Friday, May 13, 2005

Celebrity Lobsters and Pitching Novels by Synopsis

Okay, lame way to wedge every topic into the title, but...

1) Today, Dr. Sanity explains Acquired Situational Narcissism afflicting politicos. But this is also the disease of celebrities that no star will ever pimp a telethon to cure. As Simon Doonan of Barney's said of JLo's debut as a fashion designer, "We've only ourselves to blame because we've given celebrities these deranged feelings of omnipotence. She'll be doing brain surgery next."

2) Conservation zeal collides with government intervention and bad science again. Gov't agencies falsely decried declines in lobster catches, even advising consumers to avoid lobster completely on the Seafood Watch List. From the WSJ, I think it's a freebie:

Last fall, an independent panel of highly regarded population-modeling biologists reviewed the NMFS science. The panel's conclusions are stunning: The models are unreliable, they depend on woefully inadequate data, and the NMFS management criteria should be abandoned. "There is no possibility," the panel wrote, "of using the models being considered, given the available data, to reasonably manage on this basis." In fact, catches and traps have risen 3X due to the historic conservation practices of Maine lobstermen. Now they need to plan for downcycles, but they'll do that better than the gov't, too.

3) Another freebie in the WSJ about the PitchFest where 220 screenwriters got 5 minutes apiece, timed by cowbell, to sell their project ideas to fifty "decision makers."

"A lot of these people are just dreamers," he [one exec] said bluntly, describing his participation as a chance to give back to the community and, frankly, a chance to do some networking of his own. "Mostly we give advice and try to point them in the right direction. But who can say? This whole business is based on not listening when someone tells you, 'No, you'll never sell that idea.'"

Builds confidence, doesn't it? Pitching television, and especially film, is tougher than novels. Fewer are produced, the costs and risks are higher, and you're supposed to affect Hollywood slickness, whereas authors are given more slack as social misanthropes. But the process is similar. You're instructed, "If you can't put your book into one sentence, you don't know it." Don't bother arguing that even Nietzsche knew that storytellers are good narrators and bad explainers.

Ugh. Now my suspense novel exists in single sentence form. And a single paragraph size for queries. Another one-page version. And the longest, the 5-page synopsis, which still condenses every ten thousand words into a paragraph. These forms are designed to meet individual and industry format preferences, thereby streamlining the return of NOs, but the real problem is how crappadocious book-length writing sounds that way. Style and complexity become shallow, slang shorthand that's comprehensible but bears (I hope) little resemblance to the final product. An example of the one-sentence, verbal pitch:

WS (writer-supplicant): A man with his eyes on the bottom line meets a girl with her head in the clouds.
AP (agent and/or publisher): Okay....
WS: And it's in nineteenth-century colonial India, isn't that wild? Awesome elephant rides.
AP: I love elephants.
WS: Me, too. Elephants are great.
AP: Why don't you send me a couple chapters with a synopsis and outline?
WS: (Drools thanks incoherently)

Many APs are quite personable and smart, but if there are lots to pitch at an event, you collect business cards from everything with a pulse until your time or pride is spent. I don't love it, but it is a gauntlet that culls dilettantes and APs who can't use your kind of work. I'd still rather present a single page of prose for evaluation than hype the storyline via pitching, because, while every novel's unique, every plot's a retread. That's why cliches can accurately, albeit horrifically, describe them. There are several books cataloguing the overarching plotlines in fiction. The number they acknowledge vary by philosophy. This book says there are 7.

As Willa Cather opined, "There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." But Dostoyevsky for the optimistic tip-in, "There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it." The worth of the story isn't in the topic, it's in the telling.

Established authors say this process eventually works, and I believe them. But if I'd aspired to write encapsulated diaper-fodder like this, I'd create movie ads. "In a world where...."

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