It’s not all fun and games when working with a movie studio. In truth it’s about 90% fun and 10 % seriously hard work. I wake up every day, pinch myself and think how utterly blessed and completely awesome (not to mention other worldy) that I get to have more than a passive role in the book-to-movie process. As such, I feel its my job to pull back the covers on what very few authors have heretofore talked about. What’s it like to get feedback from a producer, what happens to the manuscript and how it impacts the way I write.
First–check out the note to the right. This was given to me by Lucas at a sushi joint in early Feb of 2010. Upon reading the Chambers manuscript (all 550 pages of it), he invited me to LA for a 3 day session. I had no idea what was going to happen during those three days, but I figured he did. I went.
I’m mid-bite of a unagi, and he whips this out and says “I have a few thoughts to share.” I stop chewing when I see the list. Upside down across the table, it looked very messy. I had chopsticks in my hands, not a pen or paper in sight to take notes. “Keep eating,” he advises, “I’ll talk.”
As an author, my role is to create content, provide it for review, have discussions, talk about scenarios (plot and other story elements as it relates to creating a movie), make the changes, have those approved, and then write the next book.
The ‘fun’ part is getting my masters degree in movie making under the tutelage of a brilliant man who has churned out box office hits. Would he call his productions life-changers in the dramatic sense of the word? Nope. Nor would he even hint his films are much more than larger-than-life action-packed blow-em up escapes. However, many of the films have a human element that intrigues Foster, (Man on Fire for instance), where choices are made and the consequences of said choices impact the character. In other words, he’s the perfect product for my Chambers series.
So let’s go through the notes shall we?
Foster’s writing is in black, beside the numbers. His seven points were major changes, all with making a movie in mind. I added my comments in purple, after he was done (and what I could remember when we made it back to the studio).
1. more info about the orb. The orb is a time travel object– an ancient artifact. He didn’t think I’d described it well enough. Backstory– as an author, a major dilemna is when to reveal how much. Too much too soon removes the sense of discovery, while not enough irritates the reader. He wasn’t irritated, but he wasn’t ‘fulfilled.’
2. more of a sense of wonder. (not my scratch/this was after I’d done it, then decided I shouldn’t scratch up the original notes). Foster meant that both lead characters should display much more shock and awe (wonder) about their amazing trip/adventure and not be so pragmatic or immediately believing. It was interesting listening to a grown man (49ish) talk as though HE were one of the characters, living the story and being transported through time. (it’s not just me, a crazy author!)
3. concern for dad/checking in on him. the lead characters, Cage and Mia, have different emotions about their father. Cage blames him for the death of their mother while Mia is her father’s staunchest defender. Foster’s point is that children, particularly teens, invariably have emotional struggles with their parents, often times still caring for a parent if when said parent isn’t all that great. He wanted to see more of this struggle of emotions that are typical for teenagers (e.g. even tho one is anger at him, still not wanting him to die. I was a bit more one-dimensional in the first few passes).
4. more curiosity about history/cause and effect. This is a huge one that required me to go back in multiple sections throughout the book. The first part was more inquisitiveness on the part of Cage, looking, absorbing and engaging with history. For a reader, Foster pointed out more detail on location, scenes, clothing was required. For an eventual movie, I needed to paint a picture for the director so he/she could get it right. I went back, hit the history books (lots of pictures) and did an entire re-write with this in mind. The second part– cause and effect, became a huge theme. In short, we all make decisions, every day, that have consequences in our lives. I agreed with Foster that this should be true in the book…once a choice is made, there is no going back. As such, I had to include the notion that Cage and Mia’s very presence could/would impact history, therefore they had to be careful to leave as little of a footprint on society as possible. Fortunately, this was great for the plot twists, since the real outcomes of the lead characters from China are not even known by historians.
5. More romance or close calls. Foster pointed out that the true ‘romantic’ interaction was page 80. Not good for movies. To address this, I added a few glimpses and heart palpitating situations in the first 20 pages, then a few longer scenes in the 30’s and @page fifty. After that, the romantic line was all set. Lucas told me he had to capture the romantic part in the first five minutes of the movie or it wasn’t going to work. (As a side note, the first 50 pages gets condensed to about the first 5 min of film).
6. More secret admiration from the Emperor (how different he is from Cage and Mia). Because this book (and all books in the Chambers series) is historical fiction, the Emperor in book one was actually 14 when ruled as the second Ming Emperor. Before Lucas brought it up, I’d never thought about including more information from the Emperor’s point of view. Since the book is first person, this had to be done from Cage’s point of view. The way to address it then, was through the Emperor’s comments and questions, as well as Cage’s interpretation of the Emperor’s mannerisms and actions.
7. Zheng He is famous and beloved in China. Let’s discuss a better set up for him. Years ago, when I was researching volcanoes, and where they resided, I created an entire list of countries/cities. China rose to the top when I found the 14 year old Ming Emperor. While researching the incredible list of historical figures (including the treacherous Minister of War and General Li, who let the invading army in to the Imperial Palace) I came across Zheng He. He is considered by many historians to be the greatest navy admiral to have ever lived (just see the cover story on him that National Geographic did a few years ago). In any case, Zheng He appears in the middle of the book and plays a large role, yet Lucas wanted him introduced much earlier (he is, in fact, one of my favorite characters). I had to create a massive scene for him (e.g. about 20 pages) and then insert him in several other areas. This was a huge rewrite.
**Verbally, Lucas told me I “needed a better balance of good characters.” Apparently, I subconsciously focused so much on creating awesome characters, I didn’t have a good balance. Lucas was concerned the book would be a bit depressing, and not representative of all the great people in China. The thought had never occurred to me, since lots of characters did good things. “But they aren’t main characters,” he pointed out. Ahh. He was right. This meant creating 3 new characters, writing entire sections from scratch and integrating each in to the plot line.
This process is similar to what an editor will provide…general comments that impact the entire book. In order to address each area of feedback, I went in sequential order, going through the entire manuscript, line by line, page by page, adding and changing throughout. It took me three months, and added 150 pages (approximately) to the book. It was about 625 pages when I was done with it. When I handed it off to the editor, she stripped out about 175 pages or so, but interestingly, not the 150 pages I’d added. She cut out dead weight, dialogue that didn’t keep the pace of the story and non-essential descriptions. That’s the job of an editor. When Lucas read the final, edited version, he pronounced it acceptable and ready to go to final proofreading.
Now that I’m on book 2, and recently got the first 150 pages approved, I’m writing away, and fully expect to go through this same cycle for book 2 (and every one thereafter). The difference is this:
1. I think about the ‘seedlings of ideas’ that need to be included in the first 50 pages
2. the cadence/rhythm of characters (how often they appear)
3. the descriptions (too much/not enough)
4. the balance of good/evil characters
5. when I reveal what. (in the movie world, it’s called ‘the reveal’ or ‘the big reveal’ This is now much more top of mind than it was before book one.