book cover Add this book to your late-summer reading: How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely. It’s fast, funny, and will likely become the next movie I write and direct.

Here’s the official press release, with additional commentary:

LOS ANGELES, CA (August 3, 2009) – Filmmaker John August has optioned How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely through his company Quote-Unquote Films. August optioned the hilarious novel with an eye to adapt and direct. The novel, published by Grove/Atlantic, has garnered excelled reviews across the board and was Amazon’s July 2009 title of the month.

The great reviews include one by Janet Maslin in the NY Times, who quotes so many funny lines from the book that you might worry she’s spoiling it. She isn’t. She can’t.

Hely’s book has an unbelievably high joke-to-page ratio, the literary equivalent of a 30 Rock episode. (Which seems fitting, since Hely is now a writer on that show.)

The book tells the story of Pete Tarslaw, an ambitiously underachieving college grad who writes a shamelessly maudlin and derivative Great American Novel for the sole purpose of upstaging his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. When the book becomes a bestseller, he finds himself sucked into a strange coterie of mega-authors and their attendants.

I wrote that summary, but it omits something that makes reading the book so worthwhile: excerpts from all the other mega-authors’ books, such as Teeth of the Winged Lion by Nick Boyle. It’s hard to write well, but writing badly well is a special talent.

The book also features special publishing-related miscellany, such as this fake New York Times Bestsellers list, which even includes “Great Fish.”

On the title, August said “It’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a really long time. Like Go, it’s about thinking you have the system all figured out, realizing you don’t, then faking it. Characters who do the wrong things for misguided reasons are the heart of comedy.”

Let’s break down my quote.

First, I restate that the book is funny, in case that gets dropped out of any stories based on the press release.

Second, I refer back to an earlier comedy I wrote, because a lot of folks might think of my credits as being more funny-peculiar than funny-ha-ha.

Finally, I try to restate the premise in a way that seems more universal: it’s not a funny book about books; it’s a funny book about a guy on a journey.

Why he bought it himself: “It’s the kind of book I could hear studios saying is too smart. I knew I’d spend many meetings convincing them that it wasn’t nearly as smart as they thought it was. So I’d rather just give them a script so they can see what it is.”

There’s stuff in the book that’s funny only because it’s in a book, such as those great excerpts. The danger is that a studio exec reading it says, “Well, that part’s not cinematic.” And it’s true, some parts won’t translate as a movie.

But the premise, the characters and the plot of the book all translate really well. It’s better for me to show what I can do in a script than focus on what I can’t bring over from the book.

Ken Richman, Esq, negotiated on behalf of August with Anna DeRoy of WME handling the novel.

It’s the first book rights I’ve bought since Big Fish in 1999 — and technically that was Sony buying it for me.

In case you think that this was all Hollywood-insider dealmaking, let me talk you through the process.

In May, I was in New York, working on a yet-to-be-announced project. The hotel I was staying at had USA Today, which I don’t normally read. But I happened to spot this article describing Hely’s soon-to-be-published book, and thought it sounded funny.

So I tracked down Pete Tarslaw’s blog on Google, figured it was probably Hely, and emailed asking for an advance copy:

hey steve hely, can I get an advance copy of your book?

By description, it sounds very, very great.

– John August, the screenwriter

ps. I will also pester you on Facebook.

He sent me the book. I read it the next day. A week later, I met with him at Susina, the coffeeshop featured in The Nines. Lawyers started talking, and eventually we got a deal in place. (So yes, there was Hollywood dealmaking. But it came very late in the process.)

As far as making a movie, that process is just starting now. I’ll be writing a draft, and then figuring out the how/when/where/who.

In the meantime, read his book. It is available pretty much everywhere, but it’s cheap on Amazon ($10.98), and only $8.80 on Kindle.