Monday, January 27, 2014

Be That Lucky Bastard

by John Klawitter

Copyright © 2013 John Klawitter
Originally published by 1st Turning Point, 2011

John Klawitter
Envious writers like me sometimes mutter Why that lucky son-of-a-bitch, getting a half-million dollar advance! Why couldn’t that be me?

Could be, I’m actually not the brilliant dude I think I am. Or maybe that son-of-a-bitch just was in the right place at the right time. Either way, how can you and I best position ourselves for the next big break that comes along?

What if, the next time we begin to write, we purposefully set out to raise our odds? I mean, suppose we actually thought publishability first and idea second?! All authors claim they do this, but that’s not true, if only because ego gets in the way.

Okay, we’re not totally egotistic, and we want to be the lucky ones. Where do we start? We could burnish our image, but everybody does that. We could learn the tricks used by the other writers who hang out at 1st Turning Point, but we already do many of these things because we are in the scribble biz.

What else? I believe there is something, but it is so hazy and nebulous that you may think it is nothing, a waste of time, a silly bit of business. Nobody really teaches it. Many believe they already do it. Most are sure other writers don’t.

You know, finding yourself is not the same for any person, much less a writer. Meditation isn’t a bad habit, but authors particularly walk individual paths; writing is a
journey of discovery, and self-awareness strikes in vastly different ways. That’s why the alert writer has to force her or himself uneasily into that place where one mutters hard truths and asks difficult questions. Writers who think this way spend less time chasing other people’s butterflies—a good thing—and this can also be a clue as to your own progress into healthy centricity.

Some decades ago, my NY agent, knowing I had written Crazyhead, the cult classic novel of the Vietnam mess, called to suggest I could write something knocking the Japanese, who were about to take over the world. It didn’t take genius to recognize Crichton’s Rising Sun was about to be released and some big publisher was trying to ride the gathering tsunami. So could I knock something out? Spec, of course? As you may remember, Rising Sun turned out to be a loser, and I rescued six months of my life with a simple No, thanks. But I haven’t always been that smart. Being a Hollywood Hyphenate, I’ve written dozens of spec scripts, pitches and new show developments with too much attention to the personalities involved and too little to the worth of the idea.

I’m not only warning about the devil appearing at your shoulder in the form of some agent, producer friend, or friendly publisher. It’s just as easy to start yourself down the wrong trail. Who among us has never begun a novel or a screenplay with no more than a hunch, a feeling, a vague notion? I’m going to do something like Louis L’Amour’s Sackett novels, only with Scottish descendants living in the Florida panhandle. Scribes, this is not how to begin a fetching tale. Not to say ideas like this are automatically doomed, but rather they are launched in the middle of the process rather than at the beginning.

So be thunderstruck, but then get over it. Have your moment
of creative madness, but then hone your idea, work the process, sharpen your concept. After that, regroup, reconsider and go forward, or can it and start over.

Let’s walk through the process, the right way: Here you are in the heart of your meditational moment, perhaps sipping cheap Algerian red and eating a dark chocolate Toblerone bar, the one with the little bits of honey in it. You think to yourself about old McGirty, that interesting old Scot lived downaround Jacksonville with his three daughters and a big herd of cattle. And then you look at the marketplace: It’s currently not so good for Historical Southern Westerns. So you fantasize, but I think they are horny daughters, tough as nails but real beauties. Now you’ve shifted to (maybe) a Romantic Western. But you don’t like to write straight Romantic Westerns. And you don’t see the three lusty ladies as lesbians or harpies. You see, what you’re doing is evaluating yourself and the current market–before you commit to the idea. It’s the right way. You go on, arguing with yourself and, maybe if you’re lucky, some voice comes from the ether and says What if McGirty was a CIA spy, farmed out
to live on his newly dead best friend’s cattle ranch? He hates ranching, but can’t leave or he will be offed by the very agency he worked for. And he knows for sure that all three of his best friend’s daughters are deadly trained assassins, though only two openly blame him for their father’s death. And the skeptical voice doesn’t know what to say. That’s a good sign, but don’t fall off your turnip truck just yet. If you know as much about the spy game as I do, you know you could have the first threads of a serious idea. But is it saleable? That’s the other half of your process. Your responsibility to your career, your talent and yourself has to be to include a healthy cynicism about just how well spy stories are doing these days in the marketplace. A great idea that isn’t attractive to current publishers is like a great bolt of lightning striking nothing in the desert.

So here you have it, The Klaw’s sure-fire formula for improving your odds in a game of chance that is frighteningly stacked against you: First, be enormously skeptical of your own and other people’s ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen, and they can’t all be winners. Then research the hell out of the market. Work hard to find a story idea that you like, understand and that you believe many readers will enjoy. And then mull, ponder, question, torture, take no prisoners, kill all the weak ideas. And then, my writerly child, if you can’t talk yourself out of your great new story idea, go forth and get thee lucky.


John Klawitter is a Hollywood writer, producer and director who writes fiction and non-fiction books. He often adapts his novels to screenplays that he then peddles around town. (So far, a few fat options, but no brass ring.) His novels are based on his years surviving as a creative person in the ad biz and in show biz. It is an interesting life.

He has worked as the Creative Director of Disney Studios in Burbank, and as an independent creative resource for Warner Bros, Universal Studios, Paramount and the Disney Channel, as well as for many indy production companies including Hanna Barbera, Franke Films, Pink Planet Productions, Eyeline Films and Zoiyu Productions. His films and television specials have appeared on NBC, the BBC, and the Disney Channel, and he has written many memorable song lyrics, advertising jingles and television show openings, including “Disney’s Wonderful World”, “Now & Then”, and “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show”.

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