writer's tips

What Authors Need to Know Before Selling Their Book’s Film Rights

As a writer, you see your book in your mind as you write it; the way your protagonist raises her eyebrow, which books she keeps on her nightstand, what kinds of trees are outside her office window. You may find yourself thinking it would be incredible to see your creations brought to life in film. And you’ve almost certainly played casting director and daydreamed about which actors would best embody your characters.

But if the opportunity for your book to become a movie or TV show comes around, do you know what you’re getting into? Will the adaptation be another Schindler’s List, or the next Queen of the Damned (shudder)? Here’s what you need to know before Hollywood officially gets its hands on your precious literary baby.

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Make sure you own the film rights

First and foremost, if you’re being published, make sure your contract stipulates that you retain the film rights. Never give up your copyright to the publisher. You have to be careful about which rights you retain, and cover your bases by stipulating that any rights not specifically mentioned in the contract are yours by default. For more about what to watch out for when signing a contract with a publisher, check out this article by the Authors Guild.

You’ll need an agent to do the deal

Even if you self-published and are used to being the one who handles the business aspect of your writing, do not go the DIY route when it comes to selling the film rights to your book. Rights contracts are incredibly nuanced. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up making a cringe-worthy mistake, such as accidentally relinquishing the rights to your main character. Tony Hillerman made that exact mistake, inadvertently selling the rights to his main protagonist, Joe Leaphorn, from his series of Navajo Tribal Police detective books.  

You’ll need an agent who specializes in book-to-film projects to help you protect your interests through the process. These agents have established working relationships with producers and will know if your book is best suited for film, TV, or stage. They’ll also know the market trends and what they can and can’t sell; just because your book is fantastic and has the makings of a great movie, doesn’t mean the marketplace is ready for it right now.

For example, say you’ve written a vampire book. In the wake of book series like Twilight, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, The Vampire Diaries, Vampire Academy, and a slew of others being made into films and TV shows over the past decade, the vampire market is tapped out for a while. In ten, fifteen, twenty years, the cycle will come back around, and we’ll be begging for bloodsuckers again, but the timing has to be right.

Selling your book’s film rights does not mean there will actually be a movie or your own private island in the future

When you sell your book’s film rights, what you’re really selling is the option for the buyer to use those rights. They sort of rent them from you for a certain length of time—usually eighteen months to two years. This gives them time to get some funding and a script together (and no, you probably won’t get to write it).

The good news is, you get paid for doing nothing. The bad news is, you don’t get paid much—anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars for the option, and there’s a good chance the project will be burning away in Development Hell forever.

If the project gets the green light, meaning it’s going into production, you’ll get a much more substantial chunk. That’s where the real money comes from. Authors may also receive royalties after the movie is released, which it won't be, the majority of the time. Few optioned projects ever make it to production, let alone become successful. But if the adaptation of your work gets released and does well, it not only means a nice payday, but also a big, fat publicity boost for your book.

 

Creative control may involve some sacrifices

You may think you want some level of creative control over how your book is adapted, but many authors warn against being involved once the rights leave your hands. Ernest Hemingway famously said, "You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came."

Filmmakers make all sorts of promises to authors about how involved they’ll get to be in the movie. But the fact is, the direction a movie goes in once it’s in production can be akin to a runaway train that you (the author) are powerless to stop. Some authors feel it’s less painful in the end to just stay out of it.

However, if you’re more interested in creative integrity than notoriety and a big payday, there are more outlets than ever to bring your work to life on the screen … just maybe not the big screen. With the rise of social media and a growing number of companies like Netflix offering original programming, you may be able to find the perfect outlet to bring your vision of an adaptation to life.

3 Tech Tools to Make Writing Your Book a Little Easier

Writing a book might seem like a monumental task, and, well, it is. But there are tools out there that can make every stage of the process a little simpler and better organized, so you can focus on your ideas and the writing. Check out these handy apps, websites, and software tools that will make that mountain you’re climbing a little easier to summit.

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Brainstorming: MindNode

When you’re in brainstorming mode for your next book or writing project, mind mapping can be a great way to generate and record ideas. You can mind map on paper, of course, but MindNode helps you to organize and share your mind maps. It even takes care of the visual layout for you. Just type your ideas, and the app does the rest.

Also, unlike paper, you can easily reconfigure parts of your mind maps as they evolve. This is especially helpful when you’re first figuring out the basic outline of your story or a character’s arc. If you need to see your mind map in a more linear way, you can switch to outline mode and expand and collapse parts of your document as needed.

MindNode is free, and available for Mac and iOS only.

 

Writing: Scrivener

Writing a book, or any large document, can be a daunting task. Scrivener offers several features to make it go a little easier. If you’re like me, you don’t strictly write your story from beginning to end. This software allows you to break up your project by scene, chapter, or paragraph to make it more manageable, then edit as if it were one document.

At this point, you may be already done with the prep work. But even if you’re halfway through writing your book, it’s still easy to move your project to Scrivener to simplify the rest of the process. Import research or drafts from other word-processing software, as well as images, PDFs, sound files, and movies.

Some of the best assets of this software are its organization tools. Keep your ideas in one place—and move them around at will—with the corkboard. Virtual index cards allow you to organize and arrange characters, scenes, and plot points. The Outliner tool gives you an overview of your manuscript, or even just a section or chapter. You can drag and drop to reorganize anything.

With Scrivener, you can create templates, like character or location sheets, that you can use over and over. And you can use the app’s ready-to-go MLA and APA templates and footnote support for academic papers and non-fiction.

Different viewing modes can make your task easier, whether you need more information or as little as possible. There’s no need to switch back and forth between tabs. You can view up to four different documents in the same project window at the same time. Check a previous chapter for consistency, translate or transcribe a passage, or describe an image. You can also use full-screen mode to block out distractions and see only your text.

Scrivener even helps with motivation and productivity by allowing you to set word-count goals for your whole manuscript. Set goals for this week or just today’s writing session, and easily see how much you’ve written each day.

When your manuscript or paper is done, export your finished document to any file format and font you need, and even create an e-reader version for self-publishing or proofreading.

Scrivener is available for Windows and Mac. It costs $45 for a standard license ($38.25 for students and academics), and mobile versions can be purchased separately.

 

Proofreading: Natural Reader

Have you ever typed “had” but you meant “head”? Natural Reader will read your text aloud to you, so you’ll be able to hear those mistakes that spell-check isn’t smart enough to catch.

Your brain is the original version of autocorrect, causing you to miss mistakes in your writing as you read. Hearing your words read aloud is a useful weapon in the battle for typo-free text.

You can choose from dozens of voices with different accents, languages, ages, and genders for  a custom listening experience. Is the speaker in your story a young British boy? No problem. Hear your text as though the character were reading it to you.

If you hate robotic voices, you may want to sample Natural Reader anyway—it doesn’t get all the intonations and inflections of your text correct, but it’s certainly better than some auto-readers I’ve tried. It also offers a pronunciation editor if the voice just can’t seem to say your characters’ names correctly.

You can use Natural Reader on their website (with free, premium, and premium plus plans), or download it as software.
 

Writing for Children: These 5 Christmas Books Will Show You How It’s Done

I’ve completed two internships in children’s editorial departments, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s there are no shortage of Christmas books in the submissions pile. Having read several of these, I feel confident saying most of them were downright terrible. This is, in part, because they broke the golden rule of children’s publishing: Don’t patronize your reader.

It’s a problem consistent with many submissions, Christmas stories or no. Somewhere along the line, most adults forget what it’s like to be a kid, and the voice they use to write to children is akin to the voice you might use with your dog, rather than a young human. It’s a voice that assumes the child knows nothing, understands nothing, and needs the world “dumbed down” for them to understand what’s going on.

But kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for. They’re perceptive. Now that doesn’t mean your next Christmas book idea should be The Truth About Santa or How the Commercialization of Christmas is Taking Over the Holiday Season. It just means the way you tell your story should reflect the intelligence of your readers. Don’t spell it all out for them. Give them the chance to keep guessing, to form real emotions and feelings for the characters, to use their imagination to the fullest. And for the love of all things Holy Night, if it’s going to rhyme, be intentional.

Here are a few of our favorite children’s Christmas books and the lessons you can learn from each.

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1. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

This has to be one of the most magical Christmas books of all time, with good reason. The Polar Express is the kind of children’s book that gives you goosebumps, just reading the text. The story is easy to relate to: The night before Christmas, all our protagonist wants is to hear the sound of jingle bells on Santa’s sleigh. Another child has told him Santa doesn’t exist (Who hasn’t gone through that heart-wrenching moment?), so when the boy hears the sound of a train outside—the Polar Express—that is going to take him to the North Pole, it’s a moment of victory and triumph for children’s fantasy and imagination.

Because the book is in the first person, it’s easy to imagine this is a first-hand account—a true telling of what really happened to the author one Christmas night when he was young. When the protagonist asks for a bell from Santa’s sleigh and then loses it from a hole in his pocket, the reader’s heart breaks with him. Here is a moment of true sorrow and empathy. What child hasn’t lost something so precious? And then, to be redeemed on Christmas morning with a special gift to carry for all time ... it’s a moment that makes children and parents alike stop and wonder at how special Christmas magic can be.

The Polar Express, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1985, and winner of the 1986 Caldecott medal, is everything a good Christmas story should be, all while breaking several children’s publishing rules.

One of these is length. It’s a long book. While it might be condensed down to the standard 32 pages of a typical picture book, word-count-wise, it sits at just over a thousand. While a thousand words may not be unheard of for a picture book, most publishers encourage authors to cut down on the text and let the illustrations help tell the story. The Polar Express does have some truly awe-inspiring illustrations, but Allsburg has taken no pains to hold back on his descriptions of the journey and settings.

What Authors Can Take Away:

First, make it magical. Christmas is one of the most enchanting times of the year, full of myth and legend. Think like a kid. What might be most alluring to a child around Christmas? How can you use the setting or journey to enhance that feeling? Check out books like The Nutcracker or The Christmas Wish for inspiration. Then, when you’re crafting your story, don’t forget the heart. The Polar Express poses a simple problem for its readers: To have proof of magic and then to lose it. There’s no need to drive the point home over and over. The sheer magnitude of the loss is enough for kids to feel the pain the protagonist must feel. Conflict, particularly in Christmas books, doesn’t have to be high drama to inspire feeling.

2. Cajun Night Before Christmas by “Trosclair”

Let’s talk about plays on Christmas classics. As we all know, The Night Before Christmas reigns supreme as the most well-known Christmas book of all time. Heck, it might just be the most well-known children’s book of all time. The original version by Clement Clarke Moore was first published anonymously in 1823, then claimed in 1837, and has been enchanting families ever since. It’s no wonder, then, that entire websites have been created just to try to chronicle the various versions of the story.

One of my favorites is Cajun Night Before Christmas, which is best experienced through listening to the story read aloud by someone who can actually do the dialect justice. Published in 1992 by Pelican, Cajun Night Before Christmas has all the rhythm of Moore’s original, wrapped up in a historical New Orleans theme. Imagine a Santa who drives a skiff pulled by “’gators” and whose bright red cheeks are a product of blackberry wine. Awesome, right?

What Authors Can Take Away:

If you’re going to create your own version of a well-known original, it’s important to do your research. There are literally hundreds of versions of The Night Before Christmas—from space versions to patriotic versions to one about cats. Seriously. Cats. So before you accidentally reinvent the wheel, see what else is out there. Keep an eye on the versions that seem to be selling well. Take note of the versions that don’t. It’s just as important to understand why a dud is a dud as it is to know why a winner’s a winner. And then, when all the research is over, get creative. Get personal. Dive into a new take. Part of what makes Cajun Night Before Christmas so special is it’s part of a cultural narrative. It introduces a different perspective, and it’s not shy about its identity. Your take on an old favorite should be just as original.

3. Mortimer’s Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson

Mortimer’s Christmas Manger manages to walk the line between a traditional, Christianity-based Christmas book and a humorous anthropomorphic tale.

Giving animals human-like qualities isn’t anything new, particularly in holiday stories. Books like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, The Magic of Christmas, and The Snow Tree all feature animals decorating Christmas trees (so seriously, if this is your idea, stop now, because enough is enough).

The book starts with little Mortimer mouse who is determined to find a home that’s not cold, cramped, or creepy like his own. When he sees a house that’s “just [his] size,” he decides to move in, current occupants be damned (excuse the pun). Inside, he finds a bunch of small statues, including a baby, lying in a manger. Mortimer tosses them all out the door—including baby Jesus—and takes the manger for his own cozy bed. It isn’t until he overhears the Christmas story, and learns about how Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn, that Mortimer decides he has to put everyone back. In the end, Mortimer prays for a new house and finds something even better, just his size.

What Authors Can Take Away:

This one really depends on the kind of Christmas story you want to write. There are plenty of beautiful, highly approachable, Christian-based Christmas books out there that feed into the larger, more general market. The Legend of the Candy Cane was one of my favorites growing up, as was The Littlest Angel.

Likewise, Mortimer’s Christmas Manger knows its audience: children of Christian/semi-religious families. After all, the book has the word “manger” right in the title. It’s not a story an atheist family is likely to pick up, though the cute little mouse on the cover still makes the book tempting to chreasters.

Kids love to laugh, and this is one picture book that does humor very well. For children who’ve grown up with the Christmas story, it’s a chance to beat Mortimer to the punch line. The author never tells the reader that Mortimer is house-hunting a nativity scene, leaving that bit of dramatic irony up to the kiddos who can deduce what’s happening from the colorful illustrations. Even funnier is watching idolized figures like Mary and Joseph—not to mention the Christ child—get evicted by the determined little mouse. It’s just a tad scandalous, with a sweet, heartfelt ending to tie it all up.

If you can, try to create some dramatic irony in your next draft. It’s a great method for building suspense and an excellent opportunity to practice letting the illustrations play a bigger role in the reader’s discovery.

4. Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold

This ten-year-old Christmas favorite is all about a little dog named Olive who mistakes the words to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and ends up thinking she is one of Santa’s helpers (Get it? All of the other reindeer/Olive, the other reindeer?). She takes two buses to the North Pole, and when she gets there, Santa lets her come along on the night’s adventures. When trouble strikes, Olive is there to lend a hand, and in the end, it’s her keen canine senses that save the day. Olive, the Other Reindeer is a story about how being yourself is often the greatest gift of all.

What Authors Can Take Away:

If there’s one lesson to be learned from this book, it’s that authors should be like Olive, or rather, be themselves.

So many Christmas books are just the same. It seems like every Christmas story has to end on a note about the Christmas spirit, the importance of family or forgiveness during the holidays, or how the season brings people together. Olive, the Other Reindeer is special because it’s unique. It’s crazy and creative, with silly scenes like flutes raining down from the sky and a fog so thick and pillowy, it’s putting the reindeer to sleep. When authors remember to look beyond the scope of what’s been done and challenge themselves to think differently, that’s when something amazing is born.

5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

If you’ve been living in a cave for the last 60 years since The Grinch was published, here’s a brief recap: How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the story of how the Grinch steals Christmas from the Whos of Who-ville. Only, his plan is spoiled when Christmas comes anyway, and even without all the gifts and fancy food, all the Whos still come together to sing and celebrate, inspiring the Grinch to bring back all their stolen stuff and join in the fun.

What Authors Can Take Away:

The Grinch is a classic. And what’s more, it’s a rhyming classic. Now, I’ve left this one to the end because as St. Nick knows, there’s no shortage of rhyming picture books, particularly around the holidays. Think everything from Llama Llama Holiday Drama to Snowmen at Christmas to the aforementioned Cajun Night Before Christmas.

Personally, I don’t love all these books. In fact, a bad rhyming Christmas book actually turns me into a bit of a grinch. In my experience, a picture book can’t rhyme just to rhyme. That rhyme has to play its own part in telling the story. I know—nothing says festive like a book that reads like a Christmas carol, but trust me: I’m not the first editor to toss out a decent story for the sake of its bad rhymes.

Fortunately, fun and creative rhymes are a trick Dr. Seuss always excels at, and it’s a skill particularly prevalent in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Beyond the great slant rhymes and made-up words, Dr. Seuss is bold and intentional with every rhyme he writes. It takes some serious poetic practice to come up with this particular gem: “And he stuffed them in bags. Then the Grinch, very nimbly, stuffed all the bags, one by one, up the chimney!”

If you’re thinking, “I can be as resilient as a Who! I can make it with a rhyming picture book!” that’s fine. I wish you luck. But keep in mind, your rhyming has to be good, and it has to make sense. You can’t sacrifice the story for the sake of making a rhyme. My advice is to focus on the story first. If rhyme can play a part in telling the tale, and what’s more, makes it better, then by all mean, go for it.

 

If you’re doing your best to keep up your writer’s momentum from NaNoWriMo, brainstorming a few picture book ideas for the holidays is a fun and easy way to destress. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot easier than putting down 50,000 words. Task yourself with the job of seeing what’s out there, then sit down with your own cup of hot cocoa and let the words flow. Keep in mind the tips above, and like Rudolph, your Christmas story is sure to go down in history.

What’s your favorite Christmas book? Why do you think it works when others don’t? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!