In our latest installment of "Notes From the Field", we asked Book of the Week author, Michael Phillip Cash, (whose books all begin as screenplays) to give us a glimpse into his writing process. Let's hear what he has to say...
"How do you write your books?" "Do you just sit down and write?" "Why aren’t your books 100,000 words?" These are typical of the questions I'm asked all the time. I have a unique writing style that separates me from many, if not most, novelists.
A Fan of Film
When I was 15 years old I started writing screenplays, albeit poorly. I loved the idea of writing a script because I loved movies so much, but I had actually no idea how they were written. If I had an idea in my mind about what would make a good movie, I’d write a screenplay on it. During my second year of college, I finally had an opportunity to submit a screenplay to a major production company on a studio lot. The producer asked me to meet him in his office. I figured this was it—college kid becomes a writing phenomenon and has a movie made! How much would the yacht cost? Should I buy my mansion in Beverly Hills or Malibu?
My Hollywood (Heart)Break
When I sat down with this mega producer and he said to me “Son, you write really well, and your ideas are incredible but you have absolutely no idea how a story is told.” My heart sank, but what he said was true—I really didn’t understand how a good screenplay was crafted. I had two options, stand up and storm out of the room, or take his criticism and learn from my mistakes. Asking his guidance about what I would need to create a story that would sell in Hollywood, he shared exactly what Anthony Robbins told me that same year, “Success leaves clues. Go find it.”
I decided it was time to start studying the art of writing “good” screenplays. I wanted to learn about story structure, protagonist flaws, interesting antagonists…the whole nine yards. I bought every screenwriting book and screenplay I could find and proceeded to read tons and tons (and TONS). There were several “aha!” moments, and some were a waste of time. Things, however, started to gel.
What now seems like ages ago, I bought a book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Blake (who sadly passed away in 2009) broke down the art of screenwriting into layman’s terms. I began crafting my stories according to Blake’s Beat Sheets. They worked, and I began rewriting my old screenplays with this new technique in mind.
Getting your scripts read by Hollywood insiders is easier than you think. However, getting a screenplay sold in Hollywood is another thing. I decided to start turning my scripts into novels. I would literally go page-by-page and flesh out the characters. Screenwriting is night and day when compared to writing a book. When writing a script, minimalism with enough impact is key. You can’t write paragraphs in scripts. In a novel, however, you can dive deep in character emotions or talk about a chair’s history for an entire paragraph.
I officially began my career as an author and began self-publishing my books on Create Space. All of my books are simply screenplays I’ve written and ironed out into a book. That’s why they are never 100,000 words. A movie is 2 hours long. My scripts are 120 pages, with each page a minute of screen time. My books are no more than 200 pages. Each book, in its own right, is a readable movie.
I cannot just sit down and “write a book”. I have to write the script first and know all of my characters’ ticks, flaws and arcs before proceeding to write the book. Screenplay first, book, second. It’s worked for me for many years and so far, I’ve been very successful with this methodology.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Your Screenplay Sucks by William M. Akers
Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant
The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood by John Robert Marlow
My Top 6 Screenplays
Inglorious Bastards by Quentin Tarantino
Rounders by David Levien and Brian Koppelman
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
The Aviator by John Logan
Pacific Rim by Travis Beacham
Con Air by Scott Rosenberg
Any fellow screenwriters out there? Would love to hear from you about your process in the comments below.
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Michael Phillip Cash is an award-winning screenwriter and novelist. He’s written over a dozen books including the best-selling The History Major, Brood X, Stillwell, The Flip, The After House, The Hanging Tree, Witches Protection Program, Pokergeist and Battle for Darracia series. Michael’s books are on the Amazon best-seller list and have also won numerous awards. Additionally, he is a screenwriter with 14 specs under his belt. Michael resides on the North Shore of Long Island.