Tuesday, April 17, 2012

For the Sake of Argument

I remember very little of my actual university course work, but I remember most of my "American Literature" class. Not because the professor was interesting, erudite, or inspired in any way. Far from it. The best that could be said for him was that if recorded speaking, he could singlehandedly wipe out insomnia. Ah, but in that class we read books. Good books. Great books! After reading them we not only got to discuss them -- but we were actually encouraged to do so!

I was 19, so I, of course, knew everything. I had read most of the titles required for the class before graduating high school and considered Twain, Hawthorne, Poe, and Salinger old friends. I'd read enough Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Crane to know that their work didn't speak to me in the same way my "friends" did. I had definite opinions and was thrilled to discover a kindred spirit in the class.

T. was 10 years older than I. Not only did she have opinions, but -- praises be! -- her views on literature differed significantly from mine. On many occasions, the two of us would take over the class with our discussion of the work at hand. The professor never stopped us. I'm not sure he could have. And the other students would privately thank us for Siskel-and-Eberting because they learned more and found the class more interesting than when the professor droned on unchallenged.

That class introduced me to F. Scott Fitzgerald. How I'd managed to miss out on reading him before then, I'll never know, but I became an instant fan. We read "The Great Gatsby," and it was like finding a book that someone had written just for me. Oh. My. God, how I loved all of its glorious, golden tragic excess.

Product DetailsUntil I got to the end.
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

To young, know-it-all me, that was the DUMBEST ENDING EVER. I thought just about any ending would have been better than that. If the book had ended one paragraph sooner ("And one fine morning..."), I argued, it would have been perfect.

T. disagreed with me on just about everything with "Gatsby."

While I loved the metaphor of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, T. found the imagery tiresome.

I hated Daisy with a purple passion. I thought she was a conniving, simple-minded bitch. T. took into consideration where Daisy came from and sympathized with the choices she made.

I thought Gatsby's "you loved me too?" is one of the saddest lines of dialogue I've ever read. I still do. I don't remember whether T. agreed with me or not on that. What she thought didn't affect my supreme enjoyment of that line in the slightest.

In fact, one of the few things T. & I agreed upon with regards to Gatsby was that we both loved the book and hated the Robert Redford / Mia Farrow-ization of the movie.

Today, years later, "Gatsby" remains one of my all-time favorite books. And here's the thing: I no longer hate the ending. With age comes wisdom, perhaps. Maybe there's just something to be said for accepting another's creative vision, even when it differs from your own.

For the sake of argument, imagine if Fitzgerald was an unpublished writer tackling today's publishing system with his manuscript for "The Great Gatsby." (Yes, yes, I know Gatsby was his 3rd published book. But honestly, do you think "This Side of Paradise" would ever make it past the intern in charge of the slush pile?)

Gatsby falls just shy of 50,000 words: too short for a novel / too long for a novella. It includes flashbacks, inventive punctuation, and has no clear antagonist. We don't even get to meet the book's protagonist, its namesake, until Chapter 3.

For the sake of argument, imagine if Scott, fresh from finishing his manuscript with a metaphor that (ahem) some 19-year olds might hate, attended a writer's conference where he got to spend a glorious, hope-infused 3 WHOLE MINUTES with a harried editor or agent, pitching his story about the doomed relationship between a poor little rich girl and a hopeless romantic. Show of hands: how many times would he hear "I just don't love it" before he got a green light to submit a synopsis and a partial?

Do we live in a world where agency interns would recognize Scott's brilliance if it shone at them from their email inbox? Would Scott himself have been able to craft a query letter that would "hook" the reader into requesting a partial -- or would his query render him Query Shark bait?

If he did get a partial, either from a conference connection or from shining through slush, would the fact that his protagonist doesn't appear in the first 50 pages of the manuscript nix a request for a full?

In order to get Gatsby published, he would have to find an agent who wasn't trolling for Amish romances, paranormal, YA, steampunk, urban fantasy, horror, mystery, or freaky zombie / vampire / werewolf mashups involving literary or historical characters.

Once such an agent was found, Scott would have to write a hell of a query letter that piqued the interest of the agent's unpaid intern enough to get the intern to request a partial. Then he'd have to rely on the intern liking the story enough to request a full, read the whole thing, recognize its merit, and pass it to the agent with a recommendation. The agent would then have to sell a publisher on the project -- a process as fraught with potential pitfalls as finding an agent.

Could such a thing really happen without Scott receiving notes like:
  • Need at least another 20,000 words. Perhaps add a paranormal element? Better market share.
  • Consider bumping up erotic tension between Nick and Daisy.
  • Does Myrtle have to die? If so, show in more detail. Make me feel her evisceration.
  • We need to see at least one sex scene between Daisy & Gatsby. Ramp up the heat.
  • The final paragraph doesn't work. Suggest rewriting and / or eliminating completely.
For the sake of argument, I sincerely hope so, though privately, I wonder. Because if F. Scott couldn't get Gatsby published in today's world, then what hope do I have of succeeding where he would fail?

Monday, April 02, 2012

Virtual Pitching: Help for the Pitch-phobe (Guest Post with John Alarid)

Today, I welcome my friend, screenwriter & Emmy Award-winning Writer for KNBC News, John Alarid. John has worked for NBC Studios in Burbank, California for almost 34 years. He has a long list of Golden Mike and Emmy Award nominations for working on numerous award-winning series and documentaries. His skills and talents have also been recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club.

As a journalist, John has covered a wide range of stories: the O.J. Simpson trial, drive-by shootings, bar brawls, witch cults and satanic ceremonies and cattle mutilations. His love for broadcast news, conspiracy and science fiction are what motivated him to pick up the pen and create a unique blend of true life, “what-if” conspiracy thrillers based on his personal experiences while covering topical news stories and events.

"My fascination with sci-fi thrillers began the summer of 1963 when I had my first “X-File” encounter," John says. "I was 13-years-old when I saw a UFO near Pan-Tex, a nuclear bomb assembly plant located in the Texas Panhandle. Since then I've been involved with hundreds of UFO related stories. In one incident, film shot of a UFO was requested by Air Force for further investigation. The film was never returned. Air Force authorities claimed they never received it. 

"My most enlightening “X-File” experience event occurred in 1974. Stanley Marsh III, a Texas billionaire and owner of KVII-TV, asked me and my crew to stay after sign-off one night. My assignment was to assist some political activists make videotapes of a bootlegged copy of what turned out to be the Zapruder film. I found out that the activists had obtained the footage from supposedly a disgruntled CIA Agent fled up with the cover-up of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The stories shared that evening were considered “Classified.” I tell their story in my screenplay, A KODAK MOMENT."

I met John years ago when we were both Second Rounders in the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriting Contest. I reconnected with him again last year at the InkTip Pitch Fest in Burbank. We keep tabs on each other every so often, cheerleading & giving support when needed. When John told me about Virtual Pitching (something I had never heard about before), I was intrigued. He very generously agreed to share his experience with my readers. So... Hee-e-e-e-ere's John!


"Go ahead. Pitch me."
Pitching is something I’ve never had to seriously deal with, that is until just recently. In fact, for me, it’s been one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done.

Talking to deal makers, shakers and players in person has never been easy for me.  I become very uncomfortable and extremely nervous whenever I do.  For whatever reason, I always felt uncomfortable during interviews or whenever I’ve had to sit across a suit-type person. 

Thanks to e-mails, I’ve been able to avoid the pitch process. In most cases, I just e-mailed my log lines and pitches, and hoped for the best.

The First Pitch

Last spring I attended my first pitch festival.  For me, it turned into a weekend disaster.  The basic idea of the InkTip Pitch Summit I attended was that you had three minutes to pitch your ideas. It was supposed to be similar to speed dating. There were about 200 agents and producer types crammed into a huge conference hall. Every three minutes four to five hundred hungry screen writers swarmed the room turning it into what look like an eating frenzy.

For me, it was terrible. It was chaotic, extremely loud, and impersonal. I couldn’t hear myself talk, it was disorganized, and to make matters worth there were several times when there was no one at the table to pitch my material to. Other than reconnecting with some former writing companions, the pitch fest was a waste of my time and $650 dollars. That was my experience. (Ami's note: For a slightly different perspective, check out "Tips for Surviving the Pitch Session." I actually liked the chaos...)

The Pitch Problem

This year, I found myself with a whole new realization of myself.   I had grown as a writer and as much I hated to, I needed to step up to plate and learn to pitch.  So I signed up for Fade In’s “Concept to Sale Conference.”  The first day of conference was supposed to have workshops to help us develop our pitching skills. The following day we would apply what we had learned during an all-day pitch festival where the pitches would be seven minutes long.

I figured seven-minute pitches would be much easier for me to do than the three-minute ones. So I signed up. However, through a fateful twist of events, a few days before the conference, things changed. A booking problem with the hotel forced the last forty that registered to be dropped from the conference.

For a few moments the thought of not attending was a real relief. But then I was offered admittance to the 16th Hollywood Pitch Festival in July. Plus I was given five Skype on-line pitches to the Hollywood On-Line Pitch Festival Virtual Pitch Fest that had been scheduled for the same weekend as the “Concept to Sale Conference.”

The Pitch Solution

So needless to say, I snatched up the deal and spent three days rehearsing my pitches.  And I’m sure glad that I did. I had up to ten minutes for each pitch.  It turned out to be a superior pitch session compared to my experience with the previous pitch fest I attended last spring.

On-line pitching is the way to go.  It's one-on-one.  There is nobody around except you and the agent and/or the producers. There were a couple times when I had to be rescheduled for another time and day. But other than that, it was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. I pitched my material to ICM, WME, Robert Evans Company, Tower Hill Entertainment and the Brogan Agency. 

And guess what? All of my pitches turned out to be successful. ICM wants my rock 'n rolling romantic comedy The Road to Shambala. WME wants to see my kick-ass adventure film Blue Coats: The Whitecloud Chronicles.  And the Robert Evans Company and Tower Hill want those two along with my pulse-pounding thriller, A Kodak Moment

And although, the Brogan Agency was a no show, they did contact me several days later and apologized for cancelling out. They had some technical problems with their Internet provider.  So, they ask me to send them one of my scripts.

I don’t know about anybody else, but I sure was blessed with a bouquet of four leaf clovers.  I’m now reviewing and tweaking my material before I submit them.  I’ll keep you posted.