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Why Screenwriters Are Writing Novels

See why Jim Vines, a working screenwriter, explored the freedom of writing novels and why you might want to as well.

By Jim Vines

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I had been a working screenwriter for about 20 years and managed some decent success with it too: a handful of sales, several options, assignments, even a couple of scripts made into movies. Yes, certainly a fun ride, and I got to meet and work with some cool people, but I can’t say it was all entirely satisfying.

See, I became a screenwriter because I love movies, I love to tell stories, and I love to entertain. But a big problem with being a screenwriter is that most of the material you write never goes beyond the relative handful of people you submit it to. Sure, your agent and manager read your script, maybe a few producers and/or development executives, maybe even a few actors…but if your script doesn't get made into a movie, that great story gets relegated to a cardboard box stashed somewhere in the deep recesses of your garage.

writing novels

OK, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but I think you get the point I’m trying to make. A few years ago I had grown weary of the screenwriting game. Sure, I still very much enjoyed the writing aspect, but the “getting it off the ground” part had become a real grind. I had too many scripts out that producers had interest in, that had even been under option, but nothing was getting produced (I know, I know—it’s the sad, long-sung lament of the screenwriter).

Non-produced = no audience.

After years of writing an untold amount of spec scripts…well, it had all become just a wee bit disheartening. So one day I was in the midst of writing a pilot script for what I thought would be a great cable series, when I got a message from the ether: No, Jim, not a script—a novel! OK, but, umm…a novel? What did I know about writing a novel? I had never written one before; I had never even attempted to write one!

Well, I once taught myself how to write a marketable screenplay, so I’d just have to teach myself how to write a marketable novel. I did my research, rolled up my sleeves and started writing.

As many of you know, the so-called rules of screenwriting tend to be very stringent and confining; you have to conform to certain parameters. But writing a novel…wow, I felt such freedom…freedom to explore, to go in directions that would've been absolutely forbidden in a screenplay. If I wanted to be a little generous with my descriptions, I could. If I wanted to delve into my main character’s inner thoughts and feelings, I could. If I wanted to stray a bit from the main spine of my story, I could do that too. Yes, I was really having a lot of fun with this “new” form of writing.

Now, I can be a pretty swift writer when I want to be, so my first draft—all 80,000 words of it—came out quick, but due to some family issues and a couple of paid script assignments, it was two more years before I could complete the rewriting and editing process. But after those two years, once I had that shiny final draft manuscript in my hands, I had to ask myself a very important question: Did I want to go the traditional publishing route?

I thought about it long and hard. I realized that, no, I didn't want the hassle, frustration and aggravation of querying agents and publishers; I didn't want to jump through any hoops; I didn't want anybody’s permission for anything. This, of course, meant I was going to self-publish.

Nowadays, thanks to the self-publishing boom, a writer can pen their tome and send it out into the world with a mere few clicks of the mouse. The best part: You don’t have to spend so much of your life waiting for other people to say “yes.” You are truly the captain of your own ship.

To me, a completed novel is not unlike a movie production. But instead of the imprint being on film or in digital form, it’s right there in those pages of the book. You’re not only the producer and director, but also the cinematographer, art director, costume designer, make up artist, and casting agent. Your story—those scenes, those characters—don’t play out on a 60-foot movie screen or widescreen TV, but in the reader’s mind, which can be far more vibrant and alive than any corporeal method of presentation.

As of this writing, my novel Luigi’s Chinese Delicatessen has been out for about six weeks. Are people reading it? I’m pleased to say they are. Are they enjoying it? Based on reviews I've read, e-mails I've received and people I've talked to…yes, they are definitely enjoying it. Sure, it’s still early in the game, but I’m very excited about this new writing path I've embarked upon. I figure if I only sell 500 copies of Luigi’s, that’s waaaay better than the twenty or so people who may have read any one of my unsold, un-optioned screenplays. And if my readers like what they've read, I’ll write other books and tell other stories…because, really, that’s what it’s all about.

JV headshot

Jim Vines is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and author, whose non-fiction book Q & A: The Working Screenwriter—An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today’s Film Industry was published in 2006. Luigi’s Chinese Delicatessen is his debut novel. Follow Jim on Twitter: @WriterJimVines

Get tips on how to write a novel in Jon James Miller's webinar
Script to Novel: Double Your Odds of a Sale