While revising a screenplay, my concentration broke when I took a closer look at my binder. This picture of what I saw perfectly illustrates my schizophrenic writing habits:
On the right is the script I’m currently polishing, which is printed on the back of old novel pages, seen on the left. For as much as I write, it’s only proper to recycle paper.
Since I can seem never to choose one discipline over the other, I began studying careers of novelists/screenwriters to see how they accomplished both. Luminaries of the dual-genre include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, and William Faulkner. When they weren’t crafting the books for which they’re known, they were off writing for the studios.
One of the modern practitioners I’ve been following is David Benioff, author of the novels 25th Hour and City of Thieves as well as the screenplays 25th Hour, Troy, and The Kite Runner. He’s currently the co-creator of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, along with another novelist/screenwriter DB Weiss (Lucky Wander Boy). My distant study of Benioff’s career took a turn last week when I met both he and Weiss at a screening of Thrones.
Since no one mentioned Benioff’s fiction during the Q&A, I took the opportunity afterward to introduce myself as a fan of his books. He was gracious and pleased to answer my questions, the first being: How do you balance both screenwriting and fiction?
In short, he doesn’t; not at the same time, anyway.
Being the writer/producer of a successful TV show understandably takes all of his time—a twenty-four-hour schedule, as he called it–because he and Weiss are the people everyone else is coming to for answers. He has his next book lined up, but he won’t be able to get back to it until much later.
I then asked if publishers were more flexible with deadlines than Hollywood. My previous research indicated that they were, but Benioff added a crucial piece of information: “Yes, so long as you’ve earned out your advance.”
This makes sense if an author received, let’s say, a $50,000 advance for a two-book deal. If the first novel only earns $30,000, you better believe the publisher will be awaiting delivery of that second manuscript. On the other hand, if the first book makes $100,000, the investment is already recouped, and the author will have more leeway with the second deadline—pending other contractual obligations, of course.
Then, Weiss added the reason for this difference is that studios can have millions of dollars already invested in a project, whereas publishers usually do not. In fiction, the book is the final product. In screenwriting, the script is the blueprint an army of other artisans need in order to produce the final film; they’re just waiting on you before they can mobilize.
Once writers understand this distinction, they can approach their various camps armed with more information and, hopefully, a better strategy for success. It’s up to you to find the balance.