How Hollywood Helped Us Write YA

Stacy Kramer and Valerie Thomas have written a hilarious novel, From What I Remember, that’s equal parts Clueless, The Hangover, and some amazing John Hughes movie that John Hughes has yet to make. The novel’s cinematic DNA is no surprise—both Stacy and Valerie were bona fide Hollywood insiders before they made the leap to novel writing.

Last week, we shared some thoughts from Stacy and Valerie on how they were influenced by their time in the film industry. We then invited you to look through the writings you’ve posted to Figment and choose one story (or poem, or play) related to the movies. This week, in honor of the 2012 MTV Movie Awards on Sunday, we’re offering you a chance to play it again, Sam.

Tag one of your film-related stories FWIRMovieMTV and the Figment team will choose four pieces to feature on the Figment homepage! Be sure to tag your work before June 3, 2012 at 4 p.m. ET in order to be entered. Read the guidelines here, and read Stacy and Valerie’s original post, reprinted below.

Our background is in film and television, and we’ve only recently come to embrace the world of YA fiction. But we’re so grateful to have arrived here after a long journey, one that felt like it was, somehow, always leading us here. Valerie worked as a producer for the director Jonathan Demme, and Stacy labored as a studio executive, a producer and screenwriter. While writing YA novels is, by far, the best job we’ve ever had, the years in film have helped shape WHAT, HOW and WHY we write.

 

Stacy

I worked as a studio executive in Los Angeles at Paramount Pictures, Sony, and Twentieth Century Fox, working on a variety of movies, from dramas to comedies (The Addams Family, Regarding Henry, Juice, and The Last Seduction, among others). I went on to produce (Jawbreaker, Igby Goes Down) and then, finally, to write (Lizzie McGuire, Less Than Perfect, Labor Pains.)

I realized while working with writers on their scripts that I had my own stories to tell, and I was getting frustrated helping other people tell their stories. That’s why I started writing—first secretly, and then openly, as I segued from producing to writing; eventually, I sold my first movie to Universal Pictures.

Helping other screenwriters shape their movies showed me how to tell my own stories. I owe them all a huge debt. I picked up different tips from every writer (both famous and obscure), learning things like the fact that jokes come in threes, or that movies are often told in seven beats, with the storyline turning every 15 pages. I learned that a story begins when something happens to your protagonist, and it takes off when the protagonist makes something happen. The first draft always sucks. Writers write every day, even when they can’t and don’t want to. And from all of this knowledge and 10,000 hours of writing (the time it takes, according to Malcolm Gladwell, to get good at something), I eventually became a screenwriter and then, a novelist.

Movies are very circumscribed, formulaic, and rigidly structured entertainment, but YA novels can be anything your imagination can dream up. The form is so much more inspiring and artistic. I still use the tools gleaned from years in Hollywood to write my novels, but the results are vastly different. Hollywood made me a writer, and the YA world made me a storyteller.

 

Valerie

I spent 12 years running development for the director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Adaptation). I helped decide what material we wanted to pursue—whether it was books or plays that we wanted to adapt to film, or screenplays that we wanted to produce —and I spent a lot of time working with screenwriters, helping them crack open their material to forge the best possible story.

By far the biggest lesson I learned—and one that kind of haunts me now that I’m a writer—is that you have to write more drafts than you can possibly imagine before your writing really sings. In the case of Philadelphia, for example, I remember that by the time we went into production on the film, the screenwriter had written 54 drafts of the screenplay. Fifty-four!!! And even though that meant he occasionally took a few steps backward before going forward, the screenplay continued to get better and better—tighter, more honed, more focused on its central themes. There are still times now, in my writing life, when I reflexively reject notes, thinking my work is done. But in the back of my mind, I know that going back in, unpacking and rebuilding the story, will make it better.

When I look back on the process of writing my two books, I see that there was a seminal moment for each book when someone—my agent, my editor, a trusted reader—suggested I rewrite significant portions of the book. Both times, I balked at first. But then I settled down, got to work, and did what was asked of me. And in each case, the novel took a big step forward.

So when this happens now—as it always will—I try to remember the dark days of working on Philadelphia, when the story wasn’t working, and I pressed the writer to try again, and again, and again.

So thank you Hollywood. Without you, my books would be half-written and half-baked; without you I wouldn’t be the YA writer I am today.

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