Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The wages of buried talents

I was wrong, Spike's Leman. I do understand what it's like to play in someone else's world. It's just been so long ago, I forgot about when it happened to me. Over 30 years ago, no one called it fan fiction. It was watching too much TV.

I was about 21 years old and I never missed an episode of M*A*S*H. I even saw the movie before it became a TV show and I really enjoyed it. I knew the characters inside and out and could tell you what was going to happen on any episode. I'm sure someone would have called me obsessed, but not to my face.

In the midst of one season I got an idea for the show. I wrote it all down, found out where to send it (and to whom) and I sent a rundown of the whole story line in a letter to Larry Gelbart. A few weeks later I received an answer from Mr. Gelbart thanking me for my letter and my idea. He also said he didn't accept unsolicited queries. The following year when the new season started, lo and behold, the story line I had outlined and sent to Mr. Gelbart showed up in the new season. I was furious and hurt. He told me he couldn't use what I sent and there it was on the screen, everything I had written. I learned a hard lesson that day and it has nothing to do with stealing ideas or copyrights. It has to do with playing on someone else's equipment in their playground.

It no longer matters to me whether or not Larry Gelbart took my idea and used it for his show or if we both had the same idea at the same time. What matters is learning from my mistake and sharing that information.

There are many people who write fan fiction and play on someone else's equipment on their playground. Many of those people relate to the characters and enjoy taking them in different directions. A few of those people take the time to carefully research story lines and the information, but they don't think what they write is worth anything so they post it in journals and on private websites for free with the disclaimer that they are not infringing on copyrighted characters, worlds or material. They don't think they have what it takes to create characters and worlds, so they borrow what they love and invest their time and talent in playing on someone else's playground, never realizing they are missing an opportunity that could change their lives. How? By getting paid to play on that playground.

Most television shows are created by a team of writers, overseen by producers, some of whom also write. Good shows sometimes go downhill for lack of creative talent and new directions, and the material they need might be posted on some obscure fan fiction website.

Maybe you don't have what it takes to create characters and situations and believable worlds, but you do know the playground where you spend so much time and talent. Why not take a chance? Do a little more research, find out how to put together a sample speculative script (spec script), where to send it and to whose attention, write the script and send it in. You have nothing to lose but your time and a bit of paper and ink (or electrons). How do you think most of those writers got their start? By learning the guidelines and taking a chance.

You have to begin somewhere, so why not with your favorite show. Even if your script is turned down, provided you followed the rules and guidelines, some bright enterprising producer might see what you can't -- that you have talent and can write. Writers are a commodity we can never have too much of -- as evidenced every time a network pays for a reality television show. So many good shows die from stagnation and lack of good writers.

If I had known what to do and how to approach Larry Gelbart when I was 19, I might have ended up living and working in Hollywood or moved on to writing novels sooner than I did. I had no one to tell me how to do it properly or that there was a proper way. I was married with one child and another on the way. In some parallel universe, the smarter me has been a paid writer for decades, starting with a spec script to Larry Gelbart that earned me a writing credit on M*A*S*H.

Remember the parable about the two servants whose master gave them ten talents? One servant buried his talents and when his master returned his wages for his careful protection of the master's wealth were zero. The wages for the other servant who invested the ten talents and earned many times over that were the profits of his daring. Although the parable doesn't say, I always believed that the smart servant ended up a free man while the other servant remained a servant. Fortune favors the bold.

In other words, take a chance. What do you have to lose? You might end up with nothing or you might end up with a credit on the show where you've buried your talents writing for free. You'll never know if you don't take a deep breath, close your eyes and take the plunge.

That is all. Disperse.

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