“Looking back, I can’t believe that I—a housewife in Cedar Falls, Iowa–saw my poems and short stories appear in magazines, newspapers and books.”
Sleeping with the Enemy
How would you like to have something you’ve written be made into a movie, starring a major Hollywood actor, and see that film make over $100 million at the box office?
Sure that happened recently with University of Iowa graduate Diablo Cody and her Juno script, but it also happened to a writer with deeper Iowa roots when Nancy Price’s novel was turned into the Julia Roberts’ film “Sleeping with the Enemy.”
In case you’ve forgotten, the sleepy little town that Roberts’ character ran away to in order to escape from her abusive husband was Cedar Falls, Iowa. Price wrote the book in Cedar Falls where she has spent a good deal of her life.
I heard Price speak this week at the Waterloo Public Library and I thought her story would encourage you in your writing. But beware her story is one of not only talent, but one of patience.
From the time she won a poetry contest at age 14 to when Sleeping with the Enemy was released 50 years elapsed. As in five decades. While the movie differs from her novel she is thankful that it brought many people to her book, and that has resulted in the book being translated into 18 languages.
Her book is actually a more complex look at spousal abuse and in her words “really about people helping people.” She still gets letters from women who say the book “changed their lives.” “It’s wonderful to get those letters,” said Price.
Price, who also does illustrations, understood the Hollywood game and their desire for more of a blockbuster film. She said she had nothing to do with writing the script.
Her book was published the same year Fatal Attraction was a huge hit and she also had the good fortune of having Julia Roberts commit to the project before Pretty Women was released which pushed Roberts to the top of the pack. “She really did help me out,” said Price.
Though as is often the case many people feel the book is better than the movie but she was also fortunate to have Ron Bass write the screenplay fresh off his Oscar as one of the screenwriters of Rain Man.
The strength of novels is you can reveal what characters are thinking which is hard to translate onto film. I found this quote from Bass explaining his process of adapting a novel into a screenplay: “My basic view of film is that, literature is about what happens within people, while film is more about what happens between people. So the basic tool for me is the two-shot, a scene between two people interacting in a way that illuminates for them and for us who they are, what they want, and where they’re going.”
Of course the strength of movies is visual story telling. So while Price could write 30 pages on how abused the wife has been over the years the movie can condense that into two shots. One where we see the obsessive-compulsive husband upset that the bath towels aren’t lined up correctly and another where the wife flinches at dinner table like an abused puppy does when you try to pet them. With those two shots the audience gets a strong glimpse of what she is going through.
The movie as a thriller is a melodrama but its theme of abuse is just as meaningful and relevant to address today. If you’re looking for a story to write here’s a challenge, take the abusive situation in Sleeping with the Enemy and add a couple kids to a story. That will amp up the conflict and choices the wife has to make. (And that is what many women face today and the core reason why they stay in those relationships.) Show that women’s strength emerge and you’ll be on your way to getting letters from women thanking you as well.
And if you write that as a book first you increase your odds of getting the movie made. Not only because women buy 68% of books (according to Publisher Weekly) but because there are over 150,000 books published every year verses less than a thousand feature movies made each year. If your novel is good it may get bought by a producer even before the book is published.
But getting a book published is no slam dunk to getting a movie made. Price said that only 1 in 800 books get made into a movie and that she was fortunate her agent became the head of 20th Century Fox. “It’s just a matter of luck, it really is.”
I think it was Samuel Goldwyn who once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Price paid her dues. Between writing as a child to when the movie got made in 1991 she earned a B.A. in English and art from Cornell College and a Master’s Degree at the University of Northern Iowa, studied writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop, raised three children, had her work rejected by the New York Times 75 times, had a string of 60 short stories and poetry published, and had three novels published.
She was 53-years-old when her first novel was published and 62 when Sleeping with the Enemy was published so she was far from an overnight success. The idea for that book came to her as she thought, “If you’re going to be chased by someone, who would be the worst—someone who knows you.”
The book took three years to write and she usually rewrites the first few pages of her books 30-40 times because “that is where you need to make it clear what the story is about and who it’s about.”
Price explained that one of the biggest differences in the movie from the book is “all the characters in the book are poor and in the movie they’re rich.” So in the movie when Julia Roberts’ character gets caught by her neighbor plucking apples it’s because she had a late night desire to bake a pie, where in the book she steals the apples because she is broke and hungry. Maybe another concession to Fatal Attraction where everyone is also rich.
Price is still writing. She laments the lack of places for new writers to have their writings published because magazines no longer buy and publish short stories like they did back in the day and most of the major book publishers are looking for the blockbuster sellers from a small list of writers. (Many of who have ghostwriters writing their books.)
Price is self-published through Malmarie Press. You can purchase her books and learn more about Price at her website Nancy Price Books. On her site you’ll find some writing tricks she shares:
Do you stare in despair at the blank first page of your new novel? Don’t. Find some 4 X 6 cards and begin to put down scenes from the new book that you’ve imagined…characters that have seemed real to you…places you have wanted to describe…conversations you’ve heard in your head…each on a new card. When you have a collection of these, put them on the floor and push them around with your toe. Do some of them seem to clump together and act friendly? Can you imagine putting some new writing between this one and that one? You’re on your way.
And perhaps you can help solve a little mystery for Nancy Price. Remember that poetry contest she won when she was 14? Well, part of the prize was she got to attend a Detroit Tigers baseball game and meet one of the players. If you know who the player was email me (or Nancy via the email on her website) and she can put that mystery to rest. (There is a photo I’ll try to track down that would be a key clue.)
Words and Photos Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith