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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More, more, more…

by Michelle Gagnon images.jpg

So like Clare, I’m currently out of town on vacation (nowhere as exotic as Australia, but I’m still enjoying a bit of a break from the San Francisco fog).

Last week I attended Left Coast Crime in LA, where I was fortunate to have the opportunity to catch up with John Gilstrap and James, and to meet Kathryn for the first time. Which was kind of shocking-the funny thing about blogging like this is how well you get to know each other without ever meeting face to face. For instance, I feel like Basil is practically family at this point (albeit as that crazy cousin who kicks off the conga line at family events). The post 9/11 literature panel that John and I were on made episodes of the Jerry Springer show look dull in comparison. In the bar afterward, almost every passerby stopped to tell John that they’d heard about his performance. He’s officially a legend now, and will probably start showing up late to our Denny’s meetings, if he makes them at all.

I got the chance to talk to Lee Child briefly at the conference (I know, I’m a shameless name dropper), and we were discussing the fact that for the first time he’s releasing not one but two books this year. This has become a trend with the recent industry downturn. It’s easier for publishers to push more books written by their stable of well known authors than to build up a new name, so old faithfuls like James Rollins, John Sandford, and of course James Patterson are being offered nice bonuses for increased productivity.

Even authors who aren’t household names are being urged to try to churn out multiple titles a year. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t people who do this well. But when my agent and I were negotiating my last contract, and they pushed for an increase to two or three books a year, I said no.

It’s a struggle for me to finish one book a year. It takes between 4-6 months for me to compose the initial draft, then I send it off to my editor and have a few weeks head start on the next book. Then the edits come back, and I have in general another month to polish it. At which point I mail it back, work a little bit more on the next book…just when I’m getting in the groove again, it’s time for round three. Add in the months I need to coordinate marketing for that book before its release, and it’s always about a year, start to finish. The thought of adding another book, never mind two, into the mix would be hive-inducing.

Yet many writers do manage to produce more than one book a year. Which raises a few questions for me. Firstly, does the quality suffer? Dennis Lehane claimed that the book a year grind made him feel like his work was deteriorating, so he took two full years off to write the next book- which turned out to be MYSTIC RIVER.

I also question whether or not having an author flood the market with books actually helps their sales if they’re not James Patterson or Stephen King. Is it better to come out with three books a year, rather than one? What does everyone think?

Now, back to the sun…


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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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A Tribute to Michael Crichton


It’s been a tough few weeks for fiction. We’ve recently lost some of our greats, including Tony Hillerman, Elaine Flinn, and yesterday, Michael Crichton.

While I had never had the privilege of meeting Crichton, when I opened my Yahoo page and saw his obituary, I experienced the sort of shock you normally feel when you’ve lost an acquaintance.

May of 1993. I had just finished writing my senior thesis, a series of short stories based on my Grandfather’s WWI diaries. I actually finished the book a few days early, shockingly enough (and, as my editor would assure you, not at all true to form). Connecticut was in the full throes of spring, and on a warm, sunny day I brought a copy of Jurassic Park onto the lawn in front of the library and dove in. I generally didn’t read thrillers, but the back cover copy had lured me with the promise of a complete escape from the tomes I’d been struggling with for eight semesters.
And I was completely swept away. That book was such a breath of fresh air, I was riveted. What a genius concept: a theme park, with real dinosaurs created from ancient DNA preserved in amber. It hooked me, and from then on I was a devout thriller fan.

Despite the fact that I didn’t agree with all of his political stances, you have
to admire a man who never shied away from hot button issues. And Crichton undeniably possessed the Midas touch, prior to JK Rowling storming on to the scene he was the most successful author in the world. It can be argued that he not only revitalized the techno-thriller, paving the way for the success of Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child, and James Rollins, but he also made medical dramas sexy again with ER. In addition to his novels, he collaborated on screenplays for films like “Twister.” He was remarkably prolific, once claiming to churn out 10,000 words a day. As someone who considers herself fortunate to clock 10,000 words in a week, that’s simply staggering.
Not to mention the fact that he was once chosen as one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People, a title that few writers have possessed (shall we call it the “paper ceiling?”)
A remarkable writer, and a remarkable person. He will be missed.

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