Lessons on how to survive as a creative person in Hollywood & other extreme climates.
46 lessons drawn from real life as a writer/producer & director in big time show biz and big time ad biz. Winner 2009 EPIC Authors Award, Best Non-Fiction Book
How To Not Write Your First Novel
Have you read that book The Discoverers? It's an encouraging historical account of the many wrong and the few right turns the mighty movers and shakers of our civilization took on the way to creating the "modern" society we have today. Water-drip and candle clocks and heavier-than-air flying contraptions and Columbus miscalculating the size of the earth by 25%. . . I found it encouraging because I figure, if everybody else can make such outrageous miscalculations, there's hope yet for me as a novelist.
Baring my soul, I can reveal all now: The noble quest of my youth--and, indeed, my early middle-age--was always to write the Great American Novel. It was my dream, my life-work. Writing, producing and directing advertising commercials, documentaries, television specials and motion pictures was stuff I did just to hone my skills and keep bread on the table. At heart, I was a novelist.
My first enormous miscalculation (which I made at the very start) was to assume, as I'd always been told as a college English Major, that you can't learn anything from Creative Writing courses. I began as we all do, with the blank page. But instead of taking the advice of those who knew, I unwittingly took every twisted turn and blind alley explored by the legions of failed and broken scribblers who had gone before me.
My initial outrageous idea was to combine poetry and prose, which I did in a long, self-indulgent tome called The Messi Bessi that I suspect was mostly about my own uniqueness. Rejected by agents en mass, this was followed by Umbleburger in D.C., a story about an idealistic young man who goes to Washington and there is devoured by the various powers that be. Although one New York agent, Jay Garon, said I showed promise and should continue to write, there was no sale.
I plunged into my work with a vengeance. By this time I was in Detroit, in the light of day running Grey Advertising's commercial production department. Ahh, but by night, I wrote in a damp cellar in Royal Oak, Michigan, with my feet wrapped in blankets and the lonely crackle of an electric heater for solace. The manuscripts began to pile up around me. I was learning that poetry may have been great for Virgil, but Random House wasn't buying that format any more. By this time, I had a small stack of novel manuscripts, short stories and screenplays.
I'd been in Vietnam during the war as a linguist\translator with a Top Secret clearance working in military intelligence. I felt I had some interesting things to say, and this topic could lead to my capturing the mythical Holy Grail of American scribes, The Great American Novel.
My first attempt to do something on Vietnam, In The Interest Of National Security was finished in the early 70's. It topped out at 700 single-spaced pages. In a warped attempt to catch some editor's eye, I typed the entire manuscript in italics. There were some encouraging remarks, but in general the response from editors was so scathing that I set Vietnam aside for a number of years. Single spaced italics--this man should be boiled in oil!! My small trunk was now nearly filled with experimental novels, screenplays, short stories and other writing projects.
By the early 80's I'd written, sold and produced commercials, documentaries, educationals, jingles, kid's television programming, cable and television specials--but I still hadn't sold that first novel. By now the first trunk was filled with unsold manuscripts, and I was starting on the second. Sometime in the early 80's, in reviewing all the work I'd done, I ran across a pile of old letters from agents and publishers. All in all, a couple of them weren't that bad. A powerful and unique style, one of them said. Shows real promise, another praised. Send us anything you do--not on Vietnam!, a third advised. Bottom line, the quality of my rejections was getting better.
Encouraged, I set out to analyze more closely what I'd been doing wrong. The Messi Bessi and my other early poetic/dramatic works like Crystals of Mud and Bits of Glass had shown flashes of good writing. But the form was so far from convention that most agents and editors didn't know what to do with me. My later works, particularly my Vietnam manuscript, seemed closer and closer to what might sell. . . but they still were long and wordy, at their best like the old Thomas Wolfe in You Can't Go Home Again, at their worst like a sloshy Dylan Thomas.
One night, while pondering over my 700 single-spaced pages of Vietnam material, I came to the decision that in that one volume I had enough material to write six or seven novels, all tied by character and place. I extracted the materials for what I saw as the third of the series, a story about Mad Denny Haller, a fiery-tempered G.I. who's been in-country too long. Mad Denny's a fallen angel, a tainted Terry-And-The-Pirates, a sort of modern day Bogart. And just when he tries to get out of petty dope dealing, he slips into the big time. I called it Crazyhead and sent out 545 double spaced pages to various agents--and was once again solidly rejected. I couldn't figure it. I'd finally gotten the plot to build perfectly, the pacing humming along exciting at an exciting level, the characters interesting and involving--in short, I felt I had (in the lingo of the book biz) the pages turning. But still, no sale.
Five or six years went by. Finally, one day in the parking lot of the Denny's restaurant on Sunset, I found myself complaining about my plight to Erich Van Lowe, another writer who was working with me on a new show idea for animator Phil Mendez. By now, I was ready to forget the Holy Grail, I just wanted to get published before I died. Wild-eyed and arms waving, lanky Erich and I must have looked like two drug dealers arguing over the prices. He was a black guy, very bright and excitable, who had taken some courses on writing from USC. He'd written and sold two paperback novels about a black Dracula, done a lot of kid's Saturday Morning cartoon stuff and now was about to head to New York to work on the Bill Cosby Show. After I poured out my whole sad tale, he looked at me like I was the last of the Neanderthal writers.
"So far," he said, "from what you've told me, over the last twenty years you have broken every basic writer's rule ever invented. The truth is, no one tries to write the Great American Novel any more, because, even if you did write it, they wouldn't recognize it, and even if they did, they certainly wouldn't publish it, because nobody would read it."
"Great," I muttered, looking around for a rusty piece of sharp metal or a sliver of glass to slit my wrists.
"Look, pal," Erich said, "First rule, the publishers are all whores. ALL of them. There isn't an idealist left in the whole pack. Second, editors don't edit any more. So if you don't give them something ready for galleys, forget it. Nobody encourages young writers along any more. Editors don't edit, they package and market. And third, all books are published in categories. So, if you want to be published, you gotta write in categories. Go look in a book store, they're all there, plain as day: Sci-Fi, Horror, Romance, Westerns, Mysteries. If it ain't in there, you ain't gonna sell it. You write anything else, it's gonna fall through the cracks. Sorry, white boy, but them's the hard facts."
Looking back over the long string of agents, publishers and editors I'd alternately confused, upset and outraged, and the huge stack of rejections I'd accumulated over the years, I had to agree with Erich. "Okay, I admit it. In twenty years, I haven't done anything that works. I haven't followed the rules of form, content or etiquette. And now, after all that failure, I don't seem to be much wiser. But I have finally created a novel that I think is salable, and I still don't know what the hell to do."
He smiled a slow, sad smile and nodded, "You got a big problem, but maybe I can help. I'll try to condense a lot of the stuff I picked up at USC. Here’s the five-minute drill: First off, you don't rely on agents to sell your stuff."
"No. You find an agent, but just put them on stand-by. Look, your first sale is probably going to be a paperback. You're gonna get $6,000 tops, out of which your agent's gonna get $600. How much overhead do you think a fancy New York agent can cover with $600?"
"Not a lot," I agreed. "But what do I do?"
"Simple. You go down to Crown Books. You're gonna aim for a paperback sale, cause it's ten times easier for an unpublished writer. At Crown, you pick out the five or ten paperbacks on the shelf that are closest to your novel. Write down the address of the publisher, make up some sort of a gushy-bullshit query letter and send it to the Submissions Editor."
"What do I say in the letter?"
"Tell the assholes how much you admire the work that they are doing, what an effect it's had on you. If it's on the top ten, say you can see why. If it isn't, say you can't see why it isn't. Praise the editor for his deep perception and the lasting worthiness of the stuff he's publishing."
"Isn't that a little. . . thick?"
"Naaa. They love that stuff."
"But I don't even know the editor's name."
"Easy. You get it by calling the publication house in New York. Then you send your manuscripts with your letter. Don't give the bastards a chance to say no without reading a few pages. Send them together."
I thanked Erich and headed over to Crown Books. Vietnam not being the hottest item (us having lost the war), I only found five publishers I thought might be interested. They were Zebra, Bantam, Doubleday, Ballantine, and Avon Books. I wrote my gushing query letter stating how affected I'd been by the work of these publishers, and how I'd written Crazyhead to fit perfectly with their existing line. Within a few months, four of them sent back my manuscript. Three sent form letters saying they didn't read unsolicited manuscripts. And the fourth sent a form letter saying the manuscript didn't fit with their present needs.
Six months went by, and I forgot about the fifth publisher. Until one day, out of the blue, the phone rang. I picked it up, and a rather detached voice on the other end of the world said, "Hello, Mr. Klawitter. This is Owen Lock, Senior Editor at Ballantine. We'd like to buy your book."
And they did, too.