It’s All Your Fault, Larry:
How to Turn a Screenplay into a World Class (I Hope) Novel
by Lew Ritter
You may remember my name. I contributed articles to TVWriter™ from 2015-2017. But I’ll understand if you don’t.
In 2013, before I became a contributor, I wrote a television script called Turbulence and entered it into Larry Brody’s People’s Pilot Contest.
It did well the first time, winding up somewhere in the middle of the scripts submissions, so I made some changes and entered it again. The second time, it received Semi-Finalist status.
Larry and I talked, and he suggested I turn it into a novel. I discounted the idea at first. After all, I was a screenwriter and not a novelist!
After thinking about it, I made time to give it try and and found that I enjoyed the novel writing process. There is an element of freedom that cannot be found in writing screenplays.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Both are creative media, but it depends on which works best for the story you are telling.
My first challenge when I began writing the novel was researching how long novels had to be. Most estimates were from eighty thousand to one hundred thousand words and roughly three hundred pages. These were daunting numbers.
First thing I did was take my television script and turn it into a word document. It came out to about ten thousand words. That left me “only” about seventy thousand words short. However, it provided a framework. I knew the direction the story would take.
I decided to start off the novel with a short three-page teaser that would hook the reader and allow me to head into a second chapter – “Several Days Earlier…” – that would be the actual beginning of the plot.
It was fun and a good device for hooking any potential reader into my main character’s dilemma. Then, in the middle of the novel, I would return to point at which it had opened to questions raised there.
Novels require more detailed character backgrounds than scripts. I knew I would have to develop the characters in greater depth.
I had suggested in the script version that Danny Watkins, my main character, was a farm boy. I recalled that one of the first people I met in real life in college in 1970 was a young wrestler named Scott Myers. He came from a small town in Central Pennsylvania called Jersey Shore.
It was a real place and the offbeat name stuck in my mind all these years. I developed a detailed back story for the character: A farm boy from Jersey shore who dreamed of being a journalist instead.
I developed his older brother Kenny into a “grunt,” a soldier fighting in the unpopular Vietnam War. This heightened the tension between Danny and his father, an ex-marine.
I was able to add in childhood memories that allowed me to introduce Danny as a student dorm advisor and add secondary characters as residents. One, a radical student, was based on my friend from High School. Another was modeled after a young woman I had had a crush on fifty years ago, and so on.
The conflict between father and son became a crucial element in the story because Danny starts off conservative believing in the righteousness of the war and gradually converts to a more anti-war viewpoint.
At one point, the father and son have a loud argumentative argument over dinner . I developed the role of Sarah, the mother, as the peacemaker in the family. She is proud of her son when he stands up to his domineering father.
As I wrote, I recalled many of the loud protests against the war and also over other social issues back in the 1970’s. They became the background of the story. I added subplots such as the story of a beautiful young feminist who did not believe in marriage, and a young African-American student from Newark, an urban area close to my home in New Jersey.
When it came to writing the emotions of the characters, I found help in a book called The Emotional Thesaurus. It contained numerous chapters showing various emotional states and how to depict them. After using them a bit, many of these concepts became second nature as the drafts developed.
To further develop my skills, I read numerous books on how to write novels. The best ones that I discovered were a series of You Tube videos by a young woman named Abbe Emmons and a book by Lisa La Cron called Story Genius.
I knew I needed some hands-on help. Several people I knew who had worked in the publishing field mentioned that freelance book editors charged by the word. At eighty thousand words, with multiple drafts, this meant spending serious money. The expense appeared overwhelming.
Fortunately, I remembered Judy Hammett, a development editor I had worked with years before on a screenplay revision. She offered a more affordable rate to read and comment on the novel.
Judy was amazing. Every page was loaded with comments such as “why is so and so doing this on page, when he did x on page?” or “why doesn’t so and so think or say x instead of y?” Plus, she pointed out that each chapter had to end on a suspenseful note to entice the reader further into the story.
We went through several drafts of the novel. One of her biggest objections was that I had separate chapters for each of the secondary characters. She made it clear that they had to intersect with my main character’s storyline. Otherwise they were irrelevant.
Once I had a draft I was confident of, I sent out query letters to agents in the NJ-NY area. I was hoping these agents would take a chance on a first-time writer based on the nature and uniqueness of the material. I was quickly disillusioned by the amounts of rejection letters that I received.
Then, by chance, I received an email from a retired friend and learned he had made a somewhat successful second career for himself as a novelist. This encouraged me to take another look at the manuscript.
The friend recommended a small publisher he had used to self publish his books. As I learned more about it, I realized that in many ways it is better than traditional publishing, especially for the beginner. And if a self-published book does well, it can attract the attention of a large publishing house or agent. I decided self-publishing was the road to take.
Now I am in the final stages of laying out the book and sending it out to different outfits like Amazon and Ingram-Spark. I hope to have it out within a short period of time.
I can only dream of it becoming a bestseller, but whatever happens, I can be proud of seeing my name in print.
As I’ve said many times. I look forward to becoming an overnight success after forty years.
Lew Ritter’s new novel is Turbulence, a story of the idealism and chaos of the student protest movement in the 1970s. Lew is a teacher, freelance writer, and TVWriter™ Contributing Writer. Learn more about him here.