Going Hollywood In Maryland

My first self-published novel, Secretarial Wars, took forever to finish. I started working on it around 1990, before self-publishing became a real option, and I didn’t finally dispose of it until 2003. It was inspired by several awkward office experiences I lived through during my first full-time job after college. Considering how humble the job was, and how frustratingly long it took to get anywhere in my professional life, it seems incredible that a small slice of that story has now been dramatized in a short film called “The Investigation.”

Secretarial Wars was actually my third attempt at a novel. I had spent years struggling with two hot messes, a college story and its sequel, that were trying to become novels and not really succeeding. I finally reflected that I might do better by grounding a story in my more recent real-life experiences. So I conceived a tale based on my secretarial life at the quasi-government Fulbright grant program from 1974 to 1979.

Fulbright grants were awarded mostly to university professors and researchers with the goal of disseminating American ideals and values abroad. The viewpoint character in my story, Miriam, was a somewhat confused but ambitious young woman who chafed at the limits of her secretarial role. She had two best friends in the office, based on pals of mine who were nearly polar opposites in personality and worked for the organization at different times. One of these girlfriends was a dedicated secretary, and the other, to put it mildly, was not.

Since I started writing the novel before most offices had become high-tech, and it focused on a time when stone age instruments like electric typewriters were in use, I compromised by bringing it up to the early 1990s, when the Internet did exist but was not yet at every desktop, and the few cell phones in use were clunky by today’s standards.

I ground out three novels after Secretarial Wars, and paid to have all four converted to screenplays by professional screenwriters. I thought they all did a decent job of making the stories more cinematic than the originals. Secretarial Wars was the one I felt adhered most faithfully to the original novel. I lifted a few scenes from that screenplay and enhanced them for submission to a local outfit called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z. I called the short script “Secretarial Spy,” and centered it on a secretary’s travails at a Fulbright-like grant program. The heroine, Miriam, an aspiring investigative journalist, entertains two rather contradictory goals: to get a promotion, but also to investigate her boss for possible malfeasance in awarding grants.

The script underwent a thorough revision by a writer far more movie-savvy than me, and was renamed “The Investigation.” While the story ended up quite different from the original, I’m not inclined to complain about that. No doubt if the process had taken place in Hollywood, California instead of Bethesda, Maryland, the same wholesale changes would have occurred. The spark of the idea remains intact: a showdown between Miriam and a boss of questionable morals, Mrs. Broadwater. They work for an outfit called the Peace Council, which boasts an idealistic mission: to promote international cooperation through humanitarian projects. However, owing to the Council’s involvement in many political and financial deals overseas, it’s also vulnerable to corruption.

The film truly does bring back a humiliating episode. Fresh out of college, rather full of myself as a summa cum laude graduate, I was discontent with my secretarial position but didn’t realize that my disdain was obvious. I applied for a modest promotion, based on my ability to complete writing tasks. I was called into the office of the deputy director, a steely woman who really ran the place, and subjected to a painful interview. I didn’t have ready answers for her barrage of questions and observations. Do you like your job? All I could honestly reply was that I believed in the mission of the agency. You haven’t formed a real partnership with your immediate supervisor. I insinuated my supervisor might be partly to blame for that, while trying not to throw her totally under the bus. You never take initiative. But how, I wondered, is a lowly underling supposed to do that?

I tried to do better after that wretched interview. I was pursuing a master’s degree in political science in night school, and I decided to examine the nuts and bolts of the organization for a term paper. No real scandal turned up in the course of my research. Still, it set me thinking: what if something had looked fishy? What if grants were for sale to the highest bidder, or as a political reward? Maybe a secretary who aspired to be an investigative journalist would pursue such a theory. And maybe she’d establish contact with an underground newspaper editor who was looking for scandals, and also happened to be devastatingly handsome.

The boss who unwittingly served as the model for Mrs. Broadwater is now deceased. There’s no way of knowing how she would feel to be portrayed as a sourpuss, and possibly worse. Not that it’s a fair portrayal—she was actually a dedicated and accomplished official, who dealt with me as the child I still was. She may have looked like a witch to me all those years ago when I was her powerless employee, but the story demonstrates her growth as well as Miriam’s.

The young secretary in the film, after receiving a comeuppance much like the real-life one I endured, vows to improve her job performance. Concurrently, she picks up a habit of staying late in the office, poking around for secrets. The crusty boss nearly catches her in the act one night, but perhaps mistaking her nosiness for conscientiousness, unbends enough to offer her the long-sought promotion. When Miriam requests to be called an assistant instead of a secretary as part of that deal, Mrs. B approves of Miriam’s newfound spirit. There is even a suggestion that the boss has sniffed out Miriam’s investigatory plan, and doesn’t totally disapprove. She was once a young idealist herself.

Isn’t it amazing how re-imagining a painful situation or a troublesome person can give you a sense of power over them? When that process is aided by talented actors and filmmakers, it’s even more empowering. My (almost) fifteen minutes of fame can be viewed below:


22 thoughts on “Going Hollywood In Maryland

  1. There’s an old saw that one should “write what you know.” But that mostly leads to navel gazing stories that mean something to the writer and no one else. Only after I stumbled across the idea that one should “write what one wants to read”, using of course what you know, was I able to take my book from something me and my mom (might) like it, to something other people can care about. It seems you’ve uncovered that critical difference. (By the by, I started working on the book that would become A Perfect Blindness in 1996. It published 21 years later. I know the feeling.)

    1. It’s a very long process, isn’t it? But I’ve always believed in taking my time and trying to get it right. I was well into middle age before I self-published my first novel, despite having the writing bug since early childhood. Congratulations on the publication of your book!

      1. Beastly long process. I started the book in 1996. I got it into the form I sent it to iUniverse back in May 2015. The final proofs got wrapped up in April 2017. I wasn’t doing this full time of course, but still, years and years. To do it right is far, far more effort than I had realized. Not for the faint of heart, nor impatient.

      2. I have published four novels with iUniverse. I found their editorial process quite exacting, particularly for the last two, but the result is that I can be fairly proud of the books I’ve published.

      3. This is my first book, and I decided to splurge (one has only a single chance at a debut novel) and go with the whole 9: the developmental edit (Developmental, content, quality edits). Glad I did. The developmental edit opened my eyes to how horribly I failed at getting two central ideas/characters across the way I had intended. In fact, the editor suggested I stick with only the third POV character. I rewrote the ms. alpha to omega, shedding some 20,000 words in the process. (This after already cutting out more than twice that before I sent it in the first time.) BUT, the book is vastly stronger; that edit gave me the insight to enable me to accomplish what I had intended. Not that the developmental editor could have known that—I’d missed my mark so widely. Not cheap, especially in time. But it got the book the Editor’s Choice designation, which should help attract attention. Such are the plans.

      4. Editor’s Choice was an important goal for me as well, which I was able to achieve with all four books. The developmental edit for my last one, Handmaidens of Rock, was particularly arduous. I had attempted to tell the story from the first-person POV of three different characters. The editor convinced me that it didn’t work, because the voices of the three were too similar. As advised, I rewrote the book using third-person POV. Definitely the right decision.

      5. 4x EC, choice. Changing the person it’s told in: no small task. I did that for some other long abandoned project a few years back. Unpleasant. But that it worked out, thumbs up.

      6. In my case, the editor was absolutely right. Telling the story in third person relieved the pressure of trying to give each of three young women a distinct voice. Pulling that off for three characters of similar backgrounds would have been next to impossible, at least for me. By using third person the voice was my own, but I was still able to present the three as distinct personalities.

      7. It is very difficult: so easy to slip into your favorite voice: the Foundation of A Perfect Blindness is three distinct first person POVs. NOT easy. Had to create a cheat sheet describing each POV, and then rewrite each one’s chapters start of the book to each one’s unique ending. Different syntax, word choices, driving focus. Not sure if I pulled it off, but the core of the book is no one gets it right, about themselves nor any one else, some are more wrong than others, leaving the reader to find the truth between the contradictions. (One of the characters says: “Who we really are hangs someplace between all the stories, suspended in the contradictions.”) Not in any experimental sense: it’s very grounded, but each character sees and experiences the universe uniquely. (It’s a riff on the technique used by Lawrence Durrell in “The Alexandria Quartet”, though there, each of the four books holds a unique POV, including a 3rd person version, and one is a squeal to the first three. Love those books.

      8. In my case, the inspiration was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. She did an amazing job of giving distinct voices to four sisters and their mother as they traveled to Africa as missionaries. In Handmaidens of Rock, I simply couldn’t pull off anything similar. The three girls were all products of the white middle-class of the late 1960s-early 1970s, although they experienced the societal changes of those times in different ways.

      9. Barbara Kingsolver is amazing. I also highly recommend The Lacuna, which takes the viewpoint of a young man, a budding writer, who manages to hang out with Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky.

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