Monday, April 11, 2016

BOOK LAUNCH MONDAY | Bill Fuller's Journey from Scripts to Novels

Web mistress Lisa here to introduce Bill Fuller, whose debut novel, A Girl's Guide to Landing a Greek God, has just released. Today he shares his learning curve in transitioning from TV writing to novel writing. Please welcome Bill! ~Lisa

My Journey from Scripts to Novels

I was seven years old when I took my first stab at writing, penning a sequel to Mary Poppins with Crayolas and construction paper. I eventually traded it to a friend for three packs of Batman cards, but the fire had been lit.

Three days ago, on April 8, that fire was stoked by the publication of my first novel, A Girl’s Guide to Landing a Greek God. Like Mary Poppins, my book combines fantasy and reality as well as joyous experiences and sobering losses. It tells the story of Angie Costianes, a woman from Queens who ditches her wedding because she’s not feeling the love and travels to an uncharted island where the gods of Olympus are plotting their return to power. In the course of her adventures, she tangles with all the bigwigs, from Zeus to Hades; battles monsters both reptilian and lipsticked; and romances Milos, a descendant of the Olympians who, as it happens, has been crushing on her for years even though they’ve never met. The book has been categorized as both a mystery and a romance, but I consider it a hybrid—a romantic action-adventure, if you will.

Although my writing career has spanned more than thirty years, it took me until last week to achieve this particular milestone. I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter, a small-town movie critic and a public relations specialist. But I’ve spent the bulk of my years writing and producing half-hour television.  It’s been a great ride, with stints on shows like Newhart, Night Court, Living Single and Hope & Faith. These days, I’m consulting on an animated kids’ show for Disney Junior Channel called Puppy Dog Tales. I often joke with friends that as I get older, the TV audience I’m writing for gets younger.

Even though I’ve enjoyed the heck out of working in television, I’ve never lost the desire to write a novel. So a few years ago, I decided to put that passion to the test by turning one of my  unsold screenplays into a novel. I figured, how hard could it be? I was already a writer. It just meant shifting gears a little, right?

Boy, was I in for a wakeup call.

The experience of transitioning from scripts to novels has been both humbling and enriching. And while I still have a ways to go, I think I’m finally on the verge of being able to call myself a novelist.  With that in mind, I thought I’d blog about two of the differences I’ve experienced between the two mediums—one in the writing and the other in the process itself.

Me (top row, second from left) and my writing/executive-producing partner, Jim Pond,     (second row, far left), along with the cast of the long-running Fox series, Living Single.
First off, when you’re writing half-hour television, virtually everything is expressed through dialogue. Sure, there are the occasional nods and sighs and furtive glances, but just about every element of the story happens as a result of characters speaking with one another, usually within a handful of locations for reasons of practicality and budget. That’s because your soundstage is only so big, and even though it costs upwards of a million dollars to produce a half-hour episode of television, a lot of that money gets eaten up in cast salaries.

In a novel, dialogue is still important, but equally important is internal monologue—what’s going on inside the heads of characters. That never occurred to me when I lifted big chunks of dialogue out of my screenplay and plopped them onto the page. Other than occasional breaks for action, there was little to the manuscript other than talk, and virtually no insight into what was going on in my characters’ minds. What was my college football hero thinking as he flirted with the young bookkeeper he met at a school dance in 1919? Was he as cocky as he came off, or was he so awed by her beauty and wit that he was surprised he was getting the words out? And what was she thinking when she boldly matched him word for word? Was she intrigued about where this might lead or scared half to death?

Description is also much more important in novels than in TV scripts. A living room that might be described in a sentence in a half-hour script might take several pages to describe in a novel. That’s partly because your so-called standing sets in television (the bar on Cheers, the coffee shop in Friends) already exist, and everyone involved in the process knows what they look like. And your occasional one-time-only sets (called swing sets), can be described to your set designer in person rather than by increasing the page count of a script that’s often required to be no more than a certain length.

In any case, neither of those things was obvious to me when I set out to write my first novel. But thanks to the help of a friend who’s a seasoned novelist, I learned how to expand my sequences so there was often as much going on internally as externally. It was hard at first. I felt like I was forcing it, when in reality, I wasn’t going deep enough into my characters’ heads. In regard to description, being an impatient person I often thought, “Let’s just get to it,” rushing through description to get to the heart of the scene. But over time, I learned that getting there is often as interesting as being there.  And it certainly paints a more vivid picture.

The other difference I’ve experienced is in how the two products are put together. When you’re a writer in Hollywood, the process is very collaborative. While you still come up with jokes and story ideas on your own, you’re working on a staff with ten or more writers, so the final product is usually the result of a group-think process. Somebody comes in with an idea that everyone agrees would make a good story, and you work as a group to “break” it, fleshing it out scene by scene, before sending a writer off to do an outline, followed by two drafts of a script. At each stage, the group, led by the executive producer, gives the writer feedback or “notes” on the script. Then, when the script is handed in for good, the executive producer leads the group in taking a pass at it, known as “tabling.”  During this process, jokes often change and whole scenes can be replaced. I’ve occasionally been in situations where no more than a couple of my original lines have remained. Not the most secure feeling in the world, but a reality of the business.     

When you’re writing a novel, you’re on your own. You’re coming up with your story and dialogue while sitting in front of your computer, running on a treadmill, sipping coffee or walking your dog.  It’s all you. That might seem like a huge amount of freedom, but for me it was intimidating. After twenty-some years of working on a writing staff, I was suddenly all alone, staring at a blank screen.  Some days, I’d start writing with no particular plan, just to assure myself I was still a writer. But because most of those days went nowhere, I learned to brainstorm on my own. Not that I haven’t leaned on my friends and fellow novelists for ideas, but by and large I’ve learned to do it alone, without the safety net of another creative mind.    

But there are benefits. When you’re writing a novel, you have the freedom to create an infinite universe, one that’s not limited by budget restraints or an actor’s abilities. And there’s something to be said for the feeling you get at the end of the day when you can sit back and acknowledge you did it all yourself.

In spite of the differences between the two mediums, there are some basic similarities. Both are essentially about setting up a good story, then telling it compellingly and passionately. And whether I’m writing a script or a novel, I love creating something original. That doesn’t mean it comes easily.  There have been days in comedy writing when the jokes didn’t flow and many, many days as a novelist when I couldn’t get a plot point right or make a passage read as anything other than hopelessly awkward. But when it does come, when you finally make a piece of writing sing, it’s an amazing feeling of joy and accomplishment.

I hope all that shows in A Girls Guide to Landing a Greek God.  It certainly was a kick to take my little nugget of an idea all the way to publication.

Thanks for joining us, Bill! Readers, what surprises or interests you about Bill's journey? Which would be more challenging for you--writing collaboratively or writing solo?

Bill Fuller is a novelist as well as a television writer and producer. As a producer, his credits include Hope & Faith, For Your Love and Living Single. Before becoming a producer, he was an executive story editor on the long-running series Night Court and story editor for Newhart, as well as a writer for numerous other television series for Paramount, USA, NBC Universal, HBO, Disney, and others. 

His first novel, A Girl’s Guide to Landing a Greek God, was published this month by Llewellyn Worldwide, and is the first of a trilogy. He’ll follow it up with a standalone novel, The Forever Year, in July. He lives in Redondo Beach, California, but still holds his hometown of Warren, Ohio, close to his heart. Read more about his books at http://www.billfullerbooks.com.

You can find A Girl’s Guide to Landing a Greek God online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

6 comments:

Eileen said...

Really fascinating, Bill! Congratulations on your new book!

I actually enjoy collaborating with people, up to a certain point. I like to have veto power over what goes in and what doesn't and in a collaborative effort, I don't always get that! Have you ever had to change something that you felt really strongly about?

Bill Fuller said...

Thanks for writing, Eileen. Fortunately, my novel came through the editorial process at Llewellyn largely unscathed, but I can't even count the number of times I lost things through the collaborative process in television. When I was executive producing Living Single, we had a story line for an episode that I thought was hilarious, but the creator of the show has issues with it and insisted we replace it with a very different story, with her input. As it turned out, the new story was a hundred times better than the story it replaced, and the more distance I get from it, the more I cringe when I think of that original storyline, which in hindsight, was all wrong for the show. Sometimes when you’re so close to something, you don’t see what obvious to someone with a little distance. Not always, but sometimes.

Edith Maxwell said...

Great post, Bill, and congratulations! I think working collaboratively would be much harder for me than solo. About to start my eleventh book, I kind of have a system down for myself and I know how I work.

Bill Fuller said...

Thank you, Edith. As I labor through my second book in this series, I marvel at the fact that you're starting on your eleventh book. Amazing! Hopefully, I'll have it down to a system if I ever achieve what you've been able to. Congrats!

Mark said...

Interesting description of the differences between novel and script writing. Novels seem to make you write in vignettes; which point in time to open and close a vignette is the bugaboo.

Bill Fuller said...

That's true, Mark. In TV, it's sort of forced upon you, because you only have so many minutes to tell a story -- about 21 minutes for a half-hour show on network television and 42 for a one-hour show. By the time you turn your script in, each scene or vignette is distilled down to its essentials. In writing novels, there's more freedom in terms of length, but that freedom can be a mixed blessing. I've often written a scene that I'm thrilled with upon finishing it. Then I look at it the next day and discover I've overwritten it to death and that the heart of the scene is buried somewhere in the middle, surrounded by unnecessary writing.