We met actor Blair Underwood when he optioned one of Tananarive's novels in the 1990s. After watching the project languish in studio development, we decided to launch a new book series about a former gigolo and actor-turned-detective named Tennyson Hardwick. We write the books, but Blair has strong input. Tennyson has his own Fan page on Facebook, and last year we won an NAACP Image Award. The books are designed to feel like movies in many ways, but we had no movie yet.
So after we turned in our latest collaboration, From Cape Town with Love, (Atria Books), publisher Judith Curr told Blair about a new video e-book platform called a Vook. Blair was electrified. He was eager to direct, produce and star in the webisodes inserted throughout the e-books' text. Vooks appear on iPhones, iPads and computer downloads.
"I realized this would be the most immediate way to create a cinematic expression of our story," says Blair. "Not instead of a motion picture, but in addition."
As writers, we recognized that a Vook could help our series ride the economic waves that make book contracts unpredictable. Publishing is changing, and a new platform means new readers. And since we also write science fiction and fantasy, we love new frontiers.
Writing the screenplay for the Vook videos was a screenwriter's alternate universe: Blair kept saying, "MORE like the book!" The video shoot was a blast.
Then the bad news came: To squeeze our story down to Vook size, we had to chop a 350-page novel down to about 85 pages. And our deadline was a matter of days.
We've been married for almost a dozen years--collaborating in Hollywood for much of that time--so we've gotten past the You-won't-touch-a-hair-on-its-chinny-chin-chin reflex. The hardcover is still the "real" novel. Just like the scripts we'd written for the webisodes, editing the novel to a Vook was another adaptation.
But we said "Yes!" before we knew exactly how.
"This isn't surgery," Steve said. "This is an amputation."
We were familiar with audio book abridgements that created "bridge" text, so we decided to recreate our first-person narrator's voice to bridge our gaps, chop what we needed to, and trust the videos for the rest. A pure act of faith.
Many writer friends were appalled. One, Christopher Alan Chambers, a journalism professor at Georgetown University, was so fascinated that he asked Tananarive to Tweet during the editing process. Over the howls of readers, we reported that we had cut the first three chapters. Instead, a quick bridge leads to the five-minute video that sets the stage--an Oscar-winning actress hires Ten when she wants to adopt an African baby.
Bye-bye extra characterization. Bye-bye minor character and subplot.
Next, we cut the sex. We all agreed that since the Vook was likely to attract younger readers, we wanted to keep it PG-13. The novel's highly detailed sex scenes were next to go. (TWEET: Now we're scaling back the language for the Vook ebook. Sex scenes are long gone. From Cape Town with Love = fun for the whole family!)
After the first slashing, we'd cut the book down to about half its original size, and we still had a long way to go. The easy cuts were over.
Our screenwriting experience was a huge help.
When we're adapting a project, we imagine that two different people witnessed the same event--and they've walked away with different recollections. Both versions of the story are true at the core, but slightly different. We wanted to capture the spirit of From Cape Town with Love even if the story wasn't told by the letter.
We boiled the novel down to Character and Story. But we didn't abandon poetics--so where some scenes were cut entirely, others were allowed to flow unmolested, even if the pace was more languid.
We were learning on a deadline. We couldn't see the videos to visualize how they would blend with the text--they were still being edited. We didn't have a set format, so we guessed.
When it was all over, our hefty manuscript was svelte and slight. We photographed the Vook manuscript with the stack of discarded pages side-by-side, trying to imagine how the pages would look squeezed into an iPhone.
Was it hard? Absolutely. Was it worth it? You bet.
As writers, we're often dreaming about the future. Now, one version of publishing's future sits in the palm of our hands.
'From Cape Town with Love' is available in the iTunes store and at vook.com
WATCH the trailer: