ROBIN HOOD and “Creative Ownership”

ROBIN HOOD, a novelization by David B. CoeSo, I’m starting off with a little self-promotion. I have written the novelization for the new Ridley Scott treatment of Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. The movie will be released on May 14; the book comes out next Tuesday, April 27.

I have always wanted to write a media tie-in; I always thought it would be a lot of fun. I considered writing in the Buffy universe, or a Star Trek novel — TNG, Deep Space 9, Voyager; I considered them all. And I have to admit that I thought it would be easy, a quick paycheck.

Well, I never did a tie-in, but now that I’ve written this novelization, I know better than to think that media work is easy. Those of you who have written successful tie-ins have my deepest admiration.

Writing a novel that is entirely the product of my own imagination presents its own challenges. But at a fundamental level it has the advantage of being mine, entirely and absolutely. I can create my worlds and develop my characters and build my narratives. There is an organic quality to the writing that allows each of those elements to work on the others; you might say that character and worldbuilding and plot have a symbiotic relationship. They nourish one another.

But in writing the Robin Hood novelization, I quickly discovered that the symbiosis wasn’t there, at least not in the same way. I didn’t “own” the project creatively; not entirely. Early on, I felt as though I was playing with someone else’s toys. The greatest challenge for me as I worked my way through the book, was reaching a point where I felt that I had a stake in the characters and the story. I would guess that media tie-ins present similar challenges.

I wrote my book from the shooting script of the movie. I had a few still images from the production to help me with descriptions of people, settings, clothing, etc. But I relied most heavily on the script, which I was not allowed to alter at all. I couldn’t change dialogue, I couldn’t cut or add lines, and I certainly couldn’t add in subplots of my own. Narrative and dialogue — those are two of a writer’s most important tools. I had no control over either. What I did control was exposition, point of view, descriptive passages, and internal monologue.

That last, internal monologue, is where I finally connected with the project in a meaningful way. It began with three characters — relatively minor characters all: Friar Tuck, Richard the Lionheart, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I think the reason these characters were, initially, easier for me to write than Robin Hood and Marion, is that I didn’t know them as well. We’ve been exposed to other people’s interpretations of Robin and Marion since we were kids, watching that Red Fox in the Disney version. And, of course, picturing Crowe and Blanchett in the roles was easy. With these other characters, I had some idea of who they were, but I didn’t have as many preconceived notions, nor did I know who was playing them in the film. And so in writing from their points of view, I had more room to create, to make them my own. Once I had been in these characters’ heads for a while, and I had found a voice not only for them, but for the project itself, I found it much easier to write from Robin’s POV and Marion’s.

Is “creative ownership” that important? Honestly, I hadn’t given it much thought prior to this project, but I believe it is. The organic nature of writing that I mentioned earlier only happens for me when I feel comfortable with my characters and my narrative. Much of the time, when I’m writing my non-media books, I have to trust the decisions I make on the fly, the instances when I “follow my characters” and allow my story line to develop in ways I might not have anticipated in my initial outline. Comfort. Trust. With Robin Hood, before I got past the feeling of playing with another writer’s toys, those weren’t there. They only developed when I began to put my stamp on the story with the thoughts of characters, with description, with voice. Once the book became something more than another person’s script held together with a few phrases — once it began to feel like my novel — everything got easier. My writing flowed better, the point of view transitions became smoother, my exposition improved.

“Owning” one’s original work in this way is fairly easy. Finding the path to that “ownership” when writing in another person’s universe, be it a tie-in or a novelization, is another matter entirely. It was certainly the greatest challenge I faced with Robin Hood. But overcoming that obstacle proved to be the most satisfying part of the experience. In the end, I managed to write a book that remains true to the movie script, while also offering my own vision of the Robin Hood legend.

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  1. 1. heteromeles

    Interesting point, David. I’ve been involved in enough multi-author commercial reports to have some idea of what you’re talking about.

    One question, out of total ignorance: did you get the script as a word file, or did you have type everything in from a paper copy? Everyone works differently, but I was thinking that for some, having a machine version of the script to turn into a novel might speed the process. That gives you the dialog and whatever else, and your work goes into the blank spaces between what’s already written.

    Another fun question: can you disclose whether the script you wrote from is the same one we’ll see on screen?

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Coe, this is a wonderfully insightful piece. One of the first comments/questions I made here was regarding this subject. In my total ignorance I supposed it was as simple as dazzling the powers-that-be with MY unique take on established characters.

    Since then I’ve read the good, bad, and absolutely divine interpretations within the B5 and StarWars Universes. After reading Karen Traviss’s excellent Boba Fett interpretations and later her Clone Trooper novels I could never imagine tackling either ‘medium.’

    After reading your instructive work on what it’s like on the inside, my esteem for you both has gone up exponentially. Congrats again on this opportunity and thanks again for sharing the lessons learned.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment and the questions, Het (Good to see you over here). I actually be blogging more about the nuts and bolts of the process on Monday at http://magicalwords.net. But the quick answer is, I worked from a paper copy of the script and had to type in the dialog. I think that was helpful, actually. In essence, I was building a book around the script, but literally doing that on the screen would have been distracting. I’m speaking solely for myself here — others might prefer to do what you describe. But I liked having to type in dialog; it actually made the book feel more like my own, and it allowed me to break up the dialog with attribution and action and facial expression as I saw fit. Also, just speaking technically, the formatting of a movie script is very specific and very complicated. Trying to reformat a PDF or something into novel form would have eaten up any time I saved by not having to type dialog, and then some.

    And yes, with the revisions we did and changes we incorporated during rewrites, the dialog in the book should hew almost exactly to the movie. I wrote from the shooting script and then incorporated changes from the editing room later in the process.

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Elias, sorry to have missed your comment the first time around. It hadn’t posted when I responded to Het. Thanks very much for the kind words. As I indicate in my post, I was surprised by how hard this aspect of the project was (I thought the biggest challenge with ROBIN HOOD would be the timeline — I had 5 weeks to write the book), so I know exactly where you’re coming from. I haven’t read Karen’s work, and I appreciate the recommendation. Tie-ins are difficult to do well, but when they’re done right, they really shine. Sounds like hers were done right.

  5. 5. Doug Hulick

    David,

    Thanks for the overview of the peaks and valleys of the process. It’s a process I’ve always been curious about, so the information is appreciated. (And I’ll check the other blog, too.) I never realized the constraints were so tight — I can well imagine needing to find something…anything…to latch onto to make the narrative your own in some way.

    I’ve never been much for novelizations, but I’ll pick this one up since I think it will be fun to see how it all came together as a final product. Having the insights from your end will add some nice context, too.

    So, after all this, do you think would you ever do a tie-in if you had the chance? :)

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment and question, Doug. I’ve never been a big fan of novelizations either, which makes the self-promotion in this case a little tricky…. If you do pick it up, I hope you enjoy it.

    As for the tie-in, I’d have to think about it long and hard. A few factors: I would have to just love the show passionately. I loved Buffy and TNG enough, but the others…I’m not so sure. The money and contract provisions would have to be right. Knowing now how difficult this kind of work can be, I’d want to be paid accordingly. That probably sounds terribly mercenary, but it’s the truth. And, of course, I would also need to be passionate about the tie-in concept. I’d have to really WANT to write that particular book. Interesting question. I’ve been in this business too long to rule out anything absolutely, but as I say, I’d have to consider it carefully.

  7. 7. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Coe had to burden you again with my opinion (or tangent) on your comment @ 6. I absolutely despise the idea that if we want to actually eat and live a comfortable life as writers, we’re sell outs or mercenaries. I’ve worked two jobs since college. A four year degree and I’m a glorified referree at a State agency to remain nameless.

    My Mrs just insisted that I stop driving a limo on the weekends so I could finish my novel and start pimping it. The average working writer makes, what around $5K a year on their work? I’ve also read that early in the merch-books, that the writer was often paid a flat $5-7K. That’s it. WB, Lucasbooks, et all are expected to be mercenary in pursuit of their ends. I must advocate that we should be just as mercenary in pursuit of parity.

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    Elias, you raise a good point. On the one hand I want to avoid the appearance that I’m just in this for the money, or that payment is the only reason I write. On the other hand, professionals in other fields don’t apologize for getting paid; neither should writers. Many thanks for the reminder!

  9. 9. Moia Young

    “Playing with someone else’s toys” is exactly how it feels. I recently did something similar on a much, much smaller scale, with a bit more freedom – I guestwrote a script for a webcomic I adore. (Actually, you word choice made me laugh, because I used the same analogy. It’s so true! :) )

    For me, I found it to be a great exercise. I stretched muscles I don’t normally use, and I feel as though I’ve benefitted from doing so. But you’re right—it took finding my own voice within the constraints of another person’s characters and universe in order to tell the story without feeling stifled.

    I don’t normally read movie adaptations, but I think I’m looking forward to this one!

  10. 10. CC

    I don’t know, that toys thing makes me think that writing should be individual. Its not that expanding your horizons is a bad thing, never is. Its just that, as writers, you really struggle sometimes just to find the right prose and style and such to begin with. Throw in a time limit like 5-weeks, dialogue that’s not yours…I give you a lot of credit for tackling that project, and thanks for the post, now I’m 90% sure that I’m never doing that. I have enough trouble as it is. And writers should be just a interesting the whatever money they can get, considering all the looks we get when we say we write….

  11. 11. David B. Coe

    CC, I think that in an ideal world, every author here would agree with you. Writing should be individual. We should be able to focus our work on our own projects if we so choose I also agree that we should never be ashamed about making whatever money we can from this crazy business. But in a way those two things are contradictory. The fact is that in order to make a living as a writer, one sometimes has to resort to work for hire. And I guess the point of my post was, though it was a difficult project, filled with new challenges, it was, ultimately, a positive experience.

  12. 12. S0BeUrself

    With your article in mind, I’m willing to admit that all we ever write are adaptations. Plot devises and dialogue are presented to us daily, through repetitive usage and our interactions with others. Only when we go where no one has ever truly been, in the minds of others, do our stories become the rich, vicarious experiences that they are. The internal conflict is key – you’ve proven that everything else is gravy. Thanks for the lesson ~

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, SBU. Delving into characters’ minds is what keeps me writing. That’s what I find fun and fascinating about my job.

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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