Interview: Author, Screenwriter, Writing Coach Eric Elfman

By Posted in - Randomness on June 11th, 2009 2 Comments

Meet Eric Elfman, screenwriter, author, writing coach and all-round nice guy.

Eric is the author of 10 books for children and young adults, including The Very Scary Almanac and The Almanac of the Gross, Disgusting & Totally Repulsive (both published by Random House, the latter named an ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Readers); three X-Files novels (HarperCollins); two books of scary short stories, Three Minute Thrillers and More Three Minute Thrillers (Lowell House). He is currently working on a new YA thriller, The Devil You Know.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, several of his books have also been optioned by Hollywood. His Three Minute Thriller series was optioned by Merv Griffin Enterprises, and The Almanac of the Gross has been developed as a magazine-style TV show for kids, THAT’S SO GROSS!

Class Act, an original feature film Eric wrote with his screenwriting partner, Neal Shusterman, is in development at Walden Media with Halle Berry attached to star. The dynamic duo were also hired by Walden Media to write an adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, and wrote a sequel to the Curious George movie for Universal Studios.

As a writing coach, Eric has worked with over 100 writers in workshops and one-on-one sessions, many of whom have gone on to be published. For the past six years, he has been on the faculty of the Big Sur Children’s Writers Workshop, sponsored by the Henry Miller Library and directed by Andrea Brown, president of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

I had a chance to chat to Eric on my website a little while ago and he had some interesting thoughts on writing novels and screenplays.

What are you working on now?

ERIC ELFMAN: I’ve got two screenplays I’m working on for two different directors and a YA novel that I’m revising.

Seems like a lot of people are writing YA (young adult fiction). Is YA the hot trend?

ERIC ELFMAN: YA is definitely a hot market right now.

Do you prefer writing novels or screenplays?

ERIC ELFMAN: I enjoy both, but they are very different experiences. Screenplays are all about the externals, what the audience can see. The motivation or inner life has to be inferred from what they are doing or saying. Plus you are limited by how many pages you have, so descriptions must be kept to a minimum. In a way they’re like blueprints for the director, and the production team.

Is it easier to write a screenplay than a novel?

ERIC ELFMAN: When you’re used to writing novels it’s like having half of your tools amputated. So in that case it’s not easier. But its easier in some ways than writing novels. For instance, in a screenplay you just write “Fred crosses the room.” While in a novel, well, you know how much is involved in crossing a room!

The average length of a screenplay is 120 pages. One page typically equals one minute in screen time.

Is it pretty much like a play?

ERIC ELFMAN: Very similar, although the formatting is different – but it does involve description of action and dialogue.

If movies don’t tell us the inner things, how much inner exposition do you add in novels, without telling the reader outright?

ERIC ELFMAN: The inner emotions have to be implied by the action and dialogue. Some years ago I was hired by HarperCollins to write a series of X-Files novels based on episodes, and it was kind of eye-opening to me how different a screenplay is from a novel! They gave me the script and a video, and I had to watch in fifteen-second increments, basically, and create the inner lives of the characters, because none of that was on the screen.

So, basically, you had to read between the lines. Wow. Do you find it best to go back and forth between projects, or concentrate on one at a time?


I definitely juggle projects. On the one hand, it helps keep them fresh – when I return to one, I am definitely looking at it with fresh eyes – but on the other hand, it’s just the nature of the beast.

Do you have to have an agent to market a screenplay? Is it even practical?

ERIC ELFMAN: It definitely helps to have an agent. Unless you are going to produce a low-budget indie film yourself, if you’re going to go the studio route, you definitely have to have an agent, or an entertainment lawyer or manager, or the big studios won’t even look at it.

Do people ever publish their screenplays, like a book?

ERIC ELFMAN: No, screenplays are meant to be seen, not read – except by other screenwriters! Though if you want to read some there are lots online.

That’s not to say they couldn’t make a novel out of their own screenplay, though, right?

ERIC ELFMAN: Absolutely. Though novelizations were a lot more popular in the past than they are now. I think the first novelization I ever read was “Fantastic Voyage: – which was written by Isaac Asimov. Great adaptation of a sci-fi thriller into a novel! He based it on the screenplay, but he brought so much to it, it was like an original novel – which isn’t always the case.

In any case, screenplays are hard to write – but the hardest part is selling it! MUCH harder to sell a screenplay than a novel!

Is the market much smaller?

ERIC ELFMAN: Yes, there are really only a handful of studios, basically six markets, where you can sell a big studio film. And unless you’re producing a low or no-budget indie, they’re all studio films.

Some of those low budget indies are pretty darned good, though.

ERIC ELFMAN: Some of my favorite films are indies!

Are you ready to talk about the new developments on your website, yet?

ERIC ELFMAN: Yes! For those who don’t know, I’ve taught on the faculty of the Big Sur Writers Conference for some years now, and I’m also a private writing coach. The latest development is a series of critique groups I’m leading by teleconference.

The information is on my website,

I love the look of your website, and I’m really excited about this new development. Care to describe how the teleconference critique groups work?

ERIC ELFMAN: Each group takes part in two conference calls a month, where writers share their work and get feedback from me and the group. Each writer has 20-25 minutes of individual time. It’s very similar to what we do in Big Sur at the Big Sur Writers’ Workshop, only by teleconference.

Is that like a conference call by telephone?

ERIC ELFMAN: Yes, but the pages submitted for feedback are uploaded to the teleconference call’s website so we can all view them in real time, and the call is recorded so that everyone can download a copy when the call is over, which frees you from having to write notes while the call is in progress.

That sounds really innovative! I love the ways the internet has made it so much easier for writers to communicate and share their journeys. Thanks for your time, Eric, and best of luck with all your projects!

ERIC ELFMAN: My pleasure!

Read more at Eric’s website

(2) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Claudia Putnam - Reply

    April 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Very interesting. Was listening to Nami Mun speak at AWP; she mentioned how she had a particularly difficult piece in her novel-in-stories MILES FROM NOWHERE… it wasn't working, but no one could tell her why. During her MFA, she took a class in playwriting, and that's where she discovered what was wrong and how to fix it. Sometimes jumping from one approach to another can expose a piece in just the way you need to, I think. She wasn't really interested in writing plays, but she learned a lot about her fiction from the exercise.
    .-= Claudia Putnam´s last blog ..Something for the Cruelest Month =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    April 19, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    That's so true, Claudia! I studied film at UCLA and still often return to screenwriting to figure out the holes in my story, or to find ways to reveal character through actions. In fact, it seems as though fiction has had to adopt many film techniques to keep modern readers' interest. Long-standing film techniques such as jump-cuts are finding their way into mainstream fiction more and more.

    Spending time in a parallel creative pursuit also helps me unlock story problems. When words fail me I turn to painting, often with surprisingly fruitful results, especially when sketching or painting scenes from my novel. During the process I discover a detail or steep myself in an atmosphere that gets the words flowing again.

    Thanks for adding ScribeChat to your blogroll, by the way. That totally made my day!

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