I’m so excited for Novel2Screen’s first interview! I’ve known Lee Martin through my connections at InkTip for a number of years and am honored to have her grace us with her knowledge and expertise about adapting her own novels into screenplays. Lee is a prolific writer who has sold 43 short stories to magazines and also has had 17 traditional western novels published by Avalon Books.
Her script Shadow on the Mesa, adapted from her novel of the same title, was produced by Larry Levinson Productions and aired in 2013 on Hallmark Movie Channel’s network, becoming the second highest rated and second most watched original movie in network history.
Her historical western, The Grant Conspiracy (Wake of the Civil War), is available in novel form on Amazon, but she has also adapted it to a mini-series that she is currently marketing in Hollywood.
Chris: How many of your novels have you adapted to scripts?
Lee: About 8 of my westerns have been adapted to scripts. Two more in progress. I also adapted an unpublished thriller to script. In reverse, I have also turned my scripts into novels.
Chris: How do you tackle an adaptation? Do you start with outlining or simply FADE IN and write?
Lee: I paste in the novel into Final Draft and start cutting text.
Chris: A lot must need to be cut from your novels to fit the run time of a feature film or MOW. How do you choose which elements of the story you need to cut for the script?
Lee: I just focus on the dialogue until only it and basic descriptions are left.
Chris: Have you ever painfully had to cut one of your darlings but knew it was best for the flow of the script?
Lee: No, the characters flow from novel to script and back again. I’m basically a story teller and they belong in the story, no matter what form it takes.
Chris: Which do you find harder to write?
Lee: Novels are more work because of needed research and description. Scripts are easier. You need the same three acts but with a lot less description. The first act is the setup, the second act is everything goes crazy, and the last wraps it up.
Chris: You tend to write westerns the most. Do you find research essential for writing westerns or do you know the western genre so well that it just lives in you?
Lee: I started writing in the third grade and hand wrote them in notebooks. My mother’s favorite was The Beautiful Outlaw. My father came to California on horseback. We lived on cattle ranches around northern California and followed the rodeos. Yes, westerns are my natural writing. From the heart.
Let me add that I write westerns for the love of the open spaces, the vast frontier, the endless horizons, and the freedom of the trail. My westerns are traditional action/John Wayne style. The Grant Conspiracy is an historical western, but it includes the same elements. The good guy wins and gets the girl. The old west gives a grand feeling of a way of life that will never come again. I think readers find the ultimate escape in a good, old-fashioned western.
I don’t like revisionist westerns or anti-heroes. I don’t like any western where they toss away an empty canteen; how will they carry water if they find any? I don’t like westerns with women in pants. Even women homesteaders plowed in skirts (see the old prints). Women rode side saddle because riding astride was not only un-lady like but was said to prevent women from having children. It was not until the late 1890s that women wore split skirts and rode astride. But no pants.
Chris: How much research did you do for your novel and screenplay The Grant Conspiracy?
Lee: I read [Ulysses S.] Grant’s memoirs, did a great deal of research on his travels in the Rockies, thanks to the Denver library. And of course, research on the area I used for location. And history itself. Also news-papering in the old west for the feisty heroine, who risks her life to print the truth. I had no trouble with the law firm as I’m a retired lawyer.
I learned that Grant was traveling the Rockies by wagon with two men. At Irwin, a mining camp, an assassination attempt was made in a canyon, but the woman shooter’s horse shied and she missed. I took this into my story and came up with my own assassination plot by two rebel partners in a law firm in a mountain valley. I didn’t want it to be typical revenge for the Civil War.
These two rebel lawyers had been with Fisk when he had tried to corner the gold market, four years after the war was over. Then President Grant had discovered the scheme and dumped government gold on the market. This ruined Fisk and my two lawyers. Fisk was shot by his mistress, but these two join others with the same grudge. To get Grant to visit their town, they invite our hero, a young lawyer who had saved Grant’s life in the war, to work for them.
My favorite character is the unfaithful wife of one of the partners as she is soon widowed but tries to prevent the assassination, after which she finds true love for the first time.
Chris: Shadow on the Mesa was a great success on the Hallmark Movie Channel. How did that project transform from medium to medium?
Lee: My novel Shadow on the Mesa was unpublished before my script, based on it, was made into a movie. After the movie was made, I then made a lot of changes to the novel because fans were clamoring for a movie sequel (and still are), and I wanted the novel to wrap everything up. The novel sold well and has great reviews, as did the movie. My novel Shadow on the Mesa, published by Five Star, came out the way I wanted.
Chris: Besides “western,” how would you describe your writing?
Lee: I’m told by my fans I’m a “fast read” and that’s because I’ve always been a movie writer at heart. I’m not a literary writer. I see the movie whether it’s short story, novel, or script as I write it. But it’s my own voice. And the fans say they love it.
Chris: So many up-and-coming writers lose heart after many rejection letters. Can you describe your experience in finding a publisher?
Lee: I had no trouble selling my 43 short stories, but I sent my first novel to 47 publishers over 20 years before it sold … Novels were facing great competition. In fact, it had been to Avalon Books three times over the 20 years before I got a call from the new editor. She liked my writing, and I then sold her 16 more within 5 years. When she left Avalon, the new editor had her favorites and I was out, which is quite common.
I was born a writer. When it’s born in you, there is no choice. I was always an introvert, and escaping into my story world gave me a chance to make everything come out right. But you can’t ever stop if you’re born with it. I think that’s the difference between writers and those who dabble in it.
Chris: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming authors and screenwriters?
Lee: My only advice is that if you can’t give up, that means you’re a born writer, and you will make it sooner or later because you have no choice but to keep going until the doors open.
Thank you, Lee, for sharing your adaptation experience with Novel2Screen!
Lee Martin’s novels can be found on Amazon as well as the DVD for Shadow on the Mesa.
You can follow Chris on Twitter @ACCooksonWriter