Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter

An old friend posted a photo on his Facebook page. The image was of me, Peter Burke, and Steve Werblun caught in mid-stride into a would-be/might-have-been career in screenplay writing. My first impulse was to smile and reflect on the chaotic and fun days. But it also made me squirm a little.

The photo was taken while we were working on a screenplay loosely based on my research for a book about Jack Kirby‘s amazing 52-year career in comic books entitled “The Art of Jack Kirby” (Blue Rose Press). As it turned out, THAT book was the trigger point for many other projects.

A year before the photo, Peter and I started work on Jack Kirby’s unfinished novel, “The Horde” (with permission from Jack and Roz Kirby). Then Peter and I hatched a short-lived deal with Kevin Eastman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) to develop some animated projects inspired by Jack Kirby. Kevin lost interest when his own business deals started to run into trouble.

Soon after the Kirby was published, I found some folks to option a screenplay I wrote about an American land developer who gets lost in Bali but finds his soul. It was a kind of metaphorical journey of my life, I’m sure. After buying a copy of the Kirby book, Brandon Braga invited me to pitch stories to the Star Trek television franchise. I ended up selling one story for ST: Voyager (Time Again) and one for Deep Space Nine (Meridian). Don’t look for my name credit though – I cashed out, which in retrospect was a dumb idea. The writer’s journey is filled with weird little twists and turns, and many potholes.

The Igloo Writers: Peter Burke, Steve Werblun, and me hard at work in Peter's office on Hollywood/Vine. 1993.

Struggling writers: Peter Burke, Steve Werblun, and me hard at work in Peter’s office on Hollywood/Vine. 1993.

In the meantime, as wannabe screenwriters were concerned, we were better off than a lot of others. For one, we each had good day jobs. Peter was a successful music producer and has gone on to work on a few Broadway productions. Steve was a successful storyboard artist, and one of a few artists that worked on the OJ Simpson trial. I was (and today I remain) gainfully employed as a freelancer in public relations and content creation. Well, I’m still working on that “gainfully” part.

Thanks to Peter, we also had a hip place to work: the corner of Hollywood and Vine, 8th floor of the office building known locally as the Hollyvine Building. It lost some of its hipness after they renovated the place; now it’s just trendy.

And yet, despite our many advantages and opportunities, the doors failed to fully open for us. But is that any surprise? The painful reality is that most screenwriters fail. What I mean by that is that the overwhelming majority, something like 90 percent, end up with nothing. Industry lore says that for every screenplay produced, there are 1,000 read and rejected, tens of thousands rejected on the first read, and hundreds of thousands that never even get a chance.

“With odds like that, who in their right mind would try this?” I complained to a friend of mine who was then working as a reader for a production company on Sunset Boulevard.

“Half of being a successful screenwriter is tenacity, the other half is patience,” he replied.

I couldn’t grok patience back then, so I quit and froze out the entire experience from my life. In the glare of hindsight however, I owe the experience so much more. I am the writer that I am today because of the work we did up there in Peter’s office. We busted our butts, and all we got was a bookshelf full of unused screenplays. In the process, I gained skills and so much valuable writing experience. Instead of being grateful, I skeletonized the entire episode of my life and closeted it as an embarrassment.

Meh. I could be so damned shallow sometimes.

Several years ago, I returned to personal writing, partly urged on by a teenage daughter who likes my “funny stories” and who has honed promising writing skills of her own. Yes. A fragment of the old dream has returned. Maybe I’ll pen another non-fiction book; maybe a novel or two.

When I see this photo now, I see writers reaching for unreachable dreams, but I also see friends having a good time. I’ve always had plenty of tenacity, age has earned me some patience. Now I have perspective. The writer’s journey continues.

Thanks for the humble reminder Steve. Thanks Peter, for some terrific lessons.

About: Ray Wyman, Jr is a content creator, communications professional, and author with more than 30 years of experience. Visit LinkedIN or Raywyman.com for more information.



3 responses to “Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter”

  1. kay moreland says:

    I love your writing style, with its sense of irony and more than a small dose of self-deprecation. Since the latter part of my career with the USGS was proofing and editing technical data papers, etc., I look at this piece first through that prism. I hate it, but I do. I can’t help but notice missing words, i.e. “who gets lost Bali”. Also, technical reports are not designed to have readers fill in the blanks, and therefore “A year before the photo, Peter and I started work on Jack Kirby’s unfinished novel, “The Horde.” made me quite curious!: You were able to work on someone’s unfinished novel? How does that work, and did you have to get permission? In the same vein, what ultimately happened to your “Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine” stories? You have successfully invested me in wanting to know the follow-through. So, your intended audience is either one of people who have more knowledge of the world of screenwriting, or, they are just smarter than me. (I think I don’t want to know the answer to that one).
    I had to learn to take off my priggish USGS editing glasses when Joe asked me to proofread his book. (Did you get a copy, Ray?) Anyway, it was filled with folksy charm and lots and lots of quotes. Talk about changing gears!! And from that perspective I’d like to point out my favorite line in your piece: “I skeletonized the entire episode of my life and closeted it as an embarrassment.” Well played. Well played.
    Also, I have taken some things from “Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter”. For example, I am pretty attracted to the word “grok”! (I am already thinking of ways to slip it into my morning walk with Susie who also is a word geek); and I now realize that my closet dream of writing a screenplay – ever since I saw my first “Love Boat” episode – might not pan out the way I might have hoped. (And yes, you are correct in your assessment that perhaps if I were REALLY interested in doing it I would have at least attempted it before age 66). So instead, I will just skip that pesky step and jump forward into writing that Broadway play – which is one of my more ambitious bucket list ideas. I’ll think about it while I enjoy this coffee, and after a nap.
    Loved your article, especially how your ultimate disappointment in not selling a screenplay turned into richer lessons in writing, and in life itself. Based on that, and other things you’ve written, your blog will be nothing short of stellar.

  2. ray_wyman says:

    Gosh Kay. That was really very generous of you to spend so much time on this comment! I was looking at the word count and didn’t want to fill in too much detail, but the unfinished novel (the Horde) was offered to me by Roz Kirby, Jack’s wife. When he passed away, she turned it into a sort of “long term” arrangement. I guess I just lack the “stuff” to really turn a novel. Peter joined me because I was a bit overwhelmed. To this day, I feel so utterly guilty that I haven’t lived up to the promise to finish it. The stories for Star Trek were actually produced. Long story, but one was the second show for ST: Voyager (Time and Again) and the other went to DS9.(Meridian). You will not find my name on the “Story by” credit (alas) because I sold the rights to the story. I was pretty poor at the time; needed the money more than I needed show credits. In retrospect, I see that now as a big mistake – but, as we say, c’est la vie. Thanks again for your very kind words. And thanks for the correction (done!).

  3. kayceelou says:

    To even be asked by the widow of an author to take on that weighty task is a great honor. I would think it would be difficult to take one someone else’s work; no need for guilt! As for your 2 stories, credits would always be gratifying, but the sense that they went as far as they did must make you understandably proud!

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