Sunday, December 12, 2010

Losing your (golf) balls

What is it about this game that turns normal people into raving lunatics, reasonable athletes into bumbling idiots, and the average crowd into dazed sheep? I’m talking, of course, about golf. Perhaps the greatest enigma confounding humankind today. And, stupidly, probably the greatest enigma facing humankind tomorrow.

I recently started playing this endlessly frustrating sport, quite badly I must say, and have already fallen irrevocably into this mysterious tailspin of lost causes. I will probably never be any good at golf and yet, absurdly, I continue to curse and cuss like a trooper every time I shoot a double par or miss a forty-foot shot. Duh…

Realising the futility of my anguish, I decided to survey some of my previous golfing partners in the hope of obtaining some kind of understanding of the average golfer’s behavior. Unfortunately, these people are no longer taking my calls. I asked my husband (who has to take my calls) to explain the mystery, but found him to be just as confused. He, quite bravely, has taken upon himself the unenviable task of teaching me how not to make a fool of myself on the course, or at least to avoid it for as long as possible. He’s taking it nine holes at a time. I’m usually pretty good until the second one.

Much to my surprise, Frank, a dedicated if erratic lover of this sport, is equally amazed at people’s slavish respect for golf. He frequently watches televised tournaments only to repeatedly shriek and chortle at the crowd’s blatant stupidity. “Oh my God!” he exclaims, “The ball has gone into the crowd at the same spot three times and THEY’RE STILL STANDING THERE!” Another shriek of laughter, “That guy just got hit by the ball and HE’S STILL STANDING THERE!” And so on.

And yet, religiously, he stands by the TV, emulating the current leader’s stroke in the hope that some of the magic touches his custom-made clubs. After a bad round, my usually sportsmanlike husband announces, “It must be my clubs.” I smile at him hopefully and ask if perhaps I have the same problem. He doesn't blink or miss a beat. “No. It’s definitely your swing.”

I remember my father, a better than average sportsman in most fields, being totally confounded by the game. “Think of it logically, Nic. It’s a simple concept involving a ball and a club. Your arms follow a straight line driving the club into the ball - the ball should follow the same projectory. Right? Wrong. No matter what I do, the ball never goes where it’s supposed to.” A firm believer in education as the key to success in, well, everything, he would read books, try training aids, take long walks around the golf course in the hope of picking up something from other players…anything to improve his game. It didn't work. He got to a point and never got any better. I’ve heard similar stories from other equally intelligent and able people. Still they persist.

Golfing actually seems to defy the laws of gravity, physics and reason. Shouldn’t the ball go where you aim it? If you hit the ball harder, shouldn’t it go further? And, if you practice really, really hard, shouldn’t you get better? Apparently not. Or not in golf, and not in your lifetime (well, certainly not mine).

And I know why, too.

Golf was sent down from a higher being, obviously a better golfer, to remind humans of their very tiny position on the earth and of their very human limitations. Even professional golfers have the occasional nightmare shot; we are, after all, mere beginners in the sand-trap of life, and even those paid huge amounts of money can fall victim to overshooting a one-foot putt.

And as I take aim this weekend, as that tiny, dimpled ball smirks up at me, glinting in the beautiful Australian sun, smug in its knowledge that I will never get the better of him (for it must be a man), the immortal words of a New York copywriter come to mind: Just fucking do it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Something I wrote a while back, and yet it still bears some uncomfortable truths...

First words, first time

I am a writer. Well, almost a writer. According to one literary friend, you’re not a real writer until you’ve had a book published. The short pieces, fiction or non-fiction, even the contest prizes don’t count, he argues, because “anyone can knock out 3000 words” and because, until a commercial publishing house is prepared to spend time, money and marketing on you, you are not truly legitimate.

But that’s the problem. Publishing experts say that writing the novel is the easy part. The real work starts when we try to sell it. They’re not kidding.

How do I know this? Because I am, as they say, “between” publication right now. As we speak, my Young Adult novel manuscript has done the rounds of every respected children’s book publisher in Australia, most likely never raising its ugly head from the bottom of the much maligned slush pile, beyond getting the cursory 60 second skim before it ends up where they've all ended up. In the rejection pile. One of about ten thousand manuscripts that have done much the same thing this year alone.

Because I'm practical but ambitious, I waver between dreaming my manuscript will be selected for publication first time around, to hoping the rejection is at least personalised, and not just another form letter on photocopied letterhead. Even a friendly, scribbled “not for us” in the top right-hand corner is somehow less painful than the two-paragraph “this is a subjective business” blurb that no one reads, or even believes, because we all know that what it really means is “you suck” (“…but don’t let this prevent you from submitting to other publishers.”)

Of course, the downside to personalised rejections is that I inevitably try to read encouragement into them, and even an invitation to try again. When an agent or publisher tells me “I didn’t fall in love with your story” what I tell myself they really mean is, “it’s extremely worthy of publication, and you deserve far more than I’m prepared to offer you.” When they say, “I didn’t find your protagonist believable”, what they really mean is “your brilliantly-written, unforgettable heroine is too progressive for our staid old marketing team.”

I’m not alone in this desire to read between those tired old lines. There are whole online forums dedicated to breaking down and analysing the various literary rejections, deconstructing their tone, language and implied meaning. And in between these postings, contributors sit about in various corners of the world, reminding each other that it’s really about the words not the money, that we are brilliant writers NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE SAYS, even if we never make it, and even if the commercial publishing world refuses to acknowledge what is patently obvious to everyone else here at this forum… That we deserve to be published. Of course, our main reason for believing this is because our mum likes our characters, or our year ten English teacher told us we were good writers, or our friends think we tell funny stories, but hey, that there is the reading public. We’ve done our own market research thanks, and have very strong results to show for it.

The moment we leave the forum, we rush straight back into the seeking-publication mayhem, no better informed, no better prepared, but tragically, more determined than ever. Despite all the writing for publication books, submission guides and how-to articles we’ve devoured, analysed and critiqued, and despite the robust exchange of rejection horror stories, rumoured six-figure successes, and industry gossip, there is so much contradiction and misinformation, that much of our time is dedicated to the business of understanding the process, than submitting our work or, heaven forbid, actually writing the manuscripts in the first place.

What’s worse, published writers are no help. At conferences and workshops, I ask popular authors how they identify their target market, and whether it’s a good idea to include similar titles in query letters, but am inevitably met with blank stares and vague rumblings about how they just write the books without thinking about publication. The moment I use the word “pitch” their eyes glaze over, and they mumble something about that being the agent’s problem.

“But what,” I persist, “if you don’t have an agent?”

“Oh,” they say, cheerfully, “then you’ll probably never get published.”

“OK. How do you get an agent?”

“The same way you get a publisher.”

Right then. Back to the slush pile.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

PJ versus Goliath

Not sure who in the screenwriting world hasn't heard about this development, but for some reason, it's not being picked up by Australian media.

I'll confess upfront that I know PJ and consider her a friend, but I also have publicly voiced ambivalence about the whole script sharing issue - see my countless posts on Done Deal for confirmation. Having said all that, what Fox is doing to PJ is absurd and outrageous.

But let me start at the beginning...

Screenwriter PJ McIlvaine, a Long Island grandmother, is being sued for approximately US$15 million by Murdoch-owned Twentieth Century Fox for posting movie scripts on the Internet. The first that PJ knew of the lawsuit was when two private detectives landed on her doorstep, only hours before her grandson’s baptism.

The court papers issued refer to a list of “roughly 100” scripts that McIlvaine is alleged to have collected in an online electronic database of film and TV scripts. Most of the scripts named in the writ are produced movies. Some go back to the 1980s and include titles like Aliens, Edward Scissorhands, and Wall Street (the first one). Others, however, are described as “in development” — not yet produced — including the X-men sequel Deadpool, which isn’t scheduled for release until 2012. Industry insiders believe the leaking of this script was the impetus for Fox’s actions.

According to the complaint, Fox is “seeking damages and injunctive relief for copyright infringement” for “distributing and displaying scripts owned by Fox, and contributing to these infringements of the copyright laws.” The claim is for US$150,000 for each script named to a total of US$15 million.

What makes this lawsuit noteworthy is the fact that all of these scripts are available at other better known and larger online script libraries — none of which have been named in the suit. In fact, unlike Ms McIlvaine’s Media Fire account, many of these unlicensed sites actually sell these same scripts for profit. McIlvaine, in contrast, provides access to her library free of charge, entirely for educational purposes.

When I teach screenwriting, the first instruction I give to budding screenwriters is to read scripts. Read lots of scripts. Good ones and bad ones. Read shooting scripts and “spec scripts” — scripts written for free in the dim hope that they might attract a sale or, even more unlikely, become a movie. One of the best teaching methods I’ve found is to read early drafts of produced films and compare them with what made it to the screen. The aim is to identify changes — whether for better or, so often the case, for worse — and to think about why those choices were made.

The point is, whatever stage the story, whatever draft available, reading scripts is the backbone of screenwriting. Without online databases like the one named in Ms McIlvaine’s suit, the screenwriting community would be lost.

Of course, the other side of this issue is that when a script is “in development” as Dead Pool was, it is effectively not finished. A point made by screenwriter John August of Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish and Go fame, when the issue of script trading first erupted in the screenwriting world some months ago. This was in response to another online site, ScriptShadow, which had made a name for itself reviewing scripts before they had been sold. Often the reviews were damaging. Other times they were known to generate Hollywood “heat” and “buzz” — those elusive and unquantifiable terms on the back of which multimillion dollar deals are sealed. Or, alternatively, come undone.

In his article, August argues that script trading is not a new thing: “Impromptu networks of assistants pass around their favourite screenplays in the process of picking the next generation of hot writers. Studios turn a blind eye to this because it helps the industry.” However, August adds, when a script has not sold, and the film has not yet been made, trading in these scripts directly threatens the writers themselves. If the “buzz” is killed early, there is little chance the script will ever become a film, which is the point of the process after all. A script, as any screenwriter will tell you, is nothing more than a blueprint for a movie. Until it takes that next step to production, it remains a “work-in-progress”.

On the other hand, the craft of screenwriting, perhaps unlike any of the other storytelling forms, is rigidly built on structure, method, and format. Rules about structure and timing are inscribed in the process, whether it be that one page of a formatted script equals one minute of screen time, or that the first act inciting incident should happen before page 25. True appreciation of how a script translates onto the screen can only come from studying the movies alongside the screenplays themselves.

PJ McIlvaine is not alone in Fox’s lawsuit. Next to her name appears the words “and Does 1-10”. As yet unnamed people who have had access to these scripts and are alleged to have distributed them to Ms McIlvaine, among others. That “Does 1-10” could be any number of the tens of thousands of people who have had reason to trade scripts has sent a shiver through the screenwriting community. The New York Post broke this story earlier in the week, while screenwriting hubs like Celluloid Blonde, Done Deal, and Hollywood Reporter have all posted commentary on this suit — whether to advocate on Ms McIlvaine’s behalf or to distance themselves completely. Others have gone so far as to set up an account to help McIlvaine pay for legal costs, even though the deep Fox pockets suggest no amount collected will put a dent in McIlvaine’s expenses. Since then, the story has spread across the world, including the UK’s Daily Mail, and MSNBC’s Today show.

Some believe that this lawsuit is merely a Fox bullying tactic — an attempt to scare off the studio insiders who leaked the scripts in the first place. Others are more cynical. The cyber outrage has turned a largely unknown comic book sequel into a test case for copyright law that could continue for years to come — perhaps long enough for the Deadpool script to take that giant leap from a screenwriter’s work-in-progress to that much exulted of screenwriting goals: a movie.