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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Film vs Fiction: Paul Almond compares novel writing and screenwriting


Today's guest comes with a perspective unusual on this blog: Before turning to fiction-writing, he had a career in TV and film. I asked Canadian writer Paul Almond to discuss the differences between these two types of storytelling.

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Yes indeed, there is quite a difference between writing a screenplay and writing a novel.  After some forty years directing and producing television dramas and motion pictures, during which time I wrote quite a few, I realised that since screenplay writing was a very tight little craft, novel writing might well be that also.
    So when I had open heart surgery in 1990, and could no longer make movies, my wife, Joan, insisted I turn to my first love, writing.  So now what?
In a screenplay there were so many rules, so many points at which the plot had to turn — as Linda Seager so cleverly outlined in her modest, but essential, book, Making A Good Script Great, I thought that perhaps the same kind of skill might required in writing a novel.

So I enrolled for two or three years in the full curriculum of writing programs at UCLA extension.  Curiously enough, most of the students (of all ages) seemed to want to write screenplays to submit to the studios.  They believed (rightly, I’d say) that studio executives were such idiots, they didn’t know how to read a screenplay.  So they wanted to learn novel writing only to submit them to studios for screenplays.
The first thing that alarmed me was that in a novel you can't just say:
INT LIVING ROOM
and leave it to the art director and set decorator to do their job.
You had to write that description and find a way to do it in a few sentences. That was the first big difference.
The second big difference was that screenplays are written in the present tense.  Most novels are written in the past tense.  I found that out when I started to turn one of my screenplays into a novel.  My instructors soon showed me how wrong I was.


There is, of course, the question of literacy.  When George Lucas wrote “Star Wars”, it was apparently horribly illiterate.  I had the pleasure of employing several from his British production crew right after it, who told me.  It is of course hearsay.

For advice on the actual writing, there are as many different “experts” as there are novelists: whether to use adjectives or not, adverbs or not, and other adjuncts to simple good writing.  Writing schools with their own rules proliferate, the best being one (I hear) in, of all places, Iowa.  But two or three years away to study at a school was not possible, so I did my best with UCLA extensions.  And yes, I did learn a great deal.

But even so, I still wrote two full-length (unpublished) novels (one did come out in a French translation) before I sat down to The Deserter, the first book of The Alford Saga.  It went to practically every agent in Canada and several publishers, to no effect whatsoever.
I sat down and wrote the second book, and then the third, and so on.  After six or seven years, my wife again took me in hand and said, “Paul, just get them published.”  So by that time, I found a couple of publishers.  Indeed, the first five books of the Saga are now in print, and my new publisher, Red Deer Press, a subsidiary of Fitzhenry and Whiteside, has happily taken all eight books.  The next two, The Gunner (spring 2014), and The Hero (autumn 2014) are coming out next year, and The Inheritor in 2015.

The fact that a couple of them have become national bestsellers in Canada just shows what agents know.  As you can see, I'm not a big fan of agents.  Every publishing contact, I did myself.


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You can learn more about Paul Almond on his website.
You can buy The Chaplain (The Alford Saga, Volume 5) on Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Great work on the books and getting them published, Paul, and greater 'Yay' to Joan! I had to write a screenplay once and for me, back then, it was difficult to translate details and emotions through dialogue and the likes of "She looks at him. He picks up a cup." I prefer the space for narrative description, but would like to write a screenplay again some day.

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