Q&A: Writing Screenplays with Jenni James

Jenni James writes contemporary YA and adult romance, Regency romance, and children’s books. She also wrote the screenplay for her novel Not Cinderella’s Type, which won “Best Feature Film” and “Best Screenplay” at the LDS Film Festival in 2018. She will chat about how she broke into screenwriting; the difference between writing plays, novels, and screenplays; and hard-earned advice from publishing stories over the past decade.

Q. Whew. I don’t even know where to start because I feel like I’ve known you forever, and you have accomplished so much in the past few years. So I shall start with a basic question, which is, how long have you been a published author, and how many books do you have out now?

A. My first book was published in 2011 (Pride & Popularity) and I currently have 50 books published. I’m editing my 51st. Funny thing was about two books ago my husband kept correcting me since I’d say I have 42 book published, or whatever… he was like… no. It’s 48! haha! So he’s keeping track. I began writing in 2008, if that helps.

Q. Awesome. What started you down that path of publishing?

A. That first book. Pride & Popularity. Taylor Anderson kept me awake for three nights. I didn’t want to be an author. However, three nights without sleep–apparently I was evil. Lol! It isn’t good for me, so I gave in and at 3am I went downstairs and typed up what became the first chapter of Pride & Popularity. I had no idea what the title was, or that it was a Jane Austen rewrite. All I know was this 17-yr-old guy kept talking to me in my head. I thought I was going crazy. Then when I woke up, I had to know what happened. I was so curious.

So I began typing this story. I had no idea how to write, could only use two fingers when I typed, forgot all the grammar from school… but I did it. I finished the first draft in six weeks. Then when someone would edit a page, I’d quickly fix all the other pages so that they matched–as I learned along the way. I rewrote Pride & Popularity ten times before I got my agent. Originally the book was 72K words, but by the time it was published it was down to 60K.

Q. Wow, that is amazing. So you got an agent, and then what happened?

A. Then the day… as in THE DAY… I had 3 of the big 6 publishers coming together to auction for the series, the publishing world crashed. And all three of them pulled back, no one knew what was going on. But they asked for me to come back in six months. That day. The day my agent arranged for us to come together to auction again… she went into labor with her twins three months early. And lived the next three months in the hospital with her boys. She ended up quitting shortly afterward and offered me to another agent, but I decided to go on my own at that point and find my own publisher. I’d read enough, and learned so much about marketing, I was pretty sure I could do it.

Q. What year was that?

A. I signed with Walnut Springs in 2011. Then I signed with StonehouseInk in 2012 for the Faerie Tale Collection.

Q. I have admired your success over the years. I know that rapid releasing has been around for a while, but it seemed that you were doing that before it became a “thing.” Can you tell me about that time in your life? It seemed you were publishing book after book. And they were selling!

A. 2012. I’d just gone through a horrific divorce. I’d moved my family from Utah to New Mexico, back into my old bedroom. And I was desperate. Even though I had two books published, I hadn’t seen a dime in royalties yet.  I was on food stamps for the first time in my life, I sold my vehicle big enough for all of us and literally fell into despair. After six months I woke up. So in January 2013, I had job offers and a choice to make. I could either write and find a way to stay home with my little ones (My kids were 2-16), or get a job and never write again. I felt so strongly I needed to write and write fast! My parents disagreed, neighbors, friends, everyone thought I was crazy. But I kept my head down and started writing the Faerie Tale collection. I ended up writing 13 books that year.

Within 6 months I’d been able to buy my minivan, and in January 2014 I moved my kids back up to Utah–since I was invited to speak up here at least  once a month anyway. Thankfully they sold! In August 2015, I bought my first house in Fountain Green where we’ve been ever since.

Q. That is amazing, Jenni. Kudos to you for your grit. And your family seems to be flourishing. After you remarried, you mentioned your hubby a lot and I get the impression he has been a great partner in your journey.

A. He is AMAZING!! My gosh! Though, it almost didn’t happen.

Q. What was your meet-cute?

A. My husband has dyslexia, and we met on Facebook. So it was all through writing at first and I’d just cringe. I thought he might be special needs.

Q. As an English major with spelling OCD, I can totally relate!

A. He was persistent–thankfully!–he loved my posts about taking my kids on adventures. He saw that we were so happy and he was drawn to the big happy family.

When we met–a year after  “meeting”  on Facebook… everything changed. I realized he  had a couple of degrees (including business management)  was a manager for Walmart and loved marketing, adventures, canning, the simple  life as much as I did.

Q. Obviously love prevailed and you got your HEA.

A. Yes. He’s stubborn and patient and knows exactly how to calm me down. haha. Also, he’s a really really good kisser. So that helps too. haha

Q. Ha ha, book research!

A. Totally!

Q. What a fantastic love story. So tell me what you have been doing nowadays, and how you got into the meat of what I want to talk about–screenwriting.

A. So crazy. In January 2017 I sort of woke up and realized I needed to learn how to screenwrite. I had no idea how to.  But I had a fan who’d graduated from screenwriting in college. So I messaged her on Facebook and asked if she’s do a bi-monthly date with me and teach me how to screenwrite. She was amazing and said YES!

So I’d already slogged my way through learning how to write screenplays when a producer approached me in April and asked if I’d turn one of my books into a screenplay for him.

After some back and forth in May he decided on Not Cinderella’s Type… and said if I could finish the screenplay by the end of the  month he’d start filming in September.

Q. I think most authors have a fantasy of selling a screenplay based on their books. What caught this producer’s attention?

A. A friend started to work with the producer and told him about me. It’s all about who you know, I think. So in three weeks I signed the contract (after edits and everything)… and then he actually began filming in July. And the rest is history. That movie came out last year in 2018 on Amazon Prime and has won best Feature film and best screenplay.

Q. Wow! Congrats. What are the similarities and differences between writing novels and writing screenplays?

A. A lot of people don’t know that in my late  twenties-early thirties I was a professional children’s theater director in Arizona and then later in England. (Yes, it sounds crazier than it is) And because there just weren’t good plays out there for kids… I began to write my own.

Playwriting is like 2D, the stage always faces one way, the players come on either side. It’s very simple. I think writing novels is like 3D… everything comes alive. They can come from anywhere and you’re in the characters’ heads, it’s amazing.

Screenwriting is definitely 4D, you have to think of camera angles from all over the place, below, above, around… it’s so cool, but also super intense at the same time. Every move out or into a place becomes another scene.

Screenwriting and playwriting are the same in that sense that they’re very, very dialogue heavy… So if you’re good at dialogue and creating different characters just through words, then you might want to look into it. However, watch those lines! There are some things a character can say in a book, that just sounds way too much on the big screen. Super cringeworthy. So you definitely want to trim those monologues down when writing for the screen. They need to be believable without overtaxing the viewers.

Another huge difference is that readers tend to be introverts and you can have conversations where the characters on the couch are talking for two chapters. You can’t do that with a movie. You have to say those same things but keep characters moving. The viewers are a much more extroverted experience. They get bored easily and need things to be changed up. So the same conversation will happen as they walk to their car, in the restaurant, while they walk through a park, at the ice cream parlor, and then as they head home… See what I mean?

Q. I think I remember now that you did do theater. How fun is that! Yes, I can see that in screenplays. What do you find easier to write, a novel or screenplay? And why?

A. Screenplays!  By far! Though they’re quite the challenge, because it’s using your editor left  brain and writer right brain. It’s a huge mind-blowing experience sometimes.  But I still do love creating novels.   That slipping into someone’s head and telling their story and sharing their fears and inner thoughts, I love creating that dynamic with the reader that sometimes gets lost on the screen. However, screenwriting is way easier.

Q. Seriously, btw, your life sounds like a movie.

A. Hahaha! If you mean I’ve succeeded through tons and tons of adversity and just pushed through–then yeah. I’ve had some incredible experiences. It’s all work, but it’s the good kind of work. The work that keeps you busy and doesn’t let you delve too much into the dark.

Q. So what are your plans now for both, if you are able to share?

A. I’ve just finished The Shattered Slipper… though, I’ll tell you since I haven’t told anyone else.  I’m reaching out to agents. I’ve become so busy with the screenwriting (now that the  first movie won) that I feel like I’m ready to pass the baton and not do so much on the marketing end of my books  and let the platform I’ve already built and the publishers go with that. I’ll see if anyone picks this one up.  It’s really heartrending and heartwarming too. It’s beautiful.

As for screenwriting, I’ve just finished my 13th screenplay. I’m currently working with three different  producers on writing for them. So when they have a project, we sit down, discuss, and then I create it for them. Unless I’ve already got a book that fits and then I adapt that and we go from there.

I’m really excited, I was asked to write a Christmas comedy family movie. It came out so cute! And we’ve already got an A-lister interested who wants to star in it. This one just might be my big break. BUT… I’m not holding my breath. I’m excited, but I know how this industry works,  for now I’m super flattered and we’ll see what happens. (As soon as I can tell you everything I will). If all goes well they’ll begin filming that movie this winter. And I just finished my 5th Hallmark-type movie… so we’ll see how those turn out. All five are with producers now and working towards development. One begins shooting this fall!

Q. I am running out of superlatives. What an exciting time for you! So, just to clarify, do you want me to leave out the part you haven’t told anyone else?

A. Haha. You’re welcome to share it. It’s all good. Just not 100% sure that’s the route I’ll be taking, so we’ll see. I believe in celebrating (or sharing) while there’s still a reason to celebrate. Lol!

It’s like I’ve finally hit that 10-year mark. That never giving up, defeating the odds. Keeping your head down… believing in yourself when no one else does… All of it. And finally it’s exploding and taking me along with it.

Q. So in the ten years you have been in the publishing / storytelling business, what do you think are clean and wholesome readers looking for? What has changed over the years?

A. When I first started very few people were writing clean. It was basically unheard of. And everyone told me I’d have to add sex, swearing, or the teens wouldn’t read it. What I can for sure tell you–is that teens LOVE clean reads. And they  want more. So much more. Also, their aunts love it and their moms and their little sisters love it and their grandmas and even their boyfriends and dads.

I think the best thing that’s happened is the Clean reading boom. I love that it’s everywhere now. I love my kids can choose from hundreds and now thousands of books. It’s amazing and when I think about it I start to cry, it’s just so cool to be part of it.

Q. Aww, that is great to hear. As a C&W author, I love it. So which do you love writing more of? Young adult or adult? Or are you mainly YA?

A. I have a couple of series for adults. The Austen in Love Series and the Regency Romance Series… And honestly, I like shaking it up. I love to do a modern fairy tale, then a Regency, and then a contemporary, then fantasy fairy tale.. it just makes it more fun for me to write and jump around like that.

Q.  I was going to ask you what genres you write, and that helps. If an author wants to do well in YA, what are your top three pieces of advice?

A. Haha. While I’ve been typing up this interview I’ve been invited to a Women’s filmmaker gala, AND a producer wants to book a development meeting where I outline the next Hallmark- type romance. Oops. Okay. I’ll answer your questions. Haha.

Q. I don’t know how your hubby keeps up with you. I know what’s on my bucket list: be Jenni James for a day.

A. I write Contemporary YA, Fairy Tale YA, Contemporary YA fairy tales, Historical/regency, contemporary romance, and children’s books. Top  three pieces of advice…

1.  Get your marketing done. Read blogs, learn how to market, market, market. Build that platform as you start writing, don’t wait until you’re done. Share  snippets, grow your audience, let them follow your journey. Your ups and downs.

2. Learn how to query. You will be querying EVERYTHING. not just agents and publishers… But newspapers, comic cons, conferences, school to speak at, everything…So learn how to sell yourself.

3. Never give up. Never surrender. You will lose friends. Not kidding. it’s happened to every author I know. Some of them your best friends. I’m sorry. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. Just know that it’s normal and you’ll make new friends and everything will be okay again. But don’t give up. Not  on yourself. So you’re not the best writer? Who cares? No Olympic swimmer won a gold by jumping in the pool his first day. Practice. Write again. Rewrite. Learn, grow. Get better. Fail a few times. Actually, fail a lot–so that way you know where not to go early on, before you succeed. Never give up. Never surrender. If you’ve got a story that’s in you, you’re meant to write it. Do it. No one will ever be able to tell the story the way you do. No one. That is for you and you alone. Do it.

Q. I LOVE that, Jenni. Love it! Last question/s! Are you writing screenplays mostly in the LDS (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) movie genre? Because, correct me if I am wrong, Not Cinderella’s Type was entered and got awards in the LDS Film Festival, right?

A. Yes, but it’s not that genre. It’s contemporary. It was best feature film because the producers were LDS. I’m working with producers that are and aren’t. But everything I’ve written so far has been for the mass-audience. Though I’d love to do one for the LDS audience too.

Q. Forget about craft. I want to know how to be a great human being like you. Thanks so much Jenni!!! You are amazing and may you have all the blessings you deserve.

A. You are incredible! And have been one of MY heroes for a long time now. I have no idea how you do all YOU do! Thank you so much for this interview and taking the time. I’m very honored you thought of me!

Q. Well, I look up to you, so…. Thanks Jenni. ❤

A. Thank you. thank you! Now, I’m off to answer these other emails that came in.

Check out Jenni James’ Amazon page and her award-winning book-to-movie Not Cinderella’s Type.

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