In January 2012, I decided that I didn’t want to be working for a corporation for the rest of my life. I wanted to write, and I wanted to be paid for it. The key, then, was to find new and interesting ways to sell myself as any kind of writer: ghostwriter, collaborator, editor, proofreader, script doctor, anything.
I realized that I could work part-time without quitting my day job. I could set my own hours, working mainly weekends and evenings. After all, I was accustomed to using my free-time for writing and editing anyhow, so it was really no change in workload. The more I thought about it, the more I realized what an incredibly awesome and realistic idea it was to get started.
And thus, a new company was born: Hypergraphia Communications.
All I needed now was advertising and a forum in which to sell myself – er…my services. You know what I mean.
Anyhow, after reading a completely unrelated article, I stumbled across the name of a website called Elance.
Elance is a kind of matchmaking service for contractors and people who want work done. Contractors (like me), go to the site and browse through the gazillion requests from prospective employers, and they all bid for contracts. Employers choose from the best offers (and the most qualified contractors), and then hire.
From there, as with any other kind of project, contractor and employer agree on terms of work, pay schedules and milestones (sequential accomplishments that contribute to the overall completion of the project).
So, as a brand new contractor, I stumbled across a particular work option: the novelization of a completed movie script. The story was about this fellow – Jonathon Parker – and his run-in with a couple of no-good RCMP officers. My eyes salivated: a non-fiction crime story? And all I had to do was use my oversized imagination to turn “Script” into “Manuscript?”
I didn’t win the contract.
I wasn’t surprised, either. I was a first timer, and I had only wanted to go through this bid so I could quickly learn the ins and outs of the Elance website and its processes. Losing wasn’t a loss at all: it was a risk-free learning opportunity.
And in fact, I completely forgot all about it. I’d even forgotten about the email account I’d setup just for business purposes. And then one day a couple of weeks later, I logged into the email account and discovered there was a message, sent by Jonathon Parker by way of Elance.
He wanted to know if I was still interested in the contract. If yes, he wanted to know if I would be willing to read a bit of the movie script and tell him my thoughts.
I did more than that. I took the first scene (not having read the rest of the movie script) and wrote it in a proposed format and style. Though it’s been somewhat revised from the original draft, you can now read that first scene in the book. It’s Chapter One.
Mr. Parker read the sample and was interested in discussing the contract with me a little more. He also wanted me to take a look at what the original contract winner had written, and he wanted to know what I thought about it.
I don’t know who wrote it. I don’t want to know. It was the most melodramatic, vomit-inducing drek I’d ever read. I told him so, and I gave reasons for why I felt that way, without belittling the competition. (But really, the other person’s work did sound like a middle-aged woman moaning over a box of cheap wine.)
Mr. Parker liked the style I proposed, and he was happy to see that I knew what the heck I was talking about.
From there, it was down to haggling. We set up a contract during the writing of the project – nothing more than the novelization. We weren’t even looking at publication at that point, though we did propose total cash for project completion, as well as how we would divide the royalties if and when the book was published. For milestones, we set up deadlines for the first three chapters, then the mid-way point of the book, completion, rounds of editing, etc. I was paid in chunks for the completion of every milestone.
That’s one of the things about Elance that I like. Depending on the contract, the employer can put money into escrow (a virtual bank account inside Elance); that’s proof to the contractor that the employer is willing and able to pay for the work about to be done, before it’s done. Once the milestone is completed to the satisfaction of the client, the contractor can request for the money to be released from escrow. That’s proof to the employer that the contractor is serious about working on the project and is actively accomplishing goals on time.
And that’s how I would be paid. We settled on a final price, we worked it out into installments by milestones, and I got to work.
From there, it was a matter of digging into the script – and into Mr. Parker’s personal life. After all, this is a biography, and I wanted the “character” of Jonathon Parker to be as faithful to the real man as possible. I wanted the facts to be correct – the chronology, the places and people, the hair colour and body shapes.
There were some areas where I was allowed greater creative freedom, since some of the names are changed and we had to disguise the identity of some of the worst offenders in the book; but other than that, I wanted it to be as close as possible to what actually happened.
And all the while, I was terribly conscious of the fact that in asking so many questions, I was asking my client to relive what he’d been through.
Every time I sent him another chunk of the book, I was reading aloud his flashbacks. Every revision, every correction, everything – I was asking him to relieve very dark days.
But generally speaking, I really enjoyed working on this project. I would set up one of my computers in the living room, or out on the patio if the weather was good, and I’d often have a cold drink at one hand and a pleasant sunset in the corner of my eye. I’d read through one whole scene, figure out what was happening in it, figure out who was who and what role they played, then play it out in my mind. From there, it was simply a matter of writing out what I saw in my head.
Sometimes, details in the movie script were hazy at best, so I would store up a few questions and then fire them over to Mr. Parker. There were details about investments, legal matters and real estate quirks that I just didn’t get. Let me tell you, it was a learning experience. (Important note: if you’re living in Saskatchewan during the early ’80s, don’t drive your new car until you’ve got the official registration in the mail.)
But the questions were inevitable and of highest importance. And because of the amount of emails we were sending back and forth, that’s why this is considered a true collaboration. (It’s not ghostwritten either; if it was, my name wouldn’t be on the cover, nor my picture on the back.) Mr. Parker technically only wrote the dedication and the afterword, but without him, even with a complete movie script in hand, there wouldn’t be a cohesive story.
By the way, I don’t know who wrote the original movie script either, but dude, the dialogue sucked! I don’t know how many times I’d startled the dog by suddenly shouting in rage and exasperation at the original writer.
I worked on the story in layers and in stages. First, I read through the whole script, taking notes as I went. I read it through a second time, bracketing my notes into chapter synopses and adding in questions I needed answered before or during the writing phase. There was some measure of guesswork involved; but I’d write first, then go back to JP for corrections if required. In at least one case, JP was surprised at the accuracy of my guess (hint for Judge Not readers: it involves cigarette butts and a kitchen sink).
Then, I would convert the (kinda horrible) movie script into standard narrative, scene by scene. The first pass was “just the facts”, in keeping with the information provided in the movie script. Once it was written, I would go back and add in the details – the colours and textures, the gestures and blocking of the characters, the wardrobe and make-up, the sounds and the backgrounds. In some cases, it felt like I was producing a movie in print, rather than writing a story.
It was a much slower process than I’d originally expected. Some spaces were pretty quick to convert: whole sections of (more or less salvageable) dialogue could be converted to conversation but quick.
Other spaces…not so much. In a movie script, you can get away with the equivalent of [Insert Fight Scene Here]. In narrative, you can’t. Well, I’m sure you could, but I’d find that dreadfully dull.
Because I have a flare for action, I wrote out the action scenes in whole. I actually had to work backwards: knowing that in the next scene, JP was in hospital getting his ribs taped and stitches in his eyebrow, I would have to choreograph the fight scene so that in the end he had cracked ribs and a bloody eyebrow.
And then there were long, arduous sections where I had to merge meh-movie-script with JP’s expert knowledge, while mixing in a healthy dose of layman’s terms. I had to make investment and real estate schemes into something understandable, interesting to the average reader, and integral to the story. There was much navel-gazing, pacing, muttering and gnashing of teeth, let me tell you.
But it was worth it in the end.
And speaking of the end: we had to add in a few extra chunks of information that hadn’t been captured in the original movie script – more big, bad things that had happened since the script was written. So there were sections that were written in the absence of a movie script. If I’ve done my job correctly, you shouldn’t be able to tell where the original movie script stopped and where I took over.
Once the full manuscript was finished, I did two full (painful) editing passes, sometimes adding in more information, sometimes stripping out whole scenes. Once I was finished, I passed it on to JP, who also ran through it. A quick nod to Tobin Elliott: he also cast an expert eye on the work to make sure I hadn’t missed anything else. (That’s when I discovered that I don’t so much misspell words as I leave them out entirely. “He his coat and left” makes perfect sense in my head, but others might get a bit tangled up in it.)
From there, I took the combined editing passes and did a massive third wave of edits.
And once that was done, we declared the project at last finished. The contract was closed, I was paid for my time and labour, and we now had a completed manuscript. The next question was: where to go from here. How would we get the book out into the public market? Who would be responsible for its sale and representation?
And for me personally: was I ready to represent this book, knowing the risks – real and imagined?
But that’s for another post.