Neil Dalton of Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, experienced the breakthrough event of his second professional career on an otherwise pedestrian day in early July. It was the day he got the call from his literary agent, Jan McPhee, delivering news he never really thought he’d hear.
“They want to purchase one of your stories and write a screenplay from it.”
He slowly sat up on the wicker couch in the condo as he absorbed this. He had written hundreds of short stories, some published in far-flung, notable and not-so-notable outlets and some on now-defunct platforms. Such is the life of the writer waiting for that call that for most people never comes. But apparently now, the call had finally come, at last. Jan had made it, he had answered it, and now he tried to temper his rising excitement.
“Which one? And who is they?” he asked her.
“Somebody with Universal. It’s one of the stories in your first book. The one about the reckoning.”
He actually had to think for a minute. And then he knew it. It was the one about the war veteran suffering from PTSD who goes on a vengeful mission to pay back those who railroaded him and put him in military prison. A bit of John Rambo for sure, but darker, smarter, more cunning, and full of premeditation.
Despite their claims of disavowal, people secretly loved revenge stories. They were timeless and they resonated with almost everyone. And they had the added benefit of providing readers with a cathartic outlet for their suppressed emotions that would not land them in prison. Reading about a fictional character retaliating against or taking revenge upon someone was much safer than doing it in your own life.
He’d always thought that one had potential to catch someone’s eye. And apparently, it had.
“What are they offering?” he asked.
“The usual first-time deal. Not much up front, but decent royalties if the picture does well at the box office.”
Again, he pondered it. This was typical in the industry. If you were an unproven commodity, they were not going to give you much money in advance. It was an incentive-laden deal based on royalties that might or might not roll in later. He didn’t know if he really had any other choice in the matter though. And there was no guarantee anyone would ever get a picture off the ground. He knew people who’d sold screenplays that went into black hole and never got made into movies or anything else for that matter. Other than the initial low-ball purchase price, they never made another dime. And they had lost control of the story by selling it. This happened all the time actually.
“How much control can I have?” he asked.
“I don’t know. We’ll have to negotiate. Probably very little. We can ask that you be allowed to review the final product before they start filming, I guess.”
He thought about it some more. He’d never sold anything. He might as well test the waters and learn what the process was like.
“Oh well. I guess beggars can’t be choosers. Send me the offer sheet and I’ll look it over and let you know.”
“Emailing it right now. Let me know.” And she hung up.
He’d have to pay Jan her cut out of whatever he received; that was the usual deal with agents. Book publishing was an archaic racket. Writers couldn’t just send manuscripts in to the various publishing houses. They wouldn’t accept them.
The publishers filtered the good from the rest by dealing exclusively with agents, which meant any aspiring author needed to hire an agent. You submitted your work to your agent and he or she shopped it around. While this system gave you a better chance of getting published, it also meant you had to pay the agent. More often than not, the publishing house and the agent made more money off this arrangement than the author did. Neil had seen it with some of his friends. But the offer Jan had just discussed was different. The writer had a little more negotiating power with a story that someone wanted to turn into a movie.
The story they wanted was just one of several in his first book, which was an anthology of short stories. After twenty-seven rejections, Jan had finally found an obscure little publishing company based in tidewater Virginia that agreed to publish it. They offered nothing at all up front and a small percentage of royalties.
This was the usual deal for a first-time author because the publisher had no idea if the book would sell a single copy, and they were fronting 100% of the production costs, which were not insignificant. With a modest marketing campaign, they estimated it might sell a few thousand copies. But Neil knew it might just as well end up in that one section in Barnes and Noble where everything was marked down to $5.99, with untouched hardcover books written by authors you’d never heard of — and a few you had. That was the depository for first run books that had failed. It was sobering thought.
At the same time, Neil knew that having a book do well was just as much about luck and random good fortune as it was about good writing or storytelling. It was perhaps one of the most random professions in the world actually. There were many great books out there that no one had ever read simply because the publishing company had done a poor marketing campaign, or the cover was not enticing enough for someone to pick it up from the stacks, or simply because the timing just hadn’t been right for some nebulous reason.
John Grisham was a perfect example of this phenomenon. His first book, A Time to Kill, didn’t go anywhere when it was initially published by Wynwood Press in 1989. The company did a limited run of 5,000 copies, and it sold modestly. Nobody had ever heard of the lawyer from a small town in Mississippi. But his agent saw something. On a hunch, he told Grisham to start writing a second novel. So Grisham did. And the second novel became a sensation.
By the time The Firm had skyrocketed up the bestseller lists, Grisham’s new publishing company, Doubleday, had republished A Time to Kill. And by the end of that story, A Time to Kill became John Grisham’s second best seller, and like The Firm, was turned into a blockbuster movie. But if that agent hadn’t pressured Grisham into writing that second novel, A Time to Kill would’ve likely ended up in the $5.99 stacks.
It was that random. But it was this randomness that Neil found so appealing and enticing. Just keep working. Write something every single day. And eventually — like Jacob Riis had long ago observed — the wall would crack and give way. “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Maybe the tale of the war veteran’s vengeance would be the final strike that cracked the proverbial rock. Neil would soon find out. But he knew that every other story he’d written — even those that might never be read by anyone— were the blows that had done it. Every single one had done it.
To be continued.
Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and the recently released Cathedrals in the Twilight, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Look for his new book, Of Time and Rivers, targeted for release this fall. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.