ROBIN HOOD, a novelization by David B. CoeWe have another Release Day coming up here at MW.  My novelization of Robin Hood, Ridley Scott’s new treatment of the old legend, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, will be released tomorrow, April 27.  The movie appears in theaters on May 14, after opening at Cannes on the 12th.

I’ve been asked many times about the experience of working on this book, and have already posted about it some.  But I wanted to walk you through the process in the form of a Q and A, because I learned a lot from the experience, and perhaps some of you will find it interesting, too.

How did you get the gig? It was kismet, really.  It certainly wasn’t anything my agent and I went after.  Universal Studios was trying to sell the book license — often studios look to sell the book rights for a big movie that is based on an original screenplay.  It’s another way of marketing the movie itself.  Tor got the inside track on the auction for the book license, and my editor was involved in these discussions.  He approached me and basically said: “This might happen, and I think you’d be the perfect person to write it.  You interested?”  I told him I was and then I spoke to my agent about it.  A few days later, Tor reached an agreement with Universal, and I started work on the book.

How long did you have to write the book? All right, most people don’t ask this, but it’s my Q and A and the timeline was nuts.  I found out that I’d be writing the book on November 30; I received the script on December 1.  The book was due January 4.  I handed it in a week late on January 11.  It was 90,000 words long.

How did the writing work? As I say, I was given a script.  A shooting script, so it was pretty much what was in the first version of the movie as shot.  I had to follow the script to the letter.  I couldn’t change a word of dialogue.  I couldn’t delete lines.  I was strongly discouraged from adding any dialogue, though the studio agreed to be a little bit flexible on this.  I couldn’t add in any subplots or characters.  I had to build a book around the dialogue, so I put in description of scenery and people and clothing.  I added in internal monologue — the thoughts and emotions of my point of view characters.  I could choose who those POV characters would be for every scene (though most of the time it was Robin, and when it wasn’t him, it was usually Marion).  The POV choices could be tricky at times — you get reaction shots in movies, and some of these were scripted.  Getting all of those in while maintaining consistent POV wasn’t always easy.  In addition to following the scripted reactions, I could also add in gestures, facial expressions, and dialogue attribution when it wasn’t specified.  And finally, I could divide the script into chapters as I saw fit, which also is trickier than it sounds.  Some scenes were way too short to be chapters; sometimes, in battle scenes and such, scene shifts happen quickly.  Fitting these into coherent chapters was sometimes a challenge.

So you only worked off the script?  You never saw the movie? Nope.  Still haven’t seen it, though I know what happens….   The studio sent me some still images from the shoot, so that I could see costumes and a few sets, and I got to see the first trailer a few weeks before the rest of the world did.  That was actually surprisingly helpful, as were the stills.  Even a single image of the interior of a castle or the lanes of a village allowed me to extrapolate for other scenes.  In other words, those still images gave me a sense of the movie’s ambiance, and that, in turn, helped me set the right tone and visual cues for the book. But I never got to see most of what I described.  That was a challenge as well.  The thing you have to know about Hollywood is that studios are (rightfully) paranoid about having their work pirated, particularly when the movie in question is considered a potential blockbuster, as this one is.  Piracy is a real problem, and though I could assure the studio that I would never do anything with an advance copy of the movie except use it for reference, they had no reason to believe me.  How paranoid were they?  Well, the script I was given was printed on red paper so that I couldn’t make copies, and it had “Tor Books” and my editor’s name watermarked on every page, just in case I tried.  The stills they sent me had Crowe and Blanchett’s faces whited out, so that I couldn’t sell the images online or use them to make and market my own Robin Hood merchandise.  That’s pretty paranoid.

So you finished the book in six weeks.  Then what? Well, then the fun began.  Because we had a shooting script that had been through a few drafts, there were a couple of inconsistencies.  Conversations that happened twice; for instance, characters hearing that the king was dead, and then hearing again, and being surprised both times.  That sort of thing.  And of course, changes are made in the movie editing room that don’t show up in a script.  Unfortunately, Hollywood works at its own pace.  Now, so does publishing, so normally Hollywood’s slow pace wouldn’t be a problem.  But this time, the book was on that tight timeline I mentioned, and Tor’s production department was getting antsy.  We would up going through the copyedits without hearing back from the studio.  THEN we received 11 pages of single-space typewritten notes from the studio clearing up some of those questions we had and informing us of shooting and editing changes — deleted scenes, altered scenes, scenes moved forward in the chronology or moved back, altered dialog.  Huge changes.  So we had to revise heavily a book that had already been copyedited.  Not at all fun.  What’s more, we got a second round of changes — many of them also quite significant — after the book was typeset and a third round just as the book was going to press for final printing.  The four weeks leading up to the actual printing of the novel were as frenzied and frustrating and difficult as any I’ve experienced in my entire career.  We were literally making big changes to the manuscript mere hours before the book was to be printed.

Well, but you were paid lots of money and you get to meet Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett and Ridley Scott, right? Well, no, and no.  The pay was fine, and I get a small royalty on all book sales, plus a tiny percentage of all sub-rights sales.  (The book is being translated into French, Portuguese, Indonesian, Hungarian, and lots of other languages.  It’s being made into an audio book.  I get a tiny bit from every one of those contracts.  The amounts are counted as royalty money.  So chances are I’ll see additional money, beyond my modest advance, down the road a bit.)  And I don’t get to attend the Hollywood opening or Cannes or anything like that.  I am, basically a tiny Remora clinging to the soft underbelly of the Great White Shark that is Robin Hood.

Well then, was it worth it? Absolutely.  I learned a tremendous amount about dealing with the movie industry, about doing true “work for hire” writing, about turning someone else’s characters and story into my own creation.  I learned how to write faster.  Before I wrote Robin Hood, I considered 2,000 words a good day of writing.  While working on this book, I routinely wrote 4,000-4,500 words a day.  I don’t think I could sustain that pace all the time.  I wouldn’t want to.  As I said, it was crazy.  But it’s nice to know that if I need to write that quickly again, I can.  Also, Robin Hood will be distributed far more widely than any book I’ve written before.  People who otherwise would never have heard of me or my work, will see this book in their local stores or in airports, supermarkets, and big retailers.  This could significantly increase my visibility.  And because I did a decent job on this book, I might be asked to do other novelizations in the future, which would allow me to broaden my readership even more.  So yeah, it was definitely worth it.

What was the funniest thing that happened in the process? Well that would have to be an item that appeared in the notes from the studio.  There were a series of scenes in the original script that I wrote into the book.  But the studio then informed us that we could cut all those scenes (which were crucial to the plot development) because they were now being handled in the movie as a montage.  We sent a note back saying that books don’t really have montages and so we recommended that the scenes remain in the book as they were….

David B. Coe

22 comments to ROBIN HOOD Q & A

  • Liz

    Wow – what insanely fascinating stuff! I don’t know if it’s just me but I really do like movie-tie in novels and appreciate the hard work that’s gone into them! I love reading them because I get to re-live scenes on page as well as my head and sometimes the writing fills in the extra bits that were missing in the movie.

    So, congrats on not only completing it but doing it in such an intense short period of time.

  • David,
    I still can’t believe the timeline you worked on. I know there was dialog already there, but still… wow. I really hope there are some great spin-offs for you from this, like additional readers and more tie-ins.

    Congrats. I rarely read movie tie-ins, but this time I’m certainly going to make an exception.

  • I’m curious — Do you think you were able to write 4000+ words a day because the dialogue, plot, etc were already laid out for you? I find sometimes that I’ll get stuck in a scene and my word count for the day drops until I figure out the next plot detail or the next line of dialogue. In this case, did that kind of thing happen at all or was the pain mostly in dealing with Hollywood changing the plot on you over and over?

    Also, I second NewGuyDave — I’ve never read a movie tie-in, but for this one, I’m going to have to.

  • Mikaela

    Wow. Just wow. I know that I would never manage write 4000 words a day. At least not right now.
    I have considered taking Candace Havens Fast Draft workshop to see if I can. On the other hand, if I did, I would be finished within a week since I write novellas. LOL.

  • I find this so interesting on so many levels. First I have to make it clear that Robin Hood is nearly sacred to me. He was my first lit crush and Creswick’s book, the one illustrated by Wyeth- it captured my imagination at a very early age and I’ve been a fan of any genre in which men wear short tunics and wield old- style weapons, ever since. If there’s a great old forest too- I’m hooked. Now, the idea of the book being made from the movie-I admit that disturbs me a bit, but, at least I won’t read the book first then be disappointed because the movie changed so much. I’m so glad they picked a true author, a true fantasy author.

    This leads me to something I’ve been struggling with recently. How did you deal with perspective? A movie is almost always Omiscient POV- we can see the look on the guy’s face after the MC turns his back and such. We see the furtive movement, off the side etc. My beta reader rails on me whenever I slip into O, but I say fantasy fans are more accepting of it. We tend to like big tales with many POVs. I’m reading Cry of the Icemark right now and find myself saying “look there- the cat’s pov!” in trying to justify my own writing style. But I remember you once saying one of the thing you liked about Rowlings was how well she stayed in Harry’s POV. So, how’d you do this movie version book?

  • Congratulations again!

  • Liz, thank you. I have to admit that I’ve never really been into movie tie-ins, in part, I think, because I didn’t appreciate the amount of work that goes into them. That won’t be a problem anymore…

    NGD, thanks. I hope that this project sends a few more readers my way. That would be very cool. I hope you enjoy the book!

    Stuart, yes, I think that part of the reason I wrote faster was that I knew exactly where the book had to go at any given moment. Less creative decision making on my part. But there were delays built in to the process as well. I often encountered issues that would never come up in one of my own books. I would discover one of those inconsistencies I mentioned, or would find a place where I really couldn’t visualize a scene and needed to search the materials they’d sent me, or even search the web. (For instance, I had access to an online cast list, and at times I had to search for images of one actor or another so that I could approximate his/her appearance for a physical description.) So that was a mitigating factor. At root, I think I wrote so quickly because I had no choice. I’ve said it before: Nothing motivates like a deadline. I rarely miss deadlines, and I rarely find myself so pressed for time. This time, through no fault of my own, I did, and I responded by writing really, really fast….

    Mikaela, as I say to Stuart above, you’d be amazed at what you can do when you have no choice in the matter. I had to meet (or at least come close) to that deadline, and I did what I had to do. Faced with something similar, you could probably turn out more words per day than you think. This was the single thing that had me most scared about taking on the project in the first place. I wanted the job, but I knew how crazy the timing would be, and I was afraid of failing and getting a reputation as someone who couldn’t meet his obligations. I surprised myself. I bet you would find the same thing.

    Susan, thank you very much for that last line in the first graph of your comment. That’s very kind of you. Knowing how sacred Robin Hood is to you, I’m almost tempted to say, “Don’t read it!” I hope you don’t find the book and/or the movie disappointing. This is a different take on the legend; it’s almost a prequel. The book and movie are all about how he becomes Robin Hood; it ends where many treatments of Robin Hood begin. I think it’s a very cool story, but RH purists might be put off by the different take. You ask a great question. I dealt with POV as I would with any book, NOT as a movie would. I used several POV characters, but I held pretty strictly to 3rd person limited. I might have allowed myself to slip into omniscient once or twice where the action left me no choice, but that was all. At times I was in Robin’s head, at times in Marion’s. I also used Friar Tuck, Richard, Eleanor, and a few others, including the villain. But I wrote it as a book, as opposed to a movie treatment, and that prompted a few comments from the studio. In one instance, they didn’t like me referring to Robin by his last name (Longstride, in this story). But that was how the POV character knew him, so we (my editor and I) insisted that we be allowed to keep it as I wrote it, and the studio eventually agreed.

  • I recently saw Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and was disappointed. I sure hope this version is as good as it looks. I can’t wait to read your adaptation!

  • David, some of my writer friends have stress problems when they have tight deadlines. One gets depressed, one can’t sleep. I have shoulder and back issues when I sit and type for long hours, but I’ve never had a deadline like this one. Did you have any such problems? And if so how did you deal with them?

  • Beatriz

    Uhm, David, the book above is obviously a misprint. YOUR photo is supposed to be on the cover, not RC’s. 🙂

  • Laura, thank you. I remember being disappointed wiht “Prince of Thieves” too. Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham was wonderful, and I enjoyed the Morgan Freeman character, but the rest of the movie, and in particular Kevin Costner’s performance, left much to be desired. I expect this movie to be far better.

    Faith, during the writing of the original manuscript I managed to avoid any physical manifestations of stress. I was wound pretty tight throughout December, though, and didn’t enjoy the holidays as much as I might have without the stress. I think that had I not been making good progress I would have had more trouble. As long as I felt that I was getting the work done, I could handle the pressure. During the rewrites, when I had far less control, but just as much stress, I wound up getting sick with a cold that I couldn’t shake for weeks.

    Beatriz, I know! I felt that way, too! Actually, they did manage to get my photo on the inside flap of the back cover with my bio. Russell looks better than I do….

  • Emily

    David> That is so cool! And such a great story. I write fast, but 90,000 words, in a turn-inable draft, in six weeks! Holy carpel tunnel Batman! It also sounds like a fun project to do, a fun challenge. Congrats on all of it!

  • Thanks, Emily. “Turn-in-able”: That was one of the tougher parts of this. Usually, before submitting a manuscript, I like to let the first draft sit for a couple of weeks. Then I read through it, clean it up, rework the rough sections. THEN I turn it in. No time for that with this project. I had to polish to a high shine as I wrote and hope that I’d catch whatever didn’t clean up well in copyedits and proofs.

  • Dino

    Looking forward to getting my copy when the bookstore opens in the morning.

  • Thanks, Dino! Hope you enjoy it.

  • Dino

    Oh, I have no doubt I will.

  • Fascinating stuff, David. Thanks so much. Can’t decide if it makes me wan t to write one or run… Of course, having the choice would be nice.

  • Thanks, A.J. to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if I’d do it again or run from an offer. But like you say, I’d love to have the choice.

  • Dino

    I am 100 pages in and it is great.

    Thanks again,David!

  • Cool! Thanks, my friend.

  • Dino

    Finished it this afternoon.
    I hope the movie is half as good as the book.