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When Your Novel Goes to Hollywood

This one could also be titled “When Your Novel Runs Away to Hollywood Without You.”  Because, generally speaking, I don’t think most people realize how little a novelist has to do with what happens after she sells the film rights to her book.  "Do this-or-that!" your friends and family will tell you.  "Have so-and-so direct, have so-and-so star," perfect strangers will offer, apropos of nothing.  Great, I think, but while I would like to know more about filmmaking, I am not a filmmaker.  I am a nerdy, bookish, shut-in novelist, period.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course.  Gillian Flynn is a great example of one such exception; a former TV writer, Flynn sold the rights to Gone Girl but remained part of the project, writing the screenplay.  In my experience, and in my opinion, Flynn is a rare animal, in that she is a novelist who also seems to know her way around Hollywood. 

I, by contrast, know squat.  So when there was film interest in my book, I happily took a backseat and let my two agents advise me.  That’s the first thing I learned: in New York, we have these folks called literary agents.  They take aspiring writers’ manuscripts and sell them to publishers.  In L.A., they call that a “book agent.”  A “literary agent,” according to them, is someone who sells your book to a studio or production company.  My literary agent (in Hollywood’s parlance) is a very cheerful and energetic woman who works for Creative Artists Agency in L.A.  I saw her once or twice out here in New York, and visited her once at CAA in L.A. – in an intimidatingly large, echoing office complex where I sat in a waiting room across from Jeremy Renner and stared at my shoes as I waited for an assistant to come down and bring me upstairs. 

Mostly, though, the whole process went like this: My CAA agent asked a lot of questions (“Do you have any casting ideas?  Favorite directors?  Favorite screenwriters?  Specific demands about rights or credit?  Preferences over this-or-that?").  I’m not sure I came up with smart-sounding answers, but nonetheless, once we chatted she was off and running.  I got the impression that this is the novelist’s role: Come to the table with ideas and energy, but also know when to get out of the way. 

I also learned that things in Hollywood have to reach a sort of critical mass to sell.  It’s like a math – or, really, chemistry – equation.  This director plus that production company.  That actor plus this studio.  In my case, Fox Searchlight acquired the option on my book as a vehicle for Keira Knightley, who is attached and will be given executive producer credit.  Once we agreed to the deal, they were very careful about when and how they announced it, so there was a period during which I wasn’t supposed to post my news anywhere (argh! so tough!).  I’m still not sure why this was so (legalities? generating buzz? I don’t know), but I complied. 

Now… what I’ve sold is the option to make a film, using my book as source material.  Will they absolutely, 100% make that movie?  Hopefully, but it’s not set in stone.  Tons of books get optioned only to sit idle on the shelf, so it’s one of those situations wherein it’s good to have hope, but not expectations.  Once a book has been optioned, your book must once again achieve another state of critical mass: studio plus producer plus actors plus screenwriter plus director.  Director – that last one is key.  And according to the executives who I spoke to at Fox Searchlight, they like to foster auteur directors, and build the picture around that; the director is the deciding factor for them. 

I’ve been told there’s a screenwriter, and a script in progress, so that’s very encouraging.  And when one of the Searchlight execs came to town, she met with me, and we had a good talk.  She was full of ideas and energy, and was very enthusiastic. 

Legally and financially speaking… for those writers who don’t know how it works: When a film studio options your book, they pay a flat fee to buy a period of time (usually between 12-18 months) during which they can exercise the option to develop your book into a film.  If the film moves forward, they then pay you the “purchase price” – generally a set percentage of the overall project film budget.  They also usually have an option to renew this option for a set price.  “Development hell” or “development limbo” is the nickname given to that period of time after the book (or screenplay, concept, idea, etc) has been optioned but before it has gone into production. 

Will The Other Typist reach that state of critical mass I mention?  It would be difficult to say for sure.  Lev Grossman, author of the NYT bestselling The Magicians trilogy, blogs brilliantly about the highs and lows of having his book’s pilot passed over during pilot season.  But don’t despair!  Grossman’s book-turned-TV-series is alive and well and getting picked up by SyFy, so there’s a happy ending to that story. 

Am I happy that a company like Fox Searchlight optioned The Other Typist?  Hell yeah!  Searchlight, if you haven’t noticed, has been doing wonderful, award-winning, admirable films, and seems to be in the midst of a golden-age renaissance… just thinking about the last decade or so, from Juno to Slumdog Millionaire to Black Swan to Beasts of the Southern Wild to 12 Years a Slave… these are all movies I’ve loved and feel like were made with integrity and passion.  Am I glad Keira Knightley read the book and got involved?  Also, hell yeah.  She has a track record of making smart, meticulous-yet-adventurous choices when it comes to picking projects, and I am very honored by her involvement. 

For now, I think I will end this blog post on this happy, hopeful note.  I wait, on the sidelines, to see what will happen.  And in the meantime, I spend my time throwing myself into the world of my second novel.