“Timing is everything.” Part I

I had a nice long chat with style guru and all-around stunning woman Natalie Howell a few weeks ago over coffee and tea in Los Angeles. We talked about a lot of different things, but one thing we agreed on was that this town was full of charlatans. For example, 95% of the “actors” you run into are not really actors. They are aspiring actors, which is not the same. Then I gave her my card and she read my title aloud in her beautiful English accent – the kind that makes your ears tingle. “Screenwriter,” she said. I realized then – in that perfect moment of contradiction – that I am a fake screenwriter. That’s to say that I am not a screenwriter. But I was very close to becoming one recently.

For those of you who have known me for a while or have been keeping up with my blog, you know that I’ve wanted to be a professional screenwriter for some time. I love telling stories and the screenplay format is perfect for someone like me who doesn’t want to spend all his time researching minutia in order to build worlds and gain the readers trust as an authority on the story. I can simply write that something happens and the reader can decide on what it looks like. In fact, I think less detail is preferred since a screenplay is simply a film blueprint that others will add to in order to bring the story to life.

This kind of “shortcut writing” is probably why I gravitated towards personal non-fiction as my genre of choice – I write what I know. After I graduated college with a degree in Creative Writing and an emphasis in Non-Fiction, I thought I was going to be immediately picked up as a non-fiction author. I’d be my generation’s literary voice that would shed new and interesting light on the Asian-American experience. Unfortunately, after getting shot down by enough literary agents, I figured that my life story just wasn’t interesting enough to be commercial and/or convince a publisher to pick up my book. On the other hand, I didn’t even actually have a complete manuscript to send an agent even if they wanted to read it. At most, I had a collection of non-fiction stories that I had planned to cobble together. So I just published my stories on my blog and gave up on being a book author.

Nevertheless, I was still in love with movies. Around 2004 was when I decided to fully pursue screenwriting. What I mean by that is screenwriting became my ultimate goal as a career, like the way people decide that they want to be a doctor, lawyer, fireman or astronaut. I was finding that I would walk out of the movie theater, having watched another subpar movie, and tell myself that I could have written a better story. After enough times, I had to put myself to the test. Besides that, I wasn’t doing much with my life. I was working in online tech support at Union Bank, slowly going out of my mind. My freelance entertainment journalist career was just starting and the flow of gigs was intermittent at best. It just made sense to work on a personal project. I already had a story in mind and had an idea of how to write it so that it was commercial and how to position it so that a production company would want to pick it up. Best of all, it was a tent pole film based on an existing and popular brand that ensured an installed audience. All that was left to do was to bring the story in my mind out into the world.

I got together some scratch and bought Final Draft and started typing away. I had no idea how much I would love writing visually. I didn’t have to write about what characters were thinking or feeling. I didn’t have to get flowery with the prose. It was a straightforward process. Still, I overwrote my first draft anyway. In fact, I didn’t actually finish it. I started over because I didn’t like where it was going. I’m not a big pre-writer. Basically, my scripts start out as iconic scenes in my mind and then I look for ways to connect those scenes with plot that hopefully isn’t boring. Yeah, this isn’t the best process. I know. It does, however, seem to work for me. While I don’t pre-write, I tend to juxta-write. Since I can’t work on my script whenever I want to, because of my day job, I envision the story while I work, which either means that I’m very talented or that my work is very basic. Somehow I’m able to keep what I’ve imagined intact in my head until I can get home to commit the thoughts to paper.

The second draft was much better and I was finally able to work my way through the plot to finish the story. The script was 130-something pages, making it the longest work I’d ever completed. The feeling of accomplishment was amazing. Then came the days and weeks of paring it down, tightening scenes and polishing dialogue. I spent a lot of time on my balcony, watching cigarettes burn down to my fingertips while I thought of ways to describe scenes more succinctly. Finally, I felt ready to shop it around. By that I mean: Get it in the hands of a literary agent. At the end of the day, there was really only one person the script had to ultimately go to and that person was Joel Silver. He owns the movie rights to the brand my movie was based on.

Anyway, I bought the books. I searched online. I read the personal blogs of bona fide screenwriters. I figured there were two plans of attack: 1. Do something outlandish like dress up as a UPS guy and deliver my screenplay to someone who could do something about it. 2. Send query letters to literary agents. I went with option 2. A query letter is basically a one to two page letter explaining who you are, what your manuscript is about and how/why it will be a commercial success. At least this is how I understood query letters to be six years ago. Practices may have changed since then. One thing that’s probably still the same, however, is the rejection.

Agents. “…They are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys….” They’re probably also outnumbered 100,000:1. For agents that provided email addresses, I emailed them, which were few. The rest just provided mailing addresses. That being the case and being in high demand, correspondence can become unmanageable for them. So they automate as much as they can. First, they demand that the query letter include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Second, they create rejection form letters.

So while your batches of query letters will look something like this:

Each one of these queries was a stillborn dream.

You’ll most likely get something back like this:

All business. Zero humanity.

If you’re lucky, there’ll be some kind of handwritten portion or message to give the rejection a human touch:

A semblance of humanity.

Some ultra proficient agencies won’t even send back complete pieces of paper. Instead, they’ll print multiple generic rejections on one piece of paper and then cut them out as necessary.

Going green in more ways than one.
The science of rejection. Note the preforations.

What I found most frustrating about this whole process was the lack of direction. Sure, I understood that some agencies had a policy of not taking unsolicited works. Cool, but what about the agencies that simply “passed” or replied with “not what we’re looking for”? I realize it’s not their job to provide guidance, but I couldn’t understand what the issue was. I just needed someone to make the introduction to Silver Pictures and I would do the rest. It seemed like easy money for any literary agent. His or her investment would have been as little as a phone call.

I used to hang my rejections on a corkboard. When I ran out of room, I started getting flippant and included my own rejection letter in the SASE to save the agencies the trouble. My rejection letter, however, was a checklist that offered different responses the agent (or his or her assistant) could checkmark in order to provide me a little more feedback and insight into my rejection. Only one agency ever returned that checklist:

I thought it was clever, anyway.

The rest didn’t even bother replying. After a year or so, I gave up and decided that I’d have to make a name for myself, writing something smaller and more independent and something I’d probably have to produce myself. While I’m actively pursuing this goal, I recently had traction on my script for Joel Silver, but you’ll have to wait for Part II of this post for the rest of the story. 🙁