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:
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.
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.