What came first: the book or the movie? You might think that’s an easy question. The book, obviously. Right? Well, not necessarily. While it’s true that there are many movies based on books, there are also movies that become books (movie tie-ins), and there are stories that are first written as a screenplay before they’re written as a manuscript. I asked a few writers who have broken the book-to-film mold to share their experiences.
Responses have been edited for clarity.
Meet the Writers:
Mike Van Waes
Mike Van Waes is the author of the magical coming-of-age middle-grade novel PEEVES where a young boy must face his feelings before his feelings have faces. Mike began his career as an assistant at the Jim Henson Company before becoming a story analyst for movie studios like DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures. He also writes screenplays. His feature film Grave Hearts was an Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting finalist; his feature film Hammerspace placed on the film industry’s coveted Black List and was purchased by Warner Bros., and he’s writing a pair of movies for New Line Cinema as well as a feature adaptation of his novel Peeves for 20th Century Fox Animation. Mike’s artwork and comic strips can be found at www.vexedwisecracker.com and on social media. He’s originally from New Fairfield, Connecticut, but now calls Los Angeles, California, home.
Patrick D. Pidgeon
Patrick D. Pidgeon works in TV, film, and theatrical production. CREEPLES! is his debut novel about three kids who accidentally create humanoid creatures in a science experiment gone wrong. He’s also written two graphic novels and developed a mobile gaming app. Patrick has his own development and production entity, Pidgeon Entertainment, Inc., where he’s currently producing the wonderfully whimsical Worzel Gummidge as a TV series for the BBC. He currently resides in Los Angeles. Learn more at www.creeples.com.
#1 New York Times Best Selling Author, Stacia Deutsch has written more than 300 books. In addition to her award-winning creative chapter book series entitled BLAST TO THE PAST, Stacia has also ghost-written for a popular girl’s mystery series, published non-fiction texts, and penned a young adult romantic comedy. She has written junior movie tie-in novels for summer blockbuster films including GHOSTBUSTERS, the New York Times Best Seller: CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS JUNIOR NOVELIZATION, and THE SMURFS MOVIE NOVELIZATION. Her next movie novelization, THE BOSS BABY: FAMILY BUSINESS, comes out this summer. Stacia lives in Temecula, CA, with her husband, a few horses, and two dogs. Find her at www.staciadeutsch.com.
What did you learn first: novel writing or screenwriting?
MIKE VAN WAES: I went to film school with a focus on screenwriting. That was always my goal and I’ve been lucky enough, after many years of effort, to have finally made it my career. Writing my first novel actually happened as a direct result of that success. After selling a screenplay for the first time, I came up with the idea for PEEVES and developed it as a movie pitch that I had planned on taking out to studios as a follow-up. My agents recognized its literary potential and thought it was worth talking to a publisher about it first. After an encouraging conversation with my future editor at HarperCollins, the plan shifted from pitching it as a movie to trying to write and sell it as a middle-grade novel first, and then taking the movie rights out to studios with me attached to adapt it. So, I reshaped the movie pitch into an outline for a novel, which was really just about deciding where the chapter breaks would happen, since the story was already fleshed out in great detail. And because I had already spent a couple of months breaking the story, which is the hardest part of the process for me, writing the rough manuscript was relatively quick and easy. When that draft was finished, as imperfect as it was, it went out to publishers. And, in an extreme stroke of luck and timing, for which I am incredibly grateful because I know from experience how hard it is for either of these things to happen, HarperCollins bought the book in the same week that a movie deal was struck, thanks to the rough manuscript leaking to studios a bit prematurely.
PATRICK D. PIDGEON: Well, about ten years ago I took an introductory screenwriting course at UCLA, but never pursued a spec script. So, the answer would be writing a novel (CREEPLES!). Fortunately, I hired a terrific editor, who guided me in what I can do and can’t do in the Middle-Grade category.
STACIA DEUTSCH: I have an MFA in genre writing and one of the things we needed was coursework in screenwriting. It’s been very, very helpful. I actually find screenwriting techniques to be useful in my own novels, outside of the film world. Books like Save the Cat by Blake Snyder break down story structure for screenwriters but are applicable to fiction as well.
Which do you find easier: novel writing or screenwriting?
MIKE VAN WAES: As for what I find easier, it’s tough because they are very different mediums and though I’ve written many screenplays, I’ve only written one novel so far. But I will say that there was a lot more freedom in writing PEEVES as a novel than there was in writing it as a screenplay. On the novel side, I had a fantastic editor who understood the content and message, guiding me with smart and insightful notes that helped me to shape the material so it would suit the format of a middle-grade book, which I really appreciated because it was a new medium for me. But, ultimately, all of the creative decisions were left in my hands, which was a wonderfully foreign concept to me coming from my background as a screenwriter. In that world, if you’re writing a screenplay on spec, then you can do whatever you want with it and hope that someone might buy it. But once you’ve sold material to a studio or been hired to write or rewrite something for them, you’re generally at the mercy of whatever creative notes are handed down from producers and studio execs. Some notes are good, some notes are bad, and some notes are truly awful. You can make as many persuasive arguments as you like, but, ultimately, it’s your job as the screenwriter to address whatever notes have stuck as best you can. Sometimes that works out well and you remain on the project, but if you haven’t satisfied those producers or studio execs, then, right or wrong, you will likely be replaced by another writer. So, in that regard, novel writing is an easier process because at least you have most of the creative control from beginning to end.
PATRICK D. PIDGEON: I think screenwriting is “easier” than writing an 80,000-word manuscript. Screenwriting is not literature. No POVs. No pesky dialogue tags. No worrying about head-hopping. Screenplays are essentially two things: dialogue and action.
STACIA DEUTSCH: I did write two scripts, based on my own unpublished novels, and I’ll say, for me, it’s a difficult craft. Screenwriters have to have an economy of words that novelists don’t. I like telling the reader how a line is read, like “shouted” or “with a giggle.” In a screenplay, the writer leaves a lot to the director and the actors to do their own way. It’s fun to work on screenplays, and maybe someday I’ll write one myself again, but for now, I am happy playing in someone else’s movie world.
How has screenwriting informed how you write novels or vice versa?
MIKE VAN WAES: Well, considering the fact that PEEVES, the novel, came from PEEVES, the movie pitch, I’d say that screenwriting directly informed that writing process in a very literal sense. I think, in general, screenwriting encourages me to be as concise and efficient as possible by embracing the “show, don’t tell” approach to character and plot development. In contrast, writing my novel, which is a first-person narrative, allowed me to actually express the inner workings of my protagonist’s thoughts and feelings on the page. It’s the same story, with the same emotions and events, told in different ways. A screenplay is intended to be acted out, so a lot of those thoughts and emotions will be delivered in performance as opposed to a novel told in the first person, where those things can be more explicitly revealed by the protagonist’s inner monologue. Writing the same story in different mediums actually ended up being a helpful exercise in learning how to use two very different approaches to hopefully achieve the same goal.
PATRICK D. PIDGEON: I think writing a manuscript, and fleshing out the “Show don’t tell” scenarios helped greatly in writing the action description lines in a screenplay. Such as punchy, active verbs, and descriptive surroundings.
Stacia, similar question: how has adapting a film into a novel informed how you write your own original novels or vice versa?
STACIA DEUTSCH: I love the story process. I can get easily bogged down in the minutia of working out how exactly a story unfolds from the plot to characters to setting to details. Having the opportunity to read a lot of scripts is helpful to me in my own work, in a similar way that writers should also be readers. We need to see how other writers share a story or guide their characters. I like watching finished films and TV shows for the same reason. I will say, there is so much good material out it’s impossible to keep up! It’s inspiring. Oh, one other thing: the novelization process is FAST! I am often given just a few weeks to get a book completed because of timelines. So, in terms of writing my own stuff, I am fast now, too.
Stacia, how do you go about writing the book version of a film? Are you given a screenplay to reference? Do you get to watch the movie early?
STACIA DEUTSCH: I love writing movie novelizations. I like to pretend I am part of the creative team behind the film when actually most of what I am doing is translating the script format into prose for the publishing houses. I rarely have any contact with the movie-makers. This gives me just a little room for my own creative interpretation, where mainly I am trying to capture what I think the film will look or feel like later. I am usually given a script, but rarely anything more. The script draft comes about a year out from the film, so often they are handing me revision pages as I go along, and there are rarely stills or images from the movie. When I was working on BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT, someone had snuck a camera on set and there were a few photos online that I could use to ramp up my descriptions. Otherwise, I like to do what I call “vaguing” which is making descriptions vague enough that I get close. With the most recent novelization I worked on, MIXTAPE, for Netflix, I was lucky enough to get some clips from the film. Those were super helpful! Otherwise, I am stuck with a lot of guessing, Googling actors on IMDb, snooping around the internet, and vaguing. Lucky for me, I am generally a good guesser.
Have you written any of your stories as both a book and a screenplay? If so, which did you write first: the screenplay or the book, and why that order?
MIKE VAN WAES: I’ve only written one complete book so far, and PEEVES was quite an interesting process. Selling the rough manuscript and also securing a movie deal in the same week actually led to me doing a year of rewrites on the book while writing the screenplay adaptation simultaneously. So, technically the manuscript was written first in hopes of creating IP that would then make the screenplay rights more appealing to a studio, but it definitely wasn’t a finished novel. That rough draft needed a lot of work, which was challenging to do while also adapting it into a screenplay. Both versions were constantly in flux and influencing each other. Obviously, the screenplay had to condense and streamline a lot of content from the novel, but any change I liked in that version would quickly make its way into the novel and vice versa. This made for a pretty intense process all the way to the final drafts. But at some point, the manuscript had to be locked for publication while the screenplay could continue to evolve.
PATRICK D. PIDGEON: Yes, my current Middle-Grade novel entitled CREEPLES! came first. From the moment of my “inspired” idea for the Creeples, I saw it as a film. But I knew I would have a hard time selling it as a spec script. Entertainment studios want “branded” source material. So, I went the publishing route first, then wrote the script. Even self-publishing is seen as branded, as your idea has been fully developed.
Were there any books on writing that you found helpful when you were starting out?
MIKE VAN WAES: For me, the best education on writing I ever had was working as a Story Analyst for various movie studios. Over the years, I read thousands of pieces of material that I then had to summarize, evaluate, and provide development notes on for further drafts. Those submissions included screenplays, teleplays, stage plays, books, graphic novels, treatments, outlines, and partial manuscripts. And no matter how good or bad they were, it was my job to read each and every piece in its entirety so that I could give a clear and accurate opinion on its merits or lack thereof. And, in my experience, there is no better way to learn about writing than reading a wide variety of material, and not just the good stuff. Honestly, as painful as some of the worst submissions may have been to read, they’re also some of the most useful tools for figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Reading great material is inspiring and helpful because you’re witnessing how powerful good writing can be, but reading bad material, or material that just isn’t quite working yet, actually triggers more critical, creative thinking about what you would do differently to make it work. Every piece of material I read was another opportunity to learn something new. And those are lessons I carried over to my own writing.
PATRICK D. PIDGEON: I’ve read several books and took many notes. I compiled those notes in a binder that sits on my desk. Additionally, I follow screenwriting Twitter accounts. Some of the books I recommend: The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trotter, How Not To Write a Screenplay by Denny Flinn, and Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Robert Garant and Thomas Lennon.
STACIA DEUTSCH: I am a big fan of Robert McKee. When I was starting, I discovered his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, and it was so incredible for me. Like someone turned on a lightbulb in my head. I went from there to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing, which are the classics. There are a million great resources now, from podcasts to Masterclass, to other books on writing, and organizations. I belong now to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, but there are so many other great ones with resources! I think writing is like painting. An artist learns the form, the formula, the toolbox, and from there, can let it fly free and create works that are all their own. I have an old postcard of a still life by Picasso on my desk. It’s simple flowers but serves to remind me that before he began moving noses all over the place, the man could draw an amazing, realistic flower. I know some people begin to play with form as they learn the craft, but for me, it’s a process and I like the building blocks. I often go back and read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, over and over, and I can find something new every time!
What advice do you have for aspiring novelists, screenwriters, or media tie-in writers?
MIKE VAN WAES: I think in both publishing and filmmaking, what people are looking for is your voice, which comes from authentically expressing your view of the world. Don’t get caught up in chasing trends or choosing to write something only because you think it will sell or that’s what the market is responding to right now. By the time you finish that work, the trend may be over, the market may have shifted, and now you’re left with a piece of writing you probably weren’t that passionate about to begin with. Instead, write the thing that you’d like to see or read. Write the thing that you think is missing from bookshelves and screens. Write the thing that excites and inspires and is meaningful to you, personally. A fun or compelling concept is always helpful, but specificity and vulnerability are what make stories feel universal. No matter the genre, it’s your unique voice and worldview that stand out the most to the gatekeepers in both of these businesses.
PATRICK D. PIDGEON: For aspiring novelists who don’t have an MFA in Creative Writing, do your due diligence and hire a developmental editor early in the process. One who is on the same page with your vision. For screenwriters, and it’s the way I did it, I would say spend several months writing a manuscript. Don’t worry about your POV, grammar, and editing. Just let the idea flow, but definitely flesh it out. Then cut and paste the manuscript in Final Draft. From there it’s a matter of formatting. I’d keep almost every scene from the manuscript. Your first draft may be 150 pages. To get the big picture, write out the scenes on a writing pad. From there start chipping away scenes until you get in the 90-120 page range. (To keep the story moving in the screenplay I try to limit my scenes to two pages as often as possible. Closer to the climax will obviously be longer.)
STACIA DEUTSCH: Breaking in isn’t easy. I know, that’s the last thing a writer wants to hear, but getting the experience so that you can convince editors to hire you isn’t the easiest thing. I believe strongly that if someone wants to write novelizations, start telling everyone you know that you want to write novelizations! Networks are the only way this business works for me. My first movie novel was BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT. Seriously, I can’t believe I fell into that one. But a writer I knew at HarperCollins heard that they needed someone local to L.A. to go to the studio to do it. She suggested me. I was local! I was available! And I had no clue what I was doing. The International Association of Tie-In Writers guided me. That one book allowed me to start telling publishers I had experience. I got the SMURFS at Simon and Schuster, then HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 and HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3, then GHOSTBUSTERS, and more. Coming this summer is THE BOSS BABY: FAMILY BUSINESS movie novelization. It’s a weird gig, to translate someone else’s story into a book, but I love it and hope to do these works forever. Maybe someday, someone will want to write a movie novel for my own property, but in the meantime, I like being the one who writes the novelizations for blockbusters!
Megan Barlog loves great stories, be they books, movies, TV shows, or anything in between! She has studied both creative writing and screenwriting, and worked for both a library and a major NYC publisher. When she’s not writing a novel or screenplay, she’s probably out for a run or binge-watching something on Netflix.
If you enjoyed this post, check out 14 Questions With Novelist And Filmmaker Kristina Birk.
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