Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Guest Post: "Adapting my Screenplay to a Middle Grade Novel" by Fred Holmes

Let me start off by telling you about my novel: THE UGLY TEAPOT is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who loved her father so much that she worried about him constantly. After all, he was a photographer who traveled to the most dangerous places in the world.

To allay her fears, each time he came home he brought her silly gifts, each one with supposed magical powers: the Seal of Solomon, the Ring of Gyges, even Aladdin’s Lamp. It was that lamp that the girl found most unbelievable, for it looked like an ugly teapot. Nevertheless, her father assured her it was real, and made her promise to save her three wishes for something very special.

Then . . . six months later . . . the unthinkable happened. Her father was killed while on assignment to Baghdad. And so on the day of his funeral the girl did something she never thought she would ever do. She took out that teapot and gave it a rub . . .

Okay, that’s the story blurb, and now I have a confession to make. I didn’t start out to write novels. I started out to make films. I directed two feature films starring Lou Diamond Phillips, one for Miramax and one for Lionsgate; then I directed a Bollywood feature film shot on location in India that starred two huge Bollywood stars, one of whom had won the Indian version of an Academy Award.

I also wrote and directed a lot—and I do mean a LOT! —of television. Some of these were documentaries shot all over the world, but mostly I worked in series television—and most of these shows were in the area of children’s television. According to IMDB, I’ve directed north of 250 episodes of TV, and along the way I’ve won quite a few awards, including two Emmys.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because none of it matters. Seriously, when I started writing novels I discovered that all of my work in television and film was irrelevant. It didn’t matter one bit. Okay, maybe it did matter one bit—writing so much television had taught me what a good story looked like, sounded like, tasted like (they taste like chicken and go really well with some fava beans and a nice Chianti), but I still had to learn how to translate that knowledge into writing prose. And there is a difference between writing prose and writing screenplays. Oh yeah, trust me on this. There’s a huge difference.

When I started writing THE UGLY TEAPOT I was like a deer in the headlights. I had no clue what I was doing and went through a bunch of drafts. I tried to educate myself by reading a lot of books on writing and by speaking with my friends who were novelists. Mostly, however, I read a lot of children’s fiction. I’ve always loved reading, and I’ve always loved children’s literature; plus I’ve been fortunate to work on television shows with children who fit my target age range. This all helped. It also helped that screenplays and novels have something in common. They both have the same “show not tell rule”. Unfortunately, they also have a major difference. Novels are meant to be read and screenplays are meant to be filmed. Yeah, I know, duh! But what this means is that you only put down in a screenplay what the audience will see and/or hear. You do not dig deep into the characters’ psyche—that’s for the actors to portray, and the director to cover visually—and they both get really upset with you if you mess with their territory!

So in order to write THE UGLY TEAPOT, I had to learn how to write fiction. This was a challenge for someone who had never taken a writing course. What I did have, fortunately, was a lot of experience telling stories. I also had a good story to tell. THE UGLY TEAPOT began life as a screenplay called FIREFLIES, and everyone who had read it, loved it. It had been optioned numerous times by some powerful producers (including Gerald R. Molen who had won the Academy Award for producing Schindler’s List). Jerry tried to get FIREFLIES made into a movie for a number of years, but he was known for producing big-budgeted films (HOOK, JURASSIC PARK, MINORITY REPORT, etc.), and FIREFLIES was a sweet, small-budgeted film, so he was never able to get it made. Then a friend of mine at Disney read it, loved it, and told me, “This is really good. You should adapt it into a novel.”

This struck a chord with me. First, I really appreciated the praise; and second, I’d always wanted to write novels, I just never thought I could. Why? Well, the best analogy I can give you comes from some of my actor friends in Hollywood. A lot of them will tell you, “I’m only acting in television and films to make money. My goal is to be a star on Broadway. That’s where the real actors are.” And that, in a convoluted way, was my attitude about writing for television—the “real” writers were writing novels—and I wasn’t a real writer. At the time, however, I was working in South Africa a lot and those seventeen hour plane rides to Cape Town gave me ample time to fuss around with the idea of writing a novel, and what came out of that fussing was THE UGLY TEAPOT.

The story itself had an earlier germination. My brother had died of cancer at a very young age and his death had a devastating impact on me. FIREFLIES was my way of dealing with my grief, and I wanted to use the story to help others. However, I didn’t want to write a sad, depressing ode to my brother. He wouldn’t have liked that. So what did I write instead? I wrote an action/adventure film filled with magic and humor.

Then when FIREFLIES the screenplay metamorphosed into THE UGLY TEAPOT the novel, I stayed true to my original story, but tried to make TEAPOT more “novel-like”. This required, for one thing, expanding my story. FIREFLIES was 110 pages long (normal for most screenplays, but too short for a middle-grade novel), so expanding it allowed me to flesh out my characters and situations. This was fun, but intimidating. I was helped along by the fact that I had kept most of my notes on character and plot from the original screenplay, and I had tons of material I’d been forced to cut from the screenplay in order to get it down to length.

Bottom line: I really enjoyed the process. So much so that I’m doing it again. I’m currently writing the sequel to THE UGLY TEAPOT. What’s it about? Well, I can’t tell you very much without a spoiler alert, but I can tell you this: Aladdin’s Lamp has appeared in a tiny village in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and the people living there will never be the same. Fathers will rise from the dead, dogs will start talking, and people will die. And that’s just on the first day.

If you would like to know more about THE UGLY TEAPOT: HANNAH’S STORY, here are some links:

The sequel will be out at the end of this year, and I hope you’ll check them both out. Thanks for listening!

THE UGLY TEAPOT is Fred Holmes’s first fiction novel, having previously ghost written a nonfiction book, LETTERS FROM DAD. He is known primarily as a writer and director of films and television, working primarily in family films and children’s television. His work can be seen on Mary Lou Retton’s FLIP FLOP SHOP, BARNEY & FRIENDS, WISHBONE, HORSELAND, IN SEARCH OF THE HEROES, and many other shows, for which he has won two Emmys and three CINE Golden Eagles, among numerous other awards. He has also directed three feature films, including DAKOTA, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, distributed by Miramax, and HEART LAND, a Bollywood feature film shot on location in India. He lives with his wife and son in the southwest United States, and can be found online at www.flholmes.com


  1. I really enjoyed hearing about your writing journey, Fred. You've also had quite the 'entertainment' experience, which is way cool! This book sounds wonderful, even more so that you've shared your inspiration for its original creation.

    1. Thanks, it has definitely been a challenging journey. If you're curious about how to sell one of your novels as a screenplay in LA, stay tuned. Robert will be publishing another author post from me that will share with you the process. Thanks again for your comment! Happy writing!


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