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.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My first foray in Sports Reporting

While I'm still very much holding onto the casted rod of my novel, waiting on a nibble or two from an agent, I've decided to expand my writing hopes. While I'm done plenty of sports commentary on this blog, I've never posted a strictly sports-reporting article. Havign submitted the following article to a network as part of the application process, I thought I'd share it to get some feedback.

The application assignment was simple: select a video from the list provided and write a 500-1000 word article on it. The video I chose was a game recap of a Miami Heat/Minnesota Timberwolves match-up from late December. Here's the link for the video if you'd like to see it.

Miami Heat v. Minnesota Timberwolves

LeBron James arrived at the Target Center to celebrate his birthday, but while most birthday traditions involve receiving gifts, it was LeBron’s pinpoint pass to Dwyane Wade in the final seconds that gifted the Miami Heat with their fourth consecutive win to open the season.

James opened the contest with 15 first quarter points, en route to a 34 point, 10 assist, 8 rebound birthday, but despite James’ statistical dominance, the Miami Heat [4-0] struggled to control the game. Although Kevin Love’s 25-point 12-rebound performance paced the Timberwolves [0-3], it was rookie sensation Ricky Rubio’s 12 points and 12 assists that stole the show. Despite the 5 turnovers, Rubio’s passes were often punctured by throw-downs from the likes of Anthony Randolph and fellow rookie Derrick Williams. Rubio used the absence of free agent signee J. J. Barea, sidelined with a hamstring injury, to wow the Wolves’ crowd against one of the league’s premier franchises.

Much has been made of Heat head coach Eric Spolestra’s new “Space and Pace” offense, a strategy geared toward utilizing the strengths of his athletes, specifically James and Wade. Arguably two of the league’s greatest transition players, this new offensive out-look was on display early and often in Minnesota. Alley-oops abound, the Heat found themselves repeatedly streaking out for ferocious dunks. One particular sequence included Dwyane Wade blocking a Wes Johnson corner three-pointer, then streaking up the sideline in time to catch the lob from rookie Norris Cole. But despite the myriad monster dunks, Minnesota hung around.

While the Miami Heat kept the Wolves at arm’s length through most of the first half, Minnesota’s three point barrage managed to keep the team within striking distance, and eventually allowed the up-start squad a brief advantage late. Rubio’s three-pointer with 2:20 left in the fourth quarter gave the Timberwolves a four point edge. After a missed LeBron three that would have given the Heat back the lead, Battier fouled Rubio, who made one of two free throws. On the ensuing possession, LeBron barreled over a 6-foot 9-inch Anthony Tolliver for the “and-1”, much to the chagrin of Wolves’ coach Rick Adelman and the crowd.

With the score tied at 99 entering the final minute, Wolves’ forward Anthony Tolliver drove for the dunk only to be fouled by Chris Bosh. Tolliver managed to convert only one of two free throws, which allowed Dwyane Wade to regain the lead for the Heat with a long, step-back jump-shot with 33 seconds remaining. With the game on the line and the Wolves’ crowd howling in front of their seats, star forward Kevin Love drove the lane only to miss an awkward runner.

But Anthony Tolliver snagged the rebound and was fouled on his out-back attempt. With 8 seconds left, Tolliver bounced the first of two free throws through and shrugged at the inelegant attempt. However, with the chance to put his team up by one, Tolliver missed the second free throw and Heat forward Udonis Haslem secured the rebound.

Two nights after struggling with the Charlotte Bobcats only to be rescued by a Dwyane Wade game-winner, the Miami Heat faced another daunting task. Eric Spolestra drew up the side-out play, and with 6 seconds remaining, LeBron gave a gift on his own birthday. Rolling around a Chris Bosh rub-screen at the top of the key, Dwyane Wade beat rookie Ricky Rubio to the rim and caught LeBron’s lob from the far-side hash mark. Finishing the night with 19 points, it was Wade’s final bucket that gave the Heat a two point lead.

In the final seconds, Rubio found Wayne Ellington for a decent look, but the reserve guard couldn’t finish the shot and birthday boy LeBron James and the Miami Heat left the Target Center with a 103-101 victory.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why I Love the Jeremy Lin Story

It's the stuff of Hollywood, this story. An unrecruited, undrafted player, over-looked by two franchises and nearly cut by his current one, suddenly is given an opportunity to showcase his talent. And showcase his talent he has.

Entering his nationally televised game against the Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks starting point guard Jeremy Lin was averaging 24.6 points, 8.6 assists and shooting 50% over his last eight games. While he does turn the ball over quite a bit, he has absolutely electrified the Madison Square Garden faithful and probably saved his coach's job. Alas, my own trip to New York's famed basketball arena did not include a sight of "Linsanity", as he was in the Developmental League, playing for the Erie Bayhawks where he posted a triple-double on the very night I was watching the Knicks lose in double overtime to the Denver Nuggets.

A t-shirt in NYC
Lin's story is one of faith, perseverance, and hard work. The 6'3" point guard played as a freshman in high school standing just 5'3". By his senior year, he led his Palo Alto High School team to the California Division II state title. He went unrecruited by his dream schools Stanford and UCLA, and it was only Harvard and Brown that guaranteed the player a spot on their teams. College coaches said the lack of recruiting time hurt the evaluation of Jeremy Lin, as he didn't separate himself athletically. In a New York Times article from 2010 by Chuck Culpepper, Lin said, "I just think in order for someone to understand my game, they have to watch me more than once, because I’m not going to do anything that’s extra flashy or freakishly athletic." He flourished at Harvard, setting many school records and earning notoriety as one of the Ivy League's best players.

Lin went undrafted out of college but did land try-outs with several NBA teams. Unfortunately, the try-out process did not include regular, five-on-five basketball action. From that same Times article, Lin acknowledged that the workouts were "one on one or two on two or three on three, and that’s not where I excel. I've never played basketball like that." Despite the difficulty, Lin persevered and eventually signed a two-year contract with the Golden State Warriors, the NBA team that played in his hometown of San Francisco, CA. He played sparingly that first year, bouncing between the Warriors and the D-League Reno Bighorns, but he made it.

However, after the season and the NBA lockout, the Warriors waived the contractual rights to Lin to make room for another player. Lin was signed by the Houston Rockets, but after only two preseason games, they cut him as well. That's when he landed on the end of the bench for the New York Knicks. Lin was buried in the depth chart behind Toney Douglas, rookie Iman Shumpert, veteran Baron Davis and journeyman Mike Bibby. It wasn't until playing well for the D-League Eire Bayhawks and several injuries to rotation players in New York that Lin got his chance. Once he was on the court, however, Lin wasn't heading back to the bench.

The Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey mentioned on his Twitter account after the fiery start of "Linsanity" that they "should have kept [Jeremy Lin]. Did not know he was this good". Now, Magic Johnson, a Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest point guard in NBA history, says: "He [Lin] is for real. This guy can play basketball." Lin has captured the national spotlight in much the same way Tim Tebow did during the football season, but the difference might be skill. Whereas Tebow, as I discussed in a previous post, doesn't seem to have the proper skill-set for his position, Lin most certainly possesses what every successful point guard needs: vision, speed, and shooting touch.

This is where the Hollywood side of the story comes into play. There's no doubt that Lin's faith, perseverance, and hard work prepared him to seize his opportunity, but the success he has enjoyed seems like the stuff of scripts. At first glance, he is the archetypal underdog character, and if you look at some of the greatest sports films of all-time, they are all underdog stories. "Rudy" (1993), "Major League" (1989), "The Natural" (1984), "Rocky" (1976), and, my submission as greatest sports film of all-time, "Hoosiers" (1986), all share the same character-type. That's why the Jeremy Lin story is so enjoyable, despite the jersey he wears.

I love Jeremy Lin's story. He is all that's right in sports, despite ESPN's ubiquitous coverage. He is the type of example I'd have the players on my teams follow, the type of example I'd have my son follow. Truth be told, it's the type of story I day-dreamed about growing up. Had I made it as a basketball player, Lin's path would have been the one I walked. Alas, I write this as a mere teacher and hopeful writer, and not a professional athlete.

But it's Lin's story that inspires me to continue to have faith, persevere, and work hard to achieve my own dreams of being a published writer. And I hope Lin continues his success. That is--until he plays the Heat.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pitch Slammed

So, when I flew up to New York City two weeks ago, my stomach twisted in knots. This step was the first one I could call Active in the pursuit of my dream. Yes, I completed the manuscript, and yes, I had revised a ton, but before attending the conference, my steps toward publishing were more like blind gropes in a dark room.

I had no idea how to turn the light on.

What drew me to the conference finally, beyond my completed manuscript, was the opportunity to sit before agents and actually discuss the story I had crafted, on and off, for the better part of ten years. Sure, there were notable speakers, and sure, the chance to be in NYC and catch a Broadway show and a Knicks game was great, but the selling point for me, the bit that opened my wallet, was the opportunity to participate in the so-called "Pitch Slam".

I suffered somewhat from small-fish syndrome, as there were over 600 attendees at the Conference. While everyone was incredibly friendly, and a real sense of camaraderie permeated the place, I couldn't help but feel minute. Chuck Sambuchino provided perhaps the most timely presentation at the Conference, when he discussed tips and strategies for a good pitch. As I mentioned in my last post, a Pitch should last no more than 90 seconds. In those 90 seconds, the pitcher needs to avoid generalities and give specifics while doing the following:

  • providing the details for the story, including genre, title, word count, and level of completion
  • providing a "log line", or basically, the entire story in one m-f-ing sentence
  • introducing the main character
  • introducing something interesting about the MC, and his/her Want
  • describing the "inciting incident", or the scene that gets the story going
  • providing a "hook"
  • discussing major plot points and the Stakes
  • describing the Complications
  • providing an unclear wrap-up, or basically, don't give away the ending you big-dummy
Yeah, so, you can imagine if before arriving my stomach was tied up in a simple overhand twist, before the Pitch Slam it was a veritable Gordian Knot. While I felt a twinge of confidence because of my preparation, two things threw me off initially. First, the snow that coated the city Saturday forced more than ten agent cancellations (including a handful of agents I had researched--one of which was my absolute "must" see), so the pool was considerably more shallow. Second, the wait. This was really a development stemming from the cancellations, but the lines to see the agents were sometimes thirty to forty-five minutes long. And when you're operating in a three hour window, that's a significant investment for a potential rejection.

The best way to describe Pitch Slam would be to make the comparison to Speed Dating; the tables, the time, the bell, the desperation--all of it. With the agents arrayed throughout four different rooms, I joined my first line with map in hand. Twelve names were highlighted, my course was plotted out, and the stomach somersaulted. In the months leading up to the conference, I played out any number of different scenarios about the Pitch Slam--successful ones mostly, though I did try to convince myself the conference was more about learning than being discovered. I worked so hard, and now my fate, as it were, rested in the hands of complete strangers. But I can't help but agree with the assessment of NaNoWriMo founder and closing keynote addresser Chris Baty when he said each table was like a life-changing portal, only the lines were nine deep.

Then the doors opened.

A mad rush followed. I staggered through the first room, searching for the first name on my list. When I found her, I joined the line and waited. While fidgeting with my notes, my pitch, and any number of the articles of clothing I had on (it was cold outside, people), I chatted with a fellow aspiring sci-fi/fantasy writer. We waxed poetic about comic book heroes, but begrudged many of their feature films. We discussed the finer points to our own stories, and very much realized we might well have been the Jersey-Miami doppelgangers of one another; both of us writers, teachers, nerds, etc. The conversation helped settle my decidedly gummy nerves, and I was glad for it.

When it was finally my turn, I sat down before a gargoyle of a woman. Stone-faced and intense, she patiently waited for me to finish my 90 second fumbling before saying she didn't think my character sounded "active" enough. *Ding Ding* No time for rebuttal. No chance for explanation. Rejection #1.

Dizzied from that first encounter, I trudged to another line in the room. This one was considerably longer than the first. Standing there, listening to the excited chatter of the people surrounding me, I checked my watch. Nearly forty minutes had passed and all I had to show for it was a floorplan with scratched off names and a rejection that stung. I couldn't help but feel that the first pitch was a monumental failure on my part. I didn't think my main character was passive, so for gargoyle-agent to say as such meant a failure to communicate on my part. And now time was ticking.

It was at this point that fortuitous happening #1 occurred. Chuck Sambuchino strolled by and mentioned to the throng of people I found myself enveloped in that the lines in the other rooms were shorter. After checking my watch and my map, I bailed on Room 1, leaving behind a wake of disappointment and failure.

Room 2 sucked worse. The lines were shorter, I'll give it that. The windows displayed the steady snowfall that had dampened my experience already. It was that same snow that had kept the agent at the top of my must-see list away from the Pitch Slam. And it was that snow that lengthened the lines in which I toiled. The next two agents I met with greeted me with blank-stares. I adjusted my pitch to make sure my main character sounded active, but much to my chagrin, I left each table business card-less.

Rejection #2 heralded the first "young adult" reference to my story. The agent felt it sounded "aged up", that it was essentially a book for pre-teens and teens instead of the adult audience for which I claimed it was written. Ouch. I stepped away from that table and the seed of doubt that was planted by gargoyle-agent was watered with a fire hydrant by this one. A grotesque flower sprouted as I merged with the next line, and although the agent helming this table was amiable, I still stepped away with Rejection #3.

The torture of Room 2 continued with the next agent. Despite an animated pitch that adjusted for passivity and age-appropriateness, I stood from the table staggered by Rejection #4. I felt like Hulk Hogan had raced into the room and body slammed me through one of the tables and was now running from side to side, cupping a hand to his ear and waiting for more riotous applause.

The flower of doubt had not only sprouted, but it was in full-on bloom as I tottered into the next line. I was wasting my time. I wasn't ready--the story wasn't ready. I should just sneak out, exchange my coffee coupon in the lobby, and wait for my friend Mark to finish his pitches. I mean, there was only an hour left to Pitch Slam anyway.

But as I sulked in the line, listening to those around me discussing how this agent had given them their card or that agent had requested their first fifty pages, fortuitous happening #2 occurred: my friend from the first line joined this fifth line right behind me. We quickly got to talking about our experience so-far and I described to him my malfunctions. I felt the problems were more on the pitch-side than the story-side. I didn't (and don't) think the story should be considered "young adult". And to his credit, my friend made only one suggestion, and that was to visit a specific agent he had already pitched in another room. He said even the line was short.

The name he had provided happened to be one I had highlighted in my original research, and I decided to take his advice. Moving to Room 3, I found the agent-in-question had only one person in line. As I waited, I wasn't sure if I could stand another rejection, but then the bell rang and I couldn't dwell on my failures any longer.

This woman didn't smile. She huddled behind the table, arms cuddled beneath her coat. I set down my bag and coat, exhaled, then began my pitch. I was maybe ten seconds in when she stopped me.

"Is it cold in here?" she asked.  She wasn't listening. She was shivering.

Having whatever false-bravado I mustered washed away with the interruption, I stammered my way through a "yes", then restarted my pitch. No doubt, Rejection #5. I managed my way through the bulk of the pitch and started in on some of the complications. With my story based very much based in mythology, many of the characters come from different pantheons. It was at the mention of an Indian god, Vishnu, that the agent perked up.

"Vishnu," she said, "he's the preserver, isn't he?"

"Yes," I replied, but this time, the interruption felt different. She was intrigued. I finished my pitch and she nodded. She slid her business card across the table and requested I send her the first fifty pages of my manuscript.

I must have been a sight. Doe-eyed, I sat frozen, and she asked if I wanted to write the request down. It jolted me back. I scribbled her instructions on the back of her card, thanked her, and angled away from the table unable to hide my smile.

Someone was interested. And holy shit did it felt great.

Floating to the next name highlighted on my list, I couldn't help but marvel at the paper I clutched between my fingers. I finally held one of the precious business cards. As I waited and chatted with the authors in front of me, I noticed a line-less agent to my left. I flipped to her bio in my book, saw she represented my genre, and decided to pitch to her despite the fact I hadn't highlighted her name originally. She, too, was interested. I left her table positively beaming.

The two agents that expressed interest gravitated toward the aspect of the story that I felt was the strength all along, the mixing of the mythological pantheons. It was a welcome vindication. However, with the doubt-flower was all but withered, I entered a line I thought would be my last. The conference employees were already closing certain lines, giving the final person in the line a sign that read: "Last". And despite my soaring confidence and steamlined pitch, my would-be final agent, after a few questions, passed by saying: "I think your story has those mythical elements, but I think those stories have been told and are better as myths." Rejection #5.

The sour taste in my mouth forced me to check Room 1 for a final time. I saw gargoyle-agent fixing her stoney-gaze at the author across from her and I couldn't help but want to sit down with her one more time. She wouldn't remember me, would she? After so many pitches?

My Last in Line sign.
I decided against the futile attempt at affirmation and entered the line I was in when Fortuitous Happening #1 occurred. Chuck was there to greet me again, this time asking me to wield the Last in Line sign.

As the bell tolled for the last session of the Pitch Slam, I sat down with mixed emotions. It had been a whirlwind of three hours. After that last rejection, my doubt-flower wasn't quite dead. I gave the agent the pitch, being sure to focus on the strengths and cleaning up the other messy bits I had tried adding after the first few rejections.

That last agent was interested and I left the Pitch Slam smiling.
In the end, three of the eight agents to which I pitched showed interest, and after digesting the hasty feedback from the rejections, even those interactions shed a light on my story that will only help for the next draft. I chided myself for almost leaving, and couldn't help but find the irony that an interest in Vishnu, the preserver, managed to keep my hope alive.

Mark and I left the Pitch Slam and treated ourselves to a nice steak dinner before catching a game in Madison Square Garden (another wonderful experience). I've since forward the first fifty pages of my manuscript to the agents who requested them.

I find myself waiting again, but this time I know I'm not groping in the dark for the light switch. The light is very much on. Now, it's time to see where this light will lead.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Gone in 90 Seconds?

As I put the finishing touches on my material for my trip to the 2012 Writer's Digest Conference, I am preoccupied with the idea that I will finally sit down vis-à-vis with an acutal literary agent. While I've been a terrible, no-show blogger of late, I have been focused on preparing my work and researching the different agents I will have the opportunity of meeting on Saturday. I've prepared the all-important query letter, assembled a synopsis, and polished the draft. After working on this novel, this idea, for more than ten years, I will have 90 seconds--that's right, 90 seconds, to pitch the work.


The distillation process has been a long one. Working my idea, my 93,000+ word manuscript into a single-paged query letter was an arduous task. Despite the ability to hit two or three pages, the synopsis did not prove to be any easier than the query. Thankfully, I've had some help and some great support. But when I find myself sitting before an agent, 48 hours or so from now, I need to be ready to present my work in a concise, coherent, fascinating fashion with a sprinkling of vivid and engaging plot points that encapsulate the crux of the story and reveal the main characters and conflicts. 

In 90 seconds.

90 seconds, so that the agent catching the pitch can have a moment to provide feedback on the presentation, and, presumably--hopefully, show interest. Then it's time to hustle off for the next pitch with the next agent, trying to incorporate the previous agent's suggestions on the fly. Just writing about the prospect loops my stomach in knots. I can only imagine how I'll feel before the flesh and blood people and not just the abstract idea of them.

When I dwell on this abstract idea, I can't help but think of one of my top-5 favorite films of all-time, "Ghostbusters" (1984). ASIDE: not that you're interested, but "Ghostbusters" slides in at #4 of my top-5 faves. "The Matrix" (1999) is #1, the original Star Wars trilogy is #2, "Braveheart" (1995) is #3, and "Casablanca" (1942) is #5.

I've worked all of this time to piece the narrative together, to develop the characters, to imagine and paint the setting, and now I have to scale the mountaintop and secure someone's attention. But will I be ready to perservere beyond this final obstacle? It's this idea that I'm standing outside of the publishing world and can only be legitimately admitted by a publisher, after working with an agent and an editor, that takes me to the climactic scene of Ghostbusters. Dr.s Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler, along with Winston Zeddemore, are standing on the roof of a building, facing off with Gozer the Gozerian. 

Here's the dialogue that follows:
Gozer: Are you a God?
[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]
Dr Ray Stantz: No.
Gozer: Then... DIE!
[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]
Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!

I have this irrational fear that I'm going to sit before these agents, these gatekeepers to the world of publishing, and they'll find me wanting.
They'll ask, are you published? And of course, the Ray Stantz in me will reply honestly with a "No."
Then I'll be blown off the roof to be consumed by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

I realize this is silly. I'm going to this conference not with the expectation of landing an agent, but with the hope of learning enough about the industry to better polish my writing for publication. Still, I can't help but imagine a scenario that I completely wow someone at the conference and they find my work ready to take the next step in the process. And if they do blow me off the roof, I might be in some trouble. My inner-Ray Stantz won't be able to keep its mind clear, either. And God knows what form the Traveller would take for me.

Since a big part of this entire process involves crafting a query letter, I've copied the one I put together below. What you'll read is a general form that will be personalized for the different agents I submit it to. I'd love some feedback. Wish me luck on Saturday.

Agent’s name

Dear     ,

Adam Anderson has been tapped to be the conduit through which the gods and goddesses of ancient empires seek to regain a foothold in the world of modern humans. As he comes to realize these deities are as weak and broken as the people who once worshipped them with blood sacrifices, he struggles to ascertain whether he is a new kind of hero or another head on the altar.

Visions of a striking woman, a shadowed warrior, and a shriveled wise-man plague the sleep of Adam Anderson. As he wakes shaken for the third time in three nights, he finds nothing in the dream but additional questions to his already quandary-filled existence. When Adam is approached by Hermes, it is the Greco-Roman messenger god who promises the answers in exchange for the rescue of the very real goddess of his dreams. While preparing Adam for the quest, Hermes finds himself accosted by deities from other Earthly realms. When tidings of murder echo in the halls of Olympus for the first time in millennia, Vishnu, Indian protector of the world’s moral balance, angles against the new Council of Deities to stabilize the scales that have been tipped by a mysterious malevolent force.

But can the envoys of these distinct cultures unify in time to prevent this shrouded evil from begetting a war that would destroy them and all of mankind?

Mythos is a completed 93,000 word contemporary fantasy adventure. Written in 3rd person limited point of view, the narrative weaves multiple perspectives while remaining focused on the journey of Adam Anderson. It is Adam, beginning his journey against the tropical backdrop of Miami Beach, who is assaulted within the glistening spires of Olympus, trapped beneath the ageless stones of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and stalked through the lush forest of the Ōu Mountains above Sendai, Japan. While he fights to save the goddess of his dreams, he doubts whether he is the hero the world needs or a sacrifice to the labyrinthine corridors of the Underworld.

I am a life-long lover of story, in all its incarnations. I hold a bachelor’s degree in English from Florida International University, where I concentrated in Creative Writing. While there, I studied under acclaimed authors Les Standiford and John Dufrense. I have spent much of the last ten years teaching Literature, Mythology, and Creative Writing at the high school and middle school levels. I thank you for your time and for your consideration of this proposal.


David Fernandez