KC: Can you tell your readers a bit about yourself and how you first began writing?
SJW: I was born in Exira, Iowa, to a poor farm family. My dad took a groundskeeper job at an enormous pool and park area when I was in kindergarten. I had learned to read at age 3 (following my brother up the road to his country school) and was addicted to books early on. I wrote my first short story “The Wise Mother Pig” in the second semester of first grade. I still have it in plastic page-protectors and show it at schools when I give motivational presentations. I wrote a stage play in third grade and my first western novella at age 12. So, I have essentially been a storyteller my entire life.
KC: You are a voracious reader and bibliophile. What types of books do you enjoy reading and collecting?
SJW: Besides my disciplined intellectual reading from my “Great Books of the Western World” collection, I like westerns, historical romances (Regency and Scottish) and romantic suspense. I ONLY buy the hardbacks of Diana Gabaldon and Suzanne Brockmann, but I also buy every paperback of Laura Kinsale, Linda Howard, Jo Beverly, Kat Martin (a personal friend), Hannah Howell, Janet Chapman, Catherine Anderson, Catherine Mann, JoAnn Ross, Linda Lael Miller, Sharon Sala, Jude Deveraux, and Tara Janzen. Just lately I added Karen Ranney and Julianne MacLean. Among my western favorites are Louis L’Amour, Larry Martin (Kat’s husband) and Jory Sherman. My husband routinely waves my library card in my face, but I come back that reading is my only vice. It could be worse. I schedule reading time and speed read, in case you were wondering how I “get it all done.”
KC: How did you get started writing screenplays?
SJW: I was a Bonanza TV series fanatic. At 16 I wrote a letter to one of their Paramount writers, N. B. Stone, Jr., with a list of story ideas. He corresponded with me throughout that summer coaching me through my first teleplay (while he was on the set of his iconic movie Ride the High Country directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah). That hooked me on script writing. I took a creative writing course while working on my nursing degree in Albuquerque then returned home to Nebraska to marry a hometown boy and completed a degree in creative writing in 1985 (while working full-time as a critical care nurse and nurturing three daughters). From that point on I was an obsessed, disciplined professional writer (and did not retire from nursing until 2006). I wrote a western feature, Storm Maker, in 1990 that Producer Joe Wallenstein (Knott’s Landing then Sisters ) fell in love with and distributed to some of his friends like Barry Levinson and Clint Eastwood. No takers—but I was hooked. By 1997 when I met Lew Hunter (retired chair of UCLA Film Department) I had written eight scripts. He took me under his wing and I attended four of his two-week screenwriting colonies over the next few years. He critiqued the 20 scripts I wrote since meeting him. I signed with my current Writers Guild of America signatory agent in 2008 who has 16 of my scripts out and about with my most promising at Scott Free, producer and director Ridley Scott’s company. At this time I am polishing my 29th script for an independent producer and another spec script I wrote just because I had to get that story told. Lew will get those shortly.
KC: Writing a screenplay is a very different form of writing. What are some differences and similarities between writing a book and a screenplay?
SJW: Obviously the format is different but the Beginning-Middle-Ending story structure is the same, as is character. Though, a novel character can evolve, a screen character must be an inherently dramatic catalyst throughout a movie. Where novels can luxuriously investigate complex plots with many subplots and characters, a screenplay is more like a short story focusing on one crucial time period or event in a main character’s life, sans the subplots and cast of thousands. There just isn’t the screen time, audience patience or finances to render all those complexities. Where novels rely heavily on internalization of characters, screenplays are totally visual. When a writer pens a novel all things are orchestrated and controlled by that author. A screenwriter is merely outlining a blue print that will be creatively interpreted and enacted by an enormous number of creative professionals, but especially by the director and actors. The screenwriter has to learn how to generalize dramatically in a manner that will motivate all those collaborators. A writer writes, a director directs and actors act. Each has their own job. Where a novel is between the writer and the reader (with a good editor unobtrusively in the middle), a screenplay is written then handed off to all those others to do what they will with it. The writer has zero control (and sometimes doesn’t even get the credit of creation if many, many rewrites and a powerful director changes the fundamental story).
KC: What type of writer makes the best screenwriter?
SJW: That’s easy. Good screenwriters can visualize (like a motion-picture camera rolling), write succinctly without micro-managing character and can be satisfied with writing a blue-print rather than controlling the end product. That requires a confident person who lacks an over-bearing or sensitive ego. Write it, let it go and get busy writing something else.
KC: Is it necessary to copyright a screenplay?
SJW: Since 1979 the copyright laws have changed. It is always wise to legally copyright or register your creative material to protect your original work in case of someone making money from plagiarizing your stuff (making money being the key concept). The WGA has a script registration service that protects rights to a script for 5 years. There are no new stories, only your unique characters living their version of one of the 36 Dramatic Situations that 19th century writer, Georges Polti, identified. In Hollywood it is essential to track who is reading your script to identify if someone decided to do a take-off. One of Eddie Murphy’s underlings had read Art Buchwald’s script that Murphy turned into Coming to America. That’s how Buchwald won his plagiarism lawsuit.
KC: What would you advise a writer who would like to adapt her/his novel into a screenplay?
SJW: Identify the novel’s bare-bones Beginning-Middle-Ending plot and vital cast members. Focus on visuals, deleting ALL internalization. Though you may feel a subplot or certain supporting characters are integral to the drama of the story, be willing to condense, combine or delete all to get to 100 pages in the proper format. Tom Clancy HATED the adaptations of all three of his first novels because the movies didn’t stay true to his novels, but he had sold the dramatic rights and had no say. Ah, Tom, a 400 page script would be a 6-hour movie . . . Think about how you can take a 400-page novel to a 100-page screenplay. I suggest reading novels that have been adapted then going on-line (lots of sites) to download the scripts that were filmed. Compare and contrast what was retained and what was changed. Pay attention to succinct visuals, heightened characterization. And understand the formula pacing of a cinematic story. Consider that currently even Lifetime movies are costing about $1.5 million to produce and a feature is a minimum of $300K PER PAGE (which equals one minute of screen time). That means a low budget film is costing around $30 million. And people spend about a year out of their lives to plan, shoot then edit and distribute a film. YOU may be enthusiastic about your story but can you get it into a screenplay that warrants the money and time investment of others to that extent?
KC: You wrote that you consider screenwriting the epitome of creative writing. Why is that?
SJW: I firmly believe that I utilize every one of my hard earned writing skills of other writing disciplines in crafting a screenplay. It demands all from me: the succinct focus of Poetry’s vivid wordplay, the ability to clarify the Short Story’s pivotal life moment into a Beginning-Middle-Ending structure, the Juvenile Story focus that is simple yet enthralling, the Novel’s researched complexity of main plot, contributing subplot and fascinating characters and the Stage play’s intensity of abbreviated, multi-layered, riveting dialogue. I have learned that constant study of each writing disciplines empowers me to improve one and all. Do I recognize the conventions of the various disciplines and the various genres (Mystery, Juvenile, Inspirational, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Action-Adventure, Historical, Western and Romance)? Of course I do, but I do not see the craft requirements as predictable restrictions. I come to my writing with the intention of going for POSSIBILITIES. Yes, that is a lot of fun, but it is also challenging hard work. Every time I sit down to write whatever I feel a totally different creative surge triggered by whatever the discipline. SCREENWRITING, however, is a little different because it demands I put ALL my various skills to work. It is the epitome of writing disciplines practiced all at one sitting! What an adrenalin rush! I guess I am obsessed . . . and I don’t care! Screenwriting makes me feel ALIVE!Thank you for your time, Sally! We hope that you will come back to talk about other aspects of writing that interest you.
To learn more about Sally’s background and her upcoming classes go to: http://members.cox.net/sallyjwalker/
If you would like to see scripts in their entirety here are a few websites: