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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You’re Leaving There Too Soon

You talkin' to me?

Two summers ago, Irwin Winkler became interested in my screenplay, Sugar Mountain. Over a six week period, he gave me notes and expected me to turn them around in a week, which I dutifully did, gleefully did. I didn’t agree with all the notes, and when I bravely objected once or twice he disarmingly replied, “Give it a try.” It was impossible to refute. I was old enough to appreciate what I came to feel was a master class in screenwriting. Irwin, in essence, taught me action.

At the end of the six weeks, his assistant called and asked if I could meet Irwin, now back from Capri, at this apartment in the Pierre. Okay. We spent one hour together going over the script. As he thumbed through it, he suggested a few more tweaks. One or twice he said something like, nice job.  I would send in the cleaned up draft and he would send it to the actor for whom he had it in mind. Someone, by the way, who I always felt was wrong for the part, but if Irwin wanted Charlie the Tuna to play my lead male, that would have been hunky dory with moi.

When I left the apartment that night, Irwin shook my hand. “One question,” he said, “Sugar Mountain, what does it mean?”

Obviously it didn’t go anywhere. I sent it to a bunch of other producers. One nibble, enough to start crafting my academy award speech once again. Then, silence. This post is dedicated to close calls. Do they kill you or make you stronger?

30 Responses

  1. “You made our short list; but we aren’t buying it.”
    Twice that happened, with two top publishers.
    My then-husband said the only reason I kept getting that far was because everyone wanted a Harry Potter clone. It was a YA fantasy, but nothing like Harry Potter.
    Success was going to buy me the freedom out of my marriage.
    I got out of it anyway, but without the financial security and emotional optimism of a sale.

  2. Oh, we could talk about close calls. And – as far as I’m concerned – they are a godsend, for innumerable reasons.

  3. Kills me. Then I come back to life.

    Tami Hoag’s editor sent me all of her backlist, along with all of Lisa Gardner and Bethany Campbell and said, “Make your book like these.” This was back in the day, before there were so many serial killer books, if there were that many serial killers, we’d be related to half a dozen. Mine was based on the nine circles of Hell. Loved that ms. So did the editor. But I was young and too eager and way too stupid – also with an agent that didn’t clue me in to just how way awesome it was to get a box of books from an editor. I didn’t call the editor, because I was too unassertive, too afraid of ‘bothering’ her. I dashed off some revisions within a couple of weeks – should have taken 3 months and rewritten large chunks – and she rejected it, saying I missed the mark & good luck somewhere else.

    It was actually a few years later, when I was older and wiser, that I understood just how bad I fucked that up. Sure, even if I’d rewritten, called her, had a clue, she still may have said no. But knowing I never had a chance because I was stupid is a bitter pill. The agent I’m with now would drive to Texas and beat the crap out of me, thus saving me from my own ignorance.

  4. Kills me. Or shoul I say, is killing me. Got the bad news on Friday.

  5. Many close calls. But I at least have to thnak those agents who actually told me no, rather than having to confront a wall of silence. Three months of working with me, revising, and finally sending in revision when the agent said”I think you;ve got it!” and nothing, no response to emails. I never all an agent. “I’m sorru but agent missy is out of the office,” “I’m sorry by Mr. sjotsticltp his pants is in a meeting.” Oh, the loss of humanity extends to literary agents, and I’m talking abut wome of the big who-haas.
    (Not, you Betsy. You are one of the rare ethical agents.
    a throwback, a person among ants, you would have made Max proud.

  6. A great story–thanks for sharing it.

    I always come back to the dating analogy when it comes to these experiences–maybe I’m just doggedly and foolishly stubborn, but after every heartbreak, I have about ten seconds of saying “That’s it, I’m done, no more”–and invariably, eleven seconds later, I’m imagining love again. Same with submissions, every time. I thought the closer I got to the offer before it ended with a rejection, the less likely I’d be up for a return to the challenge. But the alternative was simply not an option. Live without love or live without writing? Hell, no.

    So to answer your question, I think it does both–wrecks and strengthens.

  7. I think when you’re starting out close calls are important and you look for them (that’s me right now). But I imagine once you’ve been at it a while you don’t believe in them anymore. They either want your piece (novel, screenplay) or not. Notice I didn’t say “they either want you or not”. Because that’s the lesson isn’t it? They’re not buying YOU, just your work. For now, here’s to as many close calls as I can get.

  8. I have no idea. I fell off the no coffee wagon this morning and am suffering a caffeine induced mania. But I’m a firm believer in asking why.

  9. When they don’t get something as basic as your title, it makes you wonder how they could have come so far. When you’re invited into an office for revisions, it makes you wonder why it didn’t go further. When they’ve spent so much time on your work, why didn’t they continue just a little further? The answers I usually get have to do with today’s market. But what beautiful letters I have to show how close I’ve come. Yes, these are the letters that make me die a little every time; they kill a part of me. But I keep going and that’s what makes me stronger. I’ve got no choice. I feel very strong in my resolve.

  10. A close call means, “Don’t worry, you didn’t fall through the cracks–we spent a great deal of time quantifying the precise value of your work, and finally arrived at a number: zero.”

  11. Both. I could stand a little less of the getting killed part, which only leads to I’m-too-old-to-do-this-nobody-likes-me-everybody-hates-me-I’ll-just-go-eat-worms syndrome. Still, I persevere, because I might just be too dumb to quit.

  12. They both kill and make me stronger. The sting at first can be heartbreaking. But in time you shuck it off and then brush yourself off and move on. This writing business is not for the faint of heart, the weak of mind, the timid of spirit. Rejection is the mountain you must climb time and time again. Sisyphus has nothing on the writer.

  13. I’ve had lots of requests to read my mss, but I don’t think I’ve had many close calls (reading between the lines of rejection letters). I did have one ms go as far as an editorial meeting (after a revision) and it was ultimately rejected, but the premise of that story was always a bit tricky. I think it’s important to move on and write new novels/screenplays etc. If you’ve had a close call, that’s a good sign….

  14. Jeeze. Any story I have about a close call is going to look really puny compared to your close call with Irwin Winkler. THE Irwin Winkler. IN THE PIERRE. But I have a monumental lack of perspective when it comes to my own tales of woe so here’s my story:

    In the mid-’80s I was making hand-made maps as a hobby (I was working two jobs in retail; one job in retail is enough to make you hate the world, by the way). I sent some photos of my maps to the Arts and Leisure editor of the New York Times and she called me up and told me she loved them (and, as I understood her, ME! She loved ME!) and she wanted to do an article about me and my maps and she sent an NYT photographer to my apartment and he shot a roll of film. The editor kept assuring me that the article was “scheduled”. Well, the article that was to make me a New York Art Star never ran. And that’s when I became appalled and personaly insulted with what passed as “art” in the pages of the New York Times which grew into a life-long loathing of anyone in a paint-splattered T-shirt and intentionally ugly eyeglasses and creative hair. So yeah, my close call did make me a better, happier, kinder, and more loving person. Thank you for reminding me.

    • Just got an email from my “literary” cousin, Aunt Viv’s grandaughter. She doesn’t remember Aunt Viv’s birthday, but her brother had a baby, named her Vivienne after Aunt Viv, and TODAY is her first birthday! Not sure what this has to do with close calls, but it feels very close!

  15. I’ve had several editors take my stuff to the dreaded editorial board, but those editors had less clout than was necessary to push it through. I got numb after a few of these.

    I have been doing serious querying for a new agent and discovered a new rejection that tops the affront of the “Dear Author” form letter/post card/email. I call it “The Exception Rejection.” I won’t clog up this blog with the whole rant, but it’s available at http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/billstephens

  16. Close calls? God, I could write a book on the subject.

    Would someone buy that?

  17. Kills me. I’d like to say makes me stronger, that I get the next day and bang out another edit; but the last hard rejection hit me hard enough that it took me two months to fully get over it. I got a lot out of it and handled it like a professional (by which I mean no outbursts, cranky emails, or heavy drinking binges). The feedback that came with the rejection proved super-useful, and I’ve just completed an edit incorporating all the parts I agreed with. But I felt like I’d gotten so close that time that it nearly KO’d me. My skin is thicker for it, and the book is out for beta reading before I query again. So as my grandma used to say in her thick Oklahoma drawl: “Let the beatings commence!”

  18. Dear Bill: I agree and have experienced all you have written. I would like to add this: notice that our queries are not read by the agent; ithey are either read by an intern – working on a BA in English – or hired readers. A few agents now have to make a point on their sites that they indeed read queries themselves. Even now, your manuscript is read by readers. How in the world can an agent be”enthusiastic” about your work “if I represent it” when he/she hasn’t even read it.
    We continue with this insanity, and I am hoping that The American Psychiatric Association comes up with a name for our compulsion/obsession. Maybe, Delirium ex facto.

  19. A young editor told my agent that she loved the ms, couldn’t put it down and was getting second reads on it. My agent told me not to bust out the champagne just yet as second reads were crucial. And indeed in this case crucial meant ‘no go’. At the time it killed me because I was so close I could taste it but with time I’ve come to appreciate the fact that my work was even a contender. After all, that editor will still be there (hopefully) when I send the next one out. There were a handful of other editors who asked to see anything else I wrote in the future which, while not exactly a close call, I found encouraging.

    I think I would feel differently about this sort of feedback if it were then tenth- as opposed to the first- book I was trying to get published.

  20. I’d rather come in tenth than second. As long as tenth wasn’t last.

  21. Agent who sent me a letter that was a glowing, fawning acceptance until the last line (“However….”). So very glad she didn’t try to convince herself. If she didn’t believe in my book fully, it would have ended badly for everyone.

    Agent who called and was on the fence. Said the book needed “a lot of work” (it didn’t). Clearly wanted me to convince her to take me on. I didn’t. See above.

    Big Hollywood honcho, a Mr. #2, who loved loved loved my book, so gorgeous, blah blah blah, and wanted to option it and just had to talk to Mr. #1 and then Mr. #1 would call us on Monday. Of course never heard a word again. Vital lesson in how Hollywood works (or doesn’t). Boulder of salt now travels with me at all times.

  22. Agents who string writers along after they say they will call on Tuesday are characters in Gogol’s Dead Souls
    “…the writer who, after passing by characters that are tedious, repulsive, overwhelming in their sad actuality…”

  23. Almost cannot avail;

    Almost is but to fail.

    Sad, sad, that bitter wail Almost – but lost!”

  24. Screenplays are buried children. Nobody talks about them, unless someone important appears to unearth them. However, they are also indestructible. My screenplay was dead in the water for five years! until recently after I attended a screening of a movie produced by an acquaintance. When he sent me an email thanking me for coming, I spontaneously replied with my screenplay attached. Now he wants to produce it. I looked at it (I hadn’t read it in four years) and realized that it hadn’t aged and still felt relevant. Except the parts that were rusty when I wrote it, remained with the same degree of rust. I don’t know if it will get made, but it’s now seeing the light of day after living in a tomb.

    It made me start to feel sad for all that I had written and then given up on. But now I know that for writers, it’s not over till it’s over…and even when we’re dead, it’s still not over.

  25. Close calls are deadly. Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve – no one wants to be that person. We all want to be the one who got it, did it, made it. And all that stuff about a positive initial response being a good sign and a huge compliment? Codswallop. It’s like some guy getting a girl’s hopes up by flirting with you, then never actually following it up. Who needs it?

  26. You have to love close calls, they are similar to bad days. You have a quota and once you meet your quota then you are done so view this as being one step closer to the great call. View your bad days as being one step closer to your great days and once you put it out there before you know it you made it!

  27. Two books optioned for TV. One went through a lot of hoops that involved Rodgers and Hammerstein and heirs to Maria Von Trappe. It got close, sort of. The production company changed hands, changed names, the option ran out, was renewed. Dragged on for years, then died with a whimper. I still get production companies contacting me. I no longer get excited. So much can happen . . . it’s a miracle any book makes it to TV or the movies.

  28. I wrote, produced, and acted in a movie about one woman’s search for the perfect therapist.


    The central therapist character, a narcissistic self-absorbed woman, was based on my real life therapist who I have now known for 12 years. She can’t stop talking about it. She has also read the screenplay based on the short film (which parodies the whole recovery self-help movement in LA…anyone?) and has read my book about salsa dancing. There are a few sessions in there.

    There are few richer mines for material than a therapy session. If it were up to me, every character I write would have a therapist, but I can’t force anyone (real or fictitious) to get their ass on the couch.

    I could go on about this…but I already have…

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