Are Novelizations the Scum of Literature?
by Mel Gilden
Generally, novelizations are considered to be the scum of literature, one step above comic books, written by hacks for morons. Norman Spinrad, a writer of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, calls writing novelizations flipping greaseburgers in somebody elses universe. But the fact is that good novelizations, worthwhile novelizations, are possible, not only from the point of view of the reader, but from the point of view of the writer. Charlie Brown of Locus calls any novel based on a movie or a TV show whether or not it is adapted from a story already aired a novelization.
For better or for worse, the Beverly Hills, 90210 novels I've written are undeniably novelizations. Beverly Hills, 90210 was one of the hottest TV shows in the teen/young adult demographic. It concerned a family that moves from Minnesota to Beverly Hills and samples the fleshpots there. Every week the solid midwestern values of the family had a profound effect on their typically wonky local companions.
Getting an assignment to write a novelization can be difficult because the market is so limited. Without dealing with the owner of the publishing license, you cannot sell your novelization because you do not own rights to the universe the characters, situations, and locations that make your work a novelization instead of a novel. Publishers pay big bucks to TV and movie production companies for licensing rights to these universes. Many lawyers are involved. I suspect the real reason I got the job was less because of my sparkling prose than because I turn in that sparkling prose on time. If you are serious about your work, I admonish you to do the same. As in other instances, for publishers, time is money.
But how do I actually do it? How do I turn the three scripts sent to me by Harper Paperbacks in New York into a single coherent novel? First I read the three scripts very carefully. I make an outline and note what happens in every scene. This gives me an overview of what the stories are about. Or, in Hollywood jargon, it shows me the story arc. 90210 was an ensemble show written for the MTV generation. That means that instead of seeing a single story that carries us from credits to fade out, in a single hour we see two, three, or maybe even four stories, all rotated in snippets. This works fine for TV, but it would drive a reader crazy. So, after I have my outline, I move scenes around, putting all the same story stuff together. I do each act separately because if I didnt, some stories would be starting in the book when others were ending, and this would lead to as much confusion as the MTV snippets.
After that, I must give these characters interior lives they cannot have on TV because of limitations of the form. I must tell you what they are thinking and why. I must decide whether were dealing with a weekday or a weekend. Did these kids cut classes or what? Transitions are also needed. In most 90210 scripts characters are here, there, and someplace else without regard for transportation. Where the script says that two characters glared at each other across the tennis court, and in the next scene theyre snooping around a shack across town, I have to tell you how they got from the courts to the shack.
Sometimes putting all the pieces together is difficult. Frequently, the three scripts have three different dramatic thrusts, and three different sets of guest characters. I do the best I can to smooth things out, have our main characters refer to stuff that happened earlier and so on, but the truth is, some of my 90210 books are a little choppy. The big question is, does writing novelizations pollute my precious bodily fluids? If I am not polluting myself, what, if anything, am I getting out of it? The trivial answer, of course, is that I get money. 90210 paid my bills for many months.
Star Trek novels pay much more than a writer is likely to get for a first science fiction novel and they pay royalties too, but this is not always the case with novelizations. Harper Paperbacks wanted me to write the 90210 novelizations as work for hire. If you have the guts and the financial resources to just say no, never do work for hire. Working for hire means that not only do you have no control over the final product, but you will receive no royalites; you will be paid a one time flat fee. No matter how much money the books make, the writer will receive no more than his advance. You can see why this is so popular with publishers. Of course, no matter what your financial arrangements are, the publisher always owns the copyright to your novelization. A publisher can't allow just anybody to write a novel about a successful TV series. Remember all those lawyers? They get more big bucks to make sure that the writer doesnt retain any rights to the material, not even something called droit moral, or moral right. That means that if the publisher screws up your prose or your plot or your delicate characterizations, you can't do nothin'. These things dont happen often, but they happen sometimes, and if they do, the writer hasn't a legal leg to stand on. But the news is not all bad. Since starting to write 90210 novelizations I have become more adept at handling point-of-view and transitions. I believe my writing is also more spare and solid now. Certainly, it is possible to become sloppy when you know that just about anything you turn in will be welcomed because it fills the blank pages around the 8-page photo insert of the shows stars. But knowing the traps, I can avoid them if I want to, and I do. I write the best I can because know that in another few weeks or months, I will be writing something that is not a novelization, and that bad habits are much harder to break than to form.
Writing novelizations can allow you to practice your writing skills, and it can buy you time, but you are not obligated to do it forever. When the season turns, when its time to railroad, when the fat lady sings at last, you can always go back to writing what we in the cultural elite call real books. Novelizations have their place: They allow writers to earn while they learn. And if a writer is conscientious, he or she can be a better craftsperson for the experience. Novelizations of favorite shows can also comfort the afflicted and, perhaps encourage literacy in millions who would not otherwise pick up a book. Therefore, my title is a canard. All novelizations are not scum any more than all TV shows are violent or all movies are sleazy. If you get a chance to flip that greaseburger, do it. And the critics be damned.