Writing Journeys – Mark Stay
Today’s guest offers something a little different. Mark Stay is a screenwriter, author, and podcast extraordinaire. The man has a lot of hats. The podcast in question is the Bestseller Experiment, in which Mark and his co-host are determined to write and publish a bestselling novel in one year. They bring on many famous authors as guests to chat about writing and publishing. For you fantasy buffs, there are episodes with Joane Harris and Joe Abercrombie! Well worth checking out. And now, the post.
Screenwriting is an oddity in the written arts in that it’s the only one that I can think of where the end user never gets to read the thing the writer has been slaving over. A poet writes a poem and can get it published in an anthology, or she can read it aloud to her friends and family (but only if she really hates them), a novelist can get published or self-published for all to read, plays are published for actors to act, a blogger can vent via the miracle of the internet, and even Donald Trump can treat us to his daily brain-spunk via Twitter.
By the time the film is finished, the screenplay is completely disposed of, the labour of the poor screenwriter (okay, yes, let’s include playwrights in this, too, the sad sods) destined to be lost forever as a Final Draft file in some Line Producer’s laptop.
Oh, sure, you can buy screenplays of a few of the smash hit movies, and even download free PDFs of scripts online from some reliable sources (during awards season), but when did you ever have a friend urge you to go to the movies because they’d read the script beforehand and heard it was awesome? (Let’s exclude screenwriters from this: they do this all the bloody time). And even when people do acknowledge that there was a script, they’ll often only talk about the quality of the dialogue, and isn’t it amazing how the actors improvised the dialogue, because that’s all a screenplay is, right? Dialogue?! Gah!
Deep breath. Rant over. Enough bitterness. I love screenwriting, I really do. I love the collaborative nature of the writing, I love the form and mystery of the screenplay, with its beats, sequences, scenes and slug lines, and I especially love the thrill that comes when someone eventually makes one of your scripts and you get to see it on the big screen with an audience.
This last doesn’t happen too often, however. At least, not to me. A great deal of a screenwriter’s life is spent in meetings or pitching for work. What happens is a production company will have a property that they want to make into a TV show or a movie, and you go along for a meeting arranged by your agent, or they’ll ask you to pitch your take. ‘Just send us a one-pager,’ they’ll say, meaning please send us a page outlining your vision for the story. Of course, to get to that one page, I will usually write somewhere in the region of eight to ten pages, and then spend an inordinate amount of time whittling those ramblings down into a page or two.
Then, you need to forget about it, because precisely nothing will happen for about six to eight weeks, during which time you will have more meetings and more requests for one pagers, and the cycle will continue, and, after six to eight weeks, they will tell you how they love your take, but it wasn’t quite right, or that they love your take, and now they just need to find the funding… It’s often exciting, especially when you meet with the big gun studios, but very competitive, and it can get a little dispiriting when you look back on a year of solid writing and nothing has been made (yet), and friends and relatives outside of the industry wonder why you gave up screenwriting, because you were so good at it, and they made that film of yours didn’t they? And why hasn’t there been a sequel…?
Which is why I have a happy place. Secret writing projects that I return to while waiting for the film industry to make a decision.
They’re books. Novels, in fact.
This all came out of necessity really. I’ve been pitching original ideas as movies, but, as any cinemagoer will tell you, the studios aren’t that interested in original ideas these days. The financial stakes are too high for anything original, especially if you write one of the more fantastical genres, as I do (the exception being horror, which can be made cheap as chips and, crucially, be profitable on release). They’re more interested in brands. Intellectual properties with pre-existing fan bases (however small), that can convince the money people that there is an audience for the film.
So, I’ve taken these original ideas and started writing them as novels. One is a children’s book, another will be a comic book, and another will be a fantasy novel. That’s not to say that it’s much easier to get these published in a mass market form, but the risk in getting these seen is tiny when compared with the craps game of modern movie making.
The fantasy novel is the one I’ve finished first. I’ve run it through beta-readers, made copious changes thanks to their notes, and paid for an editor to give it a good kicking, before sending it to an agent, who is now sending it out to publishers (who can still reject it).
But it’s mine. All mine.
And that’s important.
It’s my world, my fantasy, my rules, and therein lies the huge appeal of fantasy to a writer. From my first encounters with Ursula K Le Guin, David Eddings and Tolkein, through to the grimdark imaginings of George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, fantasy is the purest form of escapism to me. It’s not always a pleasant or jolly read, and it’s come a long way from the high fantasy of yore, but the appeal of stepping into another world is overwhelming, and the challenge of creating one of my own, on a fairly epic scale beyond the reach of most film studio budgets, was one I simply couldn’t resist.
Again and again, I had to tell myself, ‘You can do this!’ when employing magical creatures and settings. I didn’t have that screenwriting voice in the back of my head with its niggling worries about VFX budgets, expensive location shoots, and casts of thousands… I could just put them on the page, and it made me very, very happy.
I’ve created a world and characters that I hope to come back to again and again. Even if every publisher rejects it, I’ll keep writing, if only for that dopamine hit I get when opening the files. This must be what God feels like every morning (and who said writers were narcissists?).
Yes, I’ll keep writing screenplays, I’ll keep going to the meetings, I’ll keep sending the one-pagers, but now all safely in the knowledge that I have a world to go to that’s all mine.
Mark Stay co-wrote the movie Robot Overlords, which premiered at the 58th BFI London Film Festival and starred Sir Ben Kingsley and Gillian Anderson. He also wrote the novelisation, published by Gollancz, and he is co-founder of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, where he and fellow writer Mark Desvaux have pledged to write a bestselling self-published novel in a year.
Come back tomorrow to hear from none other than Ben Galley, a purveyor of dark fantasy and self-publishing guru.
bestseller experiment, fantasy authors, mark stay, writing journeys