The Process of E.L. Doctorow

The highly regarded and award-winning novelist, E.L. Doctorow, whose books were on our shelves while I was growing up, spoke the other day at Michigan State University, and raised some interesting points about what “is” historical fiction. His point is that all fiction is historical–except the genre writing of that name which seems to be pure trash in his opinion–even stories set in the future. He uses historical settings for his stories, and I believe he resists the reduction of value associated with the genre.

What I found amazing was his description of how he writes. He started Ragtime by writing about the place where he lived at that moment, and then worked backwards in time to discover the interesting, albeit imaginary, things that happened in that place. He tossed in historical figures the way a chef might make a stew, looking in the pantry for ingredients, and using whatever he found.

Thus he spent a few years working his way into a story, and his result was one of the best selling novels of its time. It was made into a movie and a Broadway production.  He spent a few years crafting the story, and said that most of his novels are written that way.

I am going to make a leap and assume that Doctorow has what Hemingway called a built-in, fool-proof, bullshit detector. As his thoughts lead to story, he sees the problems as they evolve, and can go back and correct them. I assume it’s best to correct as soon after they are composed so that the entire story does not devolve into a mess. But maybe that’s why it took him three years. Still, three years is a bargain for creating a brilliant and entertaining story.

Now, where can I find me one of those bullshit detectors?

Andrew Kersey, Literary Manager

The approach, therefore, should be to build a portfolio of great writing samples to use as calling cards, develop connections with Hollywood professionals who are a good fit with you for creative development, and work with a manager to develop a sustainable game plan.

Andrew Kersey runs Kersey Management, a literary management agency. Andrew was a recent guest on Chris Soth’s “Hollywood By Phone,” which interviews working Hollywood professionals. During the interview, he and Chris discussed how he looks for talent, what genres he prefers, and how one should approach their writing career; this article relates the highlights from that conversation.

Andrew pointed out that it is challenging to make a sale in the spec script market, and that large payouts for spec scripts are rare. When a sale is made, the project can be derailed at any point because of the boom or bust mentality of Hollywood. The approach, therefore, should be to build a portfolio of great writing samples to use as calling cards, develop connections with Hollywood professionals who are a good fit with you for creative development, and work with a manager to develop a sustainable game plan.

As a manager, Andrew’s approach is to help writers hone their pitching skills while developing a sense of the high concepts that will lead to sales. Hollywood is absolutely trend driven, but rather than chasing the zeitgeist, the emerging writer should develop their voice and audience one connection at a time. When creating those great calling cards, hedge your bets by writing scripts that are PG and approach the four-quadrants (appeals to male and female, young and old).

Don’t be discouraged when a script is not picked for a deal, or when it is picked but the deal falters later on. Studios are being asked to spend tens of millions of dollars to develop a movie, and are reluctant to consider a script unless they are convinced it is worthy of such large sums. Every marketable script is an opportunity to develop your career and expand the network of creative connections.

The challenge for writers is to find the networking opportunities that will lead to development opportunities. It’s important to have representation in Los Angeles or New York that is developing connections, mentioning your work, and arranging those initial opportunities. The calling cards can lead to assignments if the pitch skills are there and the creative chemistry is working.

Contests and coverage services serve as an access point for networking opportunities. Resources such as Creative Screenwriting, Fade In, Script Magazine and Script Pipeline provide quality readers that can provide valuable breakdowns of a script to improve it. Andrew often reads for them and, if the voice and craftsmanship is apparent, considers every script as a possible client or a reference to an agent. Andrew prefers to deal with comedy, action-thrillers, and horror.

Andrew looks for succinct and colorful queries: a short introduction and no more than a two-sentence log line. He hopes to be able to envision the finished movie when he hears the log line, and suggests the writer have the movie poster in mind when crafting it.

You can listen to Andrew’s Hollywood By Phone interview at: http://bit.ly/d3GYe2 .

About HollywoodbyPhone.com: Million Dollar Screenwriter Chris Soth, of www.YourScreenplayMentor.com, interviews producers, development executives, agents, managers, attorneys, writers and directors. Live calls are free when you sign up at http://bit.ly/4BH9pf.