With my eighth book out, I figured I’d talk about how I actually write. After doing a lot of self-publishing, it struck me that “hey, others could benefit from this” and “I may learn talking with others.” I probably could have thought of that earlier, but I guess I was too busy writing. Which is probably something else I should write on.
Anyway, in the spirit of reaching out to fellow writers, here’s how I write.
Please note that:
Now, let’s talk about where my ideas fome from.
A good book starts with an idea. A bad book does as well, but I assume you’re not trying to write a bad one. Not deliberately, but let’s face it, I’m not going to judge you.
So where do I get my ideas? They come from everywhere. I rarely lack inspriation – and if I do, I usually can find a way to stimulate it. This is because of my work studying inspiration, writing generators, and creating. I’ve got a groove from sheer practice – and in time, you’ll develop one as well.
There are a few tips I can share:
For me, ideas are striking me all the time. Wether you have a lot or a few, an idea is an idea. One of them might be the Big Idea, the book, the one you have to do.
Wether the latest inspiration you have is The Big Idea, or might be, you have to record it. This is where things start taking form.
Over the years I’ve emphasized the need for creative people of all kinds – and by that I mean most anyone – to keep a Brainstorm Book. The Brainstorm Book is where you write any idea that remotely seems worthy of keeping track of.
At this point, you’re already processing the latest inspiration. Maybe you flesh it out, maybe you drop it, either way the simple act of writing it down (and trust me, write it don’t type it) helps you process it a bit further. You may, in writing it down, suddenly realize a vision for it – and suddenly it’s The Big Idea you must make.
Be sure to record the idea in as much detail as possible – but don’t pressure yourself. One sentence that’s inspired may say far more than a paragraph you forced.
OK, so you recorded it. Recording it made you think it over a bit, so the idea is a bit more polished, a bit more understood, and recorded in a way that’ll call back the inspiration. The act of recording it might have even led it to become a Big Idea.
But with so many ideas, what do you do? Well, if a Big Idea isn’t something I must work into my plans (and sometimes it is), I review the Brainstorm Book.
Once a month I review my brainstorm book, seeing what ideas stand out. Depending on their quality I may:
The act of reviewing – and reviewing regularly – is important, and not just for selecting Big Ideas. It can also inspire you by seeing your ideas in a different context. New ideas may flow, new inspirations may come, patterns emerge. Sometimes new Big Ideas form just from the act of reviewing.
So finally, I’ve got a lot of ideas. Hopefully I’ve got a Big Idea to develop into my next book, right?
Nope, I usually have several. I have a pile. Sometimes I even have a few ideas that I want to do in order.
Or maybe I do have a Big Idea – but do I really want to do it?
Well, next up, let’s talk how I select ideas to work on.
Back in November, one of the news round-ups mentioned that there Hummingbird working on a sequel to It’s A Wonderful Life. With Paramount contesting the sequel, I want to take a look at the mess and how to avoid it.
With It’s a Wonderful Life, the problem stems from a clerical error; the movie’s copyright wasn’t renewed properly, sending the movie to the public domain. The owners, Republic Studios, managed to regain most of the rights through backdoor methods that allowed them to control who could show it and at what price. The short version, the film itself is in the public domain, but the story and the music are not. The question that a court may have to decide is how much It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story depends on the copyrighted story.
Before I continue, I want it made known that I am not a lawyer, not do I play one on TV. This article is all from a layman’s point of view and isn’t legal advice, even if it sounds like it.
The first thing when adapting a work is to find out who has the rights to it. If the work is old enough, it’s in the public domain where anyone can take it. As a rule of thumb, if a work is older than Disney’s “Steamboat Willie”, it is very likely in the public domain. Works by Shakespeare are definitely in the public domain, as are myths, legends, and fairy tales. To verify, sites like Project Gutenberg can be helpful. That Romeo & Juliet alternative universe rom-com* where he’s the son of a necromancer and she’s the daughter of vampires can be made with no rights issues at all.
More recent works, though, have owners who expect payment when someone else plays in their sandbox. Research skills pay off here. First thing is to find out who holds the rights. Sometimes it’s easy; a Star Trek adaptation has to go through Paramount to be made. Sometimes, it’s not. It is the rare company that survives a hundred years. Studios like RKO, Orion, and United Artists have gone under, leaving entire libraries to be picked over. With UA, MGM bought most if not all of its assets, including the 007 franchise. It is a matter of research to find out where the movies have gone. This is where It’s a Wonderful Sequel is running into problems. Both studios can rightfully argue their sides; the film itself is public domain, provided that it is not shown in its original order. The sequel, and any other movie, could very well use images and scenes out of context as flashbacks and not run afoul of the copyright.
Once the rights owner has been found, it’s time to convince them that the adaptation should happen. The easiest way is sums of cash, or, as it is better known, a licensing fee. The owner sets the fee, but could be negotiated down. If there’s no agreement, no adaptation. A possible alternative is to convince the owner that they want to produce the adaptation themselves, with the adapter at the helm of the work. This method works best when remaking a movie, but can also work in the comics industry. This is what I expect the outcome of the dispute between Hummingbird and Paramount to be, an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum that allows It’s a Wonderful Sequel to go ahead.
If the rights owner says no, that’s not the end of the adaptation. Unless the new work relies heavily on established canon, changing details such as character names, setting, and even genre may be enough to make the former adaptation look original. This process is, essentially, “filing off the serial numbers”. Done well, no one notices. Done poorly, and the work gets called a rip-off of the original work.
Let’s take a hypothetical** example. I want to create a dark and gritty remake of BJ and the Bear, setting it in a post-apocalyptic America where BJ and his mutant chimpanzee deliver needed supplies through blighted wastelands to the last remnants of humanity living in fortified towns and cities, getting past corrupt warlords who want the goods for themselves***. The original owners of BJ and the Bear are easy to find – Glen A. Larson and Universal. The two still have a working relationship as of the Battlestar Galactica remake. All I need to do is convince both parties that I can make it worth their while to license the rights to me. Simple, no?
Not so fast. BJ’s main adversary in the remake, Warlord Lobo, is based on a character that got his own spin-off. If I want to use Lobo, I need to make sure that his character isn’t stuck in some sort of rights limbo. The problem has cropped up; The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man were both set, at least partially, in New York City. However, Marvel licensed Spider-Man and his supporting cast to Sony Pictures, who isn’t about to give up the wall-crawler anytime soon. Both Marvel and Sony negotiated to get the Daily Planet into The Avengers, but, ultimately, the building wasn’t there. Marvel is running into a similar situation with the next Avengers movies with Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch. Fox has the rights to all characters related to the X-Men, including mutants. Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch not only are mutants but have worked alongside Magneto in their villain days. Marvel is skirting the problem by not mentioning the m-word (“mutant”) in the movie. However, there has been a massive crossover of rosters between the two teams; other X-Men who have been Avengers include the Beast and Wolverine.
The issue of rights doesn’t affect just movies. The Battletech game has what players have come to call The Unseen, thirteen BattleMechs that could no longer made as miniatures or be used in artwork as a result of a rights dispute between FASA and Harmony Gold. Both companies had licensed the mecha designs; Harmony Gold through the respective studios of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Fang of the Sun Dougram, and Crusher Joe as part of Robotech, FASA through the design studio, Victor Musical Industries, for BattleTech. The case was settled out of court; FASA might have been able to win except the cost of fighting the case became too high for the company to justify. The loss of the Unseen meant redoing several books and creating new minis for the core game and led to the Clan Invasion.
In my hypothetical example, the competing rights issue doesn’t come up. Glen A. Larsons Productions and Universal are still the people to talk to about Lobo. However, if the word is no, I can make changes to remove the BJ and the Bear markers from the project. Keeping the post apocalyptic setting, I can change Bear into a horse that CJ rides. Instead of delivering supplies, CJ delivers news through the wastelands to the fortified towns. Or, since the new project is a little too close to The Postman for comfort, I change the setting to space, where CJ and his sidekick alien buddy try to make ends meet in their dilapidated space freighter while Space Admiral Lupine hunts them down for crimes they may or may not have committed.
In short, check the rights situation. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s not. When in doubt, rework to avoid legal entanglements.
Next week, 2013 in review.
* Yes, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy. That didn’t stop Gnomeo & Juliet.
** At least, I hope it’s hypothetical.
*** If someone reading does do this remake, I would like on-screen credit, please.
Charles “Chas” Addams had a macabre sense of humour. His one-panel cartoons were mainly around the theme of the mundane meeting the bizarre. From this mind came the Addams Family, first depicted in 1938. The Addamses were a typical American family, just one that enjoyed the darker things in life. Today, the mere mention of the name can trigger the TV show’s theme song as an earworm.
The first adaptation came in 1964, when The Addams Family appeared on ABC as a sitcom, lasting for two seasons and sixty-five episodes. The TV show required Chas Addams to give his characters names for the first time. The series continued to show the family as being macabre, but not dysfunctional. Sure, they were bizarre and creepy, but Gomez and Morticia loved each other, in their own way. The portrayal of the family mirrored Chas Addams’ cartoons, with minor changes: Grandmama was originally Morticia’s mother, not Gomez’s; and Pugsley was more like Bart Simpson in the original one-panel cartoons.
Fast forward to 1991. By this point, most people were more familiar with the television series than the original cartoon, thanks to the magic of TV syndication. The TV series reached the magic number of sixty-five, which would allow a station to re-broadcast the series five days a week for thirteen weeks. However, adapting an adaptation can be troublesome; each iteration introduces interpretation gaps, where the portrayal of a character or even of the tone of the new work is slightly off. Part of the issue is that getting two people to agree perfectly on an interpretation is rare; everyone involved has different experiences filtering and colouring what is being seen. Yet, the original work was available.
Fortunately, the movie makers had read some of the one-panel cartoons. The cast included Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, and a young Christina Ricci in her third movie role ever. Julia took John Astin’s manic portrayal of Gomez Addams and replaced the mania with intensity while still being Gomez. Ricci portrayed an older Wednesday, one that’s more devious and darker than her television counterpart. Meanwhile, Pugsley, originally played by Ken Weatherwax and portrayed by Jimmy Workman in the movie, lost his intelligence and deviousness and becamse the younger sibling. However, the sibling relationship between Wednesday and Pugsley remained intact – Wednesday would try injure Pugsley who would somehow survive and possibly enjoy what was happening.
The plot of the movie followed a scam to take advantage of Gomez and his search for his long lost brother, Fester. Hoping to cash in with a look-alike to pay off a loan shark, Gomez’s lawyer uses the loan shark’s son to pose as Fester. Through machinations, the Addamses are forced to leave their home and deal with the real world. The major problem with the movie was having the Addamses try to adjust to the mundane world, when, in the TV series and the cartoons, it was the mundane that had to make the adjustment. However, when Morticia is taken prisoner and is tortured to give up the AddamsFamily fortune, the classic macabre returns with Morticia complimenting techniques, again, coming from elements in both TV series and cartoon. The end scene, with Morticia knitting a misshapen baby’s outfit comes directly from one Chas Addams’ own cartoons. The name of the new child, Pubert, is reused from the TV series, where it was discarded because it sounded to close to “puberty” and “pubic”, words that were considered unfit for broadcast.
As an adaptation, the movie stumbled a bit by forcing the Addamses to adjust to the rest of the world, a problem corrected in the sequel Addams Family Values, where the cheerful could not stand in the way of the sardonic. However, The Addams Family movie managed to blend the style of the original cartoons with the TV series and kept the feel of both.
The movie and its sequel weren’t the only adaptations. There have been two animated series, a direct-to-video pilot, a rebooted TV series. video games, and even a stage musical. The core has always been a family who, despite their macabre ways, love each other.
Next week, heading back for a classic adaptation, The Guns of Navarone.