Scripters transition from screen to page

Producer Robert Cort, who will publish his first novel, “Action!,” with Random House in June, is one of several screenwriters and producers getting their first taste of book publishing this year.

It’s not an easy transition.

For screenwriters who’ve seen their movies trumpeted in junkets and TV campaigns, the quiet, low-budget, tactical nature of publishing marketing may come as a shock.

Cort, who ran marketing at Columbia Pictures and Fox, overseeing the national campaigns for movie blockbusters like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “All That Jazz,” wasn’t content with Random’s publicity campaign — which tends to be modest in scale for a first novel.

So he purchased and circulated 1,000 additional advance review copies of “Action!” at $2 per copy, to help prime the publicity pump for the book’s release.

“With movies, there is so much mass marketing done, so much outreach directly to the consumer” Cort said.

These days, an increasing number of screenwriters and novelists are working both sides of the fence in increasing numbers.

Karen McCullah Lutz, who with her partner Kirsten Smith, wrote the scripts for “Legally Blonde” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” just sold her debut novel, “The Bachelorette Party,” to St. Martin’s Press; Random House recently bought writer-producer Steven Bochco’s as-yet-untitled fiction debut; and screenwriter Mark Lee has just published the novel, “The Canal House,” with Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Some novelists find the fat paycheck and the glitz of Hollywood irresistible, even if it means giving up control over the fate of one’s work. Screenwriters, on the other hand, want to pour their talents into a vehicle more meaningful than the typical megaplex hit, even if the pay is, hour for hour, far inferior.

But novelist-screenwriters, who’ve experienced first-hand the cultural differences of Hollywood and book publishing, say crossing from one form to the other can be a surreal experience — and it’s far from easy.

For novelists turned screenwriters like Richard Price, John Irving, Stephen King and Michael Chabon, who recently wrote the first draft of “Spider-Man 2,” it’s the pressurized, high-stakes gamble of studio filmmaking that often comes as a surprise.

“I’ve never had an experience like that and never will again,” Chabon says of “Spider-Man.” “There was so much riding on it, including incredibly expensive special effects testing that had already been done. It was a really intense, fast process.”

Chabon says “there is no possible analogy” between screenwriting and novel writing.

“When I’m writing a novel or a short story, there’s no chance anything I’m going to be writing will end up on a pair of underpants, Band-aids or cold cereal.”

With screenplays, Chabon says, “you feel you’re jacked into an infinite network of echoes and other representations of what you’re doing.”

“There are a lot of screenwriters who want to be novelists,” says Gigi Levangie Grazer, a successful screenwriter who will publish her second novel, “Maneater,” with Simon & Schuster in June.

“I know A-list writers who live in Malibu who say I wish I could get out of it. But they have these mortgages, and don’t have time to write a spec novel. They have two or three houses and two or three ex-wives.”

Levangie Grazer says the manic tempo of the movie industry doesn’t always provide a hospitable environment for novel writing. “L.A. feels to me like MTV world,” she said. “It feels like one long commercial. Everything is in shorthand.”

With its endless studio visits, script meetings and the constant stream of script notes from talent, execs and assistants, the movie biz doesn’t offer the kind of solitude most novelists depend on.

“Part of being a successful screenwriter, for better or worse, is being a social animal,” UTA lit agent Richard Green said. “So many novelists are solitary creatures.”

“As a producer, you spend your entire life negotiating,” Cort said. “You’re like a legislator trying to get a bill through congress. As a novelist, you are everything. You are the writer, the costume designer, the editor and the director. You don’t have to negotiate with anybody.”

Writing novels has its own rewards, of course. There are no rewrites, and if the book is under contract, chances are will be published. Most screenplays are never produced.

“If you like to write, you have to try it,” Levangie Grazer says. “It gets at the core of what writing is.

There’s also a pride of authorship that’s rare for screenwriters. And a connection with readers that’s more lasting than most movie-going experiences.

“The Canal House” has just been picked by the Pulpwood Queens, an east Texas book club run by one Kathy L. Patrick, proprietor of a hair salon called Beauty and the Book. Patrick, who collects books, first editions and author autographs, has an unusual amount of clout. Her book club selections have been featured on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“The advantage of being a novelist is you get in contact with your readers in a very direct way,” says “Canal” author Mark Lee. “I’ll be going to Texas in June. I’m going to meet Kathy and the Queens and I’m looking forward to it.”

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