I’d estimate the CWA mailroom sees about twenty new manuscript submissions a day. As a trainee, it’s my job to go through every single one. If I read something that I think is worth a second look by an agent, I write up a little report, referred to as “script coverage” in the biz. It’s basically a summary of the book, a breakdown of the characters, and any thoughts I may have about how CWA agents can package the story into a movie or TV show—do we represent any directors, actors, or producers that may respond to the material? That sort of thing.
I haven’t actually written a lot of script coverage since moving out here, because most of what I read is hot, steaming crap. It's rare to find a diamond in the rough, but agent trainee lore is that it was an assistant who discovered John Green before he was John Green, and now that assistant never has to work again.
I think I may have found my John Green before he was John Green.
Many hours before my date with Peter, I found myself engrossed in one of the most conceptually creative novels I’ve ever read. It was part Cormac McCarthy, part Jennifer Egan, part Dave Eggers, and I could not put it down.
The novel was set sometime in the not-so-distant future, and opened on the government unveiling a groundbreaking new technology that could foresee the future in five year increments. Officials were marketing the technology as a wellness tool—essentially, as preventative healthcare intended to shave down medical costs in bloated economical times. Every citizen is responsible for undergoing a brief procedure, similar to a CAT scan, that yields a detailed report of their medical future (some chapters were told entirely through these reports, which gave it that Jennifer Egan bent). The patient would receive information about his "pre-treatment" at the end of each appointment, but have no memory of the five year snippet of his future that he had just glimpsed.
But one patient is able to retain what he sees. Twenty-five year old Christopher Perkins learns what his future holds beyond his medical fate—he watches as he falls in love with a girl, Louisa. He sees the two of them they get engaged, married, and have a child—and then he sees how they end, tragically. When Christopher meets Louisa in real life, he's faced with a choice: follow the path the universe has already created for him, or resist his feelings for Louisa to spare them both imminent heartache.
I was so entrenched in the story that I missed lunch (and I do not miss lunch). I nearly jumped out of my seat when Howie popped her head into the mailroom. “William looking for you,” she said.
“Thanks,” I muttered.
“You’ve been in here for hours,” she said. “What are you reading?”
I patted the manuscript into a neat little rectangle. “Just trying to get caught up on my script coverage.”
Howie glanced quickly at the coversheet then back at me. "The Five by Charli Ardman," she read out loud. "Sounds riveting. Wish I could sit in here and just read all day.”
I sighed and stood, stretching out my legs. “You could if you were in the lit department. It’s part of my job, not an excuse to put my feet up.”
“Defensive Debbie,” Howie clucked.
I brushed past her, ignoring the dig. Howie loves to needle me, probably because I’m not great at hiding how much she pisses me off. Nance says I'm hot-headed, though I prefer fiery. “Don’t give her a reaction,” Nance keeps telling me. “That’s what she wants.”
I drummed my fingers against my thigh as I waited for the elevator. The doors opened, and I stepped aside, allowing a few people to step off before riding the elevator to the tenth floor, where William’s office is located. I had my head buried in my phone and when the elevator doors dinged open I almost walked right past Peter.
“So busy and important,” Peter said.
I looked up. "Very busy and important.” I held out my phone so he could see that I had been stalking the Puppy Palace Instagram account.
Peter laughed and I tucked my phone into my pocket. “What are you doing?”
“Grabbing a late lunch,” Peter said. “You here to see William?”
“Always.” I smiled.
Peter pressed the elevator button and the doors swung open again. “I’ll see you tonight,” he said, lowly, as he slipped past me.
I gave him a polite nod—I didn’t want anyone in the office to catch on to us—and continued down the hallway to William’s office.
I rapped on his door. “You needed me?”
William looked up from his computer. There was a stern set to his face that I’d never seen before. “Come in,” he said. “Shut the door.”
William never tells me to shut the door. I closed it, nerves bundling tightly in my stomach.
“Sit down.” William pointed at the chair across from him.
I took a seat, my heart thudding in my ears. “Is everything okay? You’re scaring me.”
“I have good news and I have bad news,” William said.
“Okay.” I rubbed my sweaty palms on the armrests. “Give me the bad first.”
“Well,” William said, “the bad doesn’t really make sense first. You need the good to understand why the bad is bad so”—
“Jesus!” I snapped. “Just tell me.”
William stared at me, surprised. I don’t usually lose my temper on him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m cranky and sleep deprived.”
William cleared his throat loudly. “Anyway. As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted”—he arched an eyebrow at me and I forced back the maniacal laugh bubbling in my throat. William interrupts me all the time. “The bad news doesn’t make sense without hearing the good first. So here’s the good.”
I held my breath.
“The partners have decided on an end date for you”—
I couldn't help myself, I let out a loud whoop.
"But they want you to stay in L.A. as a junior agent. They want both of us to stay in L.A."
It was like someone had sucked all the air out of the room. My lungs ached, as though I was trapped underwater, kicking frantically to the surface. "What?" I gasped.
William nodded, sympathetically. "I know," he said. "Believe me, I know."
"But for how long?"
"Josie," William said, his eyes crinkling kindly, "they want this to be a permanent arrangement."
I turned away from him and stared out the window, at the crisp blue sky, so brilliant I had to squint to look at it. "What happens if I decide I want to go back to New York?" I said to the window.
"Well," William said, "that's your prerogative, of course. But there wouldn't be a place for you in the New York office. You would be ending your relationship with CWA."
I squeezed my eyes shut. I was dangerously close to exploding with anger. I did everything this place asked me to do, on the condition that I would get to go home to New York at the end of it all. If I went back to New York, the last few months would have been for nothing. I'd worked too hard for all of this to be for nothing, but I desperately missed my mom and my friends, my apartment, the five mile loop in Central Park—that strip along the east 80s, something about it always made me feel like I was living in New York in the 1960s. "This is so fucked up," I whispered.
"I realize this is a lot to take in," William said, "so I want you to think about this, seriously, for the next couple of days. You have a real future at this company, but I also know your whole life is back on the east coast. Your family. Your friends."
I looked William in the eye. "What is the offer?"
"The starting salary for a junior agent is $95,000. And you receive a year end bonus based on how much business you bring in."
"I want 120," I said, without blinking. "And I want CWA to cover the cost of my move. The flight back to New York to pack up my apartment, and any moving fees I may incur."
William smiled, amused. "Well, someone sounds like an agent."
I didn't smile back, and William said, "I will communicate this to the partners. I don't think it should be a problem. They really want you here. We have a bit of a diversity problem—this is a male dominated industry and there is a shortage of capable female agents in the L.A. office. We need women we can trust to send to events and to meet clients and to represent the company, but who are also young and dialed in to what the zeitgeist wants. More importantly, what the zeitgeist will pay for."
I knew exactly what he was saying. There was a time, not even ten years ago now, when Tom Cruise's movie would have been number one at the box office this past weekend, not The Fault in Our Stars. Fault had been backed by an independent studio and was made for thirteen million dollars (which is like five dollars in this industry) and it has already grossed over fifty million in its opening weekend. The days of people flocking to the movie theaters to see big, explosive blockbuster films are over—but that is all the Williams of CWA know how to package. This is a new day, and they need young visionaries who can predict a Hunger Games (fun fact—every studio passed on the rights to that book with the exception of Lionsgate. You know all those suits are kicking themselves now.)
I stood up, smoothing the wrinkles in my pencil skirt. "Let me know what they say," I said, my voice revealing nothing. If they were going to play hardball with me, I was going to play hardball right back and score a triple pointer or whatever. Yay, sports.
William nodded. As I opened his door, he said, "And Josie?" I looked over my shoulder at him. "Congratulations. I know this isn't how you wanted it, but this is a huge accomplishment. You should be proud of yourself."
"I am," I said, and I meant it. "Thank you."
I walked back to the mailroom on autopilot. I didn't think; I couldn't feel. A few of my fellow trainees were shifting through headshots when I entered the room. Howie was nowhere to be seen, thank God. I was in no mood to deal with her.
I made my way into the script closet, where I had been reading before. I didn't know what my decision was going to be, but if I was going to be a junior agent, I knew who I wanted to sign first—the genius behind The Five.
I'd thought I'd left the manuscript right next to the computer keyboard, but I couldn't find it there. Nor could I find it in the piles of discarded manuscripts by the door, or in any of the mail slots. I poked my head out of the script closet and addressed the other trainees. "You guys, did any of you do something with an MS called The Five? By Charli something or other?"
"Haven't seen it," one guy called back, and the others shook their heads.
I retreated back into the script closet. I was suddenly more exhausted than I'd ever been. I slid down the wall and hugged my knees to my chest. Maybe it was a sign, I thought. That I should turn down the offer, go back to New York. Maybe beg Frank to take me back and if he wouldn't have me, I'd just start all over again. I'd have no other choice.