I’m so excited that Leslie Lehr is here with us today at Women’s Fiction Writers! Not only is Leslie sharing how she approached adapting her latest novel into a screenplay (as if that’s not enough), but she gives practical advice on how to keep our stories moving along to make them page turners!
Please welcome Leslie Lehr to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Keep A Movie In Mind When Writing Your Novel To Keep Your Story Moving
Amy: Welcome to Women’s Fiction Writers, Leslie! I was intrigued to learn you’re adapting your latest novel, What A Mother Knows, into a screenplay for an independent producer. Can you tell us a little about the story and why you think this story has the potential to make a good (great!) movie? (It’s something so many of us think of after we write, but maybe we should keep it in mind as we’re writing!)
Leslie: Hi Amy, Thanks so much for inviting me! What could be more fun than talking about what I love to do?
As you mentioned, I just finished the screenplay adaptation for my novel, What A Mother Knows. And yes, I do believe we should keep a movie in mind while we are writing for two reasons.
First, if we write with the awareness of being the camera for our reader, we will work harder to translate the story we envision into words on the page. Most writers are familiar with the Show Don’t Tell advice that encourages us to describe the action on the page to allow the reader to experience the story along with the characters. Thinking of the movie in our minds helps us avoid relying on a narrator to interpret what is happening.
Second, envisioning your story as a movie can help strengthen the Narrative Drive. After creating a compelling character, I believe this is the most important element of any story. It addresses the bigger picture – the plot that drives the entire story forward. Since your hero is driving the story, think of the story as a car. You want it to be a fancy race car driving around twists and turns, bypassing extended detours that will slow the hero from getting to the final destination. You want to write a page-turner, a book that will keep your reader up all night. Thinking of your story as a movie will help you write it that way.
How do you write it that way? Aren’t most of us visual writers from the start? Don’t we watch the story of every book we read? Isn’t that why, if we read the book before we see the movie, we prefer the book version? It is the story we imagined.
I saw certain scenes of What A Mother Knows as a movie from the very beginning. To actually write it, I began with what the first scene might be. The first draft of the book was very different than the literary thriller that is now in bookstores. I planned the scenes by visualizing them, but also used words as my playground, writing poetic prose with parallel story lines that alternated until the end. It was great fun, but it lacked narrative drive. So I revised that work of art into a suspenseful page-turner. Same exact story!
You know how they say writing is rewriting? I think of it as a puzzle. No one really cares until you have all the pieces, the words on the page. For me, the hard part is thinking up that strong, detailed story. Once I have the first draft down, the fun begins. It’s like a puzzle and I get to move the pieces around to tell the story the best possible way.
Here’s the story:
A woman recovers from a fatal car accident and learns that, not only is she being held responsible for the death of the young man who was in the car, but her daughter, the only one who may know what happened that day, is missing.
While What A Mother Knows is categorized as a literary thriller, it’s structured as a detective story about a mom who has to become this kickass woman to find her daughter and – oh, by the way – defend herself from a murder charge. It’s a thriller because she’s in jeopardy, but thematically it’s a family drama – a love story about generations of mothers and daughters. Most of the women in the book are different kinds of mothers, all doing their best. The hero is a typical working mom, but she works in Hollywood, so she has to protect her children from all the bad influences that put food on the table. She recovers to find her world upside down – her son is away, her husband is working across the country, and the young man who was killed is a rock ‘n roll legend. So there’s a lot going on. But first and foremost: she is desperate to find her missing 16-year-old daughter.
Amy: Without giving too much away, what’s your favorite scene in the novel, What A Mother Knows? Was it one of the more difficult scenes to write, or one of the easier ones.
Leslie: My favorite scenes are when Michele, the hero, crosses the country searching for her daughter. Key West is one of my favorites, because she comes heartbreakingly close to finding her. It’s very visual, as she and her son run through the carnival in Jackson Square by the ocean at sunset. Ultimately, she loses quite a bit more by the end of this chapter. So this is a scene where she has a huge rise in hope – and the greatest fall. It was very challenging to write, because of the emotional arc. Every time I read it, I cry.
Amy: Do you think this scene will remain your favorite in the screenplay?
Leslie: Writing it for the screen was a challenge of compression. In the first draft of the book, I spent many pages of lush prose describing this colorful place and all the smells and sounds and heat. It even includes the Curry Mansion, an antique filled B&B that my aunt owns – so I’ve been there and it’s all real. Now it’s woven into very tight pages of vivid action. In the movie you will be able to see it all in a glance. I hope the actress can express the internal narrative, what Michele is thinking and doing at the end of the scene from the book. I want to be moved enough to cry.
There are other scenes I love just as much that will look great on the screen. Hawaii is an exciting scene – it used to open the book many drafts ago. The Hollywood chapter has a movie with in the movie, which has some critical visual surprises. There’s a hilarious bar scene in Venice Beach. And the love scene will make me blush. Perhaps being a writer is like being a mom. I love all my babies.
Amy: I think sometimes we get so caught in the business of writing that we lose the joy of writing. Are you enjoying the process of screen writing? How does it differ for you from novel writing?
Leslie: I’ve written and sold several original screenplays, but books are more fun to write. You have complete control of the words and the story world. You have one editor, who usually values each word on the page and is working to increase the clarity for other readers. With films, there are often many people who have to justify their parking spaces by offering opinions. And that’s part of the game. You never know whether the script will get to the screen, so it’s a bit like a game. There is far more money involved, so the stakes are higher for everyone. But to see an actor saying your words on the screen in a world you invented? Like the commercial says: it’s priceless.
That said, a script is essentially a blueprint for others to build upon. They don’t know what else you are thinking, because you have very little room for words on the page. You can’t describe much of the action, because that’s the director’s job. You can’t describe how the dialogue is spoken, because that’s the actor’s job. The setting is the productions designer’s job; the clothing is the costume designer’s job. There is a lot of Doors music in this book and some lyrics are used as clues, but who knows what the film composer will use?
To adapt the book, I had to boil the story down to the essence of each scene that advanced the plot. That’s where the Narrative Drive comes in – each action on the screen must move the story forward. So I made a list of events or revelations, then combined scenes and deleted others. So even though the book is tight and suspenseful, compressing 350 pages to a 110 page script of mostly dialogue was tough. The challenge is to do it while still expressing the emotional arc of the characters. At this point, I’m too close to the story to know if I succeeded enough for the producer to attract actors and get financing. So I may get another round of revisions. Or she may hire another writer who has a fresh perspective. But that’s okay. It’s like my baby has grown up and moved out. The book is still my baby.
Amy: Sometimes I worry so much about who will like the book I’m writing that I forget that first and foremost, I have to like it. What’s your advice to aspiring and other published authors for maintaining that joy of writing when “the word business” is your livelihood? You know, that feeling we get when we’re lost in a story, or tearing apart a paragraph, coming up with just the right word, while losing all sense of time?
Leslie: First of all, “the word business” has many angles. I do a lot of manuscript consulting to help others with story structure and that allows me to be more selective about what I write. I also lecture at conferences and seminars. So I write essays and novels that I want to read, or that say something that I can’t shut up about. I’ve crafted my career around writing, but I don’t publish as often as many. My hat is off to you and to others who do!
To answer your specific question, when I tire of writing a particular project, I try to explore the story from a different angle. I’ll work on a different character, a different scene, or a different element of style such as description or dialogue. Chapter openings and endings are important and can be fun to play with. I often begin the day by revising earlier pages to get in the mood and match the tone. And yes, once I have the story figured out and am in that zone, I can spend hours on crafting a sentence or selecting the perfect word to express the idea in my head. I agree, that’s a wonderful feeling.
I do usually write chronologically, except for the last scene. I always write that early to keep the excitement about where I’m headed. How can you hit the bull’s-eye if you can’t see the target? Of course, it often evolves or changes. But I have to say, the last scene of What A Mother Knows is incredibly close to the last scene in my very first draft!
Back to the question about whom we write for… My mother thinks I need to consider my reader before using swear words, describing love scenes, or having someone die. But I do. I write for me. And these days, I am far more likely to write a happy ending.
After graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with a Student Emmy, she spent several years in film production, rising to be the West Coast Production Manager of a commercial and music-video company, then went freelance to work on feature films. Once a mother, Lehr started writing seriously. Her humorous essays evolved into her first book, Welcome to Club Mom: The End of Life As You Know It – but the publisher changed the subtitle to The Adventure Begins. And it did…..
The what-ifs of modern motherhood drove Lehr to write her debut novel, 66 Laps, winner of the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society Gold Medal. Soon after, her screenplay, Heartless, was produced as an independent film. The romantic thriller financed five other films for Santa Monica Pictures, aired on USA TV and has been screening in Europe for eight years. Her next books were the nonfiction tomes, The Happy Helpful Grandma Guide, excerpted on FisherPrice.com; and Wendy Bellissimo: Nesting, featured on Oprah.
Her second novel, Wife Goes On, was a featured selection for the Pulpwood Queens Book clubs, with 250 chapters of tiara-wearing, book-sharing readers. She next wrote the screenplay, Club Divorce, for Lifetime.
What a Mother Knows, her new literary thriller, available at bookstores across the country, is a Recommended Read at Target.
Lehr’s essays have been published in the New York Times Modern Love column, Huffington Post, and anthologies including Mommy Wars (lauded on the Today Show), The Honeymoon’s Over, and Arianna Huffington’s On Becoming Fearless. She blogs for the Girlfriends Book Club and contributes to the Tarcher/Penguin Series “Now Write.”
Lehr has an MFA from Antioch University and is a popular panelist at literary and film conferences around the country. In addition to private manuscript consulting, she teaches at the world-renowned Writer’s Program at UCLA Extension and mentors writers to publication as the Novel Consultant for Truby’s Writers Studio. She is a member of PEN, The Authors Guild, WGA, Women In Film, and The Women’s Leadership Council of L.A.
On the personal side, she is currently incognito as Chemo Chick in Karen Rinehart’s breast cancer blog, Sick of Pink.
Lehr has two daughters and lives in Southern California.