A book becomes a Vook: Cutting a novel down to video book size

At left, an 85-page Vook manuscript for From Cape Town with Love. At right, the pages that were cut. (Photo illustration: Tananarive Due)

I’ve been blogging about Blair Underwood shooting webisodes for our upcoming novel From Cape Town with Love [excerpt], which I co-authored with my husband, Steven Barnes, in partnership with Blair.  [See two previous posts.  VIDEO TRAILER AT THE END OF THIS POST.]  Our last collaboration, In the Night of the Heat, won an NAACP Image Award.

But the webisodes—and the quest for a movie—are only a part of the story.

The video excerpts were shot for a new e-book format called a Vook—a combination of a book and video that readers either download to their computers or their iPhones and iPads.  As soon as Blair heard about Vooks from Atria publisher Judith Curr last fall, he pushed hard to make From Cape Town with Love a part of the cutting edge e-book technology.

Only one problem:  We needed to chop a 350-page book down to about 85 pages.

Are all e-books abridged?  Absolutely not.  We were only following specific Vook guidelines.  And we had to do it on a tight deadline.

We said “Yes!” before we considered the question of how.

That’s where the beauty of collaboration comes in.  Steve did the first slashing, setting the precedent for how the edit would go:  swift and brutal.  “This isn’t surgery—this is an amputation,” Steve said.

The first three and a half chapters, gone.  Subplot involving a minor character, gone.  Explicit sexual material, gone. (All three of us agreed that since the Vook is a platform likely to attract younger readers, we’d dial its rating down to PG-13.  Trust me, it took some dialing.)

Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes and Blair Underwood (From Cape Town with Love) (Photo: Frank Underwood Jr.)

When Steve gave the manuscript to me, he’d cut out nearly half of the book, marking lines through page after page.  But it still wasn’t enough.

My turn.

While I worked on The Great Edit last weekend, I posted a status update to my Facebook friends—many of them writers—to tell them what we were up to.   Many were mortified.  More were mystified.  One writer I know asked me to tweet about the process as we went.  He asked:  Is it conceptually and with regard to pacing like a television script or graphic novel?

That’s exactly what it’s like.  

Steve and I might not have gotten through the edit so quickly if not for our experience as screenwriters.  The task is similar:  Cut a novel down to 90 pages, or 90 minutes. That’s why the subplots go.  That’s why screenwriters create composite characters and collapse the timeline.

But we couldn’t do that.  Even if we’d had an inclination to rewrite large portions the book (which we didn’t), we wouldn’t have had the time. Instead, we recreated our first-person narrator’s voice to write very short bridges to explain missing material.

And some of our scenes, thanks to the video format, will simply speak for themselves.  We were able to cut the first three chapters because the most important information could be encapsulated in a four- or five-minute video.

While we edited, we visualized where the video scenes we’d written could replace scenes in the novel.  All the reader has to do is play from the video on the screen.

The rest was just a careful eye, cutting pages in each round.  Much is gone, but we left favorite scenes intact except for a sentence or paragraph weeded out here and there, like a collection of Best Scenes from the novel.

But the original is still intact.  Nothing will change that.  Just like when we’re adapting a novel or short story, we set out to create the best retelling of From Cape Town with Love, striving to keep character and key story points intact for a brand new medium.

Was I wincing?  You bet.

Did I cry?  Almost.

But I have to admit, I thought the slimmer version of the story was a good read.

Sure, it’s not the novel.  It’s the Vook.

Find the Vook version of From Cape Town with Love at Vook.com, SimonandSchuster.com and iTunes on May 20.

Hardcovers on sale the old-school way everywhere May 18.



Filed under On writing

3 responses to “A book becomes a Vook: Cutting a novel down to video book size

  1. This is fascinating. My first thought, too, was to cut out the entire beginning and the sex, but other than that, I can’t imagine getting Capetown — or really any novel down to 85 pages. I applaud you for embracing new technology. And I definitely think this will sell more books. I’ve already read it — and will post about it on my site the week it comes out, but I’m so curious about the Vook, that I think I’ll buy it just to see what it’s all about. Good job!

  2. I have to say, if this wasn’t being done by you and Steven I wouldn’t trust it. I’m looking forward to checking this out.

  3. Pingback: FROM CAPE TOWN WITH LOVE by Blair Underwood, Steven Barnes, and Tananarive Due [Review] | Daemon's Books

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