Saturday, March 31, 2012

My MSAW List

So last night, while lounging back with Sarah after a long week of house-hunting disappointment, work-place uncertainty-turned-insanity, and academic difficulty, we were in full-on channel surfing mode. Despite the massive menu to select from, there wasn't a single thing we could both agree was worth watching (or re-watching). Then, a movie flickered on the screen and managed to steal a spot on my M.S.A.W. (Must-Stop-And-Watch) list.

"Bad Boys" (1995) took one glance at my list, sat down, put its feet up, and said: "Eery body want to be like Mike Lowry." Then Michael Bay blew up the room.

We caught the film about 15 minutes in, the moment where the unmistakable rasp of Tea Leoni echoes along a corridor at the Biltmore Hotel. I said: "I love this movie", and, put down the remote to pick up my Sam Adams Alpine Spring. We watched it to the end.

See, there's one obvious requirement for entry onto the MSAW list: the film has to make you stop. These films are undoubtedly among our DVD collections, perhaps even stashed away in VHS form in some dusty under-the-bed box. We can find these movies online, streaming them through Netflix or any number of other places. But when they appear, as if delivered by our haloed cable guardian angel to save us from and endless coursing over the channels, we sit and (re-)enjoy.

There's nothing spectacular about "Bad Boys". The film was Michael Bay's first full-length feature, and it relies on a very formulaic plot. The only lasting, valuable thing to come from "Bad Boys" is the commencement of Will Smith's career as a headline actor. It's an incredibly dated buddy-cop action/comedy. It's hard to imagine a 1995 film to be dated, but watch it. Look at the "mobile" phones. Look at the fashion. (Will Smith sports a now-throwback Miami Heat jersey at one point.) Listen for the reference to Michael Jordan being retired. (Yeah, his first retirement. He came back to win three more championships after the film's release. Then retired. And unretired. And retired again.) Listen for the line when Martin Lawerence says: "I've been beeped three times". That's right. 1995 might well have been the peak for Beeper popularity.

So what makes a MSAW movie? There are a few key components. First, there needs to be a magnetic cast. You're drawn into the film by the actors and their entertaining performances. Secondly, the plot, while perhaps full of stock characters and situations, has a familiar and, again, entertaining story. Thirdly, there's a certain marketable quality to it that keeps the film in cable rotation. You can't really have a MSAW that isn't on TV very often. (Sorry, Tim Curry and "Clue" [1985]. You'd most definitely be at the top of my MSAW list, you're just never on TV. At least I've got you on DVD.)

Familiarity might very well be the essence of an MSAW. It's turn-your-brain-off entertainment. Think of your own MSAW list. There's no doubt all of the movies that populate it can be said to be familiar, turn-off-your-brain entertainment. There are very few Best Pictures on MSAW lists. Not much thought-provoking going on. These movies don't necessarily reside among on the top of the all-time favorites list, but they are important to us. My list is littered with comedies and action. It's important for these movies to be well-known. More often than not, we'll stop on these movies while lounging in bed at night or on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. They're supposed to be fun, funny, and really something that unplugs you from the electric current of daily life. They give us the gift of an evening or afternoon of relaxed enjoyment.

Some of the movies on my list:
  • "Back to the Future" (1985) is really the quintessential MSAW movie. It's fun and funny. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd provide the magnetic quality. And who will forget: "If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour... you're gonna see some serious shit." or "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads."
  • "Jaws" (1975) stands as the first blockbuster. While any number of Spielberg films are MSAW-worthy, but this one is has to top the list. Masterful filmmaking and great acting from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss,  and Robert Shaw pull us in, and Peter Benchley's gripping tale keeps us there. And of course: "We're going to need a bigger boat."
  • "Die Hard" (1988) is undoubtly the bloodiest of my MSAW list. This wonderful romp stars Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, the latter in his first major American motion picture. Who can turn away from a barefoot NYC cop who's trapped in an LA office building fighting Eastern European terrorists? And who will ever forget: "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker."
  • "Ghostbusters" (1984) & "Ghostbuters 2" (1989) are films that I could watch on an endless loop. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and all the others in the cast put together performances that I think are among the best in the history of comedic cinema. Rumor of a Ghostbusters 3 without Bill Murray makes me sudder. Choosing one line for these films is a near impossible task, but here's one: "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!"
  • "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989) was the third of the series, but the addition of Sean Connery to the cast took it to another level. The combination of Speilberg and Lucas released another blockbuster story, but it was the play between Connery and Harrison Ford that make this the highest Indy flick on my MSAW list. While the exchanges between characters are better, but to choose a one-liner: "This is a castle and we have many tapestries, and if you are a Scottish lord then I am Mickey Mouse!"
  • Some of the other films I'll always stop on include: "Shooter" (2007); "The Fifth Element" (1997); "The Mummy" (1999), and "Harry Potter and the Scorcerer's Stone" (2001). I'm sure I've forgotten some.
What does your MSAW list look like?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I just don't think I can handle that kind of rejection

Back to the Future (1985) is one of those films that I'll stop on every time. Granted, the pantheon of movies that are stop-worthy, for me, is grandiose, but Back to the Future holds must-stop status. On the heels of my latest agent rejection, a scene from the film resonates in my mind. It's early, as Marty still hasn't travelled back in time, and while he's sitting at the bus-stop with Jennifer, they are discussing Marty's band's failure at school.

Marty: Too loud. I can't believe it. I'm never gonna get a chance to play in front of anybody.
Jennifer: Marty, one rejection isn't the end of the world.
Marty: Nah, I just don't think I'm cut out for music.
Jennifer: But you're good, Marty, you're really good. And this audition tape of yours is great. You've gotta send it in to the record company. It's like Doc's always saying...
Marty: Yeah, I know, I know. "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything".
[Marty notices two girls walk by and looks at them]
Jennifer: [turns Marty's head back to her] That's good advice, Marty.
Marty: All right Jennifer. What if I take the tape in and they don't like it? What if they say I'm no good? What if they say "Get out of here kid. You've got no future." I just don't think I can handle that kind of rejection.

The number of agent rejections for my novel manuscript is up to ten. I realize this is an incredibly small sample size, but I can't help feeling like Marty. (For the record, my wife is very much Jennifer in my situation. A tireless cheerleader and motivator.) It's the sense of frustration I share with Marty that has kept me from marshaling the effort to sit down and continue writing. I know I need to push forward, I know I need to write, I know I have more stories to tell, but, like Marty, I don't know if I can handle that kind of rejection.

Ben Bova, a pillar of the science fiction and fantasy writing community, says that a successful writer needs three attributes: Talent, Craft, and Perseverance. Talent is innate; no one can teach you talent--and I'd like to believe I have at least a modicum of that. Craft can be learned, and I've spent an inordinate amount of time working on craft--in college, at workshops and conferences, and reading. But Perseverance, which Bova claims to be the most important of the three attributes, is something I'm not sure I have. He says writing is a hard, lonely, often bitter calling, and only tremendous perseverance can see a writer through the pains of disappointment and rejection.

Ten may be a wholly arbitrary number, but it feels like it should be significant. I'm not sure if this trend is a signal that suggests revision, or if it's merely an opening obstacle that requires perseverance to survive. Another difficult aspect is this. I've given the completed manuscript to five trusted friends to help with the revision process, but I've yet to hear much from them. While the manuscript is long (93,000+ words), three of the readers have had the manuscript in their possession since August. With all that swirls around daily life, I don't want to pester them for feedback, but I truly wish they could give it. I'm not sure as to the protocol when you've asked for a substantial favor and you haven't heard back. I've also considered posting the manuscript here, chapter by chapter, in hopes of receiving feedback, but I don't want that action to endanger possible traditional publishing of the story.

I get the sense that the novel needs revision, needs a little smoothing of the rough edges, but I'm afraid to start that process now. I don't know if the story is good enough to be published yet. I hesitate because, I guess, if I hang on to it, I'll never receive that rejection--like Marty and his audition tape. It's the fear of rejection, I think, that has shifted me into neutral here.

If I'm rejected, would my whole identity coming crashing down? Orson Scott Card, another science fiction and fantasy maven, suggests sending out, today, the best work you're capable of composing today. The fear of major revision at this point is simply, if I continue to tinker and fiddle with the product, at what point am I only making it worse?

A close friend, someone who has helped me along the way with this story over the last several years, believes the path to landing an agent for a novel only truly opens after a writer has published a few short stories. I resisted that line of thinking for a long time, choosing to focus on the novel instead of crafting pieces of short fiction. But as I idle here, I can't help but think that being able to add that I've been published in a magazine or on a website to my query letter might hold more weight with agents.

I don't know the right path. I'm still waiting to hear back from another agent regarding the novel manuscript, and in the mean time, I'm considering the short story approach. Truth is, I really want to get significant feedback on my novel manuscript. There are critique services available, but the most reputable ones cost at least $3 per page. My manuscript is up above 400 pages. You do the math. (That's simply not an expense I can justify at this time, particularly during the house-hunting process.)

Rejection is a difficult thing in any walk of life. But, despite the disappointment, the publishing landscape is littered with stories of perseverance. John Grisham's first novel was rejected 25 times. Frank Herbert's Dune was rejected 20 times. Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 26 times. J. K. Rowling collected 12 rejections before a publisher decided to pick up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Even Chicken Soup for the Soul garnered an astonishing 134 rejections. So while I can't help but feel like Marty McFly at times, I do take heart in the fact that Marty (and George McFly) does persevere. I believe I can as well. Now, I just have to sit down and write.