Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Adventures of an e-Book Bookie, 14: "Apples and Oranges"

Another novel of mine came out on Kindle this week. www.amazon.com/dp/B005GMQPUG

I had self-published TAPFOS in 2007 and I had actually sold a few copies.

After I finished writing Tantric Zoo this spring I went back and reviewed TAPFOS. After each completed novel I feel like I’ve learned something and I return to earlier successes, failures and literary abortions. I returned to this comic Sci-Fi novel for a rewrite wielding Elmore Leonard’s advice: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

I cut and rewrote (hopefully improved) then renamed the book. The acronym/title TAPFOS went to Teenaged Pussies From Outer Space: A Love Story.

Catchy, huh?

Catchy like Ebola or herpes, but a somewhat compelling title: I’d pick it up.

Anyway, as I rewrote I noticed that the structure of the story was fine; the problems were how I developed the individual scenes. I think the story structure proved so solid because I had originally written TAPFOS as a movie. (Yes, it was during one of those years I had been drinking...) I think this is generally a good idea: blocking out a novel’s structure in the form of a storyboard with each scene’s beginning, middle, and end developed and demarcated.

Too bad it’s not as easy or straightforward turning a novel into a screenplay.

When I had an opportunity to adapt my novel High Steaks into a script I thought, much like Union soldiers who thought they’d be home from the war for Christmas: “Great, it’ll take a week; two tops.” But turning an 82,000 word, 255 page book into a 17,000 word 112 page screenplay was probably the most exacting and arduous writing task I’ve ever attempted.

The first thing I did was re-read the book. It had been written over four years ago and there are scenes and characters that the author simply forgets—even though you’d written them. About halfway through the book the enormity of the task hit me: roughly three out of every four words would have to be removed, but all the humor and action spiced up. It was, almost literally, trying to make an apple pie out of oranges.

So I went for a walk.

When I returned, I dusted off Linda Seeger’s The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. That helped greatly as it had a few years ago when I adapted one of my short stories into a movie. (The Bartender.) But I was still daunted by the size of this writing and editing task. In the next two weeks, I wrote scene-by-scene, and the first 57 pages of the book came in at about 50 pages. At that rate the movie would be four-hours-plus. Much, much too long.

Then I read an interview of Eric Axel Weiss, who adapted Robert O’Connell’s Buffalo Soldiers for the screen. Weiss stated: “I find the one thing that I love when reading a novel—whether it’s the character, tone, setting, etc—and that is what I somehow preserve in my script.”

When I tried to get High Steaks published (a four year process) I ran out of publishers who read unagented works. So I undertook a mild deception. I borrowed my cousin’s name and phone number and created the BMA Agency. I wrote editors about me in the third person and signed them Brad Morrison. This did two things: 1) the manuscript was requested by editors, and 2) I received honest and helpful criticism of the book. Instead of the Not For Us At This Time form rejection I (Brad) received truly helpful constructive criticism. One particularly prized rejection slip had the phrase “a tad too sexy and cavalier for my tastes”.

So “Too sexy and cavalier” was what I decided to preserve in the script.


I went at it a bit differently the second go-round. I made a copy of the original text’s diskette, booted it up, and switched the formatting to single spacing. This shortened the book by about a third. Then I went and removed and removed descriptions and my narrative voice. Still, it was—without even being in script format—around 170 pages. Then I remembered a tip: When writing a script always use courier or elite fonts because the script format—designed to be one page equal to one minute screen time—was designed when people were writing on typewriters: in courier and elite typeface.

I changed it from arial to courier and got it down to about 150 pages. I had no idea that simple typeface could make that big of a difference. But I could work with 150 pages.

High Steaks is a murder mystery that takes place in Nightingale, Nevada. The town and citizenry itself is a character in the book. I could show the town; but I had to eliminate and combine so many characters in order to drive the plot forward. The book also has a series of letters from someone who has died, that appear throughout the course of the narrative. I had to eliminate all but three of these letters: too much voice over is deadly. In the book the letters aren’t intrusive because, well, you’re reading. In the movie I had the characters read the letters during on screen activities (a horserace, a Native American dance troupe performing, and a greasefire in a steakhouse) so as not to lose the audience.


A script is rather bare-bones compared to a novel and I had to edit ruthlessly--eliminating some of my favorite characters in order to pass the snooze test. The snooze test is how I double check my texts between rewrites. My wife gets a cup of tea or glass of wine (depending on the time of day) and lies down on the bed. I read in a dull monotone (I want the words to supply the meaning, not any inflection or theatrics on my part) and anyplace I lose her—even if it’s slightly unclear—she starts snoring. I mark the spot and—usually she’s right; I was too verbose or vague—fix it. She’s not a writer, but she has no patience with a slow movie or book.

I also noticed that the killer (I won’t tell you who) came across as a lot more ruthless in the script, because I eliminated the narrative backstory about a terrible childhood that made the murderer at least a bit sympathetic. The other fact that amazed me is that with all the cutting and melding of characters that a few minor characters in the book, stood out prominently in the movie. Davis, the main character who solves the murder, isn’t a cop (he owns the local steakhouse, High Steaks, get it?) so he needs some muscle when he confronts the bad guys. This comes in the form of an ex-Navy Seal who is visiting town. The ex-sailor’s role in the book (he doesn’t appear until the final 60 pages) is expanded in the movie because everything else is so pared away.

The entire project took two or three false starts, a ton of rewrites, and about three months. So, is the book better than the movie? I honestly can’t say; but the script and the book are now completely different entities.

Like apples and oranges.


The weekly poker game was at Bob’s but he had to babysit his six year old twin boys. Before they could even deal Bob was off to the other room three times. He returned and another racket ensued. So Randy said, “I’ll take care of it.” Randy returned and there was silence for an hour.

Bob said, “What’d you do, start a movie?”

“No,” said Randy, “I taught them how to masturbate.”


Rob is currently adapting his latest novel Tantric Zoo www.smashwords.com/profile/view/robloughranbooks for the screen. He’s having the same problems.

Kindle version (99 cents!) Teenaged Pussies From Outer Space: A Love Story http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005GMQPUG

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