The Movie Deal

When I was asked to join this great group of writers to blog on a regular basis, I bet they didn’t think I’d kick things off by writing about movies. But I’d guess my Kill Zone colleagues would agree that one of the most commonly asked questions we get as writers is, “When is your book going to be made into a movie?”
This very question came up in my panel session at the Northwest Bookfest today. For better or worse, movies are more universal cultural touchstones than books. They’re easier to consume and many more people have seen them. When someone at a writers’ conference asks me what my books are like, I usually mention that they would appeal to readers of Clive Cussler or James Rollins. But at a party I say that they’re akin to an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie because I can always be confident that people will get the comparison.
When readers turn the tables and ask about my books becoming movies, I have a hard time formulating a pithy answer. Although I struggle to come up with a meaningful response, it’s flattering for readers to ask. It means that they thought my adventure novel was cinematic in its action, descriptions, and pacing and that they want to spend more time with the characters. It’s the ultimate expression of success for a book to be deemed worthy of the silver screen, but for a novelist the situation is complicated.
A good movie can help cement an author’s career, such as it did with John Grisham’s The Firm, which was bought by Hollywood before he even sold the literary rights. It could also faceplant along the lines of Clive Cussler’s Sahara or Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. I’d risk the flop for a shot at a hit. The problem is that I don’t know when or if a film will ever happen. While I’m in full control of my writing, I’m a bystander when it comes to having the book made into a movie.
Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for being a fickle town. The first time I got a call from my film rights agent that a production company was interested in one of my books, I was so pumped that I was already planning what to wear to the premiere before I’d even hung up the phone. Then came a whole bunch of nothin’. I have no idea what went on behind the scenes, but I never heard another peep. By the third time I got a nibble from a producer, I didn’t get excited because I understood that it was just the start of a long process, one which could get sidetracked at any point.
First comes the option. Although the rights can be bought outright, most books are purchased in two- or three-year options, during which the producer has the sole right to make the movie of your book. A novelist won’t get paid for the full amount of the contract until the day principal photography begins (because movies can be and have been canceled at any point up to that moment). However, if the movie isn’t made during that period, then the option rights revert back to the writer, who can sell them again. I know many writers who’ve optioned the same movie rights repeatedly for a decade or more, and the film still hasn’t been made.
That’s because the next step is finding a director, screenwriter, and actors to attach to the film.  If it’s got those, the movie is probably on the fast track to being filmed. If not, it’s likely to end up in “development hell,” the no-man’s land where projects can languish while a script is rewritten multiple times to fix story, budget, or casting problems. For example, the movie Salt was originally supposed to star Tom Cruise until he bowed out and the script had to be completely rewritten for Angelina Jolie in the same role.
When people ask me who I think would be cast as the main characters in my books, I usually tell them it’s somebody who is currently in high school. Katherine Heigl, who played Stephanie Plum in One for the Money, was sixteen years old when that book was written, and Matthew McConaughey from Saharawas four when the Dirk Pitt series was created. Besides, casting is notoriously difficult. Who can possibly see Mickey Rourke as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, Will Smith as Neo in The Matrix, or Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, even though they were all the first choices for those iconic roles?
My agent has another challenge in selling my books to Hollywood. When I write, I don’t have a budget. I can destroy hundreds of cars, blow up buildings with abandon, place scenes in exotic locations, and employ a cast of thousands, all of which cost me nothing but would translate into substantial outlays in a film for elaborate stunts, difficult location shoots, and expensive computer graphics. I’m sure one of the reasons that my books haven’t been made into movies yet is that they would cost two hundred million dollars to produce.
For me, the original question remains unanswerable. No film is on the foreseeable horizon, though it would be a blast to see my words come to life on the big screen. I will always be open to getting those nibbles from Hollywood. I do, however, have one condition: even if it’s as a henchman who dies in the first ten minutes, I want a speaking role in the movie. If it’s a flop, at least I’d get a Screen Actors Guild card out of it.
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Notes from Thrillerfest

I just returned from my first Thrillerfest–it was a fantastic conference! Fellow Killers John Gilstrap, Joe Moore, and James Scott Bell were there, and it was great to see them. Thanks to everyone here for holding down the blog-fort while we were in NYC.

A few notes from the Thriller front:

Drumroll, please!

As a former journalist I know better than to bury the lead. During the conference it was announced that our own Joe Moore is the incoming co-president of ITW!

Joe moved onto the board of directors last October as Vice President, Technology, and will officially take over the co-presidency on October 1st 2009. He replaces James Rollins as he steps down due to term limits. Joe’s fellow co-president is Steve Berry. Joe and Steve are in charge of setting the direction for the future of ITW as well as acting as executive directors.

Congratulations, Joe! You deserve the honor; we’re proud to be your blog-mates.

Star power
Thrillerfest ’09 featured some of the brightest lights in the thriller-writing cosmos: Sandra Brown, Clive Cussler. Robin Cook, David Baldacci, David Morrell, and many more! We got to ask them lots of questions during the breakout sessions. I brought home many writing tips that I’m already putting into practice.

Panel fun

I was on a panel with NYT bestselling author Peter De Jonge and Kathleen Sharp, where we shared stories about what it’s like to jump from journalism to a career in fiction. I got a lot out of all the panels I attended, especially “Can you cross genres?” with James Rollins and Jon Land. I hate to miss anything, so I brought home CDs of many of the panels I was not able to attend.

Goin’ to the dogs

There was a dramatic K9 demonstration of “tactical” dogs (the preferred term instead of attack dogs) and explosives detection. The very brave Panel Master, Andrew Peterson, put on a padded sleeve to demonstrate how the tactical dog takes down a suspect. An ATF officer explained that the dogs think they’re playing a game when they attack. But this is one game that the criminals are bound to lose!

To sum up, Thrillerfest ’09 was indeed a thriller–I can’t wait until next year!

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Collaborating with Cussler

Our guest today is New York Times bestselling author, Paul Kemprecos. Paul is the co-author with Clive Cussler of eight NUMA Files books. Before collaborating with Cussler, he had written six underwater private detective books set on Cape Cod. His first book won a Shamus Award for best original paperback. He and his wife live on Cape Cod

Kemprecos, Paul People often ask me about the nuts and bolts of my collaboration with Clive Cussler. I must admit I’m as mystified about the process as when we started writing the NUMA Files series around ten years ago at a time only a few fiction writers were working together. Clive still kids me about making the jump from a regional Cape Cod private eye to world-wide thriller-adventure novels but at the time it was a daunting proposition. And still is.

I decided from the first not try to be another Cussler. The Grandmaster of Adventure is several inches taller than I am, so there was no way I could fill his shoes. And we had differing backgrounds and styles of writing. I would simply write the best adventure story I could, keeping the tone–whatever that is–similar to that of the Pitt novels.

Clive sent me the bios of the NUMA Special Assignments Team and it was up to me to flesh them out as believable characters. Then we were off and running on the book that would become Serpent.

serpentWith a cast of characters in place, next there had to be a story line. Clive suggested having the lost continent of Atlantis found under Antarctic ice. I gathered some material and was digging through the pile when he called and said he was going to use his suggested story line in the Dirk Pitt novel that would become Atlantis Found. He had another idea: a conspiracy to keep secret contact with America that pre-dated Columbus. It was pretty sketchy, but I said I would see what I could do. I said I had been thinking of using the Andrea Doria sinking in one of my PI novels and thought that the collision with the Stockholm that led to the sinking of the Italian luxury liner might be a good way to start a NUMA File. The collision could have been a deliberate act I suggested. He thought that was a good idea and suggested that the ship was sunk to hide an object on board that would unravel the conspiracy. Start writing, he said.

I sat down with some books and a diagram of the Doria and the prologue turned out surprisingly well. Clive said it was great and told me to keep going. I knocked off another hundred pages. This time Clive called to say the second batch of pages I had sent kinda stunk. I agreed with him, and said I was badly in need of some guidance. A few weeks later I flew out to Scottsdale, Arizon where Cussler lives. I was convinced that I had gotten in over my head with the NUMA Files, but we spent a couple of days going back and forth and carved out the plot and characters that would put Serpent on the best-seller lists.

medusa This is pretty much the template we have followed in our collaboration, right down to our latest book, Medusa. I run some concepts by him. He says yes, no or maybe and offers suggestions. I start writing, get into trouble about half way through the manuscript, then I fly out to have a story conference that sets things straight and head home to write the rest of the book. He hasn’t called recently to say something stinks, usually saying it indirectly by hinting I might want to come at something a different way. We’ve worked together long enough for me to pick up on his suggestions, however subtle they may be. I’ve learned to trust his instincts even if they run counter to my own. When he keeps returning to a subject it usually means this is a good thing to keep in the story.

Every writing duo comes at the task in its own way. Some write alternating chapters. Or one person works on story while the other does the actual writing and they meet somewhere in the middle. James Patterson said at a Thrillerfest talk that he writes long outlines for others who do the actual writing.

I think that whatever way works is the right way. Clive and I have a loose arrangement, but we are on the same creative wavelength. I will never be the story-teller Clive is. And he says I’m a better writer than he is. Even so, when we get into our Good-Guy, Bad-Guy discussions, we are talking the same language.

I guess it works. Medusa was scheduled to come in at number two today, June 2, on The New York Times bestseller list.

Have you ever collaborated with another author, and if so, how do you approach the task? If you haven’t, do you think you could? And as a reader, how do you feel about books written by two writers as opposed to single authors?

Watch for future Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo,  Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

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