John Scalzi Explains the Secret to Writing Books Hollywood Will Love

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Author photo courtesy of Athena Scalzi

Just a few months ago, I observed that it was a very good time to be John Scalzi: he was fresh off a 2013 Best Novel Hugo win for Redshirts, with a new book due out in a few weeks, and two of his novels (including Redshirts) in development as television series. Since then, things have only gotten better for the sci-fi author-cum-geek culture commentator.

That new book, Lock In? Debuted on the New York Times best-seller list. Oh, and it’s also been picked up as a potential TV series. If you’re counting, that means three of his books might be gracing the small screen over the next few years. I think you’ll agree with me when I say: that’s bonkers.

At a recent book signing in Brooklyn, Scalzi explained the secret of writing books that will bring Hollywood to your door: put down that paperback and fire up Netflix, and spend the next few years studying how movies work, and why.

Yes, yes, it also helps to be a skilled, engaging, and accessible writer (qualities that have made Scalzi one of the most popular authors in the genre), but there are a lot of fantastic sci-fi books that haven’t been optioned for adaptation. Scalzi credits his ability to write books that attract movie producers like flies to years spent as a film critic, watching seven movies a week and dissecting them for his readers, examining what worked and what didn’t, and explaining whether they were worth seeing or not.

“It was my five-year film school,” Scalzi said. From there he learned the things that make for a great blockbuster movie: a compelling three-act structure. Lots of memorable dialogue. Well-drawn, relatable characters. “Action,” he added, “that is action-y.”

Some writers would chafe at being called accessible, but Scalzi prides himself on it—he specifically crafts his books to be appealing to veteran and “entry-level” sci-fi readers alike, and his movie-modeled structures are a part of the equation. When he first sent his manuscripts to his now-agent, Scalzi was even asked if the books started out as screenplays. (Nope, but one of them—Old Man’s War—was turned into one by screenwriter David Self for Wolfgang Petersen to direct, though the project has since moved into development at SyFy.)

In hindsight, I should have seen the Lock In announcement coming. It’s his strongest book yet on a plotting level, with an arresting, nightmarish premise about an out-of-control virus that leaves a small portion of the U.S. population fully conscious but trapped in a coma-like state. The sci-fi elements are novel but relatable (the afflicted interact with the world through a virtual reality landscape), and the potential for multiple-season story arcs is certainly there (especially once a handful of the apparently helpless coma patients discover they can use the virtual reality system to control others’ bodies).

Hollywood is a fickle creature, of course, and it’s too soon to say when or if any of these books will make it all the way to a network or streaming service near you, but, undoubtedly, it remains an excellent time to be John Scalzi.

Are you excited to see John Scalzi’s books adapted for TV?

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