Writing for Hollywood

This collection depicts a peculiar psychology of conflict and reward.

Posted Dec 04, 2018

Rare Bird Books
Source: Rare Bird Books

The New York Times recently ran a piece about a new class at the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop on writing for television. Long-form episodic series with complex characters appear to be ready-made for talented novelists, and many of them have turned their pens toward scripts. Although Faulkner once described Hollywood as a place where one might be “stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder,” some of the more experimental and artistic series prove that television can step up its game. It pays well, too. The article makes it sound as if it’s fairly easy to break in.

But not so fast. First, it’s not easy, and second, the lone novelist is not necessarily suited for storytelling-by-committee, not to mention the long-term stress involved in bringing a film or television show to life. The Hollywood arena is one of those workplaces, it seems, that regularly generate approach-avoidance conflicts. It can be highly frustrating but also hard to give up. Just ask some writers.

In Hollywood Versus the Author, Stephen Jay Schwartz, a writer and development exec, has collected thoughts about this experience from a number of prominent Hollywood writers who have some eye-opening love-hate stories. These tales range from those who’ve enjoyed watching a beloved novel get the Hollywood treatment to those who’ve had to sue.

One thing is clear: it takes fortitude, persistence and perhaps a bit of masochism to forge one’s way in La La Land. Andrew Kaplan, who describes his bizarre experience creating tie-in novels for Showtime’s Homeland, writes that “being on an award-winning hit TV show is a little like being on a runaway high-speed train; people are hanging on for dear life, throwing anything they can at it to keep it going.” One source of frustration, he says, is that studios hold themselves only to guidelines, but writers must adhere strictly to rules – which can change at a moment’s notice. It’s not exactly a level playing field.

Schwartz provides context to this anthology with an introduction. At the heart of the tension between novelists and Hollywood is the vast difference between working in solitude with total control vs. being part of a committee. He offers a brief history of motion pictures to show how the need emerged for “a new kind of writer” to support the entertainment industry. As Schwartz puts it, “The screenplay is but an outline for the director to use to realize his or her vision.” That's a long ways from writing a novel.

It takes a certain type of resilience to be a screenwriter, starting with accepting the screenplay’s purpose. During the early days, several prominent literary writers were lured into screenwriting by a paycheck and the potential for increased readership. Many loathed it and left, but some got the hang of this completely different approach precisely because they grasped that it was different.

Still, they faced other issues. Some writers in this volume describe a sense of betrayal. When you work with others to develop a project, you hope you’re all on the same page in terms of trust. But maybe not. Bestselling novelist Tess Gerritsen offers one of the most harrowing contributions. She had sufficient proof of intellectual theft to pursue a claim in court, although the odds were never in her favor. Rather than be intimidated by the Hollywood machine, she launched a legal attack to flex her muscle. Other essays depict a similar sense of David vs. Goliath, and David usually stands no chance.

This is what fascinates psychologists – that one can endure mental abuse, unending stress, the distortion or theft of one’s work (sometimes unpaid), and still believe that something positive will ultimately occur. How long can one hold out? Can a belief in the glittering endgame effectively reframe the adversity and mental pain that comes with daily uncertainty? More specifically, how do novelists endure having their work so thoroughly altered?

Schwartz discovered that there’s little respect for the novel except as a vehicle for a successful film or TV series – and the end result will often have little resemblance to the story that launched the process. Once, when he read a producer the synopsis of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Pearl, she thought the story would work better if the pearl became a lottery ticket.

In “Does it Have to be an Earthquake?”, Lee Goldberg, known for his work on Monk, has his own stories about such “tweaks,” but he admits to doing some tweaking himself. In the midst of his amusing anecdotes, he explains that these adaptations require such changes. Crystallizing the heart of the story can involve stripping away plot points and characters. “In many ways,” he says, “the book becomes inspiration rather than something you should follow with slavish devotion.”

Screenwriter-turned-novelist Alexandra Sokoloff describes the irony of male executives dictating to her, a female, what is and is not appropriate behavior for female characters. After some of these meetings, she says, “you have to laugh. Or cry. Frequently you do both…” The bottom line is that “screenwriters are employees.” They own no copyright and they can be fired off their own script. Sokoloff describes various versions of “development hell” and admits that, despite some success, she grew miserable, because she was in a constant state of frustration and anxiety. She turned to writing novels, which she now happily pursues.

I’ve had my own experience. Having published several books, I knew what it was like to get edited, but when I wrote a script, I was floored by the number of people offering “notes,” some of whom contradicted others (and even their own earlier notes). The changes were constant. I didn’t see how anyone could work this way, let alone produce a coherent story. Yet, I went back for more.

There’s plenty of risk involved in the Hollywood game. It works well for some, but others find it too chaotic. “Nobody knows what to expect,” Schwartz writes, “and that’s what makes the film business so damn exciting.” He points out that some of the most important lessons lie between the lines. Although the primary audience for this book consists of writers who hope to work in Hollywood, psychologists will also find it rich with insights about what writers are willing to endure in that vigorous tension between hope and despair.

Hollywood versus the Author offers a good balance between those who believe, like Raymond Chandler, that Hollywood is no place for nurturing a novelist’s passion, and those who persisted and achieved the dream. Every article or interview contains nuggets of wisdom for writers, as well as raw material for psychologists who study the mental drive toward tenuous goals.


Schwartz, S. J. (2018). Hollywood vs. the author. Los Angeles, CA: Rare Bird Books.

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