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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


As most authors know by now, a book’s debut must be accompanied by two videos: the author interview and the trailer. The following, which I’ll post in 3 parts, is what I learned from making my own videos for Jane Was Here (both are below). Compared to a trailer, the author interview is straightforward.

Your location should be your living room or workspace. People want to see your real-life environment and not some featureless backdrop. Whether natural or artificial, make sure there’s good light from two sources (one to fill in the shadows created by the other). You can shoot with anything from a DVR to a flipcam or cell phone. Sometimes a down-and-dirty quality has its own charm. You can edit with a simple software program like iMovie.

The one area that might benefit from a more professional approach is sound. USING THE IN-CAMERA MIKE WILL MAKE THE author’s voice sound too distant if you are shooting from a medium (waist-up) angle. Also, if you shoot both medium and close angles (and you should), the sound level will vary, making it impossible to mix in the edit. So invest in a wireless lavalier mike.

And have a mirror on hand to refresh your makeup and pat down stray hairs which will catch the light.

I decided to do a practice run by shooting an interview video for my first book, Dry Hustle, which had just been re-issued as an ebook. I asked a friend to be a one-man crew since he had all the needed equipment. Then it was up to me to produce the “content.” I wrote a script, even though the interview was supposed to seem off-the-cuff. The idea, simply, was to make people curious to read the book. Dry Hustle was a sexy saga about two con-women, so that meant hyping the raunch, and that the novel was based on real characters.

The script also had to be only 2-3 pages long, figuring on a minute per page. You don’t want your video to be longer or it won’t hold the interest of ADD YouTubers.

I’m not an actress, plus my memory is riddled with holes, so I couldn’t expect to memorize and deliver the whole speech from beginning to end without breaking down. I divided my script into short sections and shot each separately as a single take, then shooting the same section in close-up, until I had one decent take in both angles and, if possible, a second take as “safety.” I made a lot of mistakes, but we could cut around them by switching to the other angle.

By the time we made the author video for Jane Was Here I’d learned a lot. For one thing, I now knew I was uncomfortable speaking directly to the lens like a newscaster. For Jane I felt better looking slightly to the side of the lens. It felt more like I was talking to my friend, the only other person in the room. I couldn’t actually look at him because he was standing behind the camera so I would have had to look up, which can look truly strange when you watch the result. I’d advise others to place a friend on a low stool with his or her head positioned on as close as possible to the lens, and eyes on the same level.

I ‘d also learned that, to keep the viewer’s attention, I needed to cut away from my talking head at intervals. Fortunately, Jane Was Here had already garnered some great advance quotes, so I inserted them at regular beats when we edited.

The last improvement was the use of music. Cleverly chosen music is the best way to establish the tone of your book. I grabbed some fragments of a movie soundtrack which sounded a bit like the “Exorcist” theme. By association, it conveyed the creepy, ominous ambience of my novel, which is a paranormal mystery with a horrific ending.

The edit was pretty easy, with the music being the most time-consuming element. We had to use passages where the music was subdued and quiescent for the shots of me talking, and then seamlessly bridge to more muscular spooky music cues whenever we went to the review quotes on a black screen.

The end result cost me nothing. You can judge for yourself whether it succeeds in making you eager to fork up $20 for a hardcover or $9.99 for download. Next post, I’ll talk about my experiences and offer some advice on the really fun part: making the trailer. For Part 2 click here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Finishing up from the previous blog, I offer some more differences between writing screenplays and novels.

Very few people will read your script. After friends and partners, you have your agent, manager, executives, producers. Maybe 50-60 people. If it gets produced, then actors, casting agents, designers and technicians will then read it – an average of 100 people. A lot of these people actually hate reading scripts (I know I do). So that’s your reading public.

With a published novel, you can realistically hope that far more than 100 people will read what you wrote. To a screenwriter, this is intoxicating.

You own your novel. You don’t own your script once you sell it.

A novel is quiet. In a typical screenwriter contract, you have 3 months of quiet as you write the first draft and then the noise begins: otherwise called feedback, notes or “thoughts.” Mind you, some notes actually do help the script. But more often they range from unworkable to insane.

With a novel, you can have years of quiet. This may be more solitude than some writers want. I revel in it. There will be changes tactfully requested (instead of demanded) by agent, editor and publisher, but you are still the one to decide to implement their advice or not.

When film professionals read your script, they are deciding whether to do it or not. Your story represents one, ten, fifty, in a few cases a hundred million dollars to be spent. It doesn’t matter how great your writing is, but what’s it going to cost? A page is a minute of screen time. 125 pages are too long. A producer will ask you to cut 20. A director will rewrite the opening – or the whole thing. An actress wants to improvise her dialogue in stead of saying what you wrote, or an actor wants you to make his part bigger than his co-star’s. Everybody’s got a hand in. And then if you don’t succeed in delivering what they want…

When you’re a novelist they can’t replace you with another writer.

Writing Jane Was Here I experienced a kind of autoerotic pleasure from just writing for myself. I could go on at any length, take as long as I wanted, and glory in a wealth of words, knowing there would be no crowd of people waiting to interfere.

Now comes the challenge of enticing readers. Who will spark to Jane, a reincarnation-themed paranormal-mystery-suspense-thriller? Next blog: creating the book trailer.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Following up on my previous blog, here’s more on the difference between writing novels and screenplays.

Some years after my first novel Dry Hustle was published in 1977, I decided to master the film script form so that I could make a decent living. It was time to settle down to one thing; my twenties were all about trying on as many hats as possible: documentary filmmaker, recording artist, novelist (I even squeezed in a musical). I sold a screenplay pitch to MGM, and off I went. That was 30 years ago, and I’m still working. But in contrast to film people who say, “What I really want to do is direct,” I was often heard to say, “What I really want to do is write – books.”

So I embarked on my new novel Jane Was Here with trepidation. I worried that the terse, mechanical style of scripts had rotted away my ability to flow with the narrative form. And in ‘the business,’ a screenwriter has three months to write a 110-pages first draft, so you don’t spend much time weeding and polishing action prose. But in a novel, you can’t write, “GUNSHOT O.S…PAN TO WOMAN (MARY, 30’s) sticking a pistol in purse. She’s beautiful, sexy: think Natalie Portman.” Instead you have to describe the action in beguiling, original prose, free of the cliches you always dispensed freely because film people are comfortable, even reassured by them. You have to slow down and make use of descriptive language, and suddenly there’s a bewildering array of words to choose from, countless ways to move characters around instead of “She exits.”

Vocabulary: I once used the word “obdurate” in a script. Before submitting it, my manager called me to say I couldn’t use it, no one would know what it means. I felt really sad. I had to consign so many words to this inner oubliette (definitely a taboo word) where they would never see the light of day. Imagine the freedom I felt when writing Jane Was Here: I could release them all from this dungeon. I could now use “adipose,” “nacreous,” “caesura,” “arrant,” and – oh frabjous day! – “obdurate.”

There’s little difference between film scripts and novels in terms of dialogue, although the screenwriter will probably be more efficient. In scripts you have to refine dialogue so that a scene doesn’t go longer than 5 pages at the most. Playwrights and novelists’ characters can yammer on endlessly.

Writing screenplays taught me how to plot. In any writing course I ever took in college, we were never taught how to manipulate the long-form story. I studied with the great Grace Paley, who only wrote short stories. “Life is too short, and Art is too long,” she said. I got the feeling that plot wasn’t necessary and even a bit meretricious (do not ever use that word in a script).

My first novel had a great premise but the plot was mostly episodic, with no real rise and fall to the story. When I turned to writing scripts, it didn’t take long to discover I was woefully deficient in this area. I had to teach myself how to deliver an adventure, with twists, turns, curveballs, “misdirects,” and a satisfying of an ending. It served me very well when it came time to design the mystery-paranormal-suspense-thriller that is Jane Was Here.

And then there’s the length. You’re limited in pages to the screen-time of a feature (100 minutes and up). It’s very manageable. A novel, on the other hand, is harder. It accrues to 200 pages and counting. After 200 you can’t even remember what you wrote before – there’s a point where you feel lost at sea.
But that’s the story of, that’s the glory of, books.
Next blog: Screenplays Vs. Novels - Part Trois.