In the grand spirit of NaNoWriMo, what better way to close out the month with an intimate conversation with Gary Goldstein, seasoned screenwriter turned author. Gary shares insight about writing his first novel, The Last Birthday Party, his writing journey from a publicist at Universal to a working screenwriter, the similarities of navigating storytelling structure for both screenplays and novels, finding a publisher and so much more.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Before we get into the nitty-gritty about the book and screenwriting, I’d love to learn about your background as a screenwriter and what influenced you to become a screenwriter?
Gary Goldstein: Well, my first job, I was a movie publicist. And I did that for a number of years. And then at a certain point, I realized that I wanted to be on the other side of the table. I wanted to be the creative people that the marketing people were pitching to as opposed to the other way around. And I had always wanted to write and I was kind of at a place in my publicity career where I was at sort of at a crossroads anyway, and so I left my job at Universal Pictures and I became a freelance TV writer and started writing spec scripts. This is at the time where according to the Writers Guild, shows had to hire at least two freelance episode writers for these two freelance episodes of the season. And so that opened up a lot of doors with people who weren't on staff, to pitch ideas. And I went in and pitched lots of ideas. I had some spec scripts under my belt, got an agent, and pitched a lot of ideas to a lot of half-hour and one-hour shows. Remember, this is a time when basically you had the three networks and Fox Network, maybe. And that was it. And that's where you pitched. And there are a ton of shows that did 22- 23 episodes a season, so there was a lot of opportunity. And they were open to pitching.
I ended up getting assignments and doing TV episodes and working with the staff on those shows, but I wasn't getting on staff myself. So, I decided to branch out into writing screenplays, which I did, I took a great course called Writers Boot Camp. And I took it a couple of times and I learned to write a screenplay. And I ended up teaching that class for seven years. I really honed my skills as a screenwriter and as somebody to pitch. And then I branched out and I sold some scripts, I got a lot of rewriting work. I had scripts optioned as well, it was a good period. I also started branching out into writing stage plays, which was kind of my first love - there was a story I wanted to tell that I thought would make a good play. And I just wrote it. It actually came out well - it got produced here in LA. So, I started to write stage plays on the side as well. And I've had a number of plays produced and done lots of play readings and things. I love the theater. And it's so great to sit there and experience it live with an audience - really wonderful.
And then what happened around 2009, or 2010 I had a lot of spec scripts that were not the kind of work being made anymore. I wrote a lot of romantic comedies on spec, a lot of high concept sort of Jim Carrey type comedies - broader comedies that the studios stopped making or were winding down on making. But in the TV movie world, they were picking up a lot of these romantic comedies to be transformed into TV movies. Hallmark Channel was the first one. So, I sold a spec of mine to the Hallmark Channel - I rewrote it for them, I took it from PG-13 to a very general audience. And it came out great, I was able to really maintain the tone, and most of the scenes from the original script. It was really fun and did well for them. Then I just got hired on a string of movies for them. And some other networks and sold about a total of four spec scripts that way that I was able to adapt for TV, which was funny because it wasn't how I had I wrote them. One of my favorite scripts, it almost sold back in the day, many times and it finally got made as a Hallmark film, This Magic Moment, is really one of my favorite ones that I've done. And I was just so proud that after so many years of being with this script, and the story for a long time, I was finally able to see it come to life, which was really one of my writing dreams because I was such a big fan of the script. And people seem to like it so much. I branched out into TV movies, and that opened up an entirely new world. And I wrote I don't know, I think maybe 15 produced TV movies. I've rewritten movies for Hallmark, Lifetime, I did one that was a streaming film. It's been good.
Before the pandemic, the end of 2019 December - I'm a big novel reader, I'm always reading something, but I've never written a novel, I've written a lot of prose, it's always been a thing I've wanted to do, but I never feel like I have time to devote to writing a novel. It's such a giant undertaking - and I read something on Twitter, some writer wrote, ‘If you're a screenwriter, and you've always wanted to write a novel, look at it this way - if you wrote one page a day, and if by the end of the year, you'd have your entire first draft,’ and I was thinking, OK, no pun intended, is a novel idea. But it really was, it made sense at that moment. And I said, ‘I'm going to do it.’ January of last year, I started writing, and I wrote a page a day, but I ended up writing more than a page a day. And by July, I had my first draft of the book done. I didn't quite know what I had. As I was going along, I knew my story, I knew what I wanted to do with it. I knew the themes I wanted to get into. I knew my characters, but I wasn't always sure exactly where I was going with it. But I have such a good sense of screenplay structure, storytelling, structure in my head from doing it for so long, that it really informed the writing process of the book. So, I knew where I wanted to be in the middle of the book, I knew where I wanted to kick off the action, I knew the low point, I knew how I wanted it to all come together - it was just of how it to get there.
There are a lot of surprises in the book. And they were surprises to me, as I was writing them. It wasn't some great planned thing all the time. But a friend of mine, who also writes books, she said, ‘I just I write the things that I want to see and if I'm not sure what to write, then what would I like to see?’ I think I employed some of that as well. But in the end, I was very happy with the book. And I went through about a month of editing myself, and then I gave it to a professional book editor to take a whack at just to sort of clean it up before I started going out there with it. And did the search and found a publisher and it came out on August 17. It's been a completely joyous experience from the writing to the marketing. They did a great job on the editing process - and we trimmed a lot. And I was involved with all of that. I really felt that made the book tighter, stronger, it moves fast. Now I’m trying to find a way to get it made as a film or maybe a limited TV series. We'll see what happens there.
Sadie: That is quite the journey. Do you have your screenplay adaptation for your book written?
Gary: I don't. I probably will. I am kind of I'm working on a couple of other things as I haven't had time to. And I actually wrote a second novel, which I finished a few months ago. And so now I'm in the process of showing it around and going through the publishing route again. It's a very serious family story, kind of a what would you do kind of story if this happened to you, about a family. But I probably should write the screenplay. I just want to see if I can get some interest in the book as a film first to kind of judge it. Because it's so hard to know. If we could predict what would sell or what people were interested in, we'd be selling things all the time. It’s hard to know.
Sadie: Yeah, it is hard to know. The book, it's very visual, and it definitely moves like I'm watching a movie and I think that just comes from your background as a screenwriter. There's never a boring, stagnant moment.
Gary: Thanks. The book is significantly shorter than it was when I turned it in, but miraculously, we didn't lose an ounce of story. All we did was lose kind of those little segues, they got in the way of some of the propulsion of the story. And there was only one scene, I agree with 99% of their recommendations for edits, I thought they were brilliant, but there was one scene that was one of my favorite little moments in the book, and they said, ‘It's really a good scene, but it really does sort of stop the action,’ I was like, ‘No, I'm keeping it. It's my favorite thing. I love this. It's a total LA moment.; And in the end, I cut it because I agreed with them. [laughs] And as a writer, you can use it another time, I can repurpose it.
Sadie: You could put it in the movie now! What inspired you to write this specific story for this book?
Gary: I wanted to write something I haven't really explored. There are two things; one, I have explored a little bit, and another one, which I haven't explored at all in my writing, which is basically what it's like as you go along in a career, and as you get older, and you get to a certain point of your life, and you really have to kind of take stock of where you are, and where you've been, and where you're going. And it's kind of like everything comes crashing together at a certain point. And I wanted to take a look at somebody at this kind of crossroads in their life, at a certain age. I always felt 50 is a really watershed, I mean, every decade is a watershed, but there's something about turning 50 that was very monumental, and I was in a much better place in my life than Jeremy is, but still, it has its moment. So, I kind of put together a worst-case scenario. It's bad enough to turn 50, but be grateful if you turned this age, but it's challenging, and then what happens if on top of it, you're made a birthday party to celebrate something you do not want to celebrate? And then you have that, then if that's not bad enough, then you have all these other calamities that happen to you? And how do you dig yourself out of them? I feel that Jeremy learns the lessons in this book that I learned a long time ago, that I learned earlier in my career than his, I was able to kind of bring to bear so I felt like I was sort of teaching him things that I had learned along the way, and ways of positioning your head to move yourself through things. So, there was that thing.
The other thing was, I love the idea of what brings people together romantically and what splits those same people apart. How do people go from,” I love you,” “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” “I can't live without you,” to “I can't be in the same room with you,” “I hate you.” “Which way is the divorce lawyer?” How does that happen? And it happens all the time. And sometimes it takes place over the course of a year, sometimes like in Jeremy and Cassie’s case, 25 years. But does that happen? And can it be fixed? Is it always irrevocable when that happens? Often it is, in this case, I wanted to explore what if of maybe what if it was fixable, but they didn't go that way, you know that ultimately, sure, they could probably live together the rest of their lives and would have been OK, they didn't hate each other. But Cassie was unhappy, she felt that her life was at a standstill, and Jeremy was not aware of the standstill, he was just happy doing his thing and really wasn't paying attention. And that's where the breakdown happened. Often, it's kids that keep the parents kind of closer together. And then when the kids leave for college, leaves the house, they're just left with each other. And sometimes there's just not that much there. And also the fact that that their original personalities, which we see in the flashbacks, were very intoxicating to them at a young age. But if you take those same things that were kind of seductive back then or interesting or intriguing or complimentary, and you turn them on their ear, and you know, all of our best qualities are our worst qualities, so you can have many good qualities, but if you kind of flip it around that can turn bad or turn problematic. Cassie is very challenging. The sexy way of dealing with things, in the beginning, became just challenging and not sexy. There was impatience to what it wasn't, there wasn't love behind, it was impatience and petulance behind it. With Jeremy, his love of movies and creativity and being kind of a little bit of a laid back guy, turned into being too laid back and too phlegmatic and too involved in his little worlds and cutting people out but that wasn't how she saw it in the beginning. I thought that was kind of an interesting way to go and I just like that idea of why do people who love each other so deeply apparently ended up splitting up and I wanted to show it in the flashbacks in the book, what really brought them together and what they were like together. And then how it slowly fell apart without making Cassie a monster in a way. She's not quite as likable a character as some other people in the book, but she's a real person, and she's got her own insecurities and her own flaws and her own misgivings that we see, as the book goes along. We see some surprises and how she deals with a split. I wanted to make her real. I do believe that we so often don't communicate with our partners, and that's why things go bad, and often it can be fixed, and sometimes it can't be, so I kind of split that in the middle with this book.
Sadie: Yeah, like that journey of trying to find why people do come apart? And how do you bring them back? There's been an upward trend of a lot of books being adapted for TV and movies, Dune, Firefly Lane, etcetera, as a screenwriter and seeing this trend happen, do you see more writers within your circle, chasing after that, ‘OK, I have to write a book now, and then sell that IP.’ Or are some writers wary of jumping into that world?
Gary: Yeah, I moderated Writers Guild panel a few months ago, all about screenwriters who have become novelists as well as opposed to the other way around, which is more common, a novelist who ended up becoming a screenwriter, is kind of the more traditional way and I had myself and three other screenwriters who wrote novels recently on the panel, and then a book agent, and a couple of development agents, development execs, and it was great. I don't think it's all that common. It's bad enough that we try to chase sometimes, ‘Oh, I'm going to write a script, because now everybody wants a script about A, B, and C,’ and then by the time you're done with the script, they're off to D, E, and F. That's never a good thing to go. To have an IP, has been over the last number of years, so valuable. But I think it's certain kinds of IP. And I think that certainly when it comes to comic books and graphic novels and things like that, that seems to be number one. Yet, a lot of books obviously are made into films and limited series.
There was a book that came out a couple of years ago called The Goldfinch, which was a very successful book, and a very long book. And they made a movie out of it, which tanked, and probably it was the movie was conceived and kind of put into motion before the whole limited series thing really took off before Big Little Lies and that kind of thing. So, the Goldfinch is probably a book that would have been better off as a limited series, they probably could have done more with it. It shows we’re in that transitional period. How many books had been made into great movies now, like The Godfather and The Exorcist, and they didn't need the limited series. So, it's kind of hard to know what to do with that. I think, by and large, most screenwriters probably feel like I did, that writing a novel is heavy lifting. And also, one of the reasons that I held back writing a novel was because I felt like I'm a screenwriter, primarily, it's where I make the majority of my living and to take six months of your writing time away to write a book that you may not be able to do anything with, whereas a screenplay, generally, if we've been in business long enough, we kind of know what to do with it. We have somebody who can get it out there for us, or we know enough producers, enough people to show it to - it's a more direct route.
A lot of places like Netflix, don't want to look at anything other than a screenplay. It's like the development world is a little different now. It's better for them to just find a screenplay that can then be worked on as opposed to starting from scratch. It just depends. Does any book become valuable IP? I don't know. When you look at a lot of the things that are made there, based on what has been very successful, best-selling books, but not always the case, there are a lot of things that are based on books that weren't widely read, but were good and are a great story. And I think part of it is just people feeling if somebody else, whether it's a publisher, has given us a stamp of approval, then it kind of elevates it. And like, maybe there's an extra thing here that will help me push it on my end, that sort of thing, which makes sense. But I think your question is very good, I'll be interested to see how it pans out.
I've been doing so much for the book, I've been doing a lot of panels and things, and it's been fascinating to see how intrigued people are about the concept of writing a book when you haven't written one before. But I think to write it just so you have your own IP is probably not the way to go, I think you have to write a book because I wrote my book completely not thinking about it as a movie or anything, I just wanted to write it, see what I ended up with. And it was honestly only after it came out and people started reading it, where they would say, ‘Wow, I totally see this as a limited series, kind of like a six-episode Kominsky Method,’ And it's like, I never thought of that. I should have thought of that. [laughs]
Sadie: Right now it’s a NaNoWriMo and I know a lot of writers, both screenwriters and authors are cramming right now to see what they can do. I'm curious from f a writing standpoint, the similarities between writing a novel and a screenplay, is the structure a little different? How are you tackling it from an outline perspective, character development, pinpointing your themes, etc.? What was that process like for you?
Gary: It was very joyful because I was just doing it on my own, and sort of barreling through it, not blindly, but just sort of with a lot of enthusiasm, and hope and trust. And I have a really good sense of screenplay structure and storytelling structure just from writing as many scripts as I have, and teaching and all of that. So, it's kind of embedded in my head. I was able to keep that kind of as the template in my head as I was writing. I knew kind of the major beats that I was going to hit, the major story points, and the key story point. I made notes of things that I would think about.
I didn't outline this and I always outline my scripts. When I've written stage plays, I don’t outline them, they tend to evolve, I like the spontaneity of them. Certainly, in plays, and books, you have the opportunity to think outside the box more even just from a time point of view, per page count point of view. And, and in writing the book, I like the little segues that I could do, a lot of internal thought in that this character has which I think he has a fun voice, I think that really makes the storytelling distinct, which is not something I would do in a screenplay. So that was very different. But the basic way of telling the story and the basic way how characters change and evolve and kind of the twists and turns and the payoffs is very much like writing a screenplay.
Even though there's comedy, there was a little mystery elements. Like, Cassie, and what is she going to do? And how is this going to work out? Are they going to move in together and all that stuff. I kind of looked at that as a mystery and then made sure I laid in all the other things along the way that you know the signpost that would lead us to that, and then often went back and added more things because I felt I needed, even more, to shore up the story, to where it's ultimately going to go. I wouldn't say that the way I wrote the book was how everybody should write a book because I think I am normally a much more, outline-oriented person. And I'm a big believer in outlines. But with screenplays, actually, it's part of your contract when you're hired to write a script, part of it is you were hired to write an outline, and rightly so because if you work on outlining, you get to a point where everybody's happy, and you really got enough detail in it, the writing of the script itself goes much faster and the people who are hiring you get closer to what they think they're going to be getting, as opposed to if you just went and wrote the script, I find that it's very efficient. And it moves the process along much faster. I'm a big believer and outlines in that in that regard. I didn't outline the second book I wrote. But I did make more notes. It's really a little more event-dependent and character-dependent sometimes. I really felt I needed to layout, basically in that book, I took each character and I laid out their entire arc and how I wanted them to change, what were the events that would change them along the way, and how they would change each other. I had a lot of lists with that book, less of an outline.
For people who are screenwriters who want to write books, just know that you can employ the exact same storytelling structure to use in a screenplay, in writing a book, you will just pull, I call pulling the taffy and the story, you will just expand it. The basic storytelling structure, I feel can be very much the same. And the beauty of books is that it doesn't have to be quite the same. But in the end, I believe, if you're trying to tell a story, classic screenplay storytelling, as in classic theater storytelling, there isn't kind of a more foolproof way of telling the story. And then you can mess it up, color inside the lines, and then you can color outside the lines. But if you can't color inside the lines, it’s kind of hard to do it the other way. To sum up, I would say that I would totally encourage screenwriters to try to write a book and not be daunted by the process of how you tell this story.
Sadie: Any obstacles finding the right publisher? I know writers have turned to self-publishing – there’s a lot of opportunities and resources to get your work out there.
Gary: The good thing about writing a book is that in the same way, like if you write a stage play, what am I going to do with it? Well, under normal circumstances, like nonpandemic times, when theaters are operated at full bore, you can produce, I wouldn't say in Manhattan, but certainly, in LA and other places, you can produce your own play on a shoestring budget and get it going - there is a way to do it. So, in the same way with novels, just know that if you write it and you can't get a publisher, or you can't get an agent or whatever, you just want to see it out there, you can self-publish.
Self-publishing is really valuable in terms of giving people motivation to get out there and write and not be daunted about it. It'll just sit on a shelf, it doesn't have to, you can self-publish it, it's an investment, but it's not always the biggest investment. There are downsides to self-publishing, in terms of distribution and perception and things like that. But I think it's a great way to get work seen. And the bottom line is to get your work read. I always knew that was always in my back pocket. But it wasn't my first choice just because of some of the downsides to it. But I went through the process of looking for book agents, and I got read by a lot of book agents. And it's a long process - I queried maybe 45 book agents. And I'd say half of them responded, and of those half, maybe half red the first couple of chapters and requested the entire manuscript, but at the same time, because my book is not a genre book, it's not a YA book, it's not a thriller, it's not a mystery, it's not sci-fi, it's not a romance novel, it's just general contemporary fiction and so there was a lot of competition in that world.
To hedge my bet, I started finding a number of independent publishers that would accept material directly. And there were smaller publishers from different parts of the country, some in New York and LA, but by and large, they were in regional areas, and they had a whole system set up, where they could create a list themselves that was more unique, that they could take a chance on more because their finances are different. And ultimately, I got interest from three different independent publishers, and I met with all of them on Zoom, and ultimately went with this one called Hadleigh House, which is based in Minneapolis, and they're relatively new. And I like them, because well, first of all, it's run by three women. And I felt that it was important to me as a man writing a romantic comedy, from the point of view of the man that it appealed to women. Not to mention the fact that women buy the majority of books. So, I loved the fact that I would have three very smart women really helping me steer the ship. They’re a wonderful group, totally supportive.
Again, financially, every publisher handles it differently. The finances are different, the royalties are different. But it's really about selling, getting a lot of people to read the book. I just want people to read it and enjoy it ultimately. And if a lot of people read it, and people love it, I get a good response, that's the most gratifying thing of all, not to sound too noble, but I mean, that's really it. And I think as writers, we spend so much time writing things that never get seen, or read, or experienced, and I think it's so valuable as a writer when you can connect with the reader and the viewer, and you can move people and amuse people and change people's thoughts and inspire people to think about their own lives and all those kinds of things. And this is a book that covers a lot of themes.
The process of finding a publisher or going through the agent process, that part is hard. And like getting a literary agent for your scripts or a literary manager, there are a lot of writers out there, a lot of books out there. I always joke, if I was the only writer writing I'd work all the time, but it's just not likely. And once I entered the book world, I realized just how many trillions of books are out there. There's way more than movies and TV shows. We think we're inundated with 500 TV shows on streaming and cable but there are tons of books. Everybody's kind of like scrambling for what's next. I totally recommend if you're a writer, and you have the ability with prose, and you enjoy the process, I totally recommend people write a short story, see what you've got, maybe it can be expanded into a novel. But don't be daunted by the process, whether it's the writing of it or the selling of it. A very smart person once said to me, ‘You don't need a representative, you need a representable product.’ Get the product done first, and you'll figure out what to do with it.