Should a writer convert a novel they’ve written into a screenplay?
That really depends on the novel and the writer. A novel written in the first person where much of the plot is explored inside the main character’s mind might not translate well to the screen without some serious rewrites.
Also, if you’re the type of writer who cannot look at your work objectively and rip it to pieces, then you’re probably not the best choice to write the screenplay for it. Being an author myself, I know that a little piece of my heart and soul gets put into everything I write. It can be difficult to look past that but you have to when you’re writing a screenplay. You have a very limited amount of time to convey your entire novel in. If you’re not prepared to cut out chunks of it, you’re not prepared to turn it into a screenplay.
What is the absolute first thing a writer should do when converting a novel into a screenplay?
Make sure you have the film rights for it. This is an absolute must. No legitimate production company will even think about looking at your screenplay without them.
How would a screenwriter go about securing the rights to a novel?
There’s a couple different ways you can do this. Which one you choose is really dependent on your personal preference and budget. They both begin with contacting whoever presently holds the rights to the novel in question. If it’s a print novel you can buy off the shelves of a major bookstore, odds are the publisher listed on the inside front cover holds the rights. If it’s a self-published print or eBook, generally the author still has all of the rights to it.
Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) has thousands of books written before 1933 whose copyrights have expired in the United States. Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org) also has a search feature that will allow you to find works you might be able to use, depending on the Creative Commons license assigned to the novel by the author.
Please note, this information is good for residents of the United States only. Laws vary in other countries. If you live outside of the US, be sure to check with the proper authorities in your country before using any work you find in the public domain to write your screenplay.
The first place I would start is by reading the novel. It should go without saying that a screenwriter would read the novel first but it’s amazing how many don’t. Even if it’s one I’ve written, I would take the time to read it from start to finish. I would try to get it read with as few interruptions as possible. You don’t want to rush through it but you don’t want to take weeks to get it finished, either.
Even though your script most likely hasn’t been picked up for production yet, it’s still a good idea to write with some sort of budget in mind. Basically, you want to try to keep the budget small. It’s easier to spend more money if you have any leftover than it is to cut costs later. A smaller budget also means you can pitch your script to more production companies.