Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lost Boys

I blame Flat Stanley. He started it all.

When I was 5 and in first grade, I met Flat Stanley. He was so cool. Squashed nearly 2-dimensional by a falling bulletin board, Flat Stanley permanently changed the way I saw the world. When he stood sideways, you couldn't see him. When his mom lost her diamond ring down a roadside grate, she tied him to a piece of string, dangled him like a human yo-yo into the grate, and he retrieved her jewelry!

Oh, Calvin, you knew Flat Stanley, too. How I miss you both!

Yes, Flat Stanley started it all: my fascination with physics and my lifelong love affair with fantastical what-if-they-were-true stories.

Eventually Stanley and I broke up. I moved on and let other boys take me on wild adventures: First there was Henry Huggins. Then Alec Ramsey (my first real literary crush ~sigh~). Then Huck & Tom. Johnny Tremain. Bilbo & Frodo. Arthur & Lancelot. And hundreds of others.

Oh, I had girlfriends, too. Nancy Drew and I were very close. And Lucy Pevensie and I were practically inseparable. But the boys were my favorites. In real life, I couldn't be bothered with them (something for which my mother remains thankful to this day), but they heavily populated my reading.

This is why I found novelist Robert Lypsite's recent article "Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?"  in the New York Times, so disturbing. “Boys don’t read,” it trumpets. A publishing executive is quoted saying that girls are publishers' primary readership. They want stories "about mean girls, gossip girls... and vampires." So that’s what gets published.

In other words, if you're a YA reader, you get to choose: Bullies or Bella.


Though Huffington Post writer Charles London posits that “Boys today are consuming more text than at any time in human history. Adults simply are not valuing the reading that boys are doing,” it doesn’t change the publishers’ tune:

Boys don’t read. So male protagonists don’t sell.

I refuse to believe this. Here's what I suspect is closer to the truth: Boys don't read what's being published, so publishers have written them off.

I have to confess, if my primary options for topics to read about were “mean girls, gossip girls, and vampires,” I doubt I’d be a reader either.  Does this mean that for every Bully Book that gets published, a book with the potential to be this generation’s Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown gets rejected? Probably.

That’s not only tragic. It borders on the criminal.

What do you mean, “male protagonists don’t sell?” With that kind of attitude, kids will never meet another Harry Potter, Eragon, Artemis Fowl, or Stanley Yelnats. They won't meet characters they can relate to who to protect the weak, push through to the end even when things look bleak, and stand their ground and attempt the impossible.

Boys (and many, many girls) are not interested in choosing between Team Edward or Team Jacob. They could care less about bitchy frenemies. Frankly, statistics show that many prefer nonfiction to fiction. So why not give it to them?

Isn't publishing more books that cater to a different audience and create more lifelong readers way-the-heck more preferable than wringing our hands and lamenting the loss of the literary Y chromosome? 'Cause, frankly, if publishing sticks to the Bitches & Bloodsuckers route, odds are they're going to lose a lot of girls, too...

For great stats, advice, and titles hand-picked by guys for guys, check out Guys Read. Want to add your two cents to the discussion? Chime in on the comments. (No mean girls or vampires, if you please.)

Photos by Kevin Rosseel

Friday, August 26, 2011

Why We Think "I Want To Quit Writing!" And Why We Can't

A writer friend sent me a copy of her most recent communique with a Fabulous Agent she'd met at a writer's conference. Here's what it said:

Subject: Your YA Manuscript Request

Dear Writer,

Thank you for sharing your work with me. First of all, I should note that you have the teen voice down -- this is incredibly important; I often meet editors who, when I ask them what they're looking for, say "Excellent voice." Well, you have it.

"I am not in love." The phrase fries my brain.
I enjoyed reading this—but, I'm afraid, I'm just not in love -- so I'm going to pass, with regrets.

Still, I do hope you will continue writing and sending out your work. If you haven't done so already, you may wish to look at The Jeff Herman Guide to Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents - there, you should be able to find someone who's a better fit for your work.

Best of luck with this and future projects.

All best wishes,
Fabulous Agent

When forwarding the email to me, the writer in question included a frowning emoticon and the comment: I want to quit writing!

I know just how she feels. Which is why she can't. And, fortunately, she won't.

~I slump under the weight of failure and abject depression.~
If you've ever received a rejection (And if you're a real writer, you have. Just sayin'...), you probably know the feeling. Another "No." Another "We don't love you enough to take a chance on you." Another "I wanted it to knock my socks off, but my shoes are still on."

But that isn't what the agent is saying at all. Real writers take their agents' advice, right? Well, then, every writer should take this agent's advice.

I mean really: this is a LOVELY rejection letter. It should be lovingly framed and admired. It's personal, positive, and encouraging.

Remember: you don't like every book published. That doesn't mean that if you don't like a book, the writer should hang it all up.

I don't care for Stephen King's stuff, myself. (Please, King fans, don't try to convert me. Or point out where I've gone horribly astray. I didn't say he can't write. He can. He's excellent. Doesn't mean I like reading it.) I don't read his books unless they are assigned reading. I can admire his writing prowess, but his stuff is just not for me. If I were an agent, I could never dredge up enough enthusiasm for his work to sell it.

Of course, that doesn't mean he should quit.

Push on. For every rejection you get, sent out 3 more queries to well researched agents who handle the kind of stuff you write.
You may imagine placing the agent's head in your mouth
and squashing it like a grape.

When you get a rejection, you may do several things:
  • You may cry. 
  • You may briefly overindulge on chocolate or gin or 80's ballads -- whatever's your drug of choice. 
  • You may back awa-a-a-ay from your current Work In Progress for a day or two so as not to taint it with any self-defeating "I suck as a writer" content. 
  • You may tell yourself that there is (unfortunately) one more person in the world whom you will not be adding to your Christmas card list.
However, you MAY NOT:
FYI: Destroying the innocent computer
is frowned upon.

  • Kick the cat / your kids / your spouse / a moving train / the bucket.
  • Write a nasty letter to the Fabulous Agent outlining where she went wrong and making dire threats against herself, her pets, or her family.
  • Allow your overindulgence of your drug of choice to render you incoherent for longer than 24 hours. Really: self-pity ain't attractive. It's also counterproductive to querying.
  • Quit.
Repeat: DO NOT QUIT!

You'll make it. But only if you hang in there.

Earlier this week, literary agent Rachelle Gardner posted this list of real rejection letters from publishers to agents. Some of those are brutal -- and every book mentioned eventually sold and did well. Imagine what would have happened if those writers gave up. All those success stories would have died a premature death.

Which would be tragic. Don't let that happen to you.

In short, I'll tell you what I told my writer friend: keep polishing what you've got. And keep on keeping on.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Toothbrush Edit

Our bathroom sink rests upon a vanity that has two doors. One hides three drawers in which we keep things like medication, razors, deodorant, and toothbrushes. The other contains various cleaning supplies and a small trash can.

When in stealth mode, I am invisible. Photo by Gracey Stinson
This morning I discovered that if one leaves the door to the trash open, our smallest cat will dart inside the vanity and… disappear.

Concerted searching yielded no cat in or around the trash. Like Lucy in the wardrobe, she was gone.

Now, I’m all for magic portals in my house that transport one to another world. But the skeptic in me refused to believe that Tiny Kitty had discovered it.

More thorough searching revealed the truth:

She slinks through a tiny open area and curls up on our toothbrushes!


Of course, the cat was ousted and the brushes destroyed. But she went there with such purpose. Which makes me wonder how often she has done this particular maneuver. Without our knowledge.
This upsets you? HA! Wait'll you hear where else I've been sitting!

~all over body shudder~

The Great Toothbrush Incident is like editing.

I write it, and it’s great. I re-read it, and still think it’s great. Then my betas get hold of it. And, like a toothbrush full of cat fur, I suddenly realize that what I thought was necessary HAS TO GO! The sooner the better.

Of course, though I threw the toothbrushes out, I immediately got new ones. One must have daily oral hygiene. Likewise, the offending words must be replaced with newer, cleaner prose.

Minion! What have you done with my butt grooming salon?
The tendency, once I see a major problem in a work, is to berate myself and wonder how I could have missed it for so long. But that’s just counterproductive water down the drain. The important thing – more important than changing either tainted tools or text – is taking proper steps to ensure the problem never happens again.

We all make mistakes. We are all capable of learning from them. And we’re all capable of remembering to close the door to the vanity to keep the cat off the toothbrushes.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Lost Loves and Missing Masterpieces

That does it, Myrtle! You and I are through!
Pack your things and go! But leave the Cuisinart.
Photo by karpati
One December, I found out that a couple I had been friends with for years had separated and were in the early days of divorce.

Embarrassingly enough, I'd already sent their Christmas present (I was SO proud of myself when I got the presents in the mail for those I wouldn't see over the holidays, and for actually crossing one thing off my To-Do-Before-Christmas list). I guess they just had one more thing to fight over in deciding who got to keep the gift.

I was stunned. Of course I'm not privy to the inner goings on of other people's marriages (thank God!), but theirs seemed to work for them. They were both well-to-do and well-suited to each other, with strengths that complemented each other's weak areas.

I have watched my spouse lose his health, his career, the bulk of our income, and -- very nearly -- his life in the past few years. But I can honestly say that I am happy. I'm more in love with him now than I was when I married him 20-some years ago. We've spent a greater portion of our lives together rather than apart.

Sometimes dreams take people in differing directions. Still, it's a tragedy when that happens to people who once thought their dreams included each other.
My goal in life is to disprove "Money doesn't buy happiness."
Photo by Virenda Nyberg

It just goes to show you that $$ doesn't buy happiness. I wish that were a lesson the universe would see fit to try to teach me. I wonder how much money it would take to make me UN-happy. I'd love the opportunity to find out. (Would love to say, "Let's see. Current net worth: $3.5 million. The amount that Tom donated to Scientology this year. Hmm... Nope. Still happy. Must... Have... More!")

In a very real sense, writing and a marriage have much in common. For instance:
  • It is impossible to explain why one feels compelled to either write or marry. 
  • Both writing and marriage take enormous amounts of dedication. 
  • Both require constant vigilance to ensure quality and stability. 
  • Both can be overwhelmingly fulfilling.
  • Both can drive one mad. 
  • In writing, as in marriage, there are few things better when it's good... and few things worse when it's bad.

Difficult though it may be for you to believe,
my dreams never included this.
Photo by coopah.
Good writing, like a strong, happy marriage, is hard. Many gifted writers have given up and walked away from their craft. (E.M. Forster, the writer of "Howard's End" and "A Room With a View," reportedly quit writing abruptly. When asked about it, he complained that he'd simply lost control of his characters. They would have to do something specific in order to advance the plot, but instead they developed ideas of their own and refused to take orders from him. Eventually, he couldn't even get them off of a train. So he quit.) Just as many well-suited couples have broken with one another.

I find the whole thing extremely sobering. Just imagine how many masterpieces the world is missing because frustrated writers became disillusioned with the process and turned their backs on their muses. It's as tragic as vowing to love someone for the rest of your life, and then realizing that you can't keep your promise.

All photos from MorgueFile.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Writer's Cardinal Sin Part II: A Case Study

Yesterday, I ranted mused about what I view as the Writer's Cardinal Sin: being false to one's characters and making them act in such uncharacteristic ways that they destroy the audience's sense of entrancement. When this happens, the audience is rudely reminded that the characters aren't real.

Oh, you are so brilliant a writer. Fang and I are entranced.
Nothing will lose a writer fans faster.

That's why I am so mad at Jeff Eastin I could spit. Eastin created White Collar, one of the few shows that made me wish I still had TV. I own seasons 1 & 2 on DVD. The way season 3 is going, however, putting it on my WishList remains doubtful. The reason is that the show's writers have (in my opinion) committed the aforementioned Cardinal Sin.

Let's take just one random episode, say Scott Free, fer instance (though every episode this season suffers from Cardinal Sin Syndrome. But I digress...):

In this episode's opening scene, Peter bursts into Neal's apartment early in the morning, surprising him as he's making breakfast for his girlfriend, Sara, who has spent the night. A ridiculous exchange takes place in which Sara and Neal react with all the dignity of a couple of bumbling teenagers caught fooling around in the parents' sedan.

Really? This is what we get from a female character who repossesses luxury goods and thwarts insurance fraud by whacking the bad guys with a stick?

"Yes," you may say, "making a strong female character act like a blathering Homecoming Queen borders on the criminal. But male writers do this so often it's hardly a cardinal sin. It's more like an indulgence." 
Your bungling irks me. And you made Fang's head explode.

I suppose ... But the whole "bursting into Neal's apartment at inopportune times" gag is played out with woeful predictability. The viewer knows it's going to happen. Wouldn't you think Neal would get a lock -- and use it? 

One of the tenets of the entire series has been that con man Neal Caffrey is the best of the best, and only FBI agent Peter Burke has the chops to beat him -- and then, only barely. The first two years were spent building the case for Neal's criminal genius.

Now, don't get me wrong, the first two seasons have plot holes you could pilot a Nazi U-boat through, if you were so inclined. But the characters were so convincing -- so consistent -- that the viewer willingly suspended disbelief and followed in their wake.

For inexplicable reasons, however, this third year has been all about finding ways to pull loose threads and unravel the mythos of Neal's character. The writers have committed the Cardinal Sin of taking someone they've spent two years building up as brilliant and making him insufferably, unforgivably stupid.

With a capital "STU." I present Exhibit A:

Neal and sidekick Mozzie meet up with the Plot Point of the Week; a 20-something kid who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, who the feds are calling "the next Neal Caffrey," much to Neal's dismay. Knowing this kid is trouble, they take him to Neal's apartment. Which is in a big ol' mansion filled with tons of expensive stuff. Because, evidently, that's where you go when you have someone you don't trust and are lacking a budget for another set.
If I close one eye, maybe I can see your motives for this travesty...

In Season 1, Neal called in a favor to a friend and was able to put on a kick-ass rooftop party for the glitterati within hours. Now, the writers want us to believe that the only place in the entire city uber-smart Neal can take the brat while they work out a plan is his own home?

An all-night writers' drinking party is the only explanation for how this move was justified as a reasonable thing the character would do.

"Sinful, maybe. One of the Writer's 7 Deadly Sins (Laziness), perhaps. But not a Cardinal Sin."

Oh, there are so many other examples I could point to in just this single episode.
What have you done to my favorite characters? It's a train wreck. I can't watch.
Here's one: Neal and Mozzie have been unable to move any of their ill-gotten gains because they don't know what is listed on a partial manifest which Peter keeps in an easily-picked-with-a-spork drawer in his office. In this same episode, Neal successfully cracks an "uncrackable" safe. But his handler, who doesn't trust him, keeps the One Thing he's searching for within easy reach, and he doesn't find it?

For shame, writers! For shame! Neal's new name should be "Stu." And Peter's could be "Pid."

But the capstone is in the final scene.

Neal has finally gotten a bona-fide, unbreakable alias. It's perfect. It's permanent. He's had it less than 24 hours.

So where does he put his new passport? Not in a safe. Not a lock box. He doesn't open, say, a safety deposit box in his new name and keep his ultra Top Secret Important document there. Nope. Not our criminal genius.

The writers expect us to believe that he takes his new passport to his home and hides it in a hole in the wall.
Aaaaauuugh! You have betrayed my trust! I shall never forgive you! Never!
He doesn't lock it up. He doesn't even close up the hole. So Sara, of course, finds the new alias about 15 seconds after he's received it.

Well, butter my behind and call me a biscuit. S-T-U-...

In a single episode (sadly, in nearly every single episode) of the third season, the main characters behave in ways that are woefully inconsistent with their own history. Which is all the more unforgivable because there are about 64,000 ways to have written a story that was equally, if not more, compelling while refusing to heap a ton of stupid on the characters' heads.

Now, thanks to these 43 minutes of screen time, Sara doesn't deserve a grown-up relationship. Peter deserves to lose the manifest. And Neal deserves to get caught.

More to the point, both actors and fans of the series don't deserve such sinfully sloppy writing.

Take care -- take GREAT care -- when writing that you treat your characters and your audience with respect. Because it's much easier to make a fan than it is to regain one...

All photos by Alvimann, courtesy of

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to Lose Fans & Alienate People

The Writer's Cardinal Sin, Part I

My favorite part of any movie looks like this:

That's right: It's blank. Best part of most movies. Just loaded with promise...
Preview over. Lights down. I sit in the darkness, munching my popcorn, excited at the possibility that the next hour and a half or so will deliver. I want to see something that I can't wait to see again. Something I can add to my list of favorites. Something I wish I'd written.

Sometimes the characters alone
make the whole thing worth watching.
Photo by kakisky.
Sometimes cinema magic happens. I've seen Twilight, Penelope, Brokeback Mountain, Up, Ladyhawke, The Princess Bride, and Moulin Rouge more times than I care to admit.

(There will be a reckoning, one day, I'm sure. God will ask me what I did with my allotted time on the planet, and I'll have to account for the hours -- days? -- I've spent watching these & other titles.)

Sometimes it's just a pitch-perfect scene that does it for me; a scene so entrancing, with characters so compelling that it sucks me in every time I see it. Though the movie itself may be imperfect, one great scene can cover a multitude of flaws.

I want to be blown away; to see something I've never seen before... meet characters I never knew were missing from my life... have an experience that up till now I never knew was lacking. When that happens, unicorns poop rainbows, the planets align, and I am a fan for life.
Are you not entertained? Photo by Michael Richter

The writer's first job is entrancement. This is the art of getting someone else to take time out of her busy day, when she could be doing laundry, balancing the checkbook, bathing the dog, vacuuming, flossing, washing her whitewalls, or learning to make perfect creme brulee -- and spend it reading / watching YOUR stuff.

After that's achieved, you just have to keep people turning pages. Or tuned in. You've got them hooked. They're yours.

Unless you commit the writer's Cardinal Sin.

Ready? Here it is:

Writer's Cardinal Sin: Sacrificing your characters for your precious story.

When I bemoan writers who sacrifice their characters, I'm not talking about "the hero has to die" tragedy. No -- true tragedy arises because of the hero's fatal flaw. Heroes can die, cheat on their spouses, stiff their waiters, or fart audibly at funerals, as long as their actions are consistent with the characters your fans have grown to know and love.

What they cannot do is suddenly change into people they've never been who do things they should have never done because the writer wasn't bright enough to figure out how to write the story and keep the players consistent.

Ever wonder if you're committing the Big C.S.? Here's how to tell:
Committing the Writer's Cardinal Sin flushes all your
hard work in entrancing your audience right down the...
you know. Photo by jdurham.

If smart characters suddenly become stupid, if weak ones suddenly become strong, if dumb ones suddenly know more than your reader, or if sinners suddenly become saints, you're flirting dangerously with the unpardonable.

Few things will lose you readers, watchers, or fans faster than making a favorite character do something ... wrong. I don't mean something marginally out of character in order to prove a point or have some personal growth. That's not only OK; but it's expected. No, I mean Intentionally Wrong.  The kind of Wrong that makes your audience go "Huh? Has the writer ever met this character before? 'Cause even *I* know the person wouldn't do that."

Those kinds of questions destroy entrancement. They bump the audience out of the story and make them realize that the writer is just human. Even worse, they drive home the realization that the characters aren't.

Have you ever encountered this Cardinal Sin? (In others' writing, of course; not your own...) If so, please comment below about how it affected your enjoyment of the work. If not, tune in tomorrow for Part II: a glowing example of what I'm talking about...

All photos from MorgueFile.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Animal Tendencies: 10 Reasons a Manuscript Doesn't Sell

It's true: animals have far greater wisdom about some things than we do. They don't mask their emotions. They live in the moment. They readily abandon themselves to happiness and joy. And, as it turns out, they know about publishing.

Without further ado, I offer pictorial proof of animal wisdom: Ten visual reminders of why a manuscript might not sell.

1.) Way too much filler occurs between the story's beginning and its end.
223,000 words in my manuscript: and all must stay! Photo by Michael Ponton.
2.) Chronology is confusing.
This story doesn't know if it's coming or going. Photo by Emily Roesly
3.)  All set-up; no action.
Check out this way cool scene, jam-packed with possibilities,
in which NOTHING HAPPENS! Photo by delboysafa
4.) Fuzzy logic.

He eats the poisoned frog because he HAS to. Don't you see?
Photo by Karen Miller.
5.) Missing pieces.

But the eyes are implied! They're in the subtext! Photo by xandert.
6.) It spells out the obvious.

Do you get it? Do you? Huh?  Photo by Karen Miller.
7.) Too many "extras" obscure the story.

But the prose is so... PURPLE! Purple is my favorite color! Photo by anusharaji.
8.) Too much important stuff happens behind the scenes, without the reader's knowledge.

She lost her magic power to an evil wizard. It was really exciting.
Take my word for it.  Photo by Matthew Hull.
9.) The story lacks perspective.

Then she broke a fingernail. It was the END OF HER WORLD! Photo by Mark Miller.
10.) Following the crowd. Vampires and werewolves have been done TO DEATH. Really. No lie. Here's a thought: write something original. From your heart. Please.
If all your writer friends looked to the left, would you? Photo by luisrock62.

All photos from

Thursday, August 04, 2011

How to Know if You've Got What It Takes to Be a Writer

"Maybe I'm not cut out to be a writer. How do I know if I've got what it takes?"

That, my friend, is a loaded question with one simple answer...

I've been having a spirited e-mail discussion lately with a talented writer whose work I've taken far too long to finish Beta reading.

My writing is imperfect! Therefore, I am worthless.
Photo by andi.
I've made comments on her manuscript such as: "I don't like this character very much right now," "He's annoying me with his passivity," and "I want to smack him!" These are not intended to make her tear up her manuscript and flush it and her writing dreams down the toilet. They are intended to help give her a window into one reader's thoughts on her book and make changes she sees fit that might improve the reader's experience.

This writer is very thin skinned. She tends to equate "This doesn't work for me" with "You are a worthless, talentless hack." She is not alone.

What do you mean REWRITE?!
Photo by Rupert Jefferies
I work with writers all the time who say they want honest criticism. And they do. To a point. But what they want more is validation.

I don't mean they need handled with kid gloves. But there comes a point during the litany of "here's where this goes astray" and "this whole section needs reworking" where their eyes glaze over and all they want to hear is, "This has merit. Keep going."

Without exception, my answer is: The project has merit as long as you can remain passionate about it. Because, I hate to tell ya, sweetheart, you're gonna re-write it a bazillion times before it's finished.

If you think that's a Bad Thing -- if the thought of rewriting your precious prose makes you want to crawl in a hole and lament the end of your creative dreams  --  then perhaps it is time to rethink the whole Writer-as-Career-Choice decision.

I'll stay here. And my book will stay on my hard drive.
Photo by Scott Liddell
But if the thought of revisiting your characters and their world, spending more time with them and seeing how they can be made even better invigorates and excites you, then you've got what it takes!

'Cause, frankly, that's ALL it takes.

No one is born knowing how to put words together. No one instinctively understands plotting, or dialogue, or subtext, or character arcs. No one pops out of the womb with an innate grasp of imagery. Or poetry. Or knowing when to use "whose" and when to use "who's." Everyone who wants to write has to learn all that stuff -- and more.

Writing is a craft. It's a learned skill. Any time you find yourself thinking "I don't have the chops for this," what you really mean is "I need to expand my skill set."

No, dammit! Every word must stay!
Photo by Scott Liddell.
I had a lovely discussion yesterday with a producer who wants to work with me developing a script of mine that he likes. He has a proven track record. He has loads of experience and connections. He thinks my script needs some work.

This I see as a *good* thing. Because, in all honesty, the story is as good as I can make it on my own. The script has done well in contests. I've polished it to make it as shiny as I know how. But that doesn't mean it's perfect.

He gingerly approached the subject of reworking several aspects of the story. At one point, I cut to the chase and said, "You don't have to worry about hurting my feelings. If you have suggestions for improving the script, I'm all ears. Give me notes and let's talk."

He literally sighed with relief. Evidently, he was afraid I was going to be one of "those" writers who approaches rewrites with all the excited anticipation of a colonoscopy.

Want to know if you've got what it takes to be a writer? Put yourself in the editor's / producer's / publisher's shoes. Imagine going to you with suggestions for improving your piece. Now imagine your reaction. Then ask: "Could I work with me?"

If the answer is "yes," there you have it. You've got what it takes.

Now get out there! Show your work to people. Invite criticism from people whose opinions you trust. Weed through the comments for the recurring themes. Then roll up your sleeves and get to work!

All photos from

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Tips for Surviving the Pitch Session

"Nobody knows anything," is screenwriting legend William Goldman's famous observation on the vagaries of Hollywood.

After attending the recent InkTip Pitch Summit in Burbank, CA, I'd like to modify that to: "Nobody knows everything." Oh, people know some things. They know what they want. They know what they don't want. But what one person knows (and wants) is very very different from what another knows (and wants). For instance:

1. Listen to the Pros
The day before the Pitch Summit was filled with classes for those of us who weren't 100% sure
about our pitching abilities. Agent Barbara Bitela, with three books in print, gave a spirited presentation on what makes a good pitch. Her advice:
  • Tell your story. 
  • Show a little leg (with regards to your screenplay, darling!).
  • Be friendly.
  • Have fun.
She also gave a ripping read of some attendees' first pages, troubleshot major problems, and did her darndest to demystify the whole pitching process.

2. Don't Take Anything At Face Value
Don't go slavering all over the agents and representatives you meet. If they're the same place you are, chances are, they're as hungry for success as you. Ms. Bitela's three books are all self-published, and she's publicly touting her printed press releases in her professional bio -- two facts that would make me go "Hmmmmm" for a LONG while before signing with any agent.

Neither POD nor press releases mean she didn't know what she was talking about. But they're enough to put the brakes on any sort of runaway dream that a single person is going to be THE ONE who kickstarts my career.

3. Tell Them a Little About Yourself
One piece of advice I heard was "before launching into the pitch, tell the people listening about your inspiration for the story." This flew in the face of everything I'd ever heard, but -- surprise, surprise! -- it's (mostly) true. (See #4)

Our pitches were only allotted 5 minutes, from doors open to "Thank you, bye." Not a lot of time for revealing one's muse. However, several times when I led with what sparked my idea for a story, I had the producers on the other end of the table nod and say they preferred it when writers did that.

4. Don't Tell Them About Yourself
Ah, but not everyone wants to hear about your creative process.

The genesis for one of my scripts came to me after WunderGuy had a horrific allergic reaction to some new medication. That got me thinking "What if...?" and led to the creation of Shutters. which I consider a genuinely creepy screenplay. Most producers responded to my real-life-inspiration lead-in. But one told me, "If you pitch this script to anyone else, just start with the story." 


5. Memorize Your Pitch
You need to have your story down. You need to know it backward and forward. That way, when you're in a room of 400 producers and 100 writers, all elbow-to-elbow, with 5 minutes to get their pitch out, you can just access your lines and deliver them with confidence.

I practiced what I was going to say, including, "Hi, I'm Ami Hendrickson," for a month before I went. No lie. I practiced my pitches while walking my dogs, driving my car, getting groceries, and sitting in the ER. I wanted to do everything in my power to deliver when the time came.

I was glad that I memorized my pitch because, after 5 straight hours of pitching multiple screenplays in 5 minute increments, I could access the This-Word-Comes-Next file without groping & "er"-ing. However, I also ran up against the reality of #6:

6. Don't Memorize Your Pitch
No one wants to hear words delivered by rote. A pitch is supposed to inspire people to engage you. You want them to ask questions ("How does it end?" "Do you have a one-sheet?") and get excited about your story ("Here's my e-mail. Send me the .pdf."). None of that's going to happen from memorized lines.

When you pitch, you are talking to a person. Or people. You aren't standing up on stage and delivering your lines. Talk to them. Smile. Laugh. Say something human. They don't want to do business with robotic automatons. Be someone they can see themselves working with.

7. Be Nice.

To everyone. All day. For a cautionary tale on how not being nice can kill your chances, check out my favorite Tale from the Script Pitch. Yes, it's true.

8.  Have FUN!
I worried and stressed about going to the Pitch Summit. Regular readers may remember my pitching-is-like-exotic-dancing analogy. I stand corrected. Pitching is far more fun than I thought it would be. Because, you see, it's a chance to tell people my stories! Had I but known, I'd have gone to far more pitch fests.

All we writers want is for people to hear / see / read / know our stories. Well, pitching makes that happen. The Pitch Summit was like an all-day cocktail party in which people willingly gave me 5 minutes of their time to talk about any one of my screenplays I desired! How cool is that?

Unfortunately, too many writers there weren't having fun. They weren't enjoying their 5 minutes in the spotlight. They were stressed, whiny, and desperate. Honestly -- how often do you want to spend more time with people like that? Is it any wonder that they didn't have producers taking an avid interest in their stuff?

Lighten up! Enjoy yourself! Let your stories out of their hard-drive dungeons and give them a chance to breathe a little. Introduce them to people and see what happens!

I had 33 requests for one-sheets and 10 complete script requests from the Pitch Summit. Some writers there may have had more; some less. The numbers aren't the point. I met so many interesting writers, producers, directors, and development executives.  I reconnected with friends I met at film festivals years ago. To me, that's what it's all about: putting yourself out there. Talking to people about your work.

You never know: all it takes is for one person to forget to say "no."

Here's wishing you a career full of "Yesses!"

What's your favorite Pitching Tip? I'd love it if you'd share your wisdom below.