Book Mash-Ups and Do-Overs

Having been to screenwriting conferences (Austin Film Festival and Monterey County) and book-writing conferences (Maui), I’ve noticed how the publishing biz is becoming more and more like Hollywood. Literary agents need to be sold on the concept first, and pitching book projects has become pretty similar to pitching scripts, right down to the query letter.

In fact, I think book writers could learn a lot from screenwriting books and workshops about coming up with concepts that have a better chance of selling, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. When I was a finalist in the Maui Writers Conference screenwriting contest a few years ago, I sat in on presentations for fiction writers. What I heard in those sessions was almost identical to things I heard from working screenwriters during panel talks when I was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival way back in 1998. Yes, I’ve been at it that long.

A friend of mine also signed up for a Maui Writers Conference retreat for book writers. Afterwards, he excitedly told me about how the retreat instructors helped him devise a marketing plan — even though he hadn’t even finished a first draft yet! I had been under the illusion that publishing was for “serious” writers and the words were more important than marketing or deal-making, which is what you expect in the movie biz.

Aspiring screenwriters are often told that agents and producers want stuff that is “familiar, yet different.” Since even low budget films cost millions to make, the people who greenlight these projects need to minimize risk — or else their necks are on the chopping block if the movie flops. So it’s become common to see pitches that combine elements of successful movies to put a fresh spin on old formulas. You know, it’s DIE HARD in a (insert new location here)… it’s JAWS in outer space… it’s OLD CLASSIC meets whatever is hot right now.

Now we’re seeing the same mentality in publishing with book mash-ups. I admit I laughed when I first heard about the Jane Austen parody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s one of those funny ideas writers get when they’re very drunk, but dismiss it as being too stupid after they sober up the next day. Then someone else actually writes it, and you can’t believe it sold for big bucks.

Naturally, the success of P&P&Z spawned imitators such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. The latest book mash-up is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (author of P&P&Z as well). Yeah, I chuckled at that too… but do I really want to read another twist on stories about vampires or zombies?

Last week, I saw ZOMBIELAND, an amusing movie that is most notable for the first-person narration about the Rules for surviving zombie outbreaks. Many critics heaped praise on it, calling it hilarious. Really? The thing is, it’s just a movie — I don’t expect as much as I do from a book. As a screenwriter, I know film is a collaborative process. High-minded themes, character development, subtext, all take a backseat to a studio’s main goal: putting live butts in seats.

Despite the fact that publishing is becoming more like Hollywood, if I could start over my writing career, I’d focus on books. It may seem “easier” to write a 110 page screenplay, but the truth is it’s harder in some ways — you have to be merciless in cutting dialog and narrative. I’ve had to leave out pages and pages of stuff I researched at great lengths, or bits I loved… things that would have been good material for a book.

I also think the odds of getting published are much better, simply because it costs far less to produce a book than a film. Lit agents and publishers can take more risk with a manuscript from an unknown commodity. And if no publisher wants your book, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to self-publish than mortgage your house to make an independent film.

The irony is if you write a script with richly-detailed characters and scenes, most agents and producers would toss it in the trash for being too much like a book. Yet half the projects in development are, you guessed it… book adaptations, because of the richly-detailed characters and scenes within those pages. And then some screenwriter is going to have to hack away most of what made the book so good in the first place. Go figure.

Got a book mash-up idea you wanna pitch? Let’s hear it! I’d be happy to steal it. The sillier, the better.

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6 Comments on “Book Mash-Ups and Do-Overs”

  1. I have an interesting mash-up and publishing tale. My agent suggested I try writing a mash-up, so I came up with LITTLE WOMEN AND WEREWOLVES. My agent had the first 50 pages of that book, and he submitted it and two of my completed novels to Del Rey. Well, they bought the mash-up, I got the rest of it written in two months, and it will be coming out May 4th. I didn’t even think publishers would buy an incomplete book. I was really lucky — they published immediately, and I found a terrific illustrator. This book is a little different from the other mash-ups because it adheres to the original book’s plot, characterization and themes, so I am hoping that will make it stand out, and, of course, pave the way for my other books.
    Porter Grand

  2. richfigel Says:

    Thanks for sharing that story, Porter! Sounds fun… coincidentally, I’m working on a horror script with a produced writer (Jamie Nash, who has worked with Blair Witch creator/director Ed Sanchez on multiple projects) and we’re trying to put a fresh spin on werewolves!

    Sounds like you have a pretty sharp agent! What genre are your other books in?

    BTW, there’s a French movie (2001), BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, which is based on true 18th century events in France related to alleged werewolf killings, that is worth checking out if you haven’t seen it before. Visually striking and a little over the top. Also features Hawaii actor Mark Dacascos, who was repped by my former manager Cathryn Jaymes… she passed away recently, and is best known for discovering Tarantino.

  3. I have had BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF on my Amazon wish list since it was recommended to me over a year ago, and I couldn’t get it through the library. Maybe I should just break down and buy it — it’s only $10.
    Did you see History Channel’s THE REAL WOLFMAN where the police pprofiler and a cryptozoologist went to Gevaudan to try to solve the mystery of the beast? I won’t ruin it in case you didn’t see it, but their conclusion was so creepy, it sent a chill zippering up my spine. (Hooray!)
    My books are mostly horror/fantasy. Right now I am finishing up a Science Fiction Western. Del Rey likes my work, but they don’t quite know where to place me because most of my books would be great YA books, and they don’t have a YA department. I am hoping they take my other werewolf novel anyway,since that is the book that first peaked their interest. It’s pretty different.
    I applaud your trying to do things in a fresh way. I sometimes think that was why it took me so long to get published — I wasn’t another so-and-so. I was me, and really weird. Even this mash-up is done quite differently from the others, but, thank God, Del Rey liked my werewolf scenes. I prefer my monsters mean and scary, so am not a fan of the romantic werewolf and vampire tales that are so popular now.

    • richfigel Says:

      Porter –

      You’re not on Netflix yet? Shame on you! Seriously, I love Netflix because I can get old movies and new releases, and not have to worry about when I return them. I do the two-at-a-time option ($13 per month, I think) so I always have one DVD at home while the other is being exchange — turn-around delivery is two days.

      Netflix is great for writers when you’re researching stuff — lots of documentaries and TV series on DVD too. If you’re into art, there are terrific series on different painters and museums, etc.

      I’ll have to add your LITTLE WOMEN book to my reading queue. Has your agent gotten any nibbles from movie producers yet? One of my screenplays that won awards and got some attention from producers and managers is based on a Japanese werewolf-type curse called INUGAMI…

      If you’re curious, I’d be happy to send you the pdf of the script.

      Oh, I saw parts of THE REAL WOLFMAN, but don’t recall the conclusion — I think I missed the ending! Can you refresh my memory?

      • I had not started Netflix because I got my movies from the library where I worked. They never took me out of the computer when I quit, so I continue to get the latest ones for free. I can usually order outside of my local library system system, but every now and then, something comes up that just can’t be found on loan. I do plan to step up into this century one day soon and join a club.
        THE REAL WOLFMAN recap is: the creature was reportedly shot by a “town hero” of Gevaudan with a silver bullet. Putting everything together, the investigators came to the conclusion that the hero had a secret pet hyena that was trained to attack, so either before or after he had his way with the victims, the animal would finish them off. Hyenas have always scared the crap out of me, and I think the story is incredible. (Can you imagine this story from that lunatic’s point of view as he trains the beast and chooses his victims?) They even proved that silver bullets, being made from a softer metal, are not as destructive as normal bullets, and they do not shoot as straight, so you’d have to get pretty close to a werewolf if you were shooting to kill.
        I know my agent is working on finding a movie deal, but I know he’ll let me know when something happens, so I don’t ask and just concentrate on writing the next book.
        I would love to see the script! It sounds fascinating and I think the Japanese legends are wonderful. They certainly know how to make horror movies, too, don’t they? Did you happen to see DEPARTURES about the Japanese cellist who loses his job and takes one preparing the dead? It isn’t horror, but it’s really interesting.

  4. richfigel Says:

    I really liked DEPARTURES a lot! Very quiet, but moving I thought. Re J-horror, my INUGAMI script was written before the RING and THE GRUDGE became hits in the U.S.

    In Hawaii, we have a heavy Japanese influence, and I had been reading “Obake” stories (Japanese word for ghosts) that had been compiled by a local author. Some of those same tales and images are recurring themes in J-horror films…

    I’ll send you the pdf — is your email addy the CreativeXXX address that shows up on your comment link? If there’s another email account you’d prefer I send it to, please email me at

    Thanks too for the summary of that History Channel program! I remember the theory about the hyena, but missed the part about the silver bullet. Interesting…

    Regarding your freebies at the library, they don’t have CRUDDY there? I’d really like to hear what you think about it after you read it!

    BTW, I tried to read the excerpt from your book, but there’s all kinds of spacing problems with the text:

    Any idea why that excerpt text got so messed up? Or could it be my Firefox browser is doing something?

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