21 February 2017

A Rose, um, a Script by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

by Paul D. Marks

Apparently Shakespeare was wrong here. Or maybe it works for roses, but not for scripts because when the name was changed on a couple of different stories, well…so did the response.

This here’s the story of a writer named Chuck Ross who wrote a couple of very well-known tales (sort of). One a screenplay, the other a novel. Well, maybe “wrote” isn’t quite the right word—typed might be more appropriate for as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

But before I get to Mr. Ross…

Haven’t we all felt that if we had Mr./Ms. Big Name writer’s byline on our manuscript it would receive more serious attention than it does when we submit it under our humble names. And haven’t we also felt that if their sometimes mediocre manuscripts had our names on them they wouldn’t get the attention of Big Agent, Big Editor and Big Publisher (or Producer)? But with their names the mediocrity doesn’t matter, whether it’s a novel, a non-blind short story submission or a spec script. Lawrence Kasdan, writer or co-writer of things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, various Star Wars entries and the writer-director of The Big Chill, once said something like “Until they know you, everything you do is shit. Once they know you, everything you do is great no matter how shitty it is.”

So in that sense it’s all in a name and not necessarily what’s on the page. Which brings us back to Chuck Ross, typist:

Once upon a time, there was an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by two unknown writers. In the 1930s, it was sold to Warner Brothers for 20K, around $345,000 today, give or take a few pennies, and an amazing price considering the time and the fact that it couldn’t find a producer. The property was developed and given the green light. It became a movie called Casablanca. You might have heard of it…if you’re not a millennial who won’t watch anything in black and white. It had a modicum of success and is considered to be one of the greatest American movies, usually coming in just behind (and sometimes ahead of) Citizen Kane in polls of best/favorite American movies.

Enter Chuck Ross. Mr. Ross typed up a copy of the screenplay for Casablanca in script format, slapped the original title, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, on it, and sent it out to 217 agencies under the name of Erik Demos. The results and responses were interesting to say the least. Several of the scripts were lost in the mail. About 90 were returned unread to Ross with the standard reasons: the agencies weren’t taking on new clients or wouldn’t read unsolicited manuscripts, etc.

However, almost three dozen agencies recognized the script which led to some interesting and even fun responses, such as “Unfortunately I’ve seen this picture before: 147 times to be exact.” Another said something to the effect that he’d like to do it but most of the people he’d cast in it were dead.

Several of the agencies found a similarity to Casablanca without realizing it was Casablanca. And thirty-eight said they’d read it but rejected it. Which meant that they didn’t recognize it and didn’t think it was good enough to represent, so much for them knowing their own Hollywood history. Some of their comments included:

“I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it.” Which is especially funny since if Casablanca is known for one thing it’s its sharp dialogue.

Another said, “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script.”

And there were more along these lines.

Now granted, times had changed and what people look for in scripts and movies has changed. For example, Rick, the Bogart character, isn’t introduced in the movie until about twelve minutes in, if I recall correctly. At least not in the form a flesh and blood actor. That said, we know Rick quite well before Bogart comes on-screen.

And Casablanca wasn’t the first time Ross had tried something like this. In 1975, concerned that the publishing industry looked poorly on unknown writers, he typed up twenty-one pages of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1969 National Book Award winner and best seller, Steps. He sent it to four publishers, including the book’s original publisher. You guessed it, his batting average was 1000. Four rejections.

After being criticized for his process, he decided to try again in 1979. This time typing up the entire book in manuscript form and sending it to fourteen publishers, including the original four again. This time he went under the name Erik Demos instead of his own. Guess what happened?

Unanimous rejection.

Here’s part of one response: “Several of us read your untitled novel here with admiration for writing and style. Jerzy Kosinski comes to mind as a point of comparison when reading the stark, chilly episodic incidents you have set down. The drawback to the manuscript, as it stands, is that it doesn’t add up to a satisfactory whole. It has some very impressive moments, but gives the impression of sketchiness and incompleteness.”

“Evidently, Kosinski is not as good as Kosinski when Demos is the name on the envelope,” was Ross’ response to all those rejections.

No quitter, he started stuffing more envelopes and licking more stamps. This time he sent queries to twenty-six literary agents. I think you know the response. Zero. Zed. Nada. To that Ross said, “[N]o one, neither publishers nor agents, recognized Kosinski’s already published book. Even more disappointing was the fact that no one thought it deserved to see print.”

And to be fair, there was some criticism of his choice of Steps as the book he chose for his experiment. But I’ll leave that for another time.

My point pretty much follows on Ross’s. And to paraphrase from Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that publishers or producers prefer name writers to unknowns.” So keep the faith, baby. Not all rejections are equal. And remember how fleeting glory is.

###

And now for the usual BSP:

Episode 2 of Writer Types from Eric Beetner and Steve W. Lauden is here, with a bunch of great stuff. Interviews and reviews with Reed Farrell Coleman, Joe Lansdale Jess Lourey, agent Amy Moore-Benson, Kris E Calvin, Danny Gardner, Kate Hackbarth Malmon, Dan Malmon, Erik Arneson, Dana Kaye and……….me. Be there or be y'know. 

Also, I’m over at the ITW Big Thrill—Thriller Roundtable this week talking about “How long does it take you to write a book? Why do some stories flow so much faster than others?” along with Karen Harper, Jean Harrington, David Alexander, Heidi Renee Mason, Winter Austin, Adrian Magson, Susan Fleet, A.J. Kerns and Ronnie Allen. – Please come and join in the discussion.

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


17 comments:

janice law said...

A piece to bright the day of anyone with a recent rejection in the email!

Art Taylor said...

Really enjoyed this post, Paul--as always. Not surprisingly entirely that he got rejections or ignored outright--but was surprised by the folks who responded with feedback that so clearly missed the mark.... Thanks for sharing!

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for this post, Paul. It's comforting. (And it's also hilarious--a nice bonus.)

AJ Wixcox said...

It's why I always submit my works with Stephen King as the author...

Seriously though, It's amazing that any new author gets published (without self publishing) in today's environment. I doubt anyone actually reads any of the unsolicited slush pile, unless it's the night janitor. It seems a shame, but it's all in a name.

Sally Carpenter said...

My guess is most of the old classic screenwriters/playwrights would never find an agent today, let alone be published or produced. Nowadays, studios are only interested in "names" and super hero movies. Thanks for the fun post.

Eve Fisher said...

Love your style, AJ!
Seriously, if you can't handle rejection, you should never go into the arts... I know I could paper a room with rejection slips, except that I carefully mince and mulch them; or burn them under a full moon; or sacrifice them to the great Publisher in the Sky...

Paul D. Marks said...

It does help, sort of, doesn’t it, Janice?

Thanks, Art! Some of the responses truly were amazing.

Thanks, B.K.!

I think it’s a great idea to submit under Stephen King, A.J. Bet you don’t get many rejections…

Thanks, Sally! And I think you’re right.

Eve, you can use them as kindling. And you do need a thick skin, but there is also some craziness about the system.

lisajohnljc said...

I dig laWerence kasdens quote!

And yeah, keeping the faith, baby!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Lisa. And I've always liked that quote too.

GBPool said...

So I guess we all have to change our name to Ernest Hemingway or Margaret Mitchell if we want to get anywhere. Oh well, I have worked too hard as G.B. Pool to change now. A sad, but eye-opening post, Paul.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle. The question is, I guess, when do our names become those that can sell anything... ;-)

Leigh Lundin said...

I'm submitting my stories under the name Paul Marks.

Paul D. Marks said...

I wouldn't do that, Leigh. You won't get anywhere, ;-) . Try Grisham Connelly, that might work.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Paul,

I've read before about this. I will point out one thing. Tastes change with time. As an old movie buff myself, I know that past movies were strong on dialogue. Not true in most of today's movies which appeal to lovers of action and explicit violence. TV movies still feature dialogue of course. But you will get the complaint of "talking heads" from agents if there is a lot of dialogue in a script. We seem to be dumbing down intellectually both in the written word and in film media.

jrlindermuth said...

I wonder if the problem could be young, fresh out of college, first readers who haven't read any of that 'old' stuff.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. And I agree with you about tastes changing. But I think the sad or scary part about it was that so few recognized the works, including Kosinski’s own publishers. And many of the the Hollywood people failed to recognize one of the greatest movies of all time. I also agree with you that we’re dumbing down both the written word and not only the words in film but the whole medium.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, JR. I think you could be right about that too, readers coming straight out of school. But still one would think – hope! – that they’d be aware of the classic works of their medium. Obviously nobody can be aware of everything, but for Hollywood people not to know Casablanca I think is kind of sad at the least.