On Reshaping Your Story
Nearly a decade ago, I spent several months in Los Angeles, trying to sell a project I called (at the time) HERE, BE DRAGONS as the foundation of a movie franchise, but with little success. It had been more than six weeks of waiting by the phone in cheaper and cheaper motels (then waiting by the phone while crashing on friends’ couches) before I even got my first meeting, which went okay but not great; and the few meetings I managed to arrange over the several weeks after that bore as little fruit.
I was completely broke, and had been subsisting on a dollar burger from Rally’s every day, which was just about more than I could justify spending, so I was switching to Atkins’ Protein Bars that I could divide up for three paltry meals per day at the same cost. I was reserving my money for gas to drive to meetings — but even that was nearly gone. My managers, who had arranged a meeting that afternoon in Burbank, had told me it would be another week before the next meeting could be set up, so I had to either sell something on the spot that afternoon, or somehow survive one more week then sell something at THAT meeting. It seemed impossible, but I did I have a Plan B: I had taken in a bunch of my inventory copies of the StarChild comics I’d written, drawn, and published to a comics shop near my manager’s offices, and expected to pick up some cash to carry me through. The owner expected he’d be able to give me around fifty bucks, which seemed like a fortune in that circumstance — but wanted to look them over first.
I showed up at the appointed hour, but instead of cash, I was handed my box of comics.
The owner had put them out for sale in the three days he’d had them, and not a single copy had sold, so he was declining to buy any copies at all.
I protested that the new comics hadn’t come in yet, so he hadn’t really had the best foot traffic for the week, and he just waved me off. “I need my rack space for comics that will sell,” he said gruffly, “not this black and white fantasy crap.”
I pointed out that it had been his idea to try to sell them in so short a time, and that I’d only offered him the books because I KNEW they had a track record in the store.
“Yeah, they did,” he said, “once. But you’re not doing monthly comics any more, and I can’t sell back issues without new stuff coming in. No one wants back issues.”
“Then why did you try it at all?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Well, you used to be a big deal. If they sold to someone, I’d have paid you for those,” he said, “It was worth trying, because I didn’t pay you for them, so why not?”
“Could you just take a couple?” I asked, thinking of the gas gauge in the van. “Ten bucks worth, maybe?”
“Nope,” he said. “I didn’t get to where I am in business by throwing away money. If you’d done some other things, Batman, or Wolverine or something instead of this fantasy crap, maybe I could sell a few — but I can’t use any of it. I’ll go see your movie though, if you get it made.”
“Thanks anyway,” I said.
Suddenly he realized I was pretty upset, and he softened up a bit. “Listen kid,” he said. “This business isn’t for everyone. Lots of people quit. Just don’t go jumping off a bridge or anything.”
“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I won’t.”
“Good,” he said, relieved, “because you signed a couple of those to me, and I don’t need no news crews showing up here giving me grief.”
I got in the van, put on my “A-Game” face, drove to Burbank (not knowing if I’d have enough gas to drive back), and as I turned down the street where the meeting was to be held, I got a message from my manager that it had been cancelled.
A hundred of you reading this know EXACTLY how I was feeling, because you have felt the same way at one point or another in your lives — and maybe are feeling that emotion right now, in this very moment. It was going to be very, very hard for me to clear my mental state enough to do ANYTHING worthwhile — but doing something, taking action, was necessary.
What I decided I needed to do was try to do exactly what it seemed I had just failed miserably at: sell some issues of StarChild to a comics shop. I had a method which had worked out reasonably well (until that day’s disaster). I’d amble in, look for back issues of StarChild, and if they were there, chat up the manger, offer to draw a sketch for them, then casually suggest that I could fill in whatever holes they had in their StarChild inventory. It was almost always good for twenty or thirty bucks. The problem was, I’d already sold copies of everything I had to the cool shop in Hollywood (Meltdown), and my friend Bob Hennessey’s shop (Hi De Ho) in Santa Monica was too far to get to on almost zero gas. That left as my only option The House of Secrets — a store I had never been to, in Burbank.
House of Secrets was my kind of shop. Being so near the big animation houses they had a HUGE artist clientele, and they prized creativity in the books they carried. They also had a pretty good run of StarChild, including copies of the six Essential StarChild books I was hoping to sell. Still, I did my thing and chatted up Paul and Erik about who I was, and what I was doing in LA, and at the right moment, mentioned that I could sell them copies of the two ES volumes they were missing. Erik jumped all over that, saying they’d take several of each, and the relief I felt was evident in my face.
Evident enough, that Paul stroked his chin thoughtfully and said, “How much inventory DO you have with you, anyway?”
I ran out to the van and brought back in a box with everything I had — and they bought it ALL. Copies of the Essential StarChild, in printed slipcases; loose issues; copies of the fiction mag Argosy and the arts mag International Studio. They had me sign it all, and brought me a cold soda to drink as I worked. They had me sketch in books, and sold a couple to some animators who had come in for their books. They told me how honored they were that I came by and gave them so much time, and I left my new friends with a full heart and more than two hundred bucks in my pocket.
The next week, I met with Marc Rosen, then the VP for David Heyman, the producer of the HARRY POTTER films, who said he really liked the treatment about the Magic Atlas and the Dragonships.
A few months after Marc and I started developing the movie, now called HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS, he suggested to my managers that it would help the movie deal along if we tried to get a film deal first. So we started pursuing publishers, and that Winter got a preemptive bid from Simon & Schuster to publish the book.
HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS, which is now in its eighth hardcover printing; its tenth paperback printing; and is published in more than twenty languages, was released the day that The Hollywood Reporter announced my film deal with Warner Brothers, David Heyman, and David Goyer (which project I’m now developing with two of the producers of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.)
That book deal ignited my career as a novelist, and the sixth sequel to that book will be published in November. Even better, the readership those books have brought me is a big part of the reason why, two decades after beginning the series and a decade since my last new work on it, fans have committed thousands and thousands of dollars to the Kickstarter Campaign to publish the huge Twentieth Anniversary Nearly Complete Essential StarChild book, and why my NEXT big fantasy series will be Fool’s Hollow, a series of illustrated novels with stories based on the StarChild comics.
On occasion, I drop in to say hello and shop at the store when I’m in Burbank, but last November, my family and I went on vacation with my Fool’s Hollow editor and her husband, Lisa and Tracy Mangum, who have become two of our closest friends. We ended up near House of Secrets, so we went in and found, after nine years, they still had a few of the items I’d sold them all those years ago, including a decent slipcased set of the Essential StarChild, which Tracy bought. I told him I could send him a set, but he wanted THOSE books — the ones that had sustained me at a point where I so desperately needed it.
I mentioned to Paul and Erik that I was sorry it had taken as long as it did for them to sell all the books, and Paul said, “I’m not. I know a good investment when I see one.”
There was a point in time, sitting in my van in Burbank, when this story might have gone in a VERY different way. But I chose, in that moment, to write it the way I needed it to be — and I found the people who believed in the story I chose for myself; believed then, believed now. Believe always. That’s the key to reshaping your story — but you have to believe in it yourself before anyone else will, and your story can’t be faked. It has to be who you are. If you can discover what that story is, then no one else can change it, no matter how low you may be in that moment — but the right people can also help you shape it into its most extraordinary form.
The Kickstarter Fundraiser for the big StarChild book runs for twenty-three more days, but it’s already met the initial goal, so it WILL come out in October, and I can pretty much promise you where you’ll be able to find at least ONE COPY in Burbank. And when you go in to buy it, tell Paul, Erik and Amy that James sent you.