Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Life is a pitch meeting

I spoke to a college screenwriting class last night, and I realized something that I guess I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve never actually put into words.

Life is a constant pitch meeting.

There were about a dozen kids in this class. Okay, not all kids. I talked for about forty-five minutes, my whole story of breaking into the film business and what the job is really like and how it’s different from being an author, all the usual, and the rest of the two-hour class I was just taking questions.

Out of the whole class, only five of the students asked questions, although more did answer when I asked them questions to draw them out. And out of those, only two people actually voluntarily told me what they were working on, in detail. And those were two out of the three who continued to ask questions throughout the class.

Guess which students I remember from the class?

If I were an executive handing out jobs or assignments, guess which ones would get the job?

Not only that, but these two guys caught my attention from the very first moment they walked into the class. They are attention whores. One walked in with a Nerf – Uzi, it looked like, in violent neon colors. At the slightest prompting he pulled that puppy out of his backpack, loaded a clip of Nerf bullets with awesome efficiency, and fired several lethal rounds into the whiteboard at the front of the class. It was a thing of beauty.

The other shuffled in, collapsed into his seat in a posture of abject and total martyrdom, made sure everyone could see the bruise under his eye, and proceeded (again with the most minimal prompting) to tell a tale of being assaulted by his girlfriend over the weekend. She subsequently harassed his roommates and was arrested by the cops.

Now THOSE are entrances. THOSE are characters.

I don’t know if either of those guys can write worth a damn; I don’t know if they’ve got the drive and dedication to do what the job is, but I would give them a chance to show me more, just because they’re standouts - and because in two hours I learned so much more about them and their writing than I did about anyone else in the class. They moved themselves to the top of the theoretical list just by being forthcoming. They put the spotlight on themselves.

Furthermore, the guy with the nerf Uzi draws and writes comic books, and the guy with the out-of-control love life is writing a wacky romantic comedy.

Do we see the pattern here?

They were ILLUSTRATING the kinds of writers they are, in clothing, props, actions, and their entire personal presentations. They were pitching their writing with everything that they did last night. And oh, do film executives love visual aids. Who doesn’t?

At twenty-two or whatever, these guys already have it down.

In screenwriting, because so much of the job is pitching, you have to stand out for simple job survival. Film executives will take six or seven or ten pitch meetings in a day. OF COURSE you have to have a great story to tell, but you equally have to make sure they’re actually awake enough to pay attention.

It’s a lot the same if you’re an author. The more interesting character is going to get more attention from the media (essential for our job survival). You will get more attention from your publisher if they sense you will get extra attention from the media. That’s just reality.

Take a look at successful authors you admire. There’s something beyond their amazing writing, isn’t there? They’re also fascinating people. They have star power in person. You can always find them in a crowded room.

Now, that is not at all to say that you can’t make a bestselling career as a recluse. It’s happened throughout the ages. Great writing finds a spotlight, even when the author can’t. But I suspect it’s a lot harder to make a career that way, especially these days.

Even though I wasn’t handing out jobs in that class last night, I am a highly connected industry professional who was right in front of them, at their disposal, for two hours. That’s an opportunity that doesn’t get handed to most people every day. There is no reward for being shy in that situation. You need to milk an opportunity like that for all it’s worth.

But the fact is, the Universe is ALWAYS handing us chances to get exactly what we want. It’s a matter of whether or not we’re prepared enough, professionally and emotionally, to TAKE the chances we’re given.

Sometimes we’re just not ready.

Those two guys I’m talking about didn’t know who I was or that I was going to be in class that night. They didn’t put on those little performances for me. They are clearly people who are ALWAYS performing. But the point is, you never know when someone who can help you is going to be watching, or who might take an interest in you and your career simply because you’re interesting.

II you are ready… and that’s a big if - you need to put yourself out there so that people can see who you are. You need to talk passionately and specifically about your work. My friend and literary idol Margaret Maron calls it “sparkling”, and Margaret truly does. You have to sparkle.

I know a lot of us have just been out there at conferences, it’s the season. Think back over your conference experiences. Did you make the most of the HUNDREDS of opportunities that presented themselves to you over the conference weekend?

You aren’t ever going to be on all the time, let’s just be realistic about that! But were you on most of the time? Did you talk passionately and specifically about your newest projects so that editor or agent on the sidelines of the group made a mental note (“Read that author” or “Keep track of that person”).

Did you sparkle?

And if you didn’t, do you maybe not present yourself at full power because somewhere inside you don’t feel ready?

I think that’s an important question for all of us to consider, and regularly. Because when it feels like we’re being held back, it’s usually something inside US that is putting the brakes on.

So those are my questions for the day, and also – who are some examples of authors who sparkle, for you?


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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Barbra Annino said...

So agree!

JA Konrath does this well. That's the name that came off the top of my head.

Barbra Annino

Karen from Mentor said...

Oh Alex, I'm immediately sending this link to a friend who is feeling like there's something he's missing and not quite sure what it is....AND wondering if he'll MAKE it, and is it worth it...etc..(he blogged publicly about it today, so I'm not telling tales out of school. lol)
But I hope he takes the look at me approach, because the James Dean approach has been done to death.....but he DOES have those bedroom eyes....

Authors who sparkle:

Fanny Flagg for me. She's always ON but that's just who she is. She's so funny, warm and open, it just shines out of HER and her writing...
Karen :0)

Bobby Mangahas said...

You make a very good point here, Alex. Life can be a lot like a pitch session. And one should definitely grab at opportunities if they're ready.

I have to agree with Crystals. Joe is a great example of an author who sparkles.

Not being a judge of my own character, I wouldn't know if I sparkle or not. All I know is that I try to put myself out there (sans the Nerf Uzi, but I guess I could at least give it a shot).

Gayle Carline said...

1. Val McDermid - larger than life when she walks into a room and begins that Scottish brogue.

2. Barry Eisler - dynamic energy and possibly too cute to live.

And how do I get some of that sparkle... should I buy a tiara?


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Absolutely, Barb and RJ, Joe Konrath is one of the best at this. As is Barry Eisler, Gayle!

I've heard the same about Val McDermid - I've not had the pleasure of meeting her in person.

I'll have to look for Fannie Flagg, too!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Karen, you know, it's not so much about having the charisma of a James Dean. It's presenting your work through yourself. And even if you're painfully shy, you can always follow up on a contact with a great letter, and show off your writing that way.

Which, by the way, one of those guys I was talking about did as well as all of everything else that he did. A FABULOUS letter.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Dennis Lehane sparkles quietly. He's very quiet and laid back, but his writing is outstanding. I love him. His writing takes my breath away.

Unknown said...

I am drawn to authors who make me "wonder." Who keep me guessing about their fiction as well as their reality. You fall in love with them as much as the books they write. You forgive them for a crappy book and then buy the next one.

This was a very important post.

I'll never forget an article I read giving a description of the room Ray Bradbury writes in. I was mesmerized. Or now legend like stories about Hemingway or F. Scott. and what about Poe? Dear lord! I ramble. Thanks Alex!

Sonja Foust said...

Meg Cabot sparkles. It's the pink streak in her hair, it's the cheeky grin, it's the funny way she puts sentences together, it's that she's not afraid to jump up and down and scream-- which is all great since she writes YA. Love that.

I'm not much of a sparkler myself, I have to say. Will have to work on that. ;) Maybe I need a Nerf Uzi too, haha.

Eric James said...

An outstanding observation, Alexandra. However...

Must today’s writer be destined to be a Renaissance person to achieve success? From writer to sparkler, today’s writer in between first must become an editor; sometimes a publisher; assuredly a promoter, marketer, and lecturer; recently a social activist; and most definitely above all else, a street peddler. Now you say, a peddler who must sparkle. From where will come time left for writing itself, and for developing the craft of it? What ever happened to what it takes to be a compelling writer, who doesn’t require replicating the life of a da Vinci or Michelangelo?

This writer would rather sacrifice his street sparkle to let sparkle be discovered in his writing, even if doing so damns the writing to a niche market. The reality is that most all writing will be doomed to the darkness of eternity’s abyss. And after 500 years, if any writing survives to rise to Renaissance standards, it will survive on the merits of the writing alone. Eternity will not be attracted by the sparkle of a dead author.

Sherry Thrasher said...

A few of the many things I learned listening to you: That I am a novelist at heart, that you really need a passion for your art and to just go for it, that I don't want to sit in a room with thirty six screaming screen writers, that I want to own my product,to say screw it and keep going when a door closes, research, research and more research,to stand out in the crowd, to keep detailed lists of contacts(and to use them when you have a polished product), to join romance writers and that you can be caught up in a glamorous life and be totally miserable, that the film and book business is tough to break into but with real determination and smarts it can be done. Thank you once again, Alex. I look forward to taking your class in October and announced it to our class last night. Hopefully, there will be other takers.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Trace, so true about Lehane - he has a mesmerizing presence.

Same with Michael Connelly. I think when you're THAT good, and you have that kind of body of work to stand on, sparkling is irrelevant. You carry the force of your books around in your aura.

But when you're just breaking in, you need to take every opportunity to project something interesting enough that people will say, "Sure, send it to me". Or "Hmm, I'd like to read something by that person."

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

And Zuzanne, you're so right - readers develop a relationship with and curiosity about the author, not just their books.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Suzanne, I mean! Zorry.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Eric, like I said - what I'm talking about is about projecting as much information about your books as you can in any given situation. It doesn't mean you have to knock people dead - it means that you have to put it OUT there.

And like I said, if you miss an opportunity in person because you're shy - then use your writing talent to write a dynamite letter.

But the people from that class who immediately followed up with dynamite letters were the exact two guys I was talking about in the post - and the young woman who had the balls - ovaries - to ask me to come speak to the class to begin with.

I find all that interesting.

But yeah, professional writers these days do have to perform all those functions that you list.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Sherry, I'm overwhelmed that you got all of that!

(You don't get 36 screenwriters in a room at a time except at guild meetings, though.)

Thanks so much for having me, and it will be great to have you in class and in HCRW.

Sherry Thrasher said...

Cole mentioned last night that we didn't know how lucky we were to have you with us. I'll keep picking your brain but mostly behind the scenes through your site and blog. I know you are terribly busy.

I showed my husband your site and book trailers (which scared the hell out of me) and I promise to read all your books even though I'm still freaked out from Salem's Lot by Stephen King. My husband, Michael, would like to know who did the trailers. Scary stuff. Also, I know someone you might be interested in meeting. She is heavily into the paranormal stuff. Be well, Alex.

Unknown said...

I love the way you describe it as someone's sparkle. It really is that inner essence shining through that people can relate to.

I wish I wasn't so shy but I know now that's the reason I'm so passionate about writing.

Best of luck to you. I really enjoy reading your blog.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Oh, I agree. I've been noticing how the books that are published in the last 10 years or so are much different than in Stephen King's hay day. The writing needs to be punchy, and writers need to market themselves big time.

People don't have the attention span they used to, either. They don't have time.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Not to say I don't love Stephen King. Especially the older stuff.

I still think he rocks.

laughingwolf said...

absolutely true, alex... i've found most folk, regardless of what they're trying to do, expect... no DEMAND... everyone else GIVE them what they are ENTITLED to, just because they are alive :(

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sherry, my great trailer producers are Circle of Seven:

They are the gold standard in book trailers.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Bella, shy is fine. Most writers are shy. Just let the passion shine through and you will sparkle!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Trace, yeah, the publishing industry has changed, but anyone would still kill to find another King.

Or that caliber, because there is no other King!

laughingwolf said...

hi alex

what happened to your other story breakdowns; the mist, and romancing the stone?

i just told friends of the former and came here to check, to discover you've removed both :(