The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Script Writer to Novelist with Jim Morris

ThrillWriters, I have a treat for you. Jim Morris has stopped in to talk to us about transitioning between script writing and novel writing.

James Morris is a former television writer with produced credits including episodes of “Smallville,” “Crossing Jordan” and “The 4400.” Born in Chicago, he now calls Los Angeles home. He lives with his wife and dog, and when not writing you can find him experimenting in the kitchen (which is one of my favorite of his attributes.) 

So you see we are in good hands with this information.

Fiona -
Jim, you have been involved in writing for a long time, but you have shifted your attention lately from script to novel. What led you to this change and a bit about your newest novel that just won a Kindle Scout contract - congratulations by the way!

Jim - 
Sure, and thank you Fiona, for having me. 

I always knew I wanted to write, and I grew up going to the movies every weekend with my dad. Growing up in the Midwest, it seemed such a strange goal to want to get into entertainment, but I was hooked with storytelling. I used to also love reading Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. I went to college, majored in English literature and film, and then I moved to Los Angeles. From there, I was lucky enough to meet the right people, and work hard, where I landed on a few TV series. I had a writing partner at the time, but we eventually amicably broke up. 

Afterwards, it was difficult to re-brand myself as a solo entity, but I still had the love of words and storytelling, so I shifted into novels. And it's been great - that direct communication between writer and reader. What Lies Within isn't my first book, but it's the first one that landed, and it's been great to see it take root. 

What Lies Within is a Young adult thriller ~

"You’re going to die"

A single text message and Shelley Marano’s world is upended. A normal high school senior, Shelley discovers she is adopted. She goes on a journey to uncover her past, only to find she was part of a horrific experiment to test the theory of nature versus nurture. In a culture of violence committed by young people, she may be one of these killers. With the lives of her and her friends in the balance, one thing is certain: she will never be the same.

Fiona - 

For you, which elements of writing for TV are helpful when it comes to creating a novel, and which elements did you have to be aware to change in the novel format?

Jim -
Here's the good with TV writing:
  1. You realize your words aren't precious. Yes, of course they are important, but all writing is about re-writing, but more so in TV due to budgets, input from differing stakeholders - so you learn to be agile. 
  2. TV writing forces you to write - there is no waiting for inspiration. The actors need a script, and the show must go on, so there's great training in just getting down to putting words on paper; and three, in my experience, writing scripts really forces you to make sure the story works - there's an outline, and it twists and turns, so you know where you are going as a writer. The downside, of course, is that there is no prose in scripts, and learning that craft, to expand on scenes in a novel took some time. Scripts are all about economy, moving in and out, but people read to have an experience, to settle in to the characters. It's a skill I'm still trying to develop more. 

Fiona - 
In your novel What Lies WIthin what kind of TV rating (G? R?) would it receive and why?

Jim -
What Lies Within is definitely a strong PG-13. It deals with violence in society. In fact, one of the reasons that I wanted to write it was I kept seeing the horrible things on the news with young people and shootings. I wondered - why is this happening? It wasn't like that when I was growing up, and it's like once an idea takes root in society, it grows, and it doesn't matter if the idea is good or bad. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it's out.

Fiona -
So what age ranges would you suggest. I'm asking because Crossing Jordan which I saw once (I'm not a TV watcher so feel flattered) seemed to be a good conversation started between the generations.

Do you feel that What Lies Within would be a good one for a family to share and discuss?

Jim - 
You know, it's weird that publishing even has these labels now - young adult, and new adult. I like to think of stories as just good stories. But yes, if I had to say what age ranges, of course that depends on the maturity of the reader. Probably age 15 and up. I wouldn't call it family-fare (when I hear that I think more of Walt Disney) but it could be something for parents and kids to read, as it deals with relationships within the family.

I will add, though, in terms of reader maturity, who would've thought that the HUNGER GAMES trilogy would've been such a hit given that it's about kids killing kids, and it's PG-13. I would've thought parents would've gone running away from a story like that, but I guess because it's not set in this reality, it's more palatable.

Fiona -
I'm interested in the topic of scaling up - it seems that storylines in the mainstream are getting progressively more sexualized and violent at early ages. And sometimes that messes up a good story. The hunger games, example that you brought up. . . this is about children killing children and not even in a distant way (as one does with guns) but in up close confrontations. Few trained adults could take a life in hand-to-hand -- it's against the preponderance of society's nature, but it seemed easily absorbed by our culture as a norm in literature then movies.

What do you see happening in the visual storytelling industry and the book industry along the lines of acceptability.

Jim - 
That is a deep question. I could argue that storytelling is all about high stakes, and there is nothing more high stake than a survival story set against the backdrop of a society out of control.
I honestly don't know how to answer this - there is no answer, really. All art, literature, movies, even food, is subjective. I think this push-pull has been happening for centuries, and will keep on going forever.

Fiona - 
Agreed. Reminds me of the Bob Dylan song - These Times They Are a Changin. . .
With the idea of exposing violence and sexuality to a broader age range - what kinds of parameters in terms of language and adult content were you constrained by when developing your scripts as opposed to books?

Jim - 
Whether books, or scripts, I just try to tell a good story. Some of those projects are aimed at different audiences. For example, my young adult novels: I want them to be appropriate for that age range, but also, if my aim is to write a thriller, it's gotta be, well, a thriller. High stakes, danger. I'm not a John Greene (though I'd love to be) where my stories are about relationships and will-she-or-won't-she-get-the-guy. Those are great stories, but what compels me as a writer is exploring more of the darkness, the underbelly in us, that usually gets glossed over. Especially for young adult, I think there's the tendency to repress how you feel, rather than seeing: hey, lots of people think these thoughts.

As for the TV scripts, there was more latitude because the audience was assumed to be adult. On the other hand, "The Dead Zone," which I wrote for, was on the USA Network, and it was more family-oriented, or at least at that time.

I will add, and I think it's funny: my mother always asks me when am I going to write a "nice book."

Fiona - 
I think those dark underbelly things are exactly the kinds of things that YA needs to explore and talk about. 

And just to add a bit of psychology here. Humans are wired to tell stories as a means of experiencing without experiencing. If one hears the story about being eaten by a bear, one knows that that is a possibility and when in a bear populated setting, the person understands they shouldn't go up and pet the bears and share a picnic. Decisions are made based on this information.  By providing experience through character-learning, that is the reader growing along with the character, a lot of underbelly things can be mastered and let go through literature instead of actual experience.

YA is a time for storm surges. What kinds of "dark underbelly" themes did you explore in your YA novels?

Jim - 
What Lies Within is the first one to make it to publication, and at its root it's about identity. Who are we? That's at the root of a lot of what I write. There's the structure of what parents want their kids to do, to be, but that's not always who the kids are. I think that's great tension - between who you are versus who you "should" be, or who others want you to be.

I don't always have the same theme for my work, but the quest for identity is one that I realize I come back to often. Who are we versus who we say we are?

By the way, that's why I find Facebook fascinating. Who are the people on it? Are they whom they really are, or is it how we would like to be seen?

Fiona - 
The search for authenticity is timeless - I'm turning 50 and still wondering who I'm going to be when I grow up. I imagine this theme resonates across our society. Did you use that theme in your TV scripts as well?

Jim - 
TV scripts are a whole different ball of wax. On TV, you are hired as a team, and in most TV shows the main character never changes. It's about the case of the week. People tune in to see their favorite TV character - whoever that is - and watch them solve something. But at the end of the episode, they really haven't changed. That's the nature of episodic network TV, which is where I worked. (It's different, too, than the shows on cable, Netflix, now, certainly.) So, it's less about introducing a theme, or having a character undergo an arc - and growing - as it is in a book.

Fiona -
Did you find that frustrating? Taking A, B, and C and today they. . . instead of growing the character? Or did you find that that freed you up to experience your character in different ways - maybe reveal different layers of your character by manipulating only the plot? 

And the follow up question - how do you like manipulating your characters through an arc - what has surprised you about the process in your novel writing?

Jim -
I really enjoyed working in TV and would like to do it again. 

It all depends on the show. It can be frustrating because the focus is more on: what is the case of the week? But, you're right, that's also freeing: the character is pretty much set, so you're job is to create a lively story. Sure, there can be "season" arcs that you help create, where do you say Character A will end up here by the end of the season. For me, this is what it comes down to: TV is a group effort, and along with a group effort comes some difficult personalities, but it's great to work as a team; it can be a lot of fun/social. Writing a novel is isolating, and yet, it's all me. Love the book or hate it, I wrote it. There is a great ownership of it, where in TV, maybe my script got rewritten by the boss, or maybe an actor messed up a line (or maybe made my "flat" dialogue that much better!) It's all part of the soup, and a team effort - the end product belongs to everyone, not just me.

If a writer was trying to develop themselves in a new direction, moving from novel to screen writing what advice would you give? What first steps could they take?

Jim - 
Interesting. First, I would have to sit them down and say: your book is yours, but what you write for the screen? That will never belong to you. That's the main difference; once a writer knows that going on, then it will save a lot of frustration when the many, sometimes contradictory notes come in. Second, everything happens in present tense, and you're limited only by what you see/hear on screen. That's the pleasure of a book - you can experience a character's thoughts, a voice, a rhythm. On screen, it's: what do we see? What do we hear? 

Fiona - 
Will you tell us a scar story?

Jim - 
I got my most noticeable scar when I was a young kid, and I played near construction sites. This was in the 70s, and building was booming, and up and down my neighborhood were new houses going up. Well, I was playing near a foundation and jumped into the basement, only to land weird, and my head banged onto the cement. But there happened to be a nail sticking straight up on that floor, and it embedded into my forehead. Not deep enough to penetrate my skull or anything, but enough to give me a Harry Potter scar. Of course, I ran to a neighbor and she fixed me up, and I learned the hard way not to play near construction site

Fiona - 
Thanks so much Jim for sharing your insights and experience with us.

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1 comment:

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