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Monthly Archives: October 2011
If you’re an aspiring novelist, you may be dismayed by the doomsday talk in and around the publishing industry. Fewer books being bought by publishers, lower advances being paid, self publishing touted as the miracle cure but paying off for only the tiniest handful. Some writers get frustrated and begin to wonder: Maybe instead of a novel, they should be working on a screenplay. Surely it has to be easier to break in, right?
I hate to break your fantasy bubble, but no, it’s not.
First of all, screenwriting is a completely different art form. Being a great sculptor doesn’t mean the artist is automatically a killer watercolorist. Nor does being deft with prose fiction mean a writer would be good at screenwriting. In some ways, the form and style of screenwriting is polar opposite of that of novel writing.
Second, far fewer screenplays are purchased than novels. A fair number are optioned. That means that someone in the industry pays for what in the book publishing world would be an “exclusive” while he tries to put together a package (director, actors) to sell. The price for options is usually extremely low — often less than $1000, and sometimes even free. Only a tiny percentage of optioned screenplays are actually sold, and only a truly minuscule number of screenplays sold are actually produced.
Who are the lucky stiffs who sell their screenplays? Nearly always it’s someone who has already sold a screenplay — someone who is already known in LA. (Someone who, not incidentally, also probably lives there.) Obviously that’s a catch-22. In order to sell a screenplay, you have to have sold a screenplay. The movie industry likes to work with people they know. That means they go to people they’ve worked with first, and then they go to people who’ve worked with people they’ve worked with. New writers (and new directors and new producers and new actors) have almost always gotten on the radar by living and working in some other capacity in the movie industry — as a production assistant, for example — or by working somewhere influential Hollywood people will be.
They network and meet people and pitch anyone who will listen until they get a chance to work on something. That “something” isn’t likely a brand new script. It’s a rewrite of a script already purchased. Maybe a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite. Which is then rewritten several more times. These rewrite assignments — given only to residents of LA who can attend meetings face-to-face — may be the bulk of a working screenwriter’s work. If their work is looked upon favorably, they might be chosen to be the first writer when a director or producer has an “idea” and needs something on paper to shop. More creative, more responsibility, but ultimately still work-for-hire following someone else’s outline and making their rewrites.
But wait… surely some original scripts are purchased and produced? Sure. Most of them were written by working screenwriters. Some of them weren’t even sequels or adaptations or assignments. But not many. And even fewer are purchased from people who live outside of LA or are completely unknown to the buyers.
Fewer doesn’t equal zero. It’s possible. It happens. So you decide to pursue it, even though you live in, say, Chicago. What do you do? What you don’t do is write a screenplay, pitch to screenplay agents (as you would book agents), and wait for the agent to sell the screenplay for you. Hollywood is different. There are several possible strategies you could take:
- Enter (and win) big contests. Win a Nicholl Fellowship or a Disney Fellowship. The big ones have launched careers, but they’re extremely competitive. The smaller ones… well, do your research.
- Produce your screenplay independently. It’s extremely expensive, and you might want to start with a (big) contest-winning short first, but independently screenplays have opened a lot of doors.
- Pitch your screenplay to production houses yourself. This is similar to sending your manuscript directly to a publisher, except you shouldn’t send it until it has been requested. Call them — another departure from book publishing — and find out who you need to talk to in order to pitch a screenplay. You might be given an e-mail address, but more likely, you’ll pitch on the phone. Be prepared. If you get a request, then your screenplay becomes part of the slush.
If you *do* manage to sell your screenplay, you’ll likely make more money on the sale than you will for a novel, but you’ll lose control. Completely. You won’t direct. You won’t meet the actors. You likely won’t even be asked to do the rewrite. And there will be rewrites — lots of them. If your screenplay hits the screen, it probably won’t look anything like the darling you poured your heart into. And if you want to keep working in the industry, you’ll need to move to LA and do the work-for-hire that fill the coffers of other working screenwriters.
Novel writing is, in contrast, easier to break into, and you’ll have a lot more control over your story throughout the publishing process. It will still be your baby in the end, and you have the luxury of living anywhere you want to live.
Pros and cons to both. In the end, each person needs to research the possibilities, be realistic about his strengths and limitations, and then… follow his passion. There are no guarantees. Only dreams.
A couple of big articles, including one in the New York Times, have come out touting the new publishing branch of Amazon and proclaiming it wonderful for authors and terrible for traditional publishers. But is it? I found a lot of hyperbole in the articles and a lot of red flags that leave me with some serious questions.
First, let’s look at the article in yesterday’s New York Times. It says:
Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.
122 books? Array of genres? That’s rather ambitious for a fledgling publisher. Exactly what makes Amazon qualified to pick quality submissions out of the slush? Who will be editing these books (and what are their qualifications)? Who will be designing the covers? What kind of publicity/marketing plan do they have? According to the article, publicity plans are top secret, as are details about the deals they’re setting up. That secrecy is NOT normal within the industry. Big red flags.
What the article conspicuously fails to mention at all is distribution. It plans to publish books in both print and digital form, but does it plan to sell those book anywhere other than Amazon.com? Will those books be available on bookstore shelves anywhere? Oh, I have no doubt that they’ll be *available* to stores, but will any actually choose to shelve them? If you were Barnes & Noble, is there any long-term benefit AT ALL to shelving books published by Amazon? Amazon is not their partner — it is their competitor, and a damn powerful competitor at that.
Next, the article discusses the case of Kiana Davenport. It presents an extremely biased version of the events. It claims that Ms. Davenport lost her contract with Penguin because Penguin is shaking in its boots about a collection of short stories she self-published on Amazon. They say:
“They’re trying to set an example: If you self-publish and distribute with Amazon, you do so at your own risk,” said Jan Constantine, a lawyer with the Authors Guild who has represented Ms. Davenport.
I… disagree. You can make up your own mind, however. I recommend reading Kiana’s original blog post on the subject AND all the associated comments (oh wait, she deleted the ones that disagreed with her, so that may not be worth your time), and then reading the thread on Absolute Write. Or just read Absolute Write. One thing I love about the people on that site, is that they have a wide range of experience (published authors, unpublished authors, agents, and editors), and so they look at situations like this from all sides.
Bottom line: Lots of authors self-publish and traditionally publish at the same time. But if the books overlap, the authors work with their agents and publishers to ensure they are not breaking their contracts or damaging the future sales of the book under contract. Those contracts are not set up to stifle a writer’s ability to write and publish but to protect the publisher’s investment. Publishers want to ensure that when their book is released, it is the newest, shiniest, best book a writer has to offer at that time so they can maximize sales. Oh yes, how evil and unreasonable those publishers are. </sarcasm>
The article then discusses a deal made with Laurel Saville. Well, sort of, since details are secret. Apparently Laurel wasn’t paid an advance. The question then becomes, what is Amazon offering her as a publisher that she wouldn’t get by self-publishing with Createspace, particularly since she seemed to be doing just fine on her own? I can’t help but wonder how Amazon picked its 122 books, and how many of them are of high enough quality that they would have been picked up by a traditional publisher — and how many non-celebrities will get a super-high advance.
Next, there was an article published in The New Republic today called, “Why Writers Should Embrace Amazon’s Takeover of the Publishing Industry.” I don’t for one second believe Amazon is taking over the publishing industry. Agents will happily tell you that there are more publishable books out there than there are publishers to sell them. Publishers can pick and choose and easily fill their lists. They are not begging for submissions, hoping for a breadcrumb. Contrary to what articles like this would have you believe, publishing is doing just fine, thank you very much.
Once you get into the meat of the story, the writer lists three services that have been “neglected” by traditional publishers. Let’s review her arguments, shall we?
- Discovering new authors. First, she says that agents can take six months to respond to a query. Nonsense. No agent takes that much time with queries. Not even close. She then mentions “unconnected authors,” which implies that writers must know someone to get picked up by an agent or publisher. Bullshit. Unknown writers are picked out of the slush every single day. I see nothing in what I’ve read about Amazon to make me think they’ll be better at picking books than anyone else. They’ll have winners and losers, just like other publishers. If they woo away experienced writers who are proven best-sellers, Amazon may appear to have “picked” more winners, but really that just means they have deeper pockets. Those writers weren’t exactly picked from the slush, and Amazon’s association with them means nothing for aspiring writers.
- Creating beautiful books. The writer claims that big publishers no longer edit the manuscripts that come to them. More bullshit. They do. They spend an extraordinary amount of time with their writers. We know nothing about the Amazon editors. We don’t know who they are, or how many books they’ll be assigned, or how talented they are. We don’t know if the big name writers will get more editing attention than the newer writers.
- Getting the word out. Amazon’s publicity plans are “secret,” so I’m not sure how any claim can be made that it will be better than a traditional publisher’s plan. Will their marketing dollars be more heavily invested in those proven authors or in the newbies? Gee, let me take a guess. The writer of this article complains that traditional publishers don’t market the newbies enough, but I think that depends on the book and the publisher, and I see zero evidence that Amazon will do better. I would also point out that not being able to get the book anywhere but at Amazon is a pretty significant handicap at this stage of the game.
Bottom line, I don’t think we know enough about the Amazon publishing venture to know how good it will be for writers or readers or whether it will, in any way, impact publishers. I’m willing to keep an open mind, but I’m definitely not drinking the Kool-Aid yet.
I forgot to mention in my post on jury duty that clearly, I have missed my passion in life. I could happily spend every waking moment of the rest of my life in a courtroom. I was absolutely fascinated by every aspect and am convinced that the criminal attorneys have the coolest job in the world.
Let’s see, I make x amount per year… can’t live without that, because of the mortgage and such. UW Law school costs $30K a year and doesn’t want students to work while attending. Three years salary plus school costs plus wear and tear on car/commute expenses…. Mmmm, if the Universe would like to provide me with, say, half a million dollars, I’ll start applying to law schools. K? Thanks!
Thursday, Oct. 6
I’m starting this post on Thursday, Oct. 6, the first day I had to report for jury duty at Superior Court in downtown Seattle. No clue when I’ll finally get to post, since I’m forbidden to talk about the experience until I’m excused (if not ultimately picked for a jury) or the case I sit on is over.
[Note: Last day was Thursday, October 13. If you want to skip the play by play and get to the meat, just skip down to that day.]
The commute to downtown Seattle sucks. I left the house at 6:15am and rushed into the jury room at 8am on the dot. Traffic wasn’t bad, either. If I’d hit bad traffic or if the bus had gotten held up anywhere, I’d have been late. On Monday I’ll leave at 6.
I had never ridden a bus in downtown Seattle. Jay rides one every day — and works up the hill from the courthouse — so I pressed him into service. Because I get car sick really easily, I wanted to minimize my time on the bus, so we drove the hour+ in to Northgate and caught the bus there. Easy ride, right into the bus tunnel, with a stop right in front of the courthouse. I was on my own coming home, but he had shown me exactly what to do and where to go, so I didn’t have any trouble.
Jury duty starts in the jury assembly room on the first floor of the courthouse. It probably seats a couple hundred people. There are a few tables and desks with electrical outlets, but I wasn’t early enough to snag one of those. The room is bright, roomy, and has comfy chairs, which is nice, because we spent a ridiculous amount of time there. Efficient they are not. Nice, yes. Efficient, no.
I arrived, as ordered, at 8am. At 8:30 they did a short orientation to explain the jury selection process. At 9:30, they called the names of the first jury pool. 75 people. A murder case, so they needed a big pool. What happens is the initial group is compiled randomly, and then during the voir dire process, that number is whittled down to 12 jurors and two alternates. I wasn’t called for that first group, so at 9:50 — almost two hours after I arrived, during which time I had done nothing — they gave us a 15 minute break. We were back at 10:05.
At 10:30 they called the names for the second jury pool. I was included in that one. We didn’t get to go up to the courtroom yet though. At 10:40 they gave us ANOTHER break. Back at 10:55, and then up to the courtroom. Finally.
The case is an ugly one — ugly enough that I’ve decided not to tell you about it. Let me just say that it involves a young child, and many jurors were hesitant to serve just because the subject matter was so ugly. Between the elevator rides and the organization, we were in there only about 25 minutes during which the judge read the charges, introduced the key players, and released the individuals who couldn’t serve due to hardship. Then we were sent back downstairs and broke for lunch at 11:45.
It was kind of nice to be downtown during the day, because Jay and I got to have lunch together. I was anxious initially because I hadn’t heard from him — sent text and VM — and I didn’t know where I was supposed to go. But once we hooked up, he showed me where all the restaurants are, and we had a nice, relaxed lunch. After all, I had an entire hour and a half to kill. Oy vey. I really wish we could just skip all the breaks and compress this into half a day. Like I said — nice, definitely. Organized even. But not efficient, at least not for potential jurors. (Jay pointed out that lawyers are charging a gazillion dollars an hour and thus have no reason to want efficiency.)
Back to the courthouse at 1:15. I think we got sent back upstairs about 1:45. We had one more break from about 2:30 to 3 (during which time they were talking to potential jurors who had asked to speak to them privately), but most of the remainder of the afternoon was spent with the beginning of voir dire, the jury selection process. Just the beginning, I’m afraid. According to the judge, it will take most of another morning to make the final jury selection.
I am still in the running at this point. I’m torn on the issue. I could have plead financial hardship, because I’m a contract worker who doesn’t get paid unless I work. I also could have plead difficulty with work, because we are releasing 17(!) courses at the end of next week. This is is really a horrible time to be gone. And, of course, I don’t like leaving the dogs alone all day. But I feel like I can make all those things work, and I have a duty to at least try to serve.
This court meets only Monday through Thursday, so I don’t have to go in tomorrow. This is good, because I can help out at work and get ready for the Train-the-Trainer sessions that begin on Monday.
At this point I’m trying hard not to draw conclusions based on first impressions. After all, I know nothing about the case yet — just the charges themselves. The judge is a handsome, well-spoken man with a calm, pleasant air about him. He seemed the sort of person who has great stories. The prosecuting attorney reminds me of Buffy Summers — young, blonde, and tiny. The defense attorney is a short, fat, bald man who makes jokes about his appearance to put people at ease. It worked. I can’t say I want to hang out with him, but I liked him better after his first discussion with us.
My biggest takeaway after the first part of the jury selection process is that the burden of proof is on the prosecutor entirely. The defense doesn’t have to prove innocence, because innocence is presumed.
Monday, October 10
Commute was significantly worse today, but I left myself plenty of time to get downtown so it wasn’t a problem. Jay told me about an express bus that runs in the morning and drops off a block from the courthouse. That saved me 10-15 minutes.
We started with the last part of the jury selection process. The prosecutor joked that it should be called jury de-selection because it was really a process of elimination. In the early stages the eliminations were for specific reasons — for “cause.” With those eliminations, the opposing counsel has an opportunity to object, and the judge has to approve or deny each one. In the last phase, each side gets a certain number of cuts called “pre-emps.” I can’t remember, but I don’t *think* opposing counsel or the judge have a say in those. The jury selection process was completely non-contentious in this case. Both sides seemed genuinely interested in seating a fair jury.
I am, by the way, on the jury. I am juror #10.
We had a long lunch period — 2.5 hours. A boring 2.5 hours. Jay worked from home today, so I didn’t get to kill time by going out to lunch with him. I ate a couple of bagels from Noah’s and sat in the jury assembly room. There was a man there with a Bernese Mountain Dog service dog. I couldn’t pet the dog (sadly), but I could chat with him about her. She’s trained to aid his mobility issues. Her name is Zoey, and she’s not quite two years old yet. Since she’s young, service work is still a challenge for her. She really wants to greet everyone!
After lunch we heard opening statements. That’s when the lawyers get to spin their tale about what we’re going to hear in the case. We heard details we hadn’t heard before. Even though that’s not evidence, per se, I took notes to capture some key names and dates.
After opening statements, we heard from the first two prosecution witnesses. Basically, the prosecutor is starting with the person who first took report of the incident, and then as each new person enters the timeline, she’s calling that witness. (Does that make sense?) That way she’s not bouncing around, and we’re not going to have trouble remembering who people are. It’s all very linear and overlapping.
There was a scheduling conflict, so they couldn’t call the third witness. We got sent home early, but the judge promised we’d have a full day tomorrow.
Tuesday, October 11
Well, they lied. Very short day. 🙂
The morning got off to a rough start. Our power went out during the night. When our fan went off, it woke us up, so I didn’t oversleep. In fact, I assumed it was probably about time to got up, and so woke up the dogs and went downstairs to start my day. Um… 3:45am. Nope, not time to get up. So I went back to bed
The day started a little late because a juror got stuck in the bathroom. The door locks from the inside (and opens in), and the lock broke and wouldn’t open. He was a great sport about it, but he was stuck in there for close to half an hour. Since he was stuck, the rest of the jurors had to wait as well. We joked and laughed and chatted. Many of us bring laptops or have smartphones to pass the time. We all seem to get along, so hopefully deliberation will be smooth.
Once we were in the courtroom, we heard from several more witnesses, including the victim. She broke down and had to take a break once, but overall she did well. There were things she didn’t remember, and I’m not sure whether that’s going to be an issue or not. There is a DVD that was made in one of her initial interviews that will be played for us tomorrow. They were going to play it today, but there were some technical issues, so they let us go at lunch.
According to the judge, the state is going to call a lot fewer witnesses than originally planned, so the trail is going to last only a few days. It could potentially be over tomorrow even. My bank account will be happy for me not to miss more than a week of work.
I had lunch with Jay at a Cajun place down the street. Yummy! Nice atmosphere too. Then I made the long trek home. Wonder if I’ll have a full day tomorrow?
Wednesday, October 12
Today was the last day that evidence was presented. This morning we watched the DVD that we couldn’t watch yesterday and we heard testimony from the person who did the interview captured on the DVD. After that we heard from a doctor, and then the state rested. After lunch we heard that the defense would not be calling any additional witnesses — the defense had cross examined the state’s witnesses already — and so we were ready for closing arguments.
Before closing arguments, the judge gave us a multi-page document with all the information we’ll need in order to deliberate. It included information like the charges, definitions of key terms, and the specific facts that the state has to prove in order for us to find the defendant guilty on that charge. The judge read the (entire) document aloud to be certain we understood it all. Then the attorneys presented their closing arguments.
The prosecutor went first, and she didn’t just weave an emotional story like you see on TV. Instead she used the list of facts that she had to prove and went through them, item by item, and explained how she *had* proved them. When it was the defense attorney’s turn, he disputed a couple of key things and said that the state hadn’t proved those things and thus we couldn’t find the defendant guilty. Then the state had a chance to provide a final rebuttal. She, of course, disputed his dispute.
Then we were sent back to the jury room. We didn’t do any deliberation today, because it was already 4:00, the evidence hadn’t been brought back to us, and the bailiff hadn’t given us our instructions. We’ll begin tomorrow at 9am.
During the trial I tried very hard not to form opinions about what I was hearing — or about whether I thought the defendant was guilty — because I hadn’t heard everything yet. When we got to closing arguments I was willing to start mentally reviewing the evidence to determine what I thought was relevant, what I didn’t, and what I think it all means. The defense made a couple of arguments that I had made myself, but I *do* think those things have been explained. I expect those points to be points of discussion during deliberation though.
I don’t have a feel for the other members of the jury. Oh, I have gotten to know them a bit as people, but we have been dutiful about not speaking of the case AT ALL, so I don’t know whether they’re leaning toward guilty or not guilty. I can guess, but… well, better to wait and see.
I hope the process goes logically and smoothly. I don’t think this crowd will get loud and contentious. I really hope not anyway. I know jury deliberation can be a painful process though.
Thursday, October 13
I considered erasing everything I had previously written and just posting today’s thoughts, because now I’m in the position to summarize everything. After rereading, I decided to let it stand.
The day started at 9am. Our first task was to pick a presiding juror, which we did in about 30 seconds start to finish. Then our bailiff, Monica, explained how deliberation would work. Basically we would be locked in the room, no cell phones, except for lunch. We could take breaks if we wanted, but they had to be in that room. All 12 of us had to be present to deliberate, so if someone had to go to the bathroom, we had to stop talking. We could write down questions and send them to the judge.
As I anticipated (and hoped), everyone was of like mind. The first half hour or more was spent just TALKING about the case, just discussing what we’d seen and heard and what we’d gotten from it. I think we could have jumped into the meat of the deliberation more quickly, but after having been unable to discuss anything with anyone for the last week, we were all pretty desperate just to share our experience and thoughts.
Then we got down to business. For each count, we had five things we had to prove. Three of them were obvious things like “This happened in the state of Washington.” The fourth thing was that this happened within a specific date range. On a specific date is not required in a case like this, and we were able to glean from the victim’s testimony that the acts had happened during the stated date range. So that was checked off.
The fifth thing we had to prove was four distinct events (one for each charge). What we were given were FOUR acts that met the criminal definition provided, but they occurred in THREE incidents. The instructions used the words “an occasion, separate and distinct.” So we weren’t sure if “occasion” referred to an act or an incident. The prosecutor had outlined it as the acts (also mentioning that each one was stated to have occurred on multiple occasions), and the defense attorney had not disputed that, but the word “occasion” seemed more like an incident, which would make it three counts, not four. (Although the multiple occasions thing could also work, but we had no details about those occasions.)
So we wrote a question to the judge asking for more clarification. The judge replied that he had given us the law, and it was up to us to interpret it. Interesting! Well, given that leeway, we agreed that it was “acts” not incidents. We took a final vote, and voted guilty on each of the four counts.
We provided the verdict to the bailiff, and then we waited half an hour for the court to reconvene. We went into the courtroom, and the verdict was read. The defendant closed his eyes and shook his head like we’d committed some horrible travesty of justice but otherwise remained silent, as he had through the entire trial. We saw two deputies come in to take him away, but after we each acknowledged that we had voted guilty and the entire jury had participated, we were sent back to the jury room.
The judge came in a couple of minutes later. We were free, and he was able to talk to us and answer questions. He’s really a delightful man. (Jim Rogers. Vote for him, Seattle people!) He explained that sentencing might not happen for six weeks, that the defendant was in custody and could not bond out now, and that he would probably be put away for most of the rest of his life. He also told us that there had been additional charges for a sibling, but they were dropped. He could be retried on those charges, but there would likely be no need.
After the judge left, we left the jury room, and we met the prosecutor and defense attorney in the hall. We stopped and talked with them for 20 or 30 minutes. (I really loved that we got to talk to the judge and attorneys afterwards to get our questions answered.) They asked for feedback on what they did, what made a difference. We learned more about why the defense attorney had approached the case the way he did, and why he didn’t come on stronger. Basic answer: if he had, it well could have backfired on him, opening doors to testimony he didn’t want mentioned. So he just drew attention to any place there was a hole to be poked at. Unfortunately for him, there were not many holes.
They told us more of the back story of the case. This family is a MESS, and they had to be careful with their witnesses and what was said, because they didn’t want to open doors to additional information that could have kept us there forever. The good news is that the victim is with a FABULOUS foster family who is in the process of trying to adopt her. Yayyy!
So often we hear about how the system is broken and how it fails the ones it tries to protect. Well, guess what. The system worked beautifully for this child. Every. Single. Step. The people she met along the way were extremely well trained, and they did just what they should have. Kudos to them all!
The other jurors were fantastic, and everyone involved with the case was very professional and good at what they do. Yes, I complained about the number of breaks and the wait time, but that was from a juror’s perspective. Much was being done behind the scenes to shorten the trial and make it as efficient and smooth as possible, which is why it ultimately ran a full week less than originally expected. In the end, I was very impressed. It was not a pretty case, but I’m proud to have been a part of it.