Friday, August 10, 2018

Dancing With Myself

Rejection is part of the publishing process. Tell us your most memorable rejections—whether it be from queries, agents, editors, or reviewers.. Anything from your funniest to your most devastating (and how you recovered), and anything in between.

by Paul D. Marks

Oh, have I got material for this one. Not all are rejections per se. Some are just funny anecdotes about why something didn’t get bought. And many of these stories pertain to scripts and Hollywood, rather than publishing stories and/or novels. Some of the names of people and companies have been changed and/or left out to protect the not-so-innocent.

I used to collect aphorisms or sayings or quotes that I liked. I still do, but not nearly as much these days. And one of my favorites was/is “Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.”—Jules Renard—Yes, those people who often have none also often have the power of publish or perish over you. So let’s talk about some “rejections” I’ve received.


Little green men: I was trying to get an agent at one of the big Hollywood agencies. And I was able to submit a script or two to a middling agent there (big agency). Said Agent read said spec script and called me into said Big Agency and said, “Read your script and it’s very good.  Really liked it a lot, but there’s a couple of problems.  First off, people don’t take trains anymore.  Why don’t you set it in the airport?”

Said I, “Part of the thematic structure of the piece is to contrast the old vs. the new. The old Los Angeles as opposed to the new. Union Station typifies the beauty of the old.”

“I don’t know, I think LAX is a pretty cool place.  Besides, no one will believe your character takes the train.”

No one but the person who wrote it, but what does he know?

“Then the other thing that bothers me is if I’m to believe this premise I’d have to believe in little green men from Mars.”

Guess you’ve never heard of the Terminator movies.  Alien, Aliens, the Robocops, Stepford Wives, Westworld or Star Wars—you gotta remember these stories happened a long time ago.  Say it, go ahead, tell him.  Call him on it.  He’s not going to buy it, so what if you burn your bridges?

“What about the writing?  Did you like the writing?”

“Yeah.  The writing was tops, except the characters don’t develop properly.  They don’t have any quirks.  I mean like your detective, maybe he could have an ear tick, smoke a big stogie, or something.”

“Character develops through action.  They don’t need....”

“Well, I’d like to finish this conversation, but I’ve got another call.  Good luck.  I’ll send the scripts back to you.”

With coffee stains, no doubt, so I can’t use them again.

I did ultimately get an agent with said Big Agency, but not this guy.

Boy Genius #1: I met with a young producer, by young I mean he hardly had anything to shave. He gave me a meeting, I mean he took a meeting with me. I pitched him several ideas. His ultimate line to me was “Why should I help you?” Well, of course, he didn’t have to. But it seemed to escape him that he came from well-known Hollywood producing family, so he might have had a little help along the way. He didn’t exactly get where he was simply from his good looks and work ethic. So maybe he could have had a little more empathy for someone trying to make it, let alone the fact that he didn’t seem concerned about the projects I was pitching. Oh, and I had known his cousin too. But I set up the meeting without using that connection.

Boy Geniuses #2: I had a meeting with two young producers, both fresh out of USC, but who had a deal with a major company, so it’s not like they didn’t know anything about the business. Just the opposite: at twenty-two they knew everything. And they’d heard everything. I pitched them several stories and they didn’t want to see paper on a single one of them. This is the only time I never left a treatment, outline or script with someone. Oh, and I knew one of their brothers pretty well, too. But again, I hadn’t used him to set up the appointment…as I hadn’t seen him in years. So I walked out with everything I’d come with. And I sort of waited and watched ‘cause I wanted to see what big epic they’d come out with for their first movie. It was a “monster under the bed movie.” I guess because that had never been done before. And certainly it was unlike anything I’d pitched them.

The Best Dialogue I’ve Ever Heard: So, I pitched another producer on a high tech thriller script. He liked the idea. I left the property with him. Got a call a few days later—he wanted another meeting. So we met again. He loved the script. Loved the dialogue: “The best fucking dialogue I’ve ever heard.” To make a long story short, he showed the script to a director-friend of his. She hated the dialogue. Somehow, magically, he wasn’t quite so fond of the dialogue after that. But he did option it. Then he wanted me to change the genders of the two leads. The man became a woman, the woman became a man. Well, I guess anything’s possible these days ๐Ÿ˜‰.

I made a well-known producer cry: There’s a first time for everything and that’s the first time I made a producer cry, at least in a positive way... I pitched him a story. He liked it. I left paper with him. He called me the next day—that’s also something that usually didn’t happen with me, such a quick turnaround. He loved the story! It made him cry. He had a deal with a Big Studio, so we had several meetings there, the producer, my agent, me. Others.

Just one little itty bitty problem, well, two really. Of course, like all producers, directors, actors and janitors in Hollywood, he knew better what the script should be than the writer. And since there were no major women characters he wanted to add several, but that wasn’t the story I was trying to tell. It was a story about soldiers who had fought together getting together to figure out what they fought for in a war that tore the country apart, helped depose a president or two and whose wounds still haven’t been sutured. For me it was very important that this story be about the men without any other elements. I didn’t want the story to be about their relationships with wives, girlfriends, moms, etc. If I had I would have written it differently. I wanted it to be about their experience with each other…

But that wasn’t the end of it:

“Oh, and by the way, you—me—won’t be able to write it.  You may have lived it but you can’t write it.  We’ll get a name writer.” I had a name, didn’t I?

I had the courage of my convictions then.

I had integrity then.

I had pride then.

I didn’t know that pride comes before a fall.  I told my agent to can the deal.  The producer said he’d do his own version of the story.  Never mind that he wouldn’t have anything had I not come to him.

If I knew then…

If I did I would have let him do it his way.  The hell with principle and what would have made a better movie.  I would have given in.  Caved.

The Golden Turkey Leg: Not really a rejection, but bad enough: And then there was the Golden Turkey Leg. I had a spec script that dealt peripherally with Voodoo, but it wasn’t “supernatural”. Another producer optioned it and wanted to make it more mystical, scary, more Voodoo-ey, sci-fi, sleazy, seedy, make-Ed-Wood-look-like-a-genius-bad, and to that end he wanted me to add something about some golden object that was magical and mystical and for want of a better word I called it “the golden turkey leg”—well, not to his face. He also wanted me to bring a character back from the dead—now that’s Voodoo...—turning a pretty good thriller into a grade Z schlockfest horror story that would even make Roger Corman at his cheapest cringe. Then, as if it couldn’t get any weirder, he knew the “perfect” guy to do the theme song: Michael Bolton. And when I say he “knew” Michael Bolton I mean he really did; they were buds or something. And no offense to him or anyone who likes him, but he’s just not my taste. Give me Ian Gillan and Joey Ramone. So maybe I’m glad that that one never got out of development hell. Then to top it all off, my wife and I were at a toy show in Pasadena (one of my hobbies is collecting old toys) and we ran into said producer, who’s there with his wife and kid, maybe around six or seven years old, selling old dolls. So, he asks me to look after said kid, who at least was a sweet said kid, so he and his wife can walk around the toy show, unfettered. The worst part is he wasn’t even selling the kind of toys I was looking for. So in addition to working on screenplays, I’m also a great babysitter, I just don’t cook or do windows, except Microsoft Windows. And another one bites the dust, another one that never made it to the silver screen, but at least I got paid. Were this producer’s ideas better? Well, if you like Golden Turkey Legs, I suppose so. But did that make me doubt my decision to be a writer? Hell no, I’m a glutton for punishment.

Deader Than a Doornail: Another script for an interesting TV show had a big TV producer interested.  Until he dropped dead and everyone dropped the ball again.

Think long-term: The first novel I completed was accepted for publication at a major publisher. It was a satire on a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. (Gee, where did that come from?) Eventually, the whole editorial staff at that publisher was swept out and as a new broom sweeps clean my book was swept out with them. And since much of the humor was topical it was pretty dated even after only a couple of years so it couldn’t really go to another publisher. The lesson: don’t write things that are so topical that their shelf life is shorter than yogurt left on the counter on a steaming, hot day. Remember what George S. Kaufman said, satire is what closes Saturday night.

Stained Letter: There was one point where I got so tired of getting form letter rejections that I decided to fight back. I got an obvious form letter rejection in the mail. It said something like Dear_____: but they hadn’t even bothered to write my name in the blank. And the form looked like it had been Xeroxed about 500 times, the words were crooked on the page and it had all kinds of spots and smudges from overuse over the years. It was so dehumanizing to get something like that in the mail—I wasn’t even deserving of a freshly Xeroxed form. So I created my own form letter thank you. I typed a letter on an old typewriter so the print was uneven. I made smudges and cross outs on it, placed a couple of cups of leaky coffee on it and then Xeroxed the hell out of it. It said something like “Dear X (purposely left the X in), thank you so much for taking the time to read and carefully consider my manuscript. And I appreciate the personalized response. Sincerely, Unknown Writer.” I do understand that agents and editors get tons of queries, but really …. Can’t they at least try to make it seem like they give a damn that you’ve just poured your heart and soul into a 120 page screenplay or 80,000 word manuscript?

The Mossad: I once had a producer threaten to send his friends in the Mossad to get me when we vehemently argued about a script I was developing for him. I was warned about him before I started, but I thought I’m a brave soul, I’ll give it a shot. He’d hired me to write a script based on his idea—then hated everything I came up with, even though it was exactly what we’d talked about, but it wasn’t him, his writing, in every nuance. Hell, he should have written the damn thing himself... But he couldn’t and wouldn’t. No he’d rather just threaten me. So, of course, I sat up every night with night vision goggles, a CAR-15 (it was a while ago), flame thrower, a couple-a cruise missiles (Tom Cruise Missiles ‘cause he could protect the hell out of me) and an AWACs circling overhead, and lay in wait for them to swarm the hill behind my house. A .50 cal would have been better than the CAR-15, but since they never came I guess it didn’t matter. Maybe they’re still on their way and I seem to have misplaced the CAR-15. But did the Mossad threat make me doubt my decision to be a writer, hell no. I just bought myself a new Kevlar vest. ๐Ÿ˜„  — And, since he’s also an actor I see him in things now and then and it makes it hard to watch them. On occasion I’ve turned them off. And I’m still looking over my shoulder every day…

Mid-Life Crisis: There was the producer who spent a year rewriting a script with me at one of the major studios. Before the days of the internet I would go there 2-3 times a week to meet and work with him. Big producer. He had worked with the likes of De Niro and others of that caliber. He was talking Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer for the leads, and he could have done it. Until he had a midlife crisis and decided he wanted to make family films. Dropped my project like a hot hand grenade. And my agent didn’t carry the ball either.

Ah, Hollywood.


But on the fun side, among other interesting tidbits, Cary Grant did call me and Gene Kelly invited me to his house. But if you want to find out about those stories you have to go to my website and find them. ( )

That’s Hollywood.


I had a lot of fun and a lot of frustration. I did a lot of work as a script doctor, no glory, no screen credit, so my dad could never figure out exactly what I did. And I did option scripts I wrote, either by myself with a partner, to various entities. It was fun and aggravating and maddening. But these are some of the rejections that come to mind.

And speaking of rejection: I can’t get an agent if my life depended on it. I think I have the bonifides and various people have come up with various theories, but this isn’t the place for that. But I have a new manuscript that’s a little different from much of what I’ve published. A homefront mystery set in L.A. during World War II. With a very unusual leading character… I like it a lot and I can’t get anyone to look at it. Not like it’s been rejected since they won’t even look at it. And it’s lonely for an agent. So if anyone knows anyone, give ‘em my name and number, please.


And now for the usual BSP:

Broken Windows is releasing on September 10, 2018. Its available for pre-order now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Down & Out Books.

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website


Dietrich Kalteis said...

What a great post, Paul. You really prove that writing is an occupation where you have to keep proving your talent to those who have none.

Lisa Ciarfella said...

Oh God, just snorted out my latte laughing so hard!

So needed this! More appreciated than u know!๐Ÿคฃ
Thanks millions for posting Paul!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I really love your stories! And having integrity isn't a bad thing.

Susan C Shea said...

Okay, that's it. you've destroyed my fantasy of having a book or series made into a film, and probably saved my sanity in the process. Unbelievable, but actually believable and no reflection on you and your talent.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dieter. It just gets tiring and frustrating sometimes trying to prove that, doesn’t it. :-)

Paul D. Marks said...

I’m glad I could make you laugh, Lisa. Do I owe you for the latte?

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. I’m glad you enjoy them. Well, there’s integrity and there’s making a living. I think we have to balance them. – Just kidding. I’ll take integrity.

Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, you might have a wonderful experience. But the the thing you have to know is once you sell your book to Hollywood you, except in extremely rare instances, lose control of what becomes of it. And they will have it rewritten however they want. How many times have you gone to see a movie of a book you’ve read and said “the book is better” or different. They change the ending. The characters. All kinds of stuff. And, though you might have some input, ultimately the choices are theirs. One piece of advice I would give is if you do option a book to Hollywood maintain the rights to the characters. Just option the rights to a single story or get one hell of a lot of money if you option more. Also, I usually tell people to ask to write the first draft of the screenplay, even if you don’t really know how. You have a better chance of getting a screen credit and royalties that way. It can get very complicated.

GBPool said...

I'm surprised you never turned into a serial killer. I'm glad you didn't because your books and short stories are great. White Heat would still make a great movie. That little slice of History has relevance even today. Your book coming out in September will no doubt have all the good stuff that makes movies, too. You have that cinematic eye, my friend.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you for your nice comments on my writing, Gayle. I think both White Heat and Broken Windows would make great movies, too! And both, even though set in the 1990s, are relevant today and a prism on what's happening today as they deal with racism and immigration in the context of mystery-thrillers. So, who knows. Maybe one day. And ditto for your Johnny Casino books, too. Those would also make great flicks.

Jeff Baker said...

Thanks so much for this, Paul! I needed a little reassurance right now! :)

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jeff. Glad my suffering was helpful to you ;-) .