping them. A lot of times with Eli if he’s with his ex-wife, what she wants is for him to go away.
You just have to know what everybody wants and what’s stopping them from getting it. And like I say, it might be harder do that in novels and figure that out how they’re doing it, but you watch some procedural detective stories, you can see immediately whether or not they have cleverly set up the tension going on between the people in a scene.
And I think the important thing here is you don’t always have to reach for like a fight scene.
Joanna: People think conflict has to be war, but it can be emotional war. There doesn’t have to be any sort of physical altercation.
I mean, you are a mystery writer, so you mentioned murder. But I mean, there’s plenty of conflict in smaller stories, right?
John: Absolutely, just think about any family gathering.
Joanna: Yes, that’s why I like Succession. I just sit there going, oh, my goodness.
There’s a lot of truth in the family dramas that are like the ways that we might have more conflict in our real lives, as opposed to like, I write action-adventure, so I blow stuff up all the time, and I kill people and there are monsters. And that’s not actually conflict that I experience in my real life, apparently.
So there’s so much in the book, but I did want to ask you about endings because you suggest that we like a satisfying ending to a story.
I agree, but I have heard many authors say their sales figures suggest that readers are more likely to buy the next book if there’s a cliffhanger, even if they’re complaining as they buy the next book. So this, to me, seems like a conflict, as we mentioned.
What are your thoughts on endings?
John: Well, good for them. I’m glad that’s happening. I just have to mention the 3 Fs that you brought up on a recent episode were so helpful for me. The freedom, fortune or fame. I’m definitely a freedom guy. So do I care whether or not to read the next book? Yes, I do. But I don’t want to provide something unsatisfying to that end.
Looking at movies and how we can learn from them, the Back to the Future movies give a perfect example, I think, of how to do a cliffhanger and how not to do a cliffhanger.
In Back to the Future I, Marty returns to present day. Every single emotional beat in the story has been tied up, every callback has been called back. I have a whole section in the book on the importance of planting callbacks and paying them off, and there’s no better example of that in the world of movie scripts than Back to the Future. It’s a brilliant script, and they pay everything off.
At the end of the movie, Marty has returned home and the story has wrapped up to a point where you as an audience member are super satisfied. It was just great because everything tied up very nicely.
And then, boom, Doc Brown appears. The DeLorean looks a little different. He says, “We’ve got to go, your kids are in trouble. We’ve got to go back to the future.” And they hop in the car, and Marty says, “There’s not enough road to hit 88 miles an hour.” And Doc Brown says, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” And boom, it says, “Coming soon, Back to the Future Two.”
That’s a perfect cliffhanger ending because you’ve emotionally satisfied all the beats.
The audience is completely happy, and now you’ve set up, hey, there’s going to be another adventure, would you join us?
Now let’s flash ahead to Back to the Future Part II. At the end of the movie, Marty’s on a dark and deserted road, everything is lost, he can’t get where he needs to go. The time machine is broken.
A car arrives with a guy from Western Union, who says, “We’ve been hanging on to this telegram for 100 years. We were told to deliver tonight.” And Marty opens it and it’s from Doc Brown, you have to come back to 18-whatever it is, and help me. And Marty says oh my goodness, and he runs down the road to try to find the present-day Doc Brown. And it says, “To be continued in Back to the Future Three.”
When I was in the theater watching it, because that’s how old I am, people yelled at the screen some words that I’m not going to use here. They were very upset because that was a bad cliffhanger. None of the emotional beats had been resolved.
It was literally just the first half of a movie, and we didn’t tell you it was going to be the first half of a movie. Now you got to watch the second half. So when you’re crafting your cliffhanger, look at it and say, am I doing a Back to the Future I? Or am I doing Back to the Future Part II?
Another really great example from around that era, maybe a little earlier, is the Three Musketeers Movie that Richard Lester made. It was going to be one long movie, and they realized that they could stop after about 90 minutes. Everything was pretty well resolved, mostly. D’Artagnan was now part of the group and everything was cool. They would just take the rest of their footage and make The Four Musketeers, which is its own fine standalone movie.
They didn’t even do a cliffhanger, really. They just said there’s more to come, and people were fine with it. Everyone was fine with it, except for the actors who’d been paid for one movie. I think they ended up suing the producer and saying you have to pay us for two movies. But it was, again, a case where the emotional beats had all been satisfied, the audience was happy, and they’re okay with a cliffhanger because it just is inviting you to the next adventure.
I’ve only done it once in my writing. I have a new book coming out this summer that’s a prequel to my Eli Marks series, with Eli at age 13. It’s 10 chapters, and at the end, I think they’re emotionally satisfied. And then at the end, he gets a postcard from someone saying, “I have an idea for you for an adventure we could go on. I’ll tell you more later.” To be continued. And I’ll find out if readers are okay with that, but I think I hit all the beats and then tied everything up before I did that.
Joanna: It’s really hard. I mean, I guess the advice is you just have to judge it by your book.
I mean, I try and do this, but most of my books have a proper ending, I think. I mean, I like a proper ending. But then I know if a book is in a series, like an episodic mystery, similar to you. But then I also do have a fantasy trilogy, my Mapwalker Trilogy.
I wrote the first book as a standalone, and then it turned into I thought it was a series, and then it turned into a trilogy, which is the discovery writer way of doing it. And the trilogy, each book is fine, but the trilogy is a clear ending to a character arc.
So I don’t know–I think we just have to figure it out per book.
And just see what happens along the way and what kind of response we get. Maybe it’s genre-specific as well. I think fantasy readers are far more sort of okay with long running arcs.
John: And trilogies and that sort of thing. And particularly if you branded it as book one of three, then they kind of know they’re in for three books.
Joanna: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Oh, that’s interesting.
So you mentioned the actors that are suing the studio, and as we speak, there is still a strike, the screenwriters in the US are striking. And we’re, I guess, also at a point with AI and things, where people are really thinking about the fine print of contracts.
You have a section in the book about reading the fine print of contracts. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?
And how can we both make the most of our intellectual property—because we do need to do deals if possible—but we also need to not screw it up, basically.
John: Yeah, I know. It can be hard. There was a film called What Happened Was by a filmmaker named Tom Noonan. Noonan would be probably best known as an actor. He was the Tooth Fairy in Manhunter, which was the first Hannibal Lecter movie, and he’s played a lot of villains, but he’s also a playwright and an actor. He made a little movie called What Happened Was, which was a two person thing, which he did as a play, and then he shot the movie. He did it very cleverly.
He knew a lot about movies and about distribution. And as he told me, he said, “I screwed up. There was one line in the contract for distribution, and I screwed up. It was the line about who pays the actors when the movie makes money. And normally, it’s a distributor, and I didn’t notice it. So every time the movie made money, I had to personally pay the cast.”
Even though there were only two actors in the movie, him and another actor, but he had to pay them out of his own pocket. And that’s an example of someone who’s very knowledgeable about what he’s doing, who just screwed up. He didn’t have another set of eyes look at the contract and thought he knew what he was doing.
I’m one of those people who started out with a traditional publisher and then bought everything back and am now self-published throughout.
But when I was given my first contract for the Eli Marks series, I had sold screenplays at that point, and I had sold other books in the nonfiction world. So I had a pretty good idea of what the contract would look like and what I needed to do with it.
I know there is a lot of bubbly excitement when you get a contract to have somebody publish your book.
I mean, it’s very exciting, but you have to set all that aside and go, what are they really asking for here? Because in the case of my contract, they were asking for a series, and they wanted to contract me for three books. And I didn’t want to do that. I am a freedom, right?
I wanted to do them when I wanted to do. I’d spent 30, some years writing professionally and wanted to have control of when I did stuff. They also wanted first right of refusal on my next book, and I changed that to you can have first right of refusal on the next book in this series, but not beyond that. They wanted foreign rights, which I gave them, but I put a cap on it of a couple of years. They didn’t do anything with it, so I took that back.
When I did my audiobooks, I emailed them to just let them know I’m doing the audiobooks. And they said, “Well, okay, we’ll give you permission to do it.” And I emailed back and said, “Look at the contract, you don’t have the rights to the audiobooks. I took those back, those are mine.” So you just need to figure out how much you want to give away.
Think of a publisher like you would think of your book cover designer. Who’s going to own what parts of the whole process that you’re letting them take hold of?
It’s hard in that first flush of, “Oh my god, I found a publisher, a real publisher who wants to publish my book,” to set all that aside and go, well, where am I going to be in five years? What am I going to want to do in five years? And look at the contract that way. And probably if you’ve never done it before, or if it’s more than two pages long, hire an attorney who knows something about the book world to look at it.
Many years ago, I was contracted write a situation comedy for our local PBS station. And I was paid, I think, $1,100 to write that script, which is a lot of money back then. And I ended up paying $1,500 to the attorney to get the contract right. And so you go well, you’re down $400. And yes, I was down $400, but if I hadn’t done that, the thing I would have missed was that in their version of the contract, it was up to me to make sure all rights on everything, everywhere were cleared. That is an easier thing for a TV station to do than it is for me.
So yeah, I didn’t make any money on it, but it was a much better contract, and I was happier going forward. It also had a revision clause, so I was able to use the sitcom later on.
I remember being on a panel at Malice Domestic a couple of years ago. It was right after lunch and we were sitting there waiting for the people to come in. There were writers on either side of me and one said, “I just met with my publisher and signed for the next three books.” And the other one said, “I just met an agent and signed with her.”
And I just thought, I hope you didn’t literally just sign. I’m glad you’re excited, but please sit on it for a while, and think about it, and look at it because the movie world is full of examples where people didn’t read the fine print and regretted it forever.
Joanna: Yeah, well, just to recommend another book, Hollywood vs. The Author. I don’t know if you’ve seen that one. It’s an excellent book full of some pretty famous authors and some pretty big mistakes that they made.
But just to mention there on the agent, one of the first agents who offered me a contract, basically, it was years ago now, and it was in my earlier days of self-publishing, and the agency contract was that we will take a percentage of all your self-published work, as well as the books that they bought.
Their opinion was they were building my brand, therefore, they would get a percentage of everything under my brand.
And I was like, ah, no, that clause needs to be removed, and they wouldn’t remove it. So even though it was really early on, and I hadn’t really made much money as an indie, I was confident that I could make this into a business.
I didn’t sign that deal. But it’s so funny, sometimes I do think about it because I know some of the other authors they represent who’ve done incredibly well. And you do wonder, don’t you? But like you said, it’s about freedom.
I did want to ask you, just coming back to the low-budget thing that you said earlier. This is a really interesting thing because I did pitch my Mapwalker series at a screenwriting thing to an agent.
And he said, “Look, this idea is very, very expensive. The project you’re talking about is super expensive, you should pitch something that would be cheaper.” So given that you’ve done these budget movies, like why is this important?
How can we write books that could be turned into cheaper movies?
John: Well, you know, that was then, this is now. Because of the use of CGI and green screen, things that used to be really, really expensive, aren’t as much anymore. You can do big movies all in a studio.
Look at The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is an expensive proposition, yet a studio had no problem putting up the money to do that. And the reason they didn’t have any problem doing it was it was a hit book.
This is one of the few areas, I think, where being a traditional publisher makes life a little easier for an author if you’re trying to get a movie or a series made out of your book, which is that big publishers have departments that all they do is they sell rights and they look for deals like that. It’s much harder to do if you’re on your own and, you know, an independent author. How do you get it out there?
But as with The Hunger Games, as with Harry Potter, as with Louise Penny having done Three Pines recently, the cost of doing it is secondary. It might even be tertiary, might be way down the list. What they’re looking for is how pre-sold is this idea. How well-known is this property? Because they want it already marketable. They want to just tag onto existing fans with it.
Steve Martin had a joke in his early act that said, I’m going to teach you how not to pay taxes on a million dollars. First, get a million dollars. And the same thing is true here —
I’m going to teach you how to make your bestselling book into a movie. First, write a bestselling book.
And that’s really kind of the most likely path, is the more popular your book is, the more likely someone’s going to be interested in taking it and making into a movie.
However, there are ways around that in the movie world. I’ll just recount one example, which was that there was a filmmaker who had written a script for the actor Campbell Scott. Campbell Scott is the son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, and an excellent actor in his own right. He’d written a great little low independent, low budget independent movie called Roger Dodger. It was perfect for Campbell Scott, but he had no way of getting a hold of Campbell Scott, and agents don’t generally want to forward stuff for things that aren’t going to make them a lot of money.
He lived in New York, and he knew that Campbell Scott lived in New York, and he just carried that script with him everywhere. And one day in a coffee shop, he ran into Campbell Scott. He struck up a conversation and he said, I’ve written a script just for you. He handed him the script, and Campbell Scott read it, and said, let’s make this movie.
So if you’ve written something for someone specific in mind, if you can get to them, that might be a path.
The most surefire direct path is to write a bestselling book and they’ll come knocking at your door.
I know there’s all kinds of scams online, like, “Pay us and we’ll get your book in front of producers who want to make movies out of it.” Those are scams. It doesn’t work that way. It absolutely doesn’t work that way. But if you know someone or know a way of getting to someone who might have some interest, by all means, approach them.
It really is on that scale of fame, fortune or freedom. I think you really have to have the fame value strong to want to go that path because you really have to get a bestselling book out there to get that kind of interest.
Joanna: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, we had Johnny B Truant on a few months ago now, and he was talking about his book Fat Vampire that’s become Reginald the Vampire, which I think got renewed for a second series. And that is an example of an idea situation, where some dude was looking at Apple books and saw this and the title really caught him. So that was an idea book, and they didn’t really have any relationship, but eventually made it into that.
It’s such a lightning-strike situation, isn’t it? I mean, even if you have a bestselling book, not all bestselling books get made into TV shows or films.
So yeah, it’s kind of interesting. The other thing you mentioned is about knowing people. So I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, you should come to Cannes.” You know, come along to Cannes, you go to the parties, and you meet people. And I’m like, yeah, I’m an introvert, that’s really not going to happen. It’s so funny. So I guess the question is—
Should we just give up the dream and focus on trying to make our books sell better?
John: You know, I think that’s the way to go.
However, if it’s that important to you, if that’s what you want to do is get your book into that lane, then put all your energy into that.
There’s also a flip side to that, and I’ll go back to Louise Penny on that, because I heard her speak somewhere, and she was talking about the first time she sold the rights to her Three Pines series. It was a heartbreaking story because the people who bought it didn’t understand it.
They didn’t know what they bought, they didn’t understand that Three Pines is driven by those people, those characters. What they made was not what she had written, and it sort of broke her heart, although obviously, the books are still there.
Joanna: I’m sure the money helped!
John: The money probably helped a little. I don’t know how large a check you need to write to make Louise Penny impressed at this point.
But you need to keep that in mind. The Reginald the Vampire story is a great example because he’s talked about how he was invited to the set, and got to see some stuff, and they did run the scripts by him, but his first objection was he didn’t like the title. And they said, yeah, well, sorry, that’s the title we’re using.
It’s going to be like that throughout the whole process, unless you are someone who, like Dennis Lehane, who is a novelist and a screenwriter and can become the showrunner on something he’s written and can really shepherd it through. You’re going to be handing it off to people who probably 50/50 chance they’re going to be on the same wavelength as you.
What you see up on the screen is not necessarily what you thought it was going to be.
Joanna: Yeah, but I mean, on the other side of that, I heard Lee Child talking about the first Reacher movie with Tom Cruise. And he had to talk about this so many times because, of course, Jack Reacher is like six foot four, whatever it is, six foot seven, and Tom Cruise is not.
And Lee Child basically said, look, whatever, I’m selling more and more of my books. Then the TV show of Reacher is fantastic, the character is exactly right.
I do want to come back on this because, like you said, that was then, this is now. That agent said to me, you should write something cheaper, like a low budget horror movie. And hilariously, my new novella, it’s a long novella, Catacomb, is exactly that. It’s a low-budget horror monster book. So I’m really thinking about it because it’s very visual.
With AI, we’ve got these wonderful tools coming out at the moment. We’ve got, obviously Midjourney, and I’m doing loads of images in Midjourney, Adobe Firefly, and also RunwayML. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, which is generative text to video. So generative video is now a thing.
You mentioned making low-budget movies, and now people are doing that and putting them on YouTube.
What do you think about book trailers or short films that then advertise a book?
Do you think that’s going to be a way to go or are we looking at a future where it just splinters, everything splinters so much?
John: I think that’s a great way to go. What screenwriters today are facing, and the pandemic had a little something to do with this, is that when they go on to pitch a screenplay now to a studio or producer, they are expected to have a deck and to talk through the project with a deck, with visuals, to really bring it to life. That’s new. They didn’t used to have to do that, and now it’s kind of expected.
It helps because sometimes when you’re talking to people at the other side of the table, they are not necessarily the most creative or most imaginative. And if you can show them, here’s what the sky city is going to look like, or here’s an idea of what it looks like, and here’s what the monster looks like coming out of the lake. Well, at that point, in their mind, the movie is done. Yeah, that’s perfect. Let’s do that.
You can do the same thing with your own book into a trailer. I had a short story in the Eli Marks series that I had turned into a comic book, because it was kind of perfect for comic book. And I realized I had essentially what’s called an animatic. I had all the frames of what would have been the movie, except nothing moved, but I was able to make moves on them and make it look like a semi little animated movie.
That’s a great way to sell the Eli Marks series. People get into it by going, oh, I see what he looks like, and I see what his magic store looks like, and I get the sense of humor. The guy who did the audiobooks did the voice, and so they’re hearing what is now the voice of Eli Marks, in everyone’s mind, as my narrator.
I can certainly see, after I finish taking your course next week on how to do this, trying to create something a little more elaborate with AI to help pull people into the Eli Marks series, whether it’s just getting them to read the book, or listen to the podcast, or hear the book. And maybe someone will get excited and say, hey, that would make a great series.
Joanna: And it’s so funny because—It’s much easier for people to imagine something if you give them a visual.
I mean, that’s why book covers are so important. But the reality is that none of these agents or film people, they’re not going to read the book. I mean, they might not even read it ever. It might just be something that goes into the script machine and then comes out the other end as the script, as opposed to the book that they read.
I feel like we get too romanticized around the book itself as the only thing that can communicate our ideas. Whereas sometimes, like you mentioned, a pitch deck with some slides and some visuals, that can be a much better way.
So yeah, I do feel like authors need to try and turn their books into more images in order to get the attention if film and TV is something people care about, because of course, it’s a visual medium.
John: Right. But one thing I would warn them about with AI, and I’ve seen a couple different posts on this, is now you can take your book and put it into this program and it will turn it into a screenplay. And it’s not going to turn your book into a screenplay. It’s going to take your words and put them in a screenplay format.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. I totally agree with you. Yeah.
John: When Emma Thompson wrote her version of Sense and Sensibility, I remember her saying that somebody said, “Well, you had this book to start with.” And she said, “Well, yes, but if there’s more than three lines of dialogue in the finished movie that are in the book, I’d be surprised.”
As an experiment a couple of years ago, because it was COVID and there was nothing going on, I took the first book in my series and thought, if this were a streaming series, what would the first season be like if it’s just this first book? And I took the first book, which is called The Ambitious Card, and I broke it into five episodes and did kind of a beat sheet on it. Then I sat down and said, I will write the pilot. I’ll just see what that 60-page script looks like.
Yes, it’s the story. You bet, it’s the same story. Is the dialogue the same? It is not. It wouldn’t work in the screen. Are the scenes the same length? They are not. To make that leap, it might help if you have a third-person novel, makes it a little bit easier, but you still have to make everything visual. I mean, everything visual.
I remember reading a script once from a student, and there was a line in it, something like, “Our main character crosses the street, thinking about going to the laundry.” Like, well, okay, how do we do that? How do we do that? The degree of changes you have to make, just to kind of even still make it the same as the book, are enormous.
It isn’t just an easy leap from the page to the screen.
Joanna: No, absolutely. I went down the rabbit hole of screenwriting a few years back and decided in the end that it is basically a job that I wouldn’t want to do. What I wanted, and again, it may be the freedom aspect, is I would love to license my books for film, TV, whatever, but I’m not going to write the script. I won’t even try.
[Update: Hilariously, after this interview, I decided to adapt Catacomb into a script … so watch this space for an update!]
In fact, someone even said to me the other day, I think it’d be easier for us to pitch this if you write a draft of the script. And I was like, no, I’m absolutely not going to do that.
Because, like you said, it’s an adaptation. I feel like we’re too close to the material to adapt it well, whereas someone coming in from the outside can just look at it and go, well, chuck that, change that, do that, the other. So definitely adaptation rather than just straight use AI to turn it into a thing. I totally agree with you there.
John: Yeah, that’s not going to work. And one of the things I realized in my twenties, because like I said, I was very fortunate. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, middle of nowhere, but I got to study every week with this fantastic screenwriting teacher, who was world renowned and respected, he just happened to be teaching at a college here for a year. And I was learning from him how to write a screenplay.
I spent the next few years writing what are called spec screenplays. Here’s something I could sell, here’s something I could sell. I quickly realized that just because you’ve written a screenplay and you’re trying to sell it, doesn’t mean it’ll ever sell. And even if it does sell, doesn’t mean they’re going to make it.
It’s such a long process, and I just went, you know, I used to make these myself, why don’t I take what I think is my best spec script, rewrite it so I can do it for $30,000, get all my actor friends together, and over four weekends, we’ll shoot it. And it’s just like I said, the process for becoming a novelist and screenwriter are the same. You can either keep asking people to do this thing, “Hey, would you do this? Would you publish this? Would you represent me? Would you, would you, would you?”
Or you can go, I’m just going to do it myself. And that’s what I want to do is make the thing. I don’t need to have a book that’s on the bestseller list, I just like a book where I occasionally get an email from readers saying, “Is there another one? I really want to read another one?”
Joanna: We’re fun creatives. We just can’t help ourselves creating more stuff, which is awesome. So the book is great.
Where can people find you, all of your books, and everything you do online?
John: Well, you can find The Popcorn Principles and just about everything at our book website, which is called AlbertsBridgeBooks.com.
And you can listen to the Eli Marks Podcast, where you can hear every season as a different book. You’ll hear the whole audiobook, plus interviews with cool people like The Amazing Kreskin, Teller of Penn & Teller, and people like that. And that’s called Behind the Page: The Eli Marks Podcast.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, John. That was great.
John: Thank you.
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Author: Joanna Penn