By Callie Oettinger | Published: March 7, 2014
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
For The Graduate’s Mr. McGuire, “plastics” was it—that sure-fire, magic-bullet road to riches. A couple of decades later, he might have said “home health care”—and today’s young Benjamin Braddock would perhaps have given him the same confused look, and the same follow-up Q&A would have ensued:
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in [home health care]. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Mr. McGuire seemed like a shiny-object guy, always racing after the buck-making magic bullet du jour. He might have hit it big that way, too—but it’s a long-shot, like investing your paycheck in Powerball tickets. Odds aren’t in your favor.
But what if he had found that passion for the magic bullet within the long term? (more…)
By Shawn Coyne | Published: February 28, 2014
Here’s another chunk from my slowly evolving book, THE STORY GRID: What Good Editors Know, soon to be published by Black Irish Books.
How does one know when a story isn’t working?
Thomas Harris, a grandmaster Frog Boiler
That is, if you decided to become a literary agent tomorrow, how could you figure out if a story has a chance to be acquired by a publishing company or be optioned for a movie deal? I know. I know. Money isn’t everything. The story may work for the writer’s immediate family or for a select group of kind friends. But that liberal definition of “working” is not what dreams are made of, nor is it capable of providing enough income for a family of five.
I’m talking about the kind of story that will sell for enough money to live for at least two years so that you’ll be able to finance the writing of your next book. That may be $20,000 or $2,000,000 depending upon your standard of living. A story that results in a contract and a check.
After more than ten thousand hours of publishing books, reading submissions and being pitched both fiction and nonfiction, here is just one of the criteria I use to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I simply track the story’s progressive complications…the escalating degrees of conflict that face the protagonist.
How do I do that?
Take this pitch as an example:
An ambitious actor/lawyer/chef/programmer graduates from Julliard/Harvard/Culinary Institute of America/MIT and looks for meaningful work. After months of rejections, the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer decides to take a side job while continuing to look for what will ultimately make him happy.
The inciting incident of the story arrives (at long last) when he gets a part time job as assistant to a casting director/judge/Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. As he works for the casting director/judge/Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, he is exposed to all of the best new projects in Hollywood/Washington/New York/Silicon Valley and even gets to help out by being a reader during auditions/doing paralegal work/sous cheffing/writing code. The casting director/judge/ Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine notices his talent and decides to promote him.
By dint of hard work the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer gets the big job the rewards that come with it—status and money. But after a while, the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer grows weary of the big Hollywood grind/legal profession/food work/writing code and decides to go back to his first love, the theater/pro bono work/artisanal cheese making/new app innovation. He then auditions/takes up a cause/makes cheese/devises a new app that no one takes seriously let alone buys into. Until, at last, he gets a small time director/not for profit/cheese monger/software company to take on his life’s work. The performance/cause/cheese debut/app launches, but to little acclaim. The actor/lawyer/chef/programmer loses his shirt on the project, but learns a lot about himself. He decides that his happiness is dependent on his relationships and not the fantasies of finding meaning through work. The End.
And yes, the above is indicative of the kind of material that floods literary agencies and publishing houses. A very talented prose stylist could actually make the above rather entertaining too. And he’d also be able to hide behind a pseudo-genre like “literary slice of life” to boot. But no matter the writerly artifice, this story doesn’t work. It may prove commercially viable depending upon the tenor of the times, but it will never last as a work of art. Let’s assume the writer is not a celebrity or the hottest young thing to come out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. So extenuating commercial potentialities are not in play here. That is, the literary agent can’t sell the story based on just the identity of the writer. She has to sell it on its story. (more…)
By Callie Oettinger | Published: February 21, 2014
Jean-Dominique Bauby, Stephen Hawking, Francis Tsai—a journalist, a theoretical physicist and an artist.
The similarities? Olympic character.
In his column DNA of Champions, Joel Stein wrote about having his DNA compared with Olympic Gold Medalist Sergei Bubka’s DNA. It wasn’t surprising to read that there are certain genes that are common within Olympic athletes.
However . . . “The key Olympic success,” said Bubka, is that “you need to have character to go to your goal, to do your work, to be a hard worker.”