Five Things Every Screenwriter Should Know About Writing A Novel

photo by Leo Reynolds
photo by Leo Reynolds

Today’s guest is author Abdi Nazemian. Abdi is the screenwriter of The Quiet, Celeste in the City, Beautiful Girl, and the short film Revolution, which he also directed.  He is an alumnus of the Sundance Writer’s Lab, a mentor at the Outfest Screenwriter’s Lab, and has taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension.  He lives in Los Angeles with his two children, and his dog Hedy Lamarr.

The Walk-In Closet is his first novel. It was chosen as the winner in the Gay and Lesbian Fiction category at the 2014 International Book Awards, and was named a finalist in the Best Mulicultural Fiction category at the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

What’s the book about?

Kara Walker has never found much glamour in her own life, especially not when compared to the life of her best friend, Bobby Ebadi. Bobby, along with his sophisticated parents Leila and Hossein, is everything Kara always wanted to be. The trio provides the perfect antidote to what Kara views as the more mundane problems of her girlfriends and her divorced parents. So when the Ebadis assume that Kara is Bobby’s girlfriend, she willingly steps into the role. She enjoys the perks of life in this closet, not only Leila’s designer hand-me-downs and free rent, but also the excitement of living life as an Ebadi. As Kara’s 30th birthday approaches, Leila and Hossein up the pressure. They are ready for Kara to assume the mantle of the next Mrs. Ebadi, and Bobby seems prepared to give them what they want: the illusion of a traditional home and grandchildren. How far will Kara be willing to go? And will she be willing to pull the Persian rug out from under them when she discovers that her own secret is just one of many lurking inside the Ebadi closet?

You can learn Abdi and The Walk-In Closet on his website, and by following him on Twitter and Facebook.

Five Things Every Screenwriter Should Know About Writing A Novel

During my very first book reading for my very first novel, The Walk-In Closet, I was asked how writing screenplays and writing novels were different. I wasn’t fully satisfied with my answer, so I thought I’d compose this list of the five crucial things every screenwriter should know about writing a novel.

  1. There is no software to guide the writing process. 

You know how screenplays sometimes feel like they’re writing themselves. That’s because Final Draft is an intuitive friend that often knows what you want to write before you do. Just press one letter, and suddenly Final Draft has magically written the name of your next speaking character. You haven’t written a word, but nevertheless there is a word on the page, and from there, it’s not so hard to write another. There is, sadly, no software that will intuitively write any portion of a novel for you, though I sure hope that someone in Silicon Valley is working on one.

  1. You can’t blame the director.

If anyone ever criticizes a film whose script you wrote, it’s quite easy to use the standard phrase, “It’s the director’s fault.” In fact, “It’s the director’s fault” is probably as common a phrase in Hollywood as, “Is this gluten free?” Unfortunately, there’s no one but yourself to blame if and when someone criticizes your novel. Every word is on you, unless you hired a ghostwriter, and even then they’re a ghost, so every word is still on you.

  1. You can’t fix it in post.

Walk-In-Closet-72dpiFilms are written three times: on the page, on set, and in the editing room. The post-production process, in effect, writes the true final script of the movie. Part of this process can include re-shoots, ADR (additional dialogue recording), and of course, liberal cutting and shifting of scenes. And if your movie makes no sense, you can even add a voice-over. There is, unfortunately, no post-production for novels. The writer’s final draft is the true final draft, and there will be no post-production session to add that extra plotline you finally cracked after the fact.

  1. Remember that your real purpose is to sell the film rights.

In Hollywood, novels are not books. They are “source material.” After all, what is the purpose of literature if not to be turned into a film or television show? All the best books get turned into movies, which is why such subpar texts as The Catcher In The Rye, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Middlesex have been left untouched by Hollywood. Once your book is legitimized by Hollywood, it will be issued in a new edition that reads, “Now a Major Motion Picture,” even if the motion picture is very minor. And if you’re lucky, this new edition will have a glossy photo of a Hollywood celebrity on the cover, making your book indistinguishable from an issue of US Weekly. Which is wonderful news, since way more people read US Weekly than novels. And even better news: Once your book is a movie, if anyone ever criticizes it, you’ll be able to say, “It’s the director’s fault.”

  1. It’s all worth it.

Because despite not having any software to guide you, and no director to blame, and no post-production to smooth out your clunky beats, and no control over your “source material,” you have written a novel, and that’s something any writer should be proud of. The first thing I did when I received the galley of my book was proudly show it off to my two-year old twins. I pointed to the author photo and said, “Look kids, Daddy wrote a book!” Sure, they ignored me and went right back to banging pots and pans, but that feeling of pride I had when I held the novel in my hands was definitely worth the effort.

Have thoughts on what numbers 6-10 should be? We’d love to hear about it in comments.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for the interesting post, Abdi, and congrats on making the transition from screenwriter to novelist. I’m curious if you studied the craft before attempting the novel. Love the tongue in cheek in #4.
    TJ Forrester´s last blog post ..Sleeping with Grizzlies

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    • says

      TJ,

      I took a few writing classes in college. One was a playwriting class, and one was short story writing. Interestingly, I never studied screenwriting and ended up teaching it at UCLA for a time. I think I did most of my learning by reading a lot!

      Abdi

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  2. says

    Abdi, thanks for this post. Your book sounds wonderful. I would add that in novels, the writer must paint the scene and the setting. The writer must constantly be aware that the reader can’t see what the writer sees. The writer must use the five senses to make the setting come alive. I have often wanted to write a screenplay because I’ve been told my strength as a writer is writing dialogue. I do notice in reading other writers that they are getting more cinematic in their descriptions. Perhaps that’s due to the influence of film. Movies represent the fusing of moving images and the written word. Done well, movies can give new life to the novel, though I still prefer a book to a movie.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Book Review: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub

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  3. says

    Wonderful post. Can’t stop thinking about rewriting my soon-to-be-released debut novel as a screenplay. Seems an easy thing to do, taking a 311-page book to 100ish. It sounds fun. I’m thinking that means I’m mistaken.

    How often do you novel writers (successfully) transition their own work into screenplays?

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    • says

      Thanks, Ina. I think the hardest part for you will be cutting elements of your novel that you’re attached to. Screenplays are much leaner than novels, and many of your favorite scenes will probably have to go. But having a novel will certainly make the process easier. The hardest part of screenwriting is cracking the plot, and that’s already done!

      Abdi

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  4. says

    Hello Abdi,

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been inspired by the screenplay writing process and in fact my approach to novel-writing has benefited greatly as a result of reading books on screenplay writing. Novelists can sometimes miss out on the fundamentals of structure and dialogue without being aware of how their scenes play out. What an interesting perspective, though, to see the challenges the other way around.

    You’ve inspired me to have a look at Final Draft. I spend a long time story-boarding before I actually begin writing, so that might be a good intermediate step.
    John Robin´s last blog post ..Author Journeys: Welcome Therese Walsh

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  5. says

    Thanks, Abdl. What a wonderful way to start a Sunday.

    I’m particularly struck by how simple and yet jarring your novel’s concept is: The Walk-In Closet. Such an amazing metaphor.

    One of my favorite novelists, Mark Haskell Smith, has the same trajectory you do, and he lamented the drawer full of un-produced scripts and felt so rewarded by having an actual book to hold.

    Having moved in the opposite direction, novels to scripts, I have to confess that screenwriting taught me a lot that improved my fiction. Novels can be somewhat forgiving of digression — screenplays, not so. The demands of economy and the constant need to move the story forward were two of several kicks in the pants that have served me well in my novels and stories.

    And though novels do avail the writer inner life, this can become a trap. Thoughts and feelings and perceptions begin to grown like kudzu over the action. Drama gives way to description. Or worse. It just grinds to a halt amid a blizzard of thought bubbles.

    Screenwriters often also have a unique and economical way of physically describing their characters. Since you’re never quite sure who might end up in the role (even if you’re writing with a particular star in mind), you have to be somewhat impressionistic in your description.

    Tony Gilroy, for example, in his script for Michael Clayton, describes the lawyer ultimately portrayed by Sydney Lumet as “a velvet switchblade, a thousand neckties.” And Desmond Lowden, who adapted his novel Bellman and True for the screen (or maybe it was the other way around), described the hero’s stepson with: “His face was pale, sharply pointed with the effort of being eleven years old.”

    BTW: There are people to blame in fiction as well. If you’re book doesn’t sell, you can blame the publisher, the critics, the public, the ignorant masses. Or Amazon. Won’t get you anywhere, but the option’s there.

    Best of luck. And thanks again.
    David

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    • says

      Thank you, David. Please let me know what you think of the novel if you read it. And thank you for giving me someone to blame if the book doesn’t sell. It’s always more fun to blame someone else!

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  6. Anjali Amit says

    Like John says, I had also thought that learning to write screenplays helped to create a tighter novel.

    While you do not touch on the technical aspects of one form of writing vs the other, what comes across loud and clear is the difference in the process. Screenwriting is an adaptive, collaborative process.

    A novelist stands alone, responsible for every sentence, clause, phrase, comma. (Of course you can have an awesomely competent editor but yet…). As you crossed over from one form of writing to the other that concept of personal responsibility stood out. (Screenwriters take note!)

    We could all profit by reminding ourselves that “You can’t blame it in the director.”

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  7. says

    6. In a novel, you control the production budget. Want perfectly cast actors, a cast of thousands, lavishly detailed worlds, special effects galore? Go for it. You don’t have to justify anything to the studio or backers. You’re the god/dess of your own world.

    7. In a novel you call the shots, literally, effortlessly. It’s your vision all the way. Compare the two endings of Fatal Attraction: the screenwriter’s original (Glen Close commits suicide, very tragic), and the studio’s far different, high-adrenaline finale, added after early previews (Glen goes on rampage, cuz scary monsters sell better).

    8. When you as novelist/creator edit and polish your novel, you get everyone’s respect. When you as screenwriter show up on a set, in the pecking order you’re somewhat lower (and considerably less well-dressed) than the assistant hair stylist. Your job is over, so get out of here.

    9. When a novel is a hit, the credit is all yours. When a movie is a hit, who remembers the screenwriter’s name? (Unless you’re Tom Stoppard doctoring Shakespeare in Love—definitely the exception.)

    10. When a novel sinks without a trace, oh well, just go on to the next one. You always get another chance, and maybe a gig teaching in a writing program at the local university. When a movie sinks into oblivion, you’ll never do lunch in this town again. The stink of failure is hard to dodge.

    11. The average lucky screenwriter will earn more money than the average lucky novelist, no question. But the bar to entry is higher. And everyone in town has a screenplay, including the waiter at lunch.

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    • says

      #11 is hilarious and so, so true. I’ll never forget being in the middle of a massage when the massage therapist found out I was a screenwriter and began pitching me her script. Not appropriate, but classic L.A.

      xo
      Abdi

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