What if Hollywood Rewrites Your Book? Survival Tips from Catherine Ryan Hyde

First: The big day has arrived!The ebook version of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…And Keep Your E-Sanity which I wrote with my mentor Catherine Ryan Hyde is now available on Amazon from MWiDP. For a limited time, the e-book price will be $2.99 in the US and roughly the equivalent in the UK. (This book is for writers all over the world, not just the US, and we had a Brit for an editor—thanks Mark!--who steered us from the usual America-centric advice.) 

Why did we write this book, when there are already so many writing books out there?

Because this one is different:

It IS a book about how to BE a writer. How to take care of yourself and avoid getting scammed; how to make sense of criticism; how to build platform without giving up too much of your writing time--and a whole lot more about how to navigate the treacherous waters of today's fast-changing publishing business.

Plus, when you buy the ebook now, you can sign up for FREE updates, which will be issued every six months—since half of what we say today may not be true by then.

You can win a free copy of the ebook of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE if you comment on my post over at Meghan Ward's blog, Writerland before 9 PM Pacific time on Monday July 2nd. 

Catherine had the life-changing experience of seeing her novel PAY IT FORWARD made into a major motion picture. The only problem: the screenplay made major changes to the story and characters. Like, for instance the powerful African-American hero became a wimpy white guy. The setting was changed from small town California to Las Vegas, and most of the characters were eliminated.

So Catherine is going to tell us what to do when your dream comes true…and turns into a nightmare. We all dream of our books becoming Hollywood films, don’t we? I'm sure you've done some fantasy casting in your head. Come on, admit it. I sure have.

But what do you do if they cast Danny DeVito as your hero instead of Johnny Depp? Move the setting from post-apocalyptic Detroit to Beverly Hills? And they want Eddie Murphy to play the Betty White part in a fat suit?

Catherine has the answers. Read on…

The drawing for the signed first edition of PAY IT FORWARD will be held at the launch of the paper edition of the book. You can still enter by signing up for our mailing list, either by leaving your email address in the comments or emailing me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com. 

What to Do when Hollywood Rewrites Your Book: How to Survive a Writer’s Most Desirable Problem

by Catherine Ryan Hyde

A big screen adaptation of your novel.

It IS possible. Likely, no. But possible.

If your book takes off and enjoys great sales, a big film company might step up and ask to option the rights. Which does not mean the movie will ever come to a theater near you.

Hundreds of properties are optioned yearly for every film that’s released. But it happens.

If you’re wondering how to make this happen, I’m sorry to say I’m not sure you can. It’s a bit like being struck by lightning (and often similarly painful). Lightning strikes happen to hundreds of people every year. And yet, if you’re looking for such an experience (you’re not, but go with me on this tortured simile) there’s no special path to finding it. My only advice is to stand outside in a lot of rainstorms. Lightning rarely strikes those sitting inside by their comfortable wood fires.

Maybe you have a film agent, or your literary agent has a subagent for film. And said agent is shopping it around. Good. That’s the equivalent of standing outside in a storm. Now all you need is a whole universe full of luck.

And then, in most cases, somewhere in the adaptation process, authors begin to wonder just how lucky they really are.

My novel Pay It Forward was adapted for film. I am commonly asked what I think of the movie version. My answer is always the same.

“I thought the book was better.”

Then again, I would, wouldn’t I?

When I say that, just about everybody says the same thing: "Oh, the book is always better than the movie." Which leads me to wonder why, as a society in general, we see so many movies and read so few books. But that’s another rant for another text.

I have theories as to why the book is always better.

Theory #1: The author is not a person responsible for recovering an investor’s fifty million dollars (or hundred million these days), and so spends less time second-guessing him- or herself. (Isn’t it nice to know there’s somebody on the planet doing more second-guessing than the writer?)

Theory #2: Most books have only one author. A Hollywood movie is like the textbook definition of too many cooks in the kitchen.

Theory #3: People don’t seem to realize that Hollywood will make whatever kind of movies we will support, and that we "vote" with our box office dollars.

If I had singlehandedly made the movie Pay It Forward:

Ah, you say. But it will be different with me. Because I will retain control.

Really? You think you can control a Hollywood film?

I’m not so sure.

First of all, if you’re not J.K. Rowling, attaching script approval might very well relegate your project to a shelf forever. But let’s say your work is hot, and you get what you want: script approval, or even collaboration on the screenplay.

Screenwriters do not control Hollywood films.

The director leaves fingerprints on it, calling it “A Fill-in-the-name-of-the-big-director Film” and making insane choices based on ego to prove it.

The actors come in with “script notes” (i.e., I just can’t see my character saying that). The bigger the actor, the harder it is for anyone to say no to the often rotten ideas.

New writers can be brought in to make new changes. Even if you could conquer those forces, a film editor can completely transform the feel of a film in post production. For better or for worse.

No matter what it says in your contract, a film is going to be out of the novelist’s control.
So, if I had it to do over again, would I still sell them the rights?

You bet I would. In a Hollywood minute.

Let’s face it. This is what you call a high-end problem.

I know other fortunate writers will face similar happy disasters (I want to go on record as saying I wish this problem on each and every person reading this) so I’ll offer some tidbits of advice for the adaptation experience.

1) A useful mantra: "It’s not my hundred million dollars."

2) A great quote from Jacqueline Mitchard: "Where I come from, you can either take the money or you can moan about the process, but not both."  My advice? Take the money. Moaning is not all its cracked up to be.

3) Remind yourself that they are not, as people will suggest, "changing your book." Go back and read your book. You will find it blissfully unchanged. This is not your book, it’s their movie. Separate the two in your brain for purposes of continued sanity.

4) If your problems feel overwhelming, complain to your writer friends who are still struggling to get published. (Example: "Boo hoo. They cast Kevin Spacey in my movie instead of Denzel Washington.”) They will help you regain perspective. Trust me. They will.

Just promise me that you won’t be that writer who gets everything he or she ever wanted, and is still unhappy. A big screen adaptation is the brass ring. It boosts your name recognition (and I don’t mean boosts like a booster seat, I mean boosts like a booster rocket via NASA) and sells more books. That title, plus your backlist if you have one, plus every other book you’ll ever write.

And let’s say they make a bad film. I mean a really bad film. Not like Pay It Forward, which I think of as a flawed film. I mean hold-the-nose-and-ask-for-your-ticket-price-back crappy. Then what will people say? 

They’ll say, “Oh, don’t even bother with the movie. The movie sucks. Read the book. The book is much better.” 

And this hurts the writer how?

Once Hollywood comes calling for your book, nothing they can do to it will ever be as bad, in my opinion, as the hurt caused when they don’t.

There are some very well-known writers who simply refuse to option their work for film because they know Hollywood is going to ruin it, and they know it’s going to hurt when they do. I’d advise you not to be one of them. This is the kind of pain we should all be happy to dive into. Put on your best grown-up suit and be prepared to let go.

As my old mentor Jean Brody used to say, “We should all have such problems!”

What about you scriveners? Have you cast all the major parts in your book with Hollywood actors? Have you dreamed of getting nominated for an academy award for the screenplay? And come on, haven’t you--at least once--rehearsed what you’re going to say when you get that Oscar? Are you going to go out and read the actual Pay It Forward now you know how different it is from the Kevin Spacey movie? Do you have favorite books that were made into "flawed" movies?


Catherine Ryan Hyde has two new books this week. Not only our joint effort, but her heartbreaking, funny, and life-affirming  novel, DON’T LET ME GO, formerly only available in the UK. It's now available in ebook and paper at Amazon.com. Yesterday it hit #1 in Kindle books!

And if you live on the Central Coast of California, you can meet and learn from Catherine in person. She and I are giving a seminar in San Luis Obispo on July 14th on How to Be a Writer in the E-Age. (Isn't Bastille Day a perfect day to liberate yourself from the old publishing ways?) No matter what your level of writing expertise, we have information that will help you on your publishing journey, from how to write an e-query to how to deal with bad reviews. More info at Digital Age Authors. It's going to be a fun, positive learning experience!

If you want to hear a podcast of an interview with Catherine and me on the Dave Congalton show, you can hear it in the archives at KVEC for June 28th.

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