Member Post: From Script To Manuscript (Or Why I Started Writing Novels)

"I love introducing screenwriters to the world of publishing… to see their faces when they hand over their work and realize they’re done, there are no more hoops to jump through." 

- Holly Root, Literary Agent @ WonderCon 2013 // Waxman-Leavell Literary Agency

The business of Hollywood has changed a lot in the past ten years.  Less and less original material is being made, with a bigger focus on adaptations and remakes.  Budgets are ballooning, and with that decision comes increased risk.  A studio exec is less likely to develop a spec script, work with a first-time director, etc and so forth.  Which means, it’s harder than ever to get a foot in as a new artist.

I graduated in 2008 with big dreams of being a writer/producer.   We all know the routine, that you have to make a feature to sell a feature (i.e. the chicken or the egg dance), so I chose to go the indie route, trying to raise money outside Hollywood and thus “prove myself” to the industry.

Then the stock market crashed.  Investors tighten their wallets, and my plan didn’t work out so well.  So I made a shift and started focusing on writing.

I am one of the fortunate few who have a manager and agents.  It’s worth noting that I had to win a competition to get them, but my spec scripts sealed the deal.  But therein lay the problem.  My successful spot was a comedy piece, where my scripts are anything but.  My agents didn’t send out my specs because I was not ‘known’ for those genres.

So, I had a choice.  Try to write something that can sell, or find a new way to become ‘known’ for the stories I want to write.  I tried the former first, to the expected miserable results.  But hey, at least I was writing.

It was a frustrating process, and fortunately not without a silver lining.  I discovered that I loved telling stories, but it broke my heart when I couldn’t share them with an audience.  With a script it takes a mountain of money and an army of people to make your story see the light of day.  More often than not, that baby you spent the last year honing ends up in a drawer.

Enter epiphany.  A novel, the germinating IP for many a feature film, is a complete story told exactly as I (the writer) envision.  I can tell the stories I want to tell and when my polishing is done, it can be shared via traditional publishing or with a bit of sweat equity via digital self-publishing.

Plus, as Hollywood has become more risk adverse, having a sold fan base for my material is like an ace in the pocket.   I’d no longer be an ‘untested’ screenwriter, but a published author with numbers I could quote in a pitch meeting.

Alas, the publishing world, at first glance, appeared to be another closed door industry that newbies bang their heads against while trying to get noticed.  But I wasn’t deterred, and I started attending seminars and workshops from the pros to learn the industry.

And what I discovered was very encouraging…

  1. Literary Agents still read their slush piles (unlike the entertainment agencies that don’t take ‘unsolicited’ material). Every query will get read, and if it intrigues them, they will ask for more materials. The slush is their #1 method of finding new authors.

  2. If you get repped by an Agent, you have a 99% chance of getting published. Maybe not your first book (often yes), but definitely a second. Plus, said agent will actually give you feedback on your manuscript!

  3. Budget is not an issue. You can write your heart out and never worry if it can’t be shot. You can tell the story as its meant to be told. (Side note, don’t write too long a novel - word count is their equivalent of a bigger budget).

  4. Less people actually have the discipline to finish a novel. Most spend years ‘writing’ their opus. So the competition pool is actually less than in Hollywood.

  5. Traditional Publishing, while shrinking, is adapting to the new digital market place. Without the concerns of print overhead, these publishers have expanded their purchases. They are actively looking for new authors.

  6. Should all else fail, self-publishing is no longer a dirty word. If done properly, it can be insanely profitable for the artist (more on this in a later blog).

It’s easy to get discouraged after you spend years developing your projects and they get shut down before they even start.  For an artist there is no greater frustration.  But the storyteller in us still has a chance to get our material out to the world.

Yes, I still write scripts.  I even write my novels with an eye towards adaptation.  But now I’m building my audience before knocking on Hollywood’s door, because sometimes, that’s the only way they’ll let you in.

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Tess Burningham is repped at Untitled Entertainment & Resolution Entertainment for film and the The Literary Group International for novels.  She currently has a MG fairy tale and a YA Sci-Fi novel out to publishers.