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When Fantasy Was the F Word and I was Effed

Here’s a piece I wrote for The Quivering Pen about my first time selling my own writing. Excuse any remnants of self-pity.

The First Time I Sold My Very Own Writing

by Clark Thomas Carlton

It was over 20 years ago that I finished a screenplay titled The Sorcerer’s Protege which was an update of Goethe’s poem,The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, itself the basis of a beloved segment of Disney’s Fantasia. In my screenplay, a boy with a striking birthmark learns from the school doctor that he is a sorcerer as well as the son of one murdered by an evil wizard. The doctor is himself a master sorcerer as well as a secret guardian standing against the threat of evil mages, wizards and witches. While the master is away at an intergalactic magic convention, his new protege (they decide ‘apprentice’ is an old fashioned term) breaks the rules about visible magic and enchants a gas powered lawnmower to cut the grass on its own. Miscast spells to stop the lawnmower end up multiplying them by the hundreds. Another spell expands the mowers to the size of school buses that tear up the town during a football game. Amidst the chaos, the evil wizard escapes his spell cage in the fifth dimension to exact vengeance on the sorcerer that imprisoned him — and kill his protege.

Does any of that sound familiar?

My agent submitted this screenplay to all the studios and as with previous submissions, she was told the writing was good but “there is no market for fantasy in Hollywood.” The fantasy genre, after the failure of movies like Legend and Labyrinth was known “as the F word.” A year later, some Successful Screenwriting Friends called to tell me they had taken a meeting on adapting a sensational new novel called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Clark,” one of the friends said to me, “It’s going to be huge and it’s so much like that script you wrote. You were on the right track, keep going!”

Well … there is only so much satisfaction in being ahead of the curve. It certainly didn’t pay my dental bills. I need not tell you that Ms. Rowling’s book was a cosmic success and so was its film franchise. In 2010, a contemporary version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was released starring Jay Baruchel and Nick Cage. As for The Sorcerer’s Protege, it joined my other original screenplays on the Shelf of the Unknowns where it could dutifully collect dust and became a fine home for silverfish. Maybe I should have written it first as a novel, I thought.

I continued to work as a script doctor and ghost writer on Other People’s Stuff. Producers and execs liked my screenplays but they had their own projects that “needed some work.” Half of those scripts were for projects we refer to as “corpse lipstick,” shorthand for the expression, “You can’t bring a corpse to life but you can put a little lipstick on it.” My name is off all of those corpse lipsticks but one, something I am grateful for. Some other worthy screenplays I worked on were never produced and went like virgins in tattered wedding gowns on a slow walk to their graves.

I’m not an objectivist and detest the “greed is good” philosophy of Ayn Rand, but it was after reading The Fountainhead with its depiction of Howard Roark as an uncompromising architect that I decided to write to please myself. A play, Self Help, was a controversial success and performed each night exactly as it was written. It was a satire of the psychotherapy industry and didn’t make me a penny but it ran for a year and upset some psychotherapists — all very gratifying. Self Help led to some better paying assignments which included work in t.v., some adaptations of novels for the screen as well as a novelization of a movie by those Successful Screenwriting Friends. But once again I was working on Other People’s Stuff. I needed to write my own novel, a passion project which had been fermenting for a decade. To do that, I stopped taking assignments and applied as manager to the landlord of my 1920s apartment complex, a place in Hollywood where Nathaniel West might have penned Day of the Locust.

The idea for my novel had come years before when I was vacationing near a Mayan ruin. While snacking poolside on some Spanish peanuts, one of them rolled under a chaise lounge. Minutes later, I witnessed two different kinds of ants battling over the lost goober and I had a vivid memory of the hours I spent as a child watching red and black ants war on each other. The following morning, I woke from a dream of a future Earth where humans had evolved to the size of insects and had intertwined with their world — tiny little men were riding on the backs of black and red ants into battle. The novel, titled Prophets of the Ghost Ants, would encompass my fascinations with evolutionary biology and the psychology of religion as well as examine the nature of human hierarchies and racism. Industry friends said it sounded very cinematic and that I should write it as a screenplay — but I had learned my lesson. No one ever sits at home and says, “I think I’ll read a great screenplay that was never produced.”

But lots of people — like me — love to read novels.

Those Successful Screen Writing friends read the first draft of Ghost Ants, optioned it, and brought on board an Oscar winning producer to turn my novel into a film series. The story analysts at the studios were very kind and compared me to Tolkien and Jean Auel. Really? Wow! We had meetings with a very successful director who was looking for “my own Avatar.” There were a few legal scuffles over video game rights but it was all on track. Until it wasn’t. Part of the problem was that the novel was unpublished — “why is that?” asked the studio execs. My manuscript sat for two years on the desks of two of the Big Five with neither a yay or a nay who worried that it “straddled genres” and was more of a literary fantasy than science-fiction. An offer finally came but my lit agent wasn’t able to seal the deal and it was withdrawn. The years passed. Ghost Ants would be joining all my screenplays on the Shelf of the Unknowns. The job as apartment manager evolved into a property management company — I never imagined I had a talent for business. All I ever wanted to sell was my writing.

Self-publishing seemed like a compromise but Amazon was offering a service through Create Space and the Kindle Direct Program. Indie authors were using social media to promote their work and some of them, including Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking, were doing quite well. Determined that someone — anyone — should read my book, I self-published. Prophets of the Ghost Ants never went viral, but a review from Kirkus was good and they chose it as one of their Best Books of 2011. Some other authors read it and raved about it and then it was picked as the group read of Apocalypse Whenever, the largest online book club at Goodreads.

Gratifying, yes. My novel had a small but enthusiastic readership.  I was following in the paths of Joyce, Twain and Dumas among others who had self-published, but there were still readers who would never consider my book since it wasn’t “legit.” A few years later, the book continued to sell steadily if unspectacularly. From out of cyberspace, an offer came from a publisher in Europe who sent me an advance and translated it into German. Even though I wouldn’t be able to read Die Geisterameisen Von Hulkren, I had sold my very own writing. And then came two emails from Amazon, both automatically generated after so many copies were sold. One was to acquire my novel for their own sci-fi/fantasy imprint, N47. The second was an offer to produce and release an audio version. The editor-in-chief at N47, David Pomerico, was moving over to Harper Collins Voyager and he remembered my book. David offered to acquire it for Harper and commission its sequels.

Ghost Ants’ “legit” publication has revived its screen prospects and one producer’s interesting idea is to serialize it for cable since Game of Thrones and Harry Potter are proof that there is just the slightest bit of a market for fantasy in Hollywood. That would be, well, fantastic — I could be creative all day and stop worrying about Other People’s Toilets. In the meantime, I’m still waiting to go viral, but I’ve got a new Shelf of the Knowns with one published book and the sequel coming out on 4/23/19, The Prophet of the Termite God.   One thing I might do when my sequels are completed is take some of those dusty, silverfishy screenplays off the Shelf of Unknowns and turn them into novels.

Or maybe I’ll hire someone else to do it.

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Prophets of the Ghost Ants is available at Amazon
Coming April 2019 – click here to pre-order it on Amazon

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