steven barnes

The Laws of Adaptation

(This is the first draft of a much larger piece Tananarive and I will do later this year.  You are getting it in chunks as it rolls out of my mind…)

As we announced yesterday, our “mystery project” (we’re limited until the network makes an official announcement) came another step closer to reality–our producers

LOVED the script rewrite, and to our surprise asked for no rewrites before passing it to the studio.  Wow.

So, I wanted to take a moment to give thanks for everything happening right now–it really is a blessing.  I also wanted to speak briefly about one aspect of this process that has been challenging.

Also, after the project appears on-screen, we’re going to teach exactly how we did it, navigated the system, so that you guys can follow.  I thought that it would be useful to begin that process now, with artful evasions that allow us to respect the Network’s need to control publicity.

As we’ve hinted, it is an adaptation of another work.  That means that there are MULTIPLE different levels of reality that we had to keep balanced, and I thought I’d spend some time going through these things.

  1. Respect for the original work.

The question/comment arose countless times:  “but X was THIS way originally!”

You know what?   That doesn’t matter.  Even if YOU wrote it.  The only question is: does it make sense NOW?   I’ve never, ever seen a book or novella translated directly to the screen without change, even if the original author wrote the screenplay.   Never.   Something always changes, and that is natural, normal, and correct.

Why?  Off the top of my head…

  1. You wouldn’t have written it the same way today. Every action changes you. The action of writing the book, therefore, makes you a different person at the end of the process than you were at the beginning of the process: you literally COULD NOT write the same book again, unless you just Xeroxed the damned thing.
  2. The visual medium is just different from the printed page. You cannot flow internal-external, objective-subjective with anything remotely like the same fluidity.  All you have is what you can see and hear.  THAT’S IT.   And the visual matters most.   With most successful films, you can turn the sound off, watch the images, and follow the story.
  3. You don’t have an infinite budget.   You can write things on the page in five minutes that would take five years to put on screen, and cost a five hundred million dollars.    You HAVE to take things like that into consideration.
  4. You have to ask about the standards and practices elements.  What rating is this piece?  Can you handle the same level of explicit sex, violence, or language?  I remember talking to L. Sprague De Camp after he saw the first “Conan” movie.  He was repulsed by the violence.  I had to chuckle.  Had he not read his own writing (he completed or authored many of the Cimmerian’s adventures)?   When he wrote “clove him to the teeth” or “split his spine” or “and his entrails spilled upon the ground” what exactly did he think that looked like?  In comparison to the actual descriptions, the R-rated “Conan” was rather mild.    But…what’s on the page and what’s on the screen are different things.  You MUST navigate the difference.
  5. The people you are working with will have their own ideas.   A writer can work in his basement, alone.  But the director has to work with real, live human beings. And the producer must deal with the studio. And the actors have to actually make the dialogue and actions work.   If these people are even remotely as intelligent as you, as talented and experienced, they will have thoughts and needs that are reasonable to address.   And…let alone the money people.  Do you think someone puts millions of dollars into a project without wanting some control? They might be 100% wrong, but sweetie-baby, IT’S THEIR MONEY.   And you had better be able to at least nod and smile and give lip-service to what they are saying, even if you have contempt for them.  Personally, my philosophy is to behave as if  people can read your mind.  They will KNOW if you are lying and feeling contempt. And what will happen is that your mask and their mask will bump against each other.  Everyone being polite, everyone spitting in each other’s beer when the heads are turned.  Personally, I don’t want to live in that world. So…at the LEAST (and I do this with editors as well)–I treat them like intelligent viewers/readers. They are similar to my intended audience. And if I’m not providing them with an emotional journey, I’m missing my mark.

I MUST LISTEN TO THEM.  What do they need to have the experience?  Do they empathize with these characters?  Believe in this world?  Have the information they need to understand the rules?

6) A 120 minute script MIGHT equate to a 200 page novella.  Maybe.  Max. That means that a 400+ page novel has to be reinterpreted to “fit” in the shorter format.

Robert McKee’s suggestion about adaptation is that you read the original work, and extract from it the core scenes and images that seem to tell a story that has the same thematic and dramatic weight. Then you build up from that skeleton, without referencing the book again until you have a first draft of the script. Then…go back and see if there are moments, images, dialogue, etc that strengthen this new structure.

Do not try to slavishly re-create the novel, because you cannot do it.  And brace yourself for the fact that fans of the original are going to complain about what you changed, or left out, or added NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO.

“The Watchmen” was one of the most obsessively slavish adaptations I’ve ever seen, hugely more faithful than most Biblical epics (!) and what was the most common complaint?   “Where’s the squid?”

Get over it.  You CANNOT make the readers, and viewers, and writer, and producers, and director, and actors, and yourself 100% happy.  Can’t be done.  But what you can do is create an honest piece of work that touches your own heart and taxes your own skills.

There is a famous writer who complained about adaptations of his work. “It isn’t faithful!”  Then…he got a job adapting the work of a close friend.  And…promptly proceeded to change the hell out of it.   And to my great amusement, the friend of course complained. And the Famous Writer then defended his changes, using the exact same rationalizations that he’d always rejected when applied to HIS work.

I laughed my butt off.    To this day, I am uncertain of whether Famous Writer grasps the irony.   Or hypocrisy.  Whatever.   But it was quite instructive.

Write With Passion!


My Amma story, part 2

All right, I promised you my Amma story.   It happened about six years ago. Scott Sonnon and I were conducting a “Path” workshop down at LAX, and he told me that his guru, Amma, was making an appearance at a nearby hotel.  I’d never heard of her before, except for Scott’s comments: she apparently sat in one place, giving and receiving hugs from the followers who stream by, for days on end: no eating, drinking, sleeping, whatever.   I think I’d hade one friend who said she had received a hug, and it was said to be an amazing experience.

He asked if I’d like to go over, and I said: “sure.”  

The other hotel was close enough to walk to, and as we approached, the number of people walking the other way who seemed “hippyish” increased: beards, t-shirts, a certain relaxed 60s atmosphere that was easy to recognized.   Not exacly “blissed out” but more like laughing, aware, happy, kinda centered.  I liked it. As we walked into the hotel and went down to the ballroom level, the atmosphere was downright carnival.  I mean the room was filled with people selling Amma t-shirts and Amma comic books, people laughing and having a great time.  Reminded me of an SF convention dealer’s room, actually.  There were dispensers giving out numbered tickets, and I realized that there was a line that went all the way around a cavarnous ball room, and apparently if you took a ticket now, you might get a hug at about 3 in the morning.    It was about eight pm.   Ah…no thanks.

In the center of the room was some kind of platform I’d not looked directly at, but from my peripheral vision, I saw that the line of people streamed through that location.  I was still taking things in, and hadn’t focused there, but picked up on something very strange:

In the middle of that platform was something I could only describe as an Easter Island head.  You know those gigantic busts?   Like that.  A woman’s head.  Huge. Grayish, maybe.   Right in the middle of the room. That was peripheral vision.  I turned and looked directly at it, and the image shimmered for a moment…and then dwindled, as if my contact lenses were focusing.  And the “head” dwindled and dwindled…until what I saw was a small smiling brown woman sitting on that stage, hugging people as they streamed past, one squeeze at a time.

Now that…was odd.   I marked it down to an optical illusion, and went back to looking at the room.  Focused on someone selling something…soap maybe (Amma soap-on-a-rope?) and was chuckling, when…my peripheral vision picked up the Easter Island head again.  Just as large.  Glimpsed from the corner of my eye.

WTF?   I turned and looked at it again, and as before…it dwindled to human size, and BOOM.  I was looking at a small, brown-skinned woman again. I studied her more carefully.  She was simple smiling and hugging one person at a time.

And…I felt a chill.    As I’ve said, I cannot tell you that auras exist separate from our perception.  I only know that I’ve experienced such distortions of the visual/kinesthetic field in the past, and always with people I consider extraordinarily focused on spiritual matters.   Maybe it’s just my hind-brain giving me a head’s up.

But never had I seen anything like THIS.  It was as if I was a two-dimensional person, and a three-dimensional being had thrust their finger through the plane I existed on.  I’d see only a circle.  But what if out of the corner of my eye, from my peripheral vision, I was, in the right frame of mind (like just finishing teaching a two-day transformational workshop with one of the highest-energy athletes I’ve ever met?) could sense the existence of the entire finger..?

I realized that I could interpret this as a simple hallucination…or a gift of a glimpse of something larger. My brain telling me: there is something happening here bigger than you.   Larger than the world you can perceive with your forebrain.  Outside logic.  Do NOT underestimate this little woman.   Not this frail flesh is she!

I live in both worlds.  Know that none of us are “this frail flesh” alone.  That we are deeply connected, on levels beyond our imaginings.

Which is why I see the dualities of black and white, Liberal and Conservative, gay and straight, male and female, Christian and Atheist, pro-and-anti gun, and all of the others as just two sides viewing the same mountain from different directions, each claiming they have the only route to the top.  A magical revelation.

That all the anger is just fear, and that when you remove or address the fear, all that remains is love.That the route to that is communication between those with ears to hear.  I don’t know what Amma’s goal is, other than healing the world.  I honor he totally, and suspect that she may be the most evolved human spirit I’ve ever encountered.

Interestingly, I think that a decade ago, certainly two, my urge would have been to join the line.   Would have been one of the great experiences of my life.  But at this point…it was a gentle reminder that the work I’ve been engaged with was valid.  (And tomorrow, maybe I’ll talk about the very first time I ever saw an aura, and my interpretation of it).
But the path is there, for anyone.  It lies in resolving the conflicts that fracture our perceptions. For our actions, emotions, and thoughts to move in the same direction. Heal ourselves emotionally, and feel the love that connects everyone and not get pulled into the dualities that drive politics and human conflict.
But to do that you have to be strong enough to be unmoved by the attempts to trigger fear.  Once you have that quality, it is critical to share it. And that is MY goal: to create one thousand adult aware writers and teachers.   People who believe in a better, more loving, safer world, believe that we can create it…one person at a time.
That is certainly what Lifewriting has been about—sharing the specific path I’ve traveled as it applies to writing novels, television, and short stories.  Turning the urge to share stories into something that is not just financially rewarding, but weaves the structure of our world together a bit more tightly at a time so many of us are feeling fear and doubt about our future.
We need people who can see the patterns, watch the spirals, and by their own example and through their shared dreams, lead the way.  
We need people just like you.
Steven Barnes
www dot lifewritingweekly dot com
This Saturday July 18th
Lifewriting show 11am pst
Hosted by: StevenBarnes 

Phone Number: (724) 444-7444
Call ID: 137903
Turn every event in your life into an opportunity for growth and awareness.  Open Mic! Bring your questions and thoughts!

We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.

“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”— Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani (among others, quoted by Anais Nin)

The “Lifewriting” approach to personal development, social change or writing is based upon aligning cultural and personal myths, our emotions, beliefs, values and actions, so that everything is moving in the same direction. Why is this necessary?  Because that “Dark Night of the Soul” is coming, people.  One way or another, you’re heading toward one right now, at freight-train speed. And the only way through it is Faith: faith in something deeper, larger, or stronger than your ego.

But if you put your faith in the wrong things, it will shatter your belief, embitter you. There is NOTHING more bitter than an optimist who has been betrayed once too often. How do you prevent this? By developing your faith in yourself, your own perceptions. Work through the b.s. until you hit bedrock, one step at a time.  And it takes time.  And sometimes you will experience things that conflict with “logic” and rationality, and you have to find a way to deal with it.  When you do this, you will learn to calibrate your “trust”–know when and where and to whom to extend it, and err less often.

You can trust others to the exact degree that you can trust yourself to determine their trustworthiness.


One of the ways I deal with the odd things I’ve experienced  is storytelling.  I will never, ever tell how many of the things in my books represent actual experiences.  You’d think me insane.  That’s all right: I probably am.  A friend of mine once said that

“Steve–you  not only build dream castles, you  treat them like vacation condos and move into them.”

Yeah, that’s me.

One event that changed my life, and that made its way into my latest novel, THE DEAD LIST,  occurred about six years ago, and involves a quasi-encounter with what may be the most evolved soul I’ve ever encountered, the “Hug Guru” Amma.  Let me make is clear: I’ve seen auras, but I can’t tell you whether an aura is something that exists on its own, or is a function of the perception of the viewer, a “complex equivalent” reifying complicated data sets into a complex if mystifying sensory input.  A literary example:  Sherlock Holmes picked up dozens of tiny clues and from them created an inductive/deductive conclusion about who an individual was, or what was likely to occur next.  If he hadn’t explained his method (over and over again!) Watson would have thought Holmes a witch.

Imagine that your unconscious mind is capable of doing similar things, and giving you a simple symbol.  A hundred small clues from a stranger that you simply feel as “creepy! Avoid!” or consider the thousand things you learn about someone with your first kiss.    Wanna break all of that down into health, passion, emotions, technique, dietary patterns, cleanliness, mutual attraction, availability and more?  Or do you just want to have the “yum” experience we all seek?

Doesn’t mean the other information isn’t there.  Means that if you take time to sort through all of that, the “moment” is gone.  Sometimes irretrievably: the mugger strikes. The potential lover turns away.  The sales prospect slams the door.

Feelings, “hunches”, and perhaps visual and auditory and kinesthetic illusions fill the gap.

Of course, that’s the scientific part of my brain.  It is on very, very good terms with the shaman/artist in my heart. And that part whispers: MAGIC EXISTS.

Yeah, I like that.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you exactly what happened with Amma, where it happened, and how it changed my life.  But today, I ask you to look back over YOUR life, and find moments where something positive happened, something that defied logic.  Logic, remember, is just a representational system. Life itself is far, far messier. And if you shut your doors to the “impossible” too much, you are assuming that all that is must be understandable by YOUR little brain. And unless you have a perfect record figuring out “what’s gonna happen next?” the infallibility of logic becomes  a pretty illogical belief to hold, doesn’t it?

When you find those moments, they not only support your personal faith in a universe with more possibility than pain, but you will understand life and humanity differently, and that can power not only your personal story, or your ability to communicate with your children, spouse, or employees, but is the invisible glue within novels, screenplays, and stories.  What I’m saying can’t quite be expressed directly–but yes, you can discover it for yourself, and the LIFEWRITING WORKSHOP is the best place I know to create this connection between your emotions and the world you perceive.  Remember: we don’t see the world as it is. We see it as we are.

Be magical.



(and stay tuned for some real magic tomorrow!)

www dot lifewritingweekly dot com

Love can cross barriers logic cannot climb

I was in Georgia last week, visiting with Tananarive’s family, and seeing Sijo Muhammad my beloved karate instructor and friend, and having the honor to address his students.  We also drove down to Tallahassee and back with T’s father, Civil Rights icon John Due.  Jason had a fantastic time with his cousins, and all of us came back exhausted but paradoxically renewed and refreshed.

Strange how that works.

On our way back from Tallehassee, T and I stopped at a gas station, and went into the convenience store to get some snacks. The man behind the counter, a typical Georgia guy, seemed glum and dour, and I asked how he was.

“Terrible,” he said.  “I’m getting out of here.  Moving to the Philippines.”

“Really?  Why?” I asked.

“This country is going to hell,” he said.

I tried to engage him, find out more of what he meant by that, but frankly, with all the change happening in America right now, it wasn’t hard to guess.

Fear.  It was alive in his eyes. Anger. Depression. The world he knew was changing too rapidly, out of his control.  He wanted to go to a world that felt smaller, more comfortable, familiar.  I celebrate much of the change happening in the world right now, but grieve for the discomfort being experienced by those more comfortable in the past.

I take no pleasure in the pain of others.

(Except in sparring, when it can be kinda fun. Ahem.  Not TOO much pain, of course. Just enough to get their attention. But that’s another matter…)

Over the course of the lives of my teachers, there have been countless times when stress, fear, anger, grief or anxiety have drained their energies. The Hero’s Journey says that is just a part of the process. The trick is to get back on balance as rapidly as possible.  And the fastest way I know to accomplish this is to shift your breathing and focus. When you do this properly, you gain power, and that power can be transferred to others, IF you genuinely make the shift yourself, and IF you genuinely care.   Love can pass barriers impassable to logic.

So I went into Tai Chi breathing, holding myself erect as if held by a string from above. Smiled, remembering the touch of my daughter’s cheek against mine, the warmth of Jason’s hug, the sense of sitting on my sister Joyce’s lap as she taught me to read, the sweetness of Tananarive’s kiss.  Instant bliss. Warmth, spreading through my body.  Pooled that in my Tan Tien, the spot two inches beneath my naval.  Then anchored it to my feet, and let it spread upward to the top of my skull.  For that moment, I was the avatar of divine love, and saw nothing but a man seeking love and peace, torn by the whirlwind of change.   As he passed me my change, I took his hand in mine, looked in his eyes and said:

“Wherever you go, whatever you do,   find the peace you seek.”   He was startled, and then something softened in his face.  I saw his eyes shimmer, almost as if he wanted to cry.  He blinked.

I HAD SEEN HIM.   One human being to another.    And he nodded.  “You…travel safe, you hear?”  He said, his voice softened and roughened with emotion.  I smiled, receiving his gift.    And T and I left.

One moment. Two people. Probably on opposite sides of several philosophical divides. But…both human.  My cup is full, and I simply let him drink a bit from that wellspring.

One day, I might write that incident into a short story.  Maybe it is enough to share it in this manner. Time will tell.  But this is exactly what we teach in the LIFEWRITING workshop: to heal yourself enough to see yourself clearly, and then to see others.  To see the humanity in every human being you meet, and understand life enough to extract from it the wonderful lessons available all around us every day.

Sure, we teach techniques: the very best techniques you’ll find anywhere. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is to remember that we are more than technique. More than the sum total of our experiences. We are the glue that holds those experiences together, the space in which they occurred.    In the darkest night, we are also the stars within.

If you want to master the near-mystical connection between story and consciousness, to learn to spin the stuff of your life into myth and story, or to build your skills to the professional level…I hope you’ll take a look at the Lifewriting workshop, now available on a weekly plan. There is nothing like it, anywhere.  And it will change you, I promise.

Have a wonderful day, a wonderful week.  A wonderful life



lifewritingweekly dot com

Setting your character in motion

There is nothing, absolutely nothing in my suggestions about how to heal and move forward that are not applicable to the question of becoming an awake, aware, adult human being, both strong and loving.  So we can concentrate on the root, and still feed the flowering.

But it also relates to the “Lifewriting” concept:

  1. to use the simplest possible plot structure that also applies to our lives
  2. to apply the same principles of characterization to our characters and ourselves.
  3. To look at our own life concerns, solved or not, and make them the basis of issues your characters are dealing with.  In that way, everything you learn in life makes you a better writer, and everything you write makes you a better person.

If you wanted to write about a human being who sought enlightenment, you would need, then, to:

  1. Have a clear definition of the end state goal (difficult. Words don’t quite contain it)
  2. Know where the person is currently on their journey.
  3. Give them a compulsive need to seek that state.

Let’s back up.  What if they “merely” wished to achieve that “awake, aware adult” state?

Very similar.

  1. Define the end point.   A state of taking personal responsibility for emotions and actions.  To sort through childhood programming and remove anything you would not have deliberately inserted into your biocomputer.  To love Self, and extend that love and compassion to others. To be responsible for your own security, to the limits of physical capacity.  To be willing to speak your truth.
  2. Where is the character currently?  This is the fun part: simply choose one or more of the above defined end points and screw them up.   Your character is dishonest with themselves. Fearful and petty. Still driven by childhood or social programming, or conflicted programming.   Blames others for their emotions and actions.
  3. Create motivation. They must fail, big time.  Be “confronted with a challenge” they cannot ignore, no matter how desperately they wish to.  They MUST act. The action will require them to expand their view of themselves, or their world.  They CANNOT meet the challenge being who they currently are.

Throw them out into the world with that confusion and total motivation, and see what happens.  If they aren’t motivated enough…dig deeper.   Audiences want a character who is dancing on the tightrope, fearful but unable to turn back, determined enough to risk everything…including their egos…to achieve their goals.

Now you’ve got a story.