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10 Things I Learned as a Writer When My Book Became a TV Show
Having your creative work adapted probably isn't the experience you're expecting, and that's a good thing.
I’ve now spent three trips hanging out with the cast, crew, producers, and creative team behind Reginald the Vampire — the SyFy Network TV show adapted from my Fat Vampire series of novels. It’s my first adapted work … but definitely not my last, seeing I’ve got several more projects in the pipeline.
I’m no expert on Hollywood just yet, and I haven’t had as much work adapted as other folks. Still, I’m the only author I know who’s had a project make it this far, and because of it I’ve had many discussions with my fellow authors around all things adaptation.
Those authors are curious. They’re also mistaken about some assumptions that we, in the world of written words, have about what it means for our work to end up on the screen. To answer some of the most common questions I’ve received — and to correct a few of the mistaken impressions I’ve heard from my fellow scribes — I figured I’d write out some of my biggest learnings.
The list below is just what came to mind. If you have questions beyond these — or any questions about my thoughts and experiences below — don’t hesitate to leave a comment and ask! I love sharing my experiences. I’m going to love answering your questions.
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Off the top of my head, here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past few years, following innumerable hours spent talking to the folks who are bringing my absurd little vampire story to life.
1. Anyone who adapts your book to TV or film will make changes … and you want them to make changes.
The questions I get more than any others are those involving changes to the storylines in my book, or the characters, or the point of view, or anything else.
A lot of people ask me what changed between the book and TV show.
They ask me if I think future seasons, if we get them, will change even more things.
They ask me if I mind the changes, or if I actively like (or hate) them.
Sometimes, I get proactive support on an issue that actually doesn’t bother me at all: fans of the books telling me they liked my version of things better, and telling me how the TV show screwed everything up.
But here’s the truth, and this is something I told to many different people when I was on the set the last time: It doesn’t matter what I think. I don’t even really have any justifiable ground upon which to have an opinion. I simply don’t care, because books and TV are apples and oranges.
The metaphor I’ve settled on is that of cousins. The TV show is not derivative of my books. It’s not “my books brought to life onscreen.” Rather, Fat Vampire (the novel) is one distinct story and art form … and Reginald the Vampire (the TV show) is another.
One is not a faithful duplicate of the other, nor should it be. I created Fat Vampire. Harley Peyton created Reginald the Vampire. Even if we ignore how the different format (TV vs. book) demands different rhythms (more on that later) and even if we ignore how many creative minds must come together for a video adaptation that didn’t need to come together to make the book (more on that next), there’s still the issue of something being created from nothing.
And here’s what I mean by that: In the past, I’ve had to rewrite stories that I’d begun but gone astray writing. I’ve gotten halfway through a book only to realize I really should start over. It’s tempting to think “Most of this can be salvaged. I’ll just pivot a little and only rewrite what doesn’t work.” But that’s always a mistake, because until I let go of what already exists, I can’t create anything new. The same is true of the first few times I tried to adapt my own work to film. You can’t start with “just tell the story of the book in script form.” It’s a huge mistake. Creation is creation, and in my experience that requires starting with at least the feeling of a blank slate, even if it’s not truly blank.
Harley knew he was going to create a show about an unlikely, misfit vampire and his maker. He knew they’d be named Reginald and Maurice. Beyond that, though, the rest was just a suggestion. Harley drew on my novels for the bones of the plot, and he filled out the details with many of the same details I originally wrote. But he had to think of those things as suggestions, not requirements. To do otherwise would rob the TV show of what makes it special.
I view Reginald the Vampire as a cousin to Fat Vampire. Each art form is its own thing with its own life. The two endeavors share DNA, but one isn’t a copy of — and one isn’t bound by the restraints of — the other.
Do I like the changes to my book? It’s not really a relevant question. I don’t think the important things changed and I’m fascinated, as a creator, by the things that have. I love watching creativity take shape. So is it good? Bad? The questions there are irrelevant, and honestly I don’t see it either way: good or bad.
2. It’s next-level collaboration, and it’s nothing like the way you wrote the book.
If an author is anything like me writing Fat Vampire, they write entirely solo.
For about a month, I sat in my office, alone, and wrote a story about a guy who wasn’t pretty or perfect enough for the glamorous, all-appearances vampire world. Nobody got a say in what happened. Nobody but me.
That’s not how TV works — or films, for that matter. TV is written by an entire team of writers — ten or so in the case of Reginald. They bat ideas around, and the showrunner orchestrates those ideas and picks the ones they like. Each episode’s script has a lead writer who pens what the others felt was the ideal structure and flow for the episode, but even then the showrunner will probably rewrite most scripts, if only to smooth out the tone from show to show.
But it’s not just writers. The production (network it airs on, those funding the project, others) also has input, telling the showrunner their opinions and requirements. The directors (there are several for Reginald) then put their own stamp on things, giving a writer’s script a certain feel and flavor. Direction can change the meaning of lines, revamp or rewrite lines, or edit them out entirely in post-production.
Actors, of course, bring themselves to the part. No matter what writers write and no matter how directors direct, Jacob Batalon playing Reginald won’t be anything like Gary Oldman playing Dracula. You can’t get Oldman out of Batalon or vice-versa. That means the actors, too, collaborate to determine the final feel.
The production designer, who determines the shape and feel of the sets, creates the look of the show … together with the director, showrunner, and director of photography. I’ll admit (sorry, fellas) that I used to think camera operators just pointed and shot: no creativity involved. That’s not true. They’re highly skilled pros who add even more to the melting pot that any production becomes.
It goes on and on and on. TV and film are a creative soup. There’s absolutely no comparison between the rules of creating TV and film versus one author creating a book. Everyone brings something to it, from the gaffer to the art department to the costume designers to the SFX artists. Smart productions hire good, talented people … then guide them, but otherwise let them do their thing. They were hired because they knew what they were doing, right?
3. Nobody has to include you, or run anything by you, or get your permission for anything … and they probably won’t.
The advice I’d give to any author embarking on the adaptation journey is the same advice as Elsa gave in Frozen: Let it go.
You’re not going to have any say whatsoever in the adaptation of your book. None. Unless you’re a superstar author with a ton of pull (and a book everyone’s fighting over), your job as contributor will end the day you sign the contract.
After that contract is signed, the producers own the rights. They can make a to-the-letter reproduction of the book, they can change it one hundred percent, or they can bury the project and do nothing at all. It’s up to them, and the author doesn’t get a say.
(For an extreme and terrible example of this, read the Stephen King short story “The Lawnmower Man,” then watch the really bad movie of the same name. The two have nothing in common at all, other than one scene involving a souped-up power lawnmower. That sort of thing is totally the production’s call, and the author can’t do anything about it even if they hate it.)
I suggest knowing and making peace with this ahead of time. Know that the adaptation will be different, and maybe very different. Are you okay with that? If not, maybe don’t sell your rights in the first place. Because not only will you have zero say in the matter; I’d argue you shouldn’t have any say. I got a big chunk of money when the rights to Fat Vampire sold. For that amount of money, the producers deserve their turn. They bought it fair and square.
I know I’m on a Stephen King run here, but King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining, which is very different from King’s book. It’s not that different, though; both are the same basic story, just with different supporting material. Personally, I think King needed to get over himself. Because he hated the movie so much, he eventually made his own — a six-hour TV miniseries starring Steven Webber and Rebecca DeMornay. It was terrible … because it insisted on following King’s book close to exactly.
Here’s a newsflash, folks: books and TV/film are different and people consume them differently. You can’t treat them the same … but more on that in #7 below.
4. The star determines the tone of the project and the vibe of the set.
The biggest differences between my books and the TV show were decided the second the show cast Jacob Batalon (from Spider-Man) as the lead character of Reginald.
The Reginald I wrote in the books was almost forty, because that’s around the age I was when I wrote the first book. Accordingly, he had the job of your stereotypical almost-forty guy: He worked in an office, surrounded by other forty-somethings. He had late-thirties problems and a late-thirties love interest.
Jacob, however, is 26 as I write this — young enough to be my son, though I try not to think about that. He needed a younger guy’s job: Hence the Slushy Shack. He needed younger friends, a younger love interest, and so on.
That one decision (Jacob as Reginald) caused a whole bunch of changes to fall into place. A Butterfly Effect’s worth of consequences followed. It became a younger-person’s show, not targeted at someone my age. Jacob is GenY, not GenX like me and my Reginald.
In addition to setting up so much about the production, cast, story, and feel of the production as a whole, the star also determines the feel of shooting and the vibe on set. That’s what my Teamster driver told me on Day One of my first visit, and I’ve found it to be entirely true: This is a friendly set, because Jacob is friendly.
Jacob’s been in some of the biggest-grossing movies ever, but he’s still new to Hollywood as a whole. He’s also not your typical Tom Cruise-style movie hero, which is something he’s made a point of saying in interviews. The resulting stew of experience could have sent him in either direction: humble star or insufferable diva. Fortunately, he’s 100% the former.
Because Jacob is so laid back and relatable (and chill; search the web to find out how much weed he smokes), he radiates a “chill” vibe for everyone. That makes the entire set — the whole production from end to end, in my experience — super cool and friendly. I don’t have any other productions yet to compare Reginald to, but I’m told its friendliness is a total unicorn … due in part to the island vibe of Victoria, where shooting occurs, but also in large part to Jacob.
5. Everyone has a very specific role on a TV show or film … and watching all those roles intersect is seriously impressive.
My second trip to the set left me less awestruck by the whole “my books are a show!” thing, so I was able to relax more and pay attention to the process versus the first trip. It’s incredibly impressive to watch, once you figure out what’s going on.
Before Reginald started shooting, I took a brief personal foray into amateur filmmaking. I’d read the story of how Primer was filmed and said, “Hey, maybe I can do that!” I was absurd levels of incorrect, but my small filmmaking experiment taught me a valuable lesson: Every single task that needs doing is actually ten tasks. Those ten tasks, in turn, break down into ten tasks each. All of those tasks require careful management and are almost impossible to keep track of and organize. If you manage to do all one hundred sub-tasks properly AND keep track of them, you might end up with a single aspect of a single shot in a mediocre film done approximately correctly. It’s just far, far too much work for a small group of mortals to do right … and that’s to create a “just okay” product, not a good one.
The Hollywood machine, however, has it down to a science. There’s not just a director. There’s also a first assistant director, called the First AD. Then a Second AD. Then a Third AD. And a TAD, but even though the T stands for “trainee,” they don’t behave like trainees. Rather, they’re mostly in charge of wrangling the talent.
There’s the Director of Photography. Who works with the Gaffer. Who has a team of lighting techs. There’s the set decorator, who has the same depth of staff and who works under the Production Designer. There are two cameras, A and B, and each one has two people operating it: one handling movements and zooms and pans, the other in charge of focus. (Not to mention the folks pushing the dollies and operating the cranes.) The DP and director get a raw feed from the cameras, but the actual recording is done in on the cameras themselves. Meanwhile, the Digital Imaging Technician, simply called the DIT, does color correction on the fly back in Video Village … even though he’s not receiving the actual final recordings, but instead giving the computer instructions that will then be overlaid on the actual footage. And all of that craziness doesn’t include the sound team and all their separate, audio-only files that have to be coordinated with all of the video footage. With its many takes and many angles. The whole thing is a logistical nightmare.
Watching it happen, though, you’d swear everything is clockwork. Everyone knows exactly what their responsibilities are, so they just follow the same cycle over and over and everyone knows what to do when: blocking, rehearsal, setup with stand-ins, master shot, coverage, reversals … and during all of that, all the details needs to be entirely consistent. Can’t have someone with their hands in their pockets from one angle, then out of their pockets later. The script supervisor handles that … and on and on.
It’s dazzling. And baffling. And amazing.
6. Productions do things by the rules at all times.
We authors are used to flying by the seat of our pants and making all the rules. We can do things “well enough” and cut a corner here, take a liberty there … Whatever; nobody can tell us what to do.
That’s not how things work with an audiovisual production, though. Everything is 100% controlled, 100% according to the rulebook. When I went to Canada to hang out, they had to get me a work permit. You know … for all the “working” I was doing? They just didn’t like to take any chances … ever.
The same is true with unions. And with the extras. I was told I couldn’t be in the background of a scene this year because the extras union might get mad (I’m not in that union) and that could cause trouble. There’s a clear political order and clear hierarchy. You shouldn’t sit in a chair if it wasn’t assigned to you. Definitely don’t sit in one with someone else’s name on it.
Legal compliance is a big deal. Try to do anything outside the box and you’ll have to jump through a thousand legal hurdles. I know; I got them to green-light a podcast, and it’s taken some hoop-jumping.
In the end, there are really only two lessons to take from this one. The first is that if you have grand plans to use the show as a publicity springboard in any way, know it’s going to be hard to get approval. The second is to be respectful and pay attention … because if there’s a rule out there — even an informal one — everyone is going to be paying attention to and obeying it even if you think it’s pointless.
Disobey what others are doing at your own risk. You’ll get nasty looks if you try.
7. The story must adapt to fit the format.
The first Fat Vampire book is only 35,000 words. That’s about one-third the length of your average thriller. It’s basically a novella. If you were to read the whole thing aloud at a leisurely pace, it’d probably take around four hours. It’s also narrated from a third-person, single-perspective, limited POV, meaning that if Reginald doesn’t witness something personally, the reader doesn’t see it. If Reginald doesn’t know a piece of information, the reader doesn’t know it, either.
Now think about a TV show. Reginald the Vampire is ten hour-long episodes per season, and for now one season is covering the events of one book. So yes, obviously they needed to add more stuff than just events of my book. Otherwise, there’s just not enough happenings to go around.
What’s more, TV is almost never shown from a single perspective. You see different groups at different times. My Reginald-only POV wouldn’t cut it.
When people who haven’t both seen the show and read the books ask me if the show tells the same story as the books, I say “Yes and no.” YES in that the core “Reginald” story in the TV show is basically the same, once you make the changes necessitated by Jacob being younger than my Reginald (see above). But also NO, because in addition to telling that core story, Harley and his writers also told a bunch of side stories that weren’t in the book.
The books don’t have Angela, for instance, so there’s no Maurice-and-Angela backstory. There’s no Mike, so we don’t get the Maurice/Mike or Angela/Mike backstories. Todd is less filled-out in the books; he’s mostly just Reginald’s bully until later in the series. All of that relationship stuff was added by the TV show … to fill out the run time, but also to offer the different perspectives and scene shifts that the TV format demands.
If your book is adapted to a movie and the book is long and/or complicated, things might actually work the opposite way: trimming back your book instead of filling it out. This is a very good thing. Long books can be complex and layered — certainly something I love doing in many of my books. It’s a mistake, however, to do too much of that in a movie — and, in some cases, on TV.
With rare exceptions, good movies should have ONE primary storyline. As far as singularity and focus go (no matter how complicated things seem to get), good movies follow the K.I.S.S. rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Even complicated movies tell only one story. Primer is stupid complex but it’s really just about two engineers who learn how to travel through time. Inception is layered, but it’s still just nested dreams with a clear goal. Ex Machina has a hell of a gotcha, but the story is ultimately about Caleb’s relationship with Ava and his desire to set her free — nothing more.
I’ve heard that novelists tend to make terrible scriptwriters, but it took an example for me to really understood why that is. My examples were the Fantastic Beasts movies (especially the second and third), which were written by Harry Potter novelist JK Rowling. Rowling thinks like a novelist. She wants plots atop subplots, and creates situations that would be simple to explain with words in prose … but are confusing and infuriatingly obtuse when they need to be explained in the visual language of film.
Books need to change when their stories are adapted to visual formats. They become cousins, not photocopies. As things should be.
8. The crew, cast, directors, writers, and even the showrunner are all employees of the production, with bosses of their own.
This was an interesting revelation. It hit me when Harley told me about the few weeks during which Reginald’s first season was wrapping up and they hadn’t yet learned whether there would be a second season. SyFy announces such things late. So right up until the last minute, nobody knew if the series would be continuing.
Before talking to Harley about this, I’d been thinking of the creative team (certainly the showrunner and directors) as the folks holding all the cards. They’d have to find money to finance the project, but it was their project, right? They were creative entrepreneurs … right?
Well, not really. The producers are the bosses, and even the directors and showrunners get a paycheck just like any other employee. Harley put his waiting game in terms of, “I kept wondering if I was about to be laid off and would need to find a new job.” Because that’s how it is: The show is a business, and the producers run it.
Producers begin with intellectual property, then hire directors to bring it to life and hire writers and a showrunner. In this case, one of the directors (Jeremiah Chechik) and the showrunner (Harley) brought the show to the network and were able to bargain for their own employment on the project, but that doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day, they’re employees and the producers are the boss.
9. Actors will probably be happy to meet you, if you’re cool about it.
I was and remain a minor celebrity when I see anyone involved with the show. I won’t lie; it’s super cool. I have instant cred. The last time I went to the set for a week, there were six cast members I hadn’t met before: the folks who play Todd, Mike, Ashley, Nikki, LeBron, and Penelope. One by one, I went up to all of them when they weren’t busy and simply told them who I was. That was enough to make them light up and want to talk to me.
In my admittedly very limited experience, the people charged with bringing existing characters to life are 1) thankful to the creator for making those characters in the first place (and thereby giving them a job) and 2) interested in the story of how those characters came to be, what the process of writing was like, and more. Remember, they’re on the screen and hence people tend to be just a little starstruck, but to actors, writers and what they do are equally enigmatic and interesting.
The caveat is that you can’t be a dick about it. Don’t intrude when actors (or anyone) are busy. If they retreat to a safe place like a trailer, don’t chase them. Don’t try to micromanage, telling them how they could improve their performance of their character, if they don’t ask for input. Remember, this is a collaboration. You made the original characters, the writers of the show or movie made the new versions of those characters, and the actors bring themselves to the roles and fill in the gaps. No matter how a writer writes a character, Danny DeVito is going to make that character into someone different than Sean Penn will.
The other thing I’ve learned to do with actors to smooth introductions is to compliment them. Don't be schmalzy or disingenuous, but if you have something kind to say, say it. I’ll bet it’s a little intimidating to talk to someone who created a character you’re trying to inhabit, so everyone I’ve talked to loved hearing that I approved of their portrayal. It shows trust in the collaboration, and it shows respect for what they do.
10. Your creative work gives hundreds of people jobs and a way to feed their families.
I saved the least whiz-bang but arguably most impactful insight for last. There’s nothing terribly sexy about going to an office and seeing the people who work there, but for me, visiting the Reginald offices told me something that the set didn’t tell me quite so clearly: This is a job for people. A lot of people. It’s easy to lose that insight at the set, where everything feels a little magic. It’s harder to miss at an office, where everyone does paperwork.
I’ve gotten so many Thank-Yous, it’s ridiculous. At first, I thought people were just being nice. Then I realized that no; they were sincere. If you have a job, aren’t you glad that job exists? If you’ve ever been out of work for a while, isn’t it a breath of fresh air to hear that someone’s made demand for new workers?
Between the offices, the set, and all the folks out there who I didn’t meet, the dumb little vampire book I spent a month writing ten years ago has given several hundred people full-time jobs for long periods of time. That’s a really nice feeling, knowing you gave that many folks a livelihood … and a solid and fulfilling way to put food on the table back home.
So those are my takeaways. If you have other questions, please just ask them in the comments! I’ve learned more about this in recent years than I can even think to commit to the page, so I’m sure I’m missing (and assuming) plenty.
Three things to note, before you go:
FIRST, make sure you’re subscribed to this site below so you don’t miss anything (it’s free).
SECOND, I wrote up my first trip and subsequent trip to San Diego Comic Con here, should you want to learn a whole lot more about the book-to-TV adventure.
THIRD, I also wrote a MASSIVELY DETAILED behind the scenes series, complete with photos and movies, of my trip for members of this site. That series begins with post one of six, linked here.