Founder Chat: Screenplays — Part 1

The manner in which our small group of friends helps one another with thorny writing problems is one of the roots of Amelia Indie Authors. From time to time we’ll share a Founder Chat — one of the founders interviewing another author about an area of particular interest or expertise. Enjoy!

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Upon completion of a recent blog post, I realized I had the core for a new book set in the 17th century. I began blocking the content right away and began the first chapter. Starting a new project like this is an exciting time full of outrageous dreams and marvelous promise. As I watch historical programming on BBC, Netflix, Amazon and elsewhere, I think my story could be a movie at least, if not a series like Poldark, Outlander or Versailles.

But I have never tried writing for the screen before. Am I crazy? Should I just go wash the dishes and get a hold of myself?

Fortunately, a dear friend introduced me to someone who has some answers. Wren Valentino is the award-winning author of several novels and collections of stage plays and poetry. He has written over 50 stage plays that have been performed in three languages in nine countries. His work has appeared in over 100 publications.

And so, I am deeply honored that he has agreed to answer some questions about writing screenplays, which I share today with Amelia Indie Authors. Thank you, Wren, for sharing your knowledge and experience. Here goes:

Nancy: First of all, how do you know if a story idea has potential as a screenplay?

Wren: Screenwriting is really a form of visual storytelling. When I start working on a project, one of the first things I do is determine what form suits the story the best. When a strong visual component is there, that’s a big indicator that the story needs to be told on a screen, instead of on a stage or page.

Nancy: Some film or series productions are based on novels, while others are developed directly for the screen. Either way, there has to be a screenplay. Other than length, what are the main differences between a book and a screenplay?

Wren: There are many differences between books and screenplays, all of which can make the adaptation process difficult. In most cases, when audiences reject a film version of their favorite book, it’s related to the difficulties the screenwriter had in adapting from one form to another. Novels and screenplays are written so differently, that they’re not always compatible when it comes to adaptation. One of the biggest challenges is adapting a novel written in first person narrative into a cinematic story. In a book, we have insight into the characters internal thoughts and emotions, but translating that onto the screen can be tough.

Nancy: When would it make sense to start with the screenplay, instead of a book?


Wren: I recommend writing any story in multiple forms and then deciding, as the writer, which form is the strongest choice. Some stories will only work in one form, so then the decision is made for you. I often know immediately that a story is a screenplay when I visualize the story more than I hear it.

Nancy: What if I already have a novel that has potential for the screen? What is the best starting place for an author to adapt a book into a screenplay?

Wren: This can be a really helpful exercise for any writer who thinks their novels has cinematic potential. By adapting your novel into a screenplay, they will inform each other. For example, whenever I adapt a novel or play of mine into a screenplay, I always end up going back to the original story with new discoveries I’ve made by writing the same story in a different form. Writing a screenplay is a challenge, especially because the format is so specific. I really recommend that if a writer is considering a screenplay, they should take a screenwriting course. If anything, this will help with learning and understanding the complexities of the format, the rules and why they’re necessary.

Nancy: Is it common for authors of novels to do their own screenplays or is it better if done by another writer?

Wren: I highly recommend that if a novelist has an indication that there’s interest in adapting their book into a screenplay, that they write the screenplay. I know many writers who will write the screenplay version while they’re writing the novel simultaneously. Emma Donoghue did this very thing with her novel Room. When producers came to her wanting to adapt the film for the screen, she already had a screenplay ready for them. Who knows the story better than the person who created it?

Nancy: It is my understanding that all good screenplays follow the same basic structure. Is that true in your opinion? Have you tended to follow any particular guideline or does the idea that ‘rules are made to be broken’ apply in this case?

Wren: Screenplays for most American made films do follow a fairly similar three-act structure, with significant plot points happening at prescribed times in the film. This has a lot more to do with the attention span of an audience, rather than storytelling. For this reason, I tend to watch and admire foreign films and foreign TV shows more, as they tend to not only break these rules but demonstrate a greater devotion to true storytelling, especially where character development is concerned. I’m all for breaking rules, but it’s important to learn the rules first so you know how and when to cross those lines.

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What is a Brand Persona?

What is a Brand Persona?

Your brand persona is a valuable thing that will help you build trust with customers. If you were to weave together all of your values, activities, and interests, they would create a multifaceted gem that defines you as a person.

But suppose you meet a potential customer in an elevator, and you want to shine? You want them to remember you. They will probably only remember one or two things about you. What would you want those things to be?

This is what brand persona is all about. If you want people to remember you, by all means, capture everything that defines you. Then, go the next step.

If you are an author, artist or businessperson, your work defines you to a great extent, but also the realm in which you work or the subject matter on which you focus. Add to that your activities. For instance, are you a runner? An equestrian? A motocross enthusiast? Do you love to cook, read, dance? And then there are societal interests like improving literacy, reducing poverty, protecting the environment, and so on. Take the time to write it all down. You’ll be surprised how illuminating it can be, and how few people actually do it.

Next, narrow down your list to a handful of things. Consider the top 10 that you might converse about with your new acquaintance. In other words, which things do you think others can most easily relate to?

In most cases, people relate to values. They may not care much about what you do or how you do it, but if you talk about why you do it, what drives you, you’re likely to pique their interest. People are attracted to passion. If you only have 30 seconds before the two of you shake hands and say goodbye, wouldn’t you like to tell them about your greatest passion?

That’s how a defined persona can help, by making your most memorable facets easier to communicate and, therefore, easier to remember. Once your persona is defined, what’s next?

 

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Do You Need a Mission Statement?

As an independent author, you might think, “Hey, I write books. That’s my mission. Why do I need a statement about it?” But I’m here to tell you, if you are serious about your products, you might want to be equally as serious about your personal brand that represents them.

Authors who pay attention to their personal brand have a leg up on the competition by making themselves more memorable in the minds of their readers and helping those readers to believe in and trust the quality of their books. A mission statement is a vital part of a serious personal brand.

And, to do it well, you’ll want to get serious about it. Some people try to create their brand simply by drawing a logo, or having a friend design one, and “Voila!” Others choose pictures, colors or phrases that represent interests and feelings, and call it a brand. These approaches are fine exercises as far as they go, but they will not serve you well for the many demands that will come to the committed author, and they won’t stand up for the long-term.

A personal brand that defines your values, your vision and mission delivers the same strength and attributes of a multi-million-dollar corporate brand. Corporations know that investment in their brand will establish them in the mind of their customers, distinguish them against the competition, and help them grow for the long run. Putting some rigorous thought into your brand just as you do your products will cost you little, and help you much.

What is a mission statement?

A mission statement captures your values, defines what you do, defines WHY you do it, and can also define what you do for your community and for the world, for that matter. It helps you stay on track when distractions tug at you. It helps you understand your own purpose, and stick to it.

Have you ever been at a book signing, a festival, or any kind of event where someone made a statement or asked you a question, and it stuck in your mind? And then you heard it again somewhere else, or maybe read it in a blog post, or heard someone say it in a movie or news program. Maybe you shrugged these repetitive messages off. But maybe, just maybe, the messages were meant specifically for you.

In my case, I write historical fiction set in 17th century Ireland. Why? Because I love Ireland and I love history. This makes my work feel not like work but like something richly rewarding. When I first started promoting my books, wherever I went and whenever I talked to readers or potential readers, I heard something like this: “Oh, I never thought about the 17th century.” Or this: “I enjoyed this book and learned a lot, but I never would have thought of reading something from this period.”

Then I read a survey of historical novel readers produced for the Historical Novel Society that ranked the 17th century 7th among periods this particular audience was likely to choose. Seventh? Really?

In the words of J.P. Sommerville, author and University of Wisconsin history professor, the 17th century is “probably the most important century in the making of the modern world.” And according to historian Christopher Hill, “What happened in the 17th century is still sufficiently part of us today, of our ways of thinking, our prejudices, our hopes.”

The more I read about this period, the more devoted I became.

And so my mission almost wrote itself. It was not only to create and sell a collection of books based primarily in Irish history that illuminates, entertains, informs and inspires readers, but also to elevate understanding of the importance of the 17th century.

How do you spell success?

This mission really comes into play when I am clear about how I define my own success as an indie author. Think about this:

Is your success based on volume of sales? If it is, your mission statement will help you be specific about it and set goals to take you where you want to go. It becomes both an affirmation and a battle cry. Everyone wants to be a bestselling author. But selling books can be hard work for an indie. You’re up against the proliferation of other books, the pressure for buyers to choose “bestsellers,” the credibility issues around indie books, the time and expense of reaching a wide audience, the borrowing and sharing of books, and the websites that offer “free” books. These obstacles may not be insurmountable for you, but still toughen your way. So, if you fall short of your sales goals, does that make you a failure?

Is your success based on fame? How will you measure it? Can you get Oprah to recommend you? Can you get Starz or Netflix to produce a series based on your books? And if they don’t, does that make you a failure?

Is success based on awards? They contribute to your credibility and help confirm that you’re on the right track. But how many are enough? Which ones? Do they translate into sales or loyal readers? What if they aren’t forthcoming, or if you always come in second-best? Would that mean failure?

No. Sales, fame, and awards are results for which you have marketing goals, and while they may be part of your mission, they should not define you. They don’t say anything about what you do for your reader, and why you do it. To get to the sales, fame and awards, and to experience the joy of success, you have to consistently and repeatedly offer something of value. Make THAT your mission.

Let’s go back to my mission statement and my readers. Am I entertaining, informing and inspiring them? Am I getting the 17th-century story out? Success. I hear the comments and see the reviews, and even if not by the hundreds, the message is the same. “A wonderful and compelling historical novel.” “A compelling story rich in detail.” In addition, readers say things like, “The 17th century in Ireland is a period I knew little about so I was fascinated to learn so much while being happily carried along with the engaging story.”

So, with this kind of a mission statement you will know you are accomplishing your mission, bit-by-bit, reader-by-reader, one day at a time. It is gratifying to be fulfilling what your true purpose. The sales also will come, but you are already successful, and the knowledge of this will carry you through all the inevitable ups and downs of marketing.

Should you have a mission statement? Only if you want to work like a professional, stay focused on your purpose, and get a sense a fulfillment you never knew you needed.

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