Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lenny Kleinfeld: Tinker, Tailor, Novelist, Screenwriter

Photo by Donna Dunlap
A disclaimer: I am not Lenny Kleinfeld's mother, wife or sister.

In fact, I'd never heard of him until writer Leighton Gage was on an Edgar panel and read Shooters & Chasers and raved about it. Leighton said he went so far as to write Lenny to congratulate him. And that's something Leighton hardly ever does.

That was way too much for me. I had to read it. And I agreed with Leighton, who was "blown away," and the Kirkus reviewer, who gave Shooters & Chasers a rare starred review and said, "In Kleinfeld's spellbinding debut, a young Chicago cop chases a pair of killers-for-hire who are also star-crossed lovers. . . .  Appealing heroes and villains, a quirky love story, wit, style, suspense, plus all the authenticity of an Ed McBain procedural. Lose yourself in it."

Read Lenny's guest spot below, and then go get lost.

-- Georgette Spelvin

Tinker, Tailor, Novelist, Screenwriter

When asked to describe the difference between writing screenplays and writing novels, my standard answer is: "Money and freedom." Despite that statement's comprehensive nature, some people are hung up on the notion that three words is an unsatisfying length for a blog.

Yeah, fine.

Pour yourself a drink. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.


In the 1970s I had a friend in Chicago who owned an art gallery. At a dinner party one night he was happily waving a promotional flyer from a Lower Manhattan gallery. It was touting an artist whose genre was Rectal Realism.

There was a photograph of the genius at work. He wasn't wearing pants. He had a brush stuck in his rectum, and he was painting by wiggling his butt at the canvas.

The RR technique proved easily adaptable to literary endeavors. A stylus is inserted in the rectum and the author squats over a keyboard, typing away.

The ensuing decades have seen a slew of academic studies of literary RR, it being an irresistible thesis topic for PhD candidates in Comp Lit and Abnormal Psych. Those studies have yielded remarkably consistent results:

Rectal Realism works poorly for most novels.

Rectal Realism works perfectly for nine out of ten screenplay assignments.


Lenny Kleinfeld photo by Donna Dunlap
In general, screenwriting is a younger, taller, handsomer profession than novelizing. Screenwriting also includes health insurance and pensions, bennies entirely unknown to the citizens of Novelistan.

With the exception of the most annoyingly, I mean fabulously, successful novelists, screenwriters make more and steadier money. For instance, a screenwriter gets paid for each draft. A novelist gets spousal patience and loving support for the first few drafts, and after that gets ordered to sleep in the spare room until the damn book is done.

Screenwriters also get paid for rewriting other people's scripts, and for rewriting rewrites of rewrites of rewrites of other people's scripts. That makes up a significant percentage—sometimes the majority—of their income. This is known as the development process.

Some novelists rewrite other people's novels, just barely, then slap a new title on the thing. This is known in French as an "hommage," and in Latin as a "goniff."

Some novelists rewrite their own books, just barely, then slap a new title on it, then repeat the process annually. This is known in geological jargon as "a gold mine."


Prose does have some procedural advantages.

Novelists are authors.

Screenwriters, 97.46238% of the time, are stenographers, taking dictation from producers, development execs, directors, actors, marketing directors, agents, and sometimes from the personal assistants, spouses and children of all the above.

This is a reflection of financial theology.

In novelizing, the writer is God, sole creator of each little universe, also known as the novel, or, in theological terms, the product. If the product works, the author gets paid and so does everyone else in the publishing congregation.

In the movie business, God is the person who can make thirty-five to a hundred-fifty million dollars appear. So this person is the one who decides what will go in the script.

Since conjuring up so many dollars is an extremely difficult miracle to perform, the usual result is polytheism, wherein many gods and demi-gods cough up a few million apiece.

This entitles all of them to give notes to the screenwriter-stenographer.

It is not unusual for these notes to be contradictory.

It is not unheard of, after a meeting at which these notes are presented, for the screenwriter-stenographer to be collared in the hall by one of the demi-gods, who will whisper instructions to ignore all the notes except his.

No matter which notes the writer chooses to obey, the screenplay will then be rewritten by at least eleven other people, over the course of the next five to ten years.

And yet good scripts do get written and good movies do get made. Sometimes this happens when the script is an original work, made by a director or actor who's powerful enough to protect it; Clint Eastwood is a notorious sinner who regularly blasphemes by making excellent, and profitable, movies based on early drafts of scripts by only one writer.

And sometimes a screenwriter-stenographer-rewriter is accomplished enough to be allowed to function, by one of the 7.6509% producers and studio execs who know their backsides from a trapdoor in the stage and also like good scripts.

Good novels get written because one person is talented and zealous.


And now for the thrillingly dull technical differences you expected this blog to discuss:

Time functions differently in books and movies. In several significant ways.


In novels, the reader controls the flow of time. The reader can move quickly or slowly through the prose. Re-read. Skip. Stop to think and/or fantasize.

Stopping allows the reader to keep track of more characters and sub-plots when reading a novel than when watching a film.

Stopping is built into the process; most books, and most readers' lives, are built so that reading a novel in one sitting isn't feasible. Novels are built so that their impact accretes over days and weeks.

A movie audience (assuming the projector and the viewers' bladders are functioning properly), experiences a continuous, unstoppable flow of story.

With recordings of films, the viewer can do the same things a reader does: stop, start, review, skip. This is very useful for studying a film, less useful for enjoying it. Drama is built so its maximum impact is felt when the work is absorbed in one relatively brief, uninterrupted go.


In prose, time is elastic. On film, time is brutally, ruthlessly brisk.

For instance: On the page, thought is an action. It is as entertaining as any other action in the story.

On film, thought works if it's an actor taking a few seconds to absorb something that has been done or said, and then responding.

Thought that goes on for longer than three seconds tends to be an actor staring out a window for what feels like a century.

I once adapted a novel that had a very smart hero; his thinking was riveting, in the book. In my first draft of the script, which was rigorously faithful to the novel, his thinking meant he stood around squinting meaningfully while the bad guys ran around doing the fun stuff.

In my second draft you knew what the hero was thinking by seeing who he hit/shot/humped/insulted/cared for. Even when it meant inventing scenes that never appeared in the novel.

The producer liked that draft. He gave it to a director. Who decided to polish it himself. His polish consisted of re-inserting the mistakes I'd made in my first draft.

Instead of going back to my functional second draft, the project just got dropped. I never found out why. Gods don't owe answers to stenographers.


Time also functions differently because novels are a solo act and movies are a team sport.

The novelist has to supply all the descriptions of all the characters, all the locations, all the actions. This takes pages and pages of time. If the prose is well made, the reader enjoys it anyway.

In a movie that stuff is supplied by actors, sets, costumes, props, locations, lighting, camera angles, cutting and sound.

Compared to writing prose, writing for actors (and all those designers) is writing haiku. A paragraph of dialog that's lively in a book is likely to induce scene-killing tedium on screen. You have to reduce that 'graph to a word. Or a wordless glance.

Your job isn't (only) to write elegant lines. Your job is to provide memorable stuff for actors, costumers, cinematographers, stunt drivers, pyro-techs and nude body doubles to do.


In literary terms, the bottom line is: There are a bazillion fewer words in a screenplay than in a novel.


In existential terms, the differences are nonexistent.

Novelists and screenwriters spend a great deal of time bitching about the frustrations of their craft and the unfairness of their business.

Novelists and screenwriters remain curiously reluctant to chuck it and go find a real job in the real world.


© 2011 by Lenny Kleinfeld


  1. What you wrote is perfect, timeless, hysterically funny. I look forward to your next draft, and my secretary might have a few notes.

  2. Marv--

    The moment your secretary and my agent settle on a satisfactory number, I will gladly make her every wish come true.


  3. Striking taxi drivers blocking the way to the Athens airport so you miss your plane and thereby sympathize with their plight; Greek air traffic controllers engaged in a slow down that holds your plane (the one you somehow managed to make) on the tarmac for two hours in order that you sympathize with their plight; ten hours in the air so you sympathize with the plight of sardines; and on arriving in NYC a link to this piece in the very first email I open and a realization that true sympathy is deserving only of anyone who hasn't read "Shooters & Chasers!" You're so funny, Lenny, even to a jet lagged reader.


  4. Jeff--

    Wow. Thank you. It's always great to be accused of being funny. But given the degree of difficulty you've just described, plus all the Greek references, I feel as if I've just qualified for the US Olympic drollery squad. Easily one of the finest reviews I've ever gotten.

    Thanks again. Now ( once you've had some serious sleep time) go forth to Bouchercon and kill.


  5. Long Live Kleinfeld! May RR never infect his novel writing ability. May his screen writing talents only be sharpened by RR! We all await the next great novel and screenplay! Please hurry.

  6. Lou--

    But I keep getting distracted by writing blogs, which take so much less time than novels, and pay nearly as well.