Saturday, December 10, 2005

Fun With Freelance: How Not to Break In to the Horror Magazine Market: Part One -- Being a Chronology of Some Length, Concerning That Which Did Not "Work Out," to the Loss of Only the Author, Punctuated with Some Fits of Humour and Passages of Slight Sorrow, and Ending Without Resolution, Save for Dissolution.

As a freelancer with one year shy of three decades under my belt, I've many a tale to tell, and in time some of them will be told here. I thought I'd share with you my recent (2004) misadventure with one of the few slick horror mags on the newsstand, if only to demonstrate that (1) having "credentials" adds up to squat, save for flattery, and (2) even the best intentions and most diplomatic of exchanges may indeed add up to squat. Neither of which is the 'moral' of the story, because as far as I can ascertain the only moral is the usual: the gigs go to the bullpen writers and/or friends of the editor, however outgoing, forthcoming, and accomodating one tries to be.

'Cold call' submissions used to be a rather clumsy exercise, involving either literal 'cold calls' via telephone accompanied, preceded, or followed by a 'cold' (unsolicited) submission via snail-mail. Email and the internet has made this a far less clumsy process, in that one can submit introductory letter and submission all at once in a close enough proximity to real time that both author and editor can see through the transaction quickly and with greater efficiency than before. This avoids wasting time for either party, and if the end result is rejection, it's over quickly for all concerned. This is a good thing in all ways, as nothing is worse (for either party) than the mounting of false expectations -- but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here.

Having edited and published as well as freelanced over my years in the biz, I've been on all sides of the process. As an editor, this occasionally yields some delightful material amid the 'slushpile' -- the industry term for the heaps of unsolicited material that inevitably arrives and accumulates, however diligently one attends to the daily mail. 'Slushpile' also succinctly describes the nature of much unsolicited material that arrives, so I knew from experience (again, on both sides) that my best 'cold call' effort should always include a coherent, comprehensive introductory letter. Having a few credits to my name, it can't and usually doesn't hurt.

That said, it's extremely rare that I 'coldcall' any longer. Thankfully, work offers arrive often enough to carry me over most months, even with me saying 'no' to almost 100% of the comics-related inquiries. The rare exception comes, usually, when I find myself quite enjoying a given publication with some regularity, and thinking (in my weak moments), "Hey, maybe it would be fun and/or profitable to write something for these folks, see if they'd have me aboard."

Which leads me to this narrative, which I will relay to you as a chronology of exchanges -- as it happened.

In the spirit of protecting the guilty, however innocent, I'll not indulge names -- only dates -- unless it's to do with my efforts from my end of the exchange. I'll also keep my quoting emails from the magazine editor to a minimum, just including enough to cover the chronology of events.
__

It began with a phone call, which seemed to have been received warmly.

Having thus broken the ice, the phone conversation was followed immediately by an email, and an attached, complete 'cold' submission:
____

From: Marge & Steve Bissette [mailto:msbissette@yahoo.com]
Sent: October 21, 2003 4:35 PM
To: -----
Subject: Steve Bissette following up phone call w/review for GHOSTS

Dear ------,

Hope this finds you both well. Steve Bissette here, the fellow who drew Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, co-created and co-published Taboo, and did everything on Tyrant and SpiderBaby Comix while writing for Deep Red, Video Watchdog, Ecco, Fangoria, Gorezone and many other zines. Forgive the blunt American
aggression, but I'm eager to contribute to your fine zine.

As a longtime reader of --------, I'm being a bit bold here and contacting you both out-of-the-blue with a review submission. I recently had the opportunity to see Stefan Avalos' The Ghosts of Edendale, and am hoping to find a suitable home for my review.

I'm attaching it as a text document and cut-and-pasting it into this letter, below. I'm no shill for the filmmakers, but I do love the film. I have taken the precaution of ensuring they could provide photos and such if you accept this submission: contact ________ at _________ or at: [email contact]

If you don't pick this up, no sweat. Just let me know what you're take is; I'm offering it to -------- first, and hope to keep my foot in the door for more writing, if you're open to such a thing.

My contact info:

[contact info followed]

Thanks!

All the best, always,

Steve B

______

Here's the complete original review I sent along, with no idea of the magazine's parameters (word count, etc.) -- just placing something complete into their hands, as strong a first volley as an author can give:
________

THE GHOSTS OF EDENDALE (2003)

The California Gold Rush never ended. Evocative yarns of dead ‘old Los Angeles’ spreading its clammy presence into ‘new Los Angeles’ are as old as the Hollywood hills, spawning non-supernatural noirs (CHINATOWN), geriatric gothics (SUNSET BOULEVARD, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, etc.), bewitching nightmares (the THRILLER episode “A Wig for Miss DeVore,” MULHOLLAND DRIVE), and at least one bonafide literary classic, Nathaniel West’s “The Day of the Locust.” There’s ghosts and ‘bad fuggums’ (to quote Captain Beefheart) in them thar hills, and they’re forever hungry to reclaim lost glories, withered beauty, and squandered youth. ‘They’ feed on irrational dreams of untapped riches, elevating celebrity, and virtual immortality that draws generation after generation to Tinseltown likes incendiary moths to the flame. And like moths, the intimate apocalypses that most often result provide the brief, fleeting spectacle of lives, loves, and dreams gone up in spirals of smoke.

Building on the accomplishments of his debut feature THE MONEY GAME (aka THE GAME, 1994) and his collaborative work with Lance Weiler on the pioneer digital feature THE LAST BROADCAST (1998), writer-director-editor Stefan Avalos crafts his own spin on this archetype with the eerie, unsettling THE GHOSTS OF EDENDALE. Basing his latest feature on uncanny personal experience -- GHOSTS is set in Avalos’ adopted L.A. neighborhood, filmed in his own home -- and working hand-in-hand with producer Marianne Connor (IMPRESSIONS OF JORDAN, TIME ‘TIL LIGHT) and a most capable cast and production team, Avalos once again embraces digital technology to mount an chilling gem which taps an almost-palpable, suffocating sense of dread.

We first meet Kevin (Stephen Wastell, of THE MONEY GAME and THE MINER’S MASSACRE) and Rachel (Paula Ficara) as they move into their ‘dream house’ in old Hollywood’s historic Edendale, the bedrock of the movie capital’s silent-era beginnings. Their plan is to tap the promised wellsprings, writing and selling screenplays to carve out a new life for themselves, far from a fleetingly-sketched troubled past in the East. Kevin cottons immediately to the place, intrigued by its history and happy to find all their neighbors (including Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, the masterminds behind the documentaries THE HAMSTER FACTOR AND OTHER TALES OF TWELVE MONKEYS and LOST IN LA MANCHA) share his interests in working on and in the movies. Rachel, however, is almost immediately confronted with a ‘second sight’ of Edendale’s underbelly, and it is her swelling fear which shapes our own experience.

True to its chosen genre, Avalos walks a narrative tightrope between madness and the atavistic fear of the dead reawakening -- is all that we see on the screen a genuine eruption of evil forces at work, or evidence of Rachel’s slow spiral into insanity? -- and he leads us by the hand to the end of that wire with assurance and skill. Though Avalos eschews graphic violence, there are a number of quiet but very real jolts (none more jarring than the first, which I won’t betray here), but GHOSTS is shaped above all by an exquisitely realized sense of being cast adrift in a consumptive, all-devouring environment that others seem to thrive upon, and the fearful realization that one might not escape intact -- if at all. The steady slide from the inviting patio-parties and steamy hot tubs of sunny L.A. into the tangible malignancy of the avaricious rooms, homes, and streets is lovingly detailed by cinematographer/videographer Lukas Ettlin, whose work is cannily ‘corrupted’ by Scott Hale’s palette of visual effects, in which flesh can quiver into rot with the subtle shift of an eyebrow or deepening of a shadow. Vincent Gillioz’s score is the black icing on the cake, smooth, slippery, and insidious.

There are, to be sure, echoes of older genre works here, including almost-forgotten cinematic sleepers like LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and EYES OF FIRE. While the catalyst of GHOSTS is venerable indeed -- tales entangling possessive spirits, ‘magick’ and madness date back to the Hebrew ‘dybbuk,’ the contemporary template arguably established with Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” -- the fresh orientation Avalos brings to GHOSTS is deceptively pragmatic, easing into a parable that charts the black heart of the contemporary fringe-Hollywood scene.

As the couple settle into their new home, cozily sharing their creative work space with chair backs practically touching, the widening rift between them is defined in part by the deadening writer’s block one suffers while the other savors a rush of productivity. Jealousy flares, fueling Rachel’s growing distress and certainty that something is terribly amiss.

The steady tapping of the keyboard becomes as violative as the overt manifestations of demonic children, sentient woodwork, and fleeting specters, and the absurdity of the coveted muse (“channeling” a by-the-numbers script for a western as old as, well, Tom Mix) embodies GHOSTS OF EDENDALE’s malignant forces at work. In stark contrast to the repetitive rant-manuscript of Jack Nicholson’s aspiring author in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, Kevin’s script is -- damn it! -- praised and embraced by the unseen powers-that-be, optioned, and quickly opens doors that remain frustratingly out-of-reach to others... including Rachel.

Surely, the productive partner must be possessed: what else could explain the unnatural ability to create in a conceptually-bankrupt, culturally-impoverished city where “properly-channeled” (read: recycled) creativity is the coin of the realm?

Whatever possesses Avalos and Connor and their partners in crime, let’s hope we see more manifestations of their creative chemistry -- and soon.

- Stephen R. Bissette
(c) 2003

_____

That, by the way, is 905 words complete -- I figured it was too long for the zine, but I have no problem re-writing, revising or editing material down to length. I used to (just ask editors like Chas Balun, Tim Lucas, Steve Murphy or Mike Dobbs), but my two-plus years of writing a weekly video review column for local newspapers taught me the art of revision, compression and compromise, and to accept editorial cuts whenever necessary.

To that end, I also sent along (prior to receiving a reply) a shorter review, which clocks in at 481 words:
_____

THE GHOSTS OF EDENDALE (2003)

The California Gold Rush never ended. Tales of dead ‘old Los Angeles’ spreading its clammy presence into ‘new Los Angeles’ are as old as the Hollywood hills. There’s ghosts in them thar hills, feeding on irrational dreams of wealth, celebrity, and virtual immortality that draws generation after generation to fame or ignoble obscurity. Writer-director-editor Stefan Avalos (THE MONEY GAME, 1994; THE LAST BROADCAST, 1998, co-directed by Lance Weiler) resurrects the archetype with the eerie, unsettling THE GHOSTS OF EDENDALE. Set in his adopted L.A. neighborhood and filmed in his own home, Avalos and producer Marianne Connor (IMPRESSIONS OF JORDAN, TIME ‘TIL LIGHT) craft a chilling gem.

Kevin (Stephen Wastell of THE MONEY GAME, THE MINER’S MASSACRE) and Rachel (Paula Ficara) find their ‘dream house’ in historic Edendale, bedrock of the movie capital, planning to write screenplays to build a new life far from a sketchy past back East. Kevin is intrigued by their new home’s history and happy to find their neighbors (including Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, makers of THE HAMSTER FACTOR AND OTHER TALES OF TWELVE MONKEYS and LOST IN LA MANCHA) also work in movies. Rachel, however, suffers ‘second sight’ of Edendale’s underbelly, and her suffocating dread shapes the film.

True to its genre, GHOSTS walks a tightrope between madness and fear of the dead reawakening -- is all that we see truly evil forces at work, or Rachel’s spiral into insanity? -- with assurance and skill. Punctuated by quiet but very real jolts (none more jarring than the first), GHOSTS evokes the horror of being cast adrift in a consumptive, all-devouring environment that others thrive upon. The steady slide from patio-parties and hot tubs into malignant, avaricious environments is detailed by cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, ‘corrupted’ by Scott Hale’s visual effects (flesh quivers into rot with the shift of an eyebrow), and Vincent Gillioz’s insidious score is black icing on the cake.

There are echoes of older genre works here (LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, EYES OF FIRE, THE SHINING); possessive spirits date back to the Hebrew ‘dybbuk,’ the contemporary template established with Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” But Avalos’ orientation is deceptively pragmatic, offering a parable of the fringe-Hollywood scene. These ghosts pitch Rachel’s deadening writer’s block against Kevin’s rush of productivity. The tapping of the keyboard becomes as violative as the specters, and the absurdity of the coveted muse (“channeling” a by-the-numbers script for a western as old as, well, Tom Mix) embodies GHOSTS’s malignant terrors. Surely, the productive partner must be possessed: what else could explain the unnatural ability to create in a city where “properly-channeled” (read: recycled) creativity is the coin of the realm?

Whatever possesses Avalos and Connor and their partners in crime, let’s hope we see more manifestations of their creative chemistry -- and soon.

- Stephen R. Bissette
(c) 2003

______

So, anyway, that was the initial exchange.

Here's the initial response from the editor (edited only to remove identification):
__

From: -----------------
To: "'Marge & Steve Bissette'"
Subject: RE: Steve Bissette following up phone call w/review for GHOSTS
Date: Wed, 22 Oct 2003 12:35:59 -0400

Hi Steve!

No worries about the cold call. We don't usually accept them but in your case, we'll make an exception. ;) Thank you for the review. I've read it and it's quite good but far too long for our ------
section; the word count for reviews there is 350 words, unless it is a major, much-anticipated release. I understand if you don't want to cut your review down to a third of its size but unfortunately you'll have to if we run it in the mag. If you want to keep it intact and offer someone else the review that's totally fine, and submit something else (that's 350) to me in the future that would be great! I'd love to add you to our roster of freelancers. LOVE your artwork by the way... you are hugely talented. You don't happen to have any Swamp Thing art prints for sale do you? It would look great at the ------- mansion.

_______

Not a bad start, I thought.

Stupid me.

I sent out a care package of my comics, all signed/personalized, and replied immediately, attaching a 345 word rewrite of my review:
_______

Howdy, ------,

THANK YOU for the prompt reply, and thanks for excusing the 'cold call.' Didn't see how else to proceed, and glad I didn't offend.

Happy to revise the review to fit your needs, and save the long version for other uses. You open for that?

Also -- happy to interview [the filmmakers], IF you're interested. [I also suggested a related article and interview with a relevent filmmaker.] Just a thought.

I'd love to write for you folks -- and now that I've got both your name and address and ----'s, I'll grease the wheels a bit with some gift packs of comics and prints via snail mail. Hey, tis the season.

All the best, look forward to your reply,

Steve B

_____

And here's the initial condensation and rewrite:
_____

THE GHOSTS OF EDENDALE (2003) haunt Hollywood’s most venerable bedrock neighborhood. The malingering spirits of silent-movie ‘days gone by’ seep like waterstains from the walls and fences as Kevin (Stephen Wastell of THE MINER'S MASSACRE) and Rachel (Paula Ficara of EL CHUPACABRA) move into their 'dream house' to build a new life (far from a sketchy past “back East”) writing screenplays. The fissures in their cozy creative domesticity manifest with the titular ghosts: Kevin loves their new home, its history, and the odd neighbors who make movies, and immediately begins cranking out a saleable script. Rachel, alas, can’t write a workable page and alone sees Edendale's underbelly as ‘it’ possesses hubby.

Set and filmed in his adopted L.A. neighborhood, this is writer/director Stefan Avalos’s follow-up to the pioneer digital chiller THE LAST BROADCAST (1998, co-directed by Lance Weiler). Extending the potential of the medium, Avalos and producer Marianne Connor craft a chilling gem that deservedly won the Silver Lake Award at the Silver Lake Film Festival in September, 2003; on the heels of its festival and theatrical play, MTI releases GHOSTS on video/DVD in August. Echoing LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (Rachel’s suffocating dread shapes the film) and Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," GHOSTS delineates the quiet horror of a consumptive, all-devouring environment. The insidious slide from patio-parties and hot tubs into madness is populated by fleetingly-glimpsed specters (none more startling than the first, erupting from a closet) and the quiver of flesh into rot with the lift of an eyebrow. Thus, GHOSTS is a film of subtleties, sans bloodshed: not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but taken on its own understated terms it’s a treat. As in THE LAST BROADCAST, Avalos' orientation to the genre is deceptively pragmatic. In the end, GHOSTS is a telling parable of the fringe-Hollywood scene. Surely, Kevin is possessed: what else could explain his churning out a vapid script so perfectly suited to contemporary Hollywood’s impoverished creative marketplace? GHOSTS is a fresh of fresh fetid air to all but the most ravenous gorehounds, and highly recommended.

______

What followed was a long stretch -- weeks -- of silence.

[To Be Continued...]

6 Comments:

Blogger heath lail said...

Steve,

How can you sleep at night, knowing you are leaving people like me with such an interesting cliffhanger? Oh well, guess I'll have to read up tomorrow and find out. Hope all is well with you and yours, thanks for the reply e-mail.

H

12/11/2005  
Blogger yesdear said...

waiting for the rest of the story . had a nice visit....

12/11/2005  
Blogger Mike Dobbs said...

I love hearing – or reading – these stories as many people who haven't tried freelancing their work unfortunately have little idea just how difficult it is to get someone's attention and THEN be treated fairly.

Years ago, I read that Ray Bradbury still received rejection notices and I was amazed. After all he is Ray Frickin' Bradbury. Shouldn't his name just open doors?

The fact is that despite the merits of the piece and the reputation of the creator, the ultimate decision is in the hands of someone who quite probably can not draw or write or think as creatively as his or her contributors. The only thing they have is an ego and they need to exercise it.

By the way what happened to your Sunday post? And yes I have a fresh post on my blog. If folks want to read it, it can be found at http://outoftheinkwell.blogspot.com/.

Love ya!

12/11/2005  
Blogger HB3 said...

This is classic -- more, more!

You were right on track until you made the mistake of being nice. I can't believe you don't understand reverse psychology!

12/11/2005  
Blogger SRBissette said...

Reverse psychology? Hey, it even richer -- I just posted part two, check it out.

12/11/2005  
Blogger bdefer said...

Steve,

You left a name at the beginning of one of the emails.

12/12/2005  

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