Who Are You?

I was at a writing retreat last weekend, and I was astonished and delighted that no one I met – not one soul – introduced themselves by their job title. Some of the authors defined themselves by genre, but most just gave their name and the conversations revolved around their passions. While not a traditional pitch, it was a very engaging way to meet new people.

Traditional pitches are killer when you have a project – a film, a script, a novel. But what most people need on a daily basis is simply a way to convey who they are without over-relying on what they’re called.

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We use job titles like masks; they’re never the full picture, but boy are they easy to slip on. And they protect us. But you don’t connect with others by remaining behind a mask; you connect by being authentic, by being yourself.

So who are you?

I am not disputing that your job title is part of who you are, but it’s not the most engaging thing about you. Here’s a quick questionnaire to get you thinking:

1) The thing I love most about what I do is _______________________________.

2) What I do best is _________________________________________________.

3) My friends ask me to help them with _________________________________.

4) I have many great qualities, but my best is _______________________________.

Now, I am not saying you should hold out your hand and say, “Hey, I’m John Smith and my best quality is loyalty.” Instead, I want you to look at your passions and realize, hey, I’m a Vice President at a widget company, but I’m also an inventor and tremendously loyal friend. So when someone asks, “What do you do?” you can answer, “Well, the job title is Vice President of Widgets, but what that really means is that I’m the person who sees what our customers need and creates the widgets to solve their problems. That’s what I most like about the job — not just the creativity and chance to invent, but the relationships I’ve been able to develop with our clients. I get to be their go-to guy, it’s awesome.”

Wouldn’t you want to talk to someone like you? I sure would!

Upping the Game

Pitching to me is pure joy. I love to pitch, I love to help people pitch, if my life could be all about pitching, I would spend my days tra-la-la-ing through fields of daisies.

But, alas.

The “ah-hah” moment for me came while watching the NBA draft this year. The number two overall pick was Victor Oladipo and all the commentators could talk about was his work ethic. He had worked like hell to get better at every aspect of the game, and it was this – not just his talent – that was seen as an asset to any team lucky enough to pick him.

It made me look at the different arenas that make up my game, as a writer. Of course no one can do everything, and certainly not all things equally well, but I noticed there were things I had chosen to avoid. Places where I wasn’t showing up, much less bringing my A-game.

There are two areas in particular those of us in the business of writing tend to avoid.

The first is Business. The second is Writing.

Business today can seem overwhelming. Do you have cards, are you invoicing, do you meet deadlines? But then there’s also: Can people find you? Are you involved in social media? Are you connecting with readers? Do you have a platform?

As for Writing, the to-do list is deceptively simple. Write more. Write more projects in more genres for more people. Join a writers group. Take classes. Blog.

I risk falling into an exhausted stupor just thinking about it all. But the key is – or at least I hope it is – to just show up. Start small. Brainstorm what you could do to up your game and then pick the easiest, smallest step. And then do it. Immediately. Then, well, do something else. See where it leads. You never know what the game-changer is going to be.

I started by writing this post. What about you?

Say What?

Pitching can be nerve-wracking. It shouldn’t be, because all you’re trying to do is share your passion, but there is always the possibility of rejection, and, as a species, we don’t handle rejection well. I don’t know about you, but when I’m nervous, I tend to just launch into the good bits as soon as possible. I rush, trying to get it over with.

Bad idea.

Because the words we forget to say are, oh, I don’t know, how about the title. The genre. The stuff that allows people to grab on to our ideas and actually hear what we’re saying. So calm down and remember that the first words out of your mouth prepare their listening for the more important words down the line.

The first thing you should say is the title.
The second is the genre.
The third is the logline, which should give the flavor of the piece.

After that, you should have a couple of additional sentences in case they’re intrigued and demand to know more on the spot. Sometimes, however, the above three pieces of information are enough to ask them to read the script or the book.

Think of it as Mad Libs. All you have to do is fill in the blanks:

“Title of Piece” is a “Genre” about “Single Most Important Thing About Your Piece.”

Speed is Die Hard on a bus. Die Hard isn’t just a similar movie, at the time it was its own specific genre – a thriller in a small space, one guy and one ally against an overwhelming foe. And what’s the most important thing about Speed? Yup, bus. And they can hear that, and understand it, because you took care of their top questions – title and genre – first.

Argo is the true story of how six Americans were smuggled out of Iran in the middle of the hostage crisis. You could say “thriller,” but the fact that it’s a true story is, I think, the more important genre.

Try it. See if it works. Feel free to post your loglines below for feedback. And have fun with it! It’s not about distilling your entire epic trilogy into one sentence, it’s about having a few words prepared to start the conversation rolling.

Hey, Kids, Let’s Put on a Show!

A friend of mine is leaping into the web series fray and wanted my advice, since I’d been a writer/producer on the series Faux Baby.  During an hour and a half of coffee-sipping, we went over details ranging from casting to cameras to distribution tips.  And you know what?  None of that really matters.  The single most important piece of advice I could give her had nothing to do with production values, and it had to be said now, before the script was even written:

Why do you want to produce a web series?

Now, I could say it with genuine exhaustion in my voice, since that’s how I remember the whirlwind three months leading up to Faux Baby, but I really don’t mean it in a snarky way.  Your personal reason for creating a web series needs to be your driving force, because the type of show – length, tone, genre – depend upon what you want to get out of the experience.  Here’s what I mean: 

Reason #1: You want to do something creative and fun, and the web is a relatively cheap way to produce and distribute.  This is the Wild West of filmmaking.  Grab your friends, a camera, and put your passion project on your YouTube channel.  Note that you expect nothing to happen from this series, career-wise.  This is not to say that nothing will happen – passion is addictive and engaging, and someone with money and power might see it and hand you a sitcom (see: $#*! My Dad Says for proof positive that the weirdest things can net you a TV series) but most likely your reward will be the fun of doing it. 

Personally, I think this is a fantastic reason to do a series, because it’s all about you and your friends and the experience itself, and you have complete creative freedom.  But be honest with yourself, because most people, in their hearts, also want their shows to lead to something bigger.

Reason #2: You need a professional calling card.  In this case, you want to design something with production values in mind.  What can you shoot well?  Do you have a “set” – apartment, coffee shop, bowling alley – available to you for several hours at a time that you can dress and light properly?  How can it look expensive without being expensive?  Your show and your scripts will depend upon your resources.  It doesn’t matter if you love dinosaurs and ninjas, unless you have special effects wizards and a dozen black belts at your beck and call – and a way to capture their magic on camera. 

In terms of your script, the story needs to be compelling, but it doesn’t have to be any particular genre.  You can still do something “artistic,” a passion project, within the confines of needing to pull off the best possible production values.

Reason #3: You want people to get hooked and watch your show online addictively, allowing you to sell ad space, become a YouTube partner, and make actual money from your project.  Production values, weirdly, matter less here, but the script is critical.  The show’s design needs to be: A) Short.  People won’t watch more than three minutes, especially if they’re watching on their phone or tablet.  B) Funny.  Funny gets shared, re-watched, subscribed-to.  Make ’em laugh.  C) Repeatable.  You need a lot of short episodes to feed the beast.  People will start to depend on regular uploads of new material, and if you disappoint them, you lose them.  So this isn’t about what you can shoot well or prettily, it’s about what you can shoot weekly – or even daily.

We did not know any of this when we set out to make Faux Baby.  We thought we were going for Reason #3, really it was Reason #1, and then, luckily for us, our production values turned it into Reason #2.  It’s been a useful calling card, but as a series, it never made back its production costs.  So learn from our scrambling: knowing what you’re getting into before you start shooting a web series is a good idea, but knowing why can vastly increase your chances of success.

Warming Up The Room

The first part of the pitch is the bit that nervous writers always want to zoom past.  Resist the urge to shake hands and launch into the story.  Your pitch, you see, actually begins long before you start the official pitch.  First, you need to warm up the room.

This is not something you can necessarily practice ahead of time.  I’ve had pitches where most of the meeting was connecting on a personal level – also known as chitchat.  I’ve also had pitches where (I am not kidding) the person I pitched to sat down with a thud and waved an angry hand in my general direction.  Most meetings fall somewhere in between.

But while you can’t script chitchat the same way you can outline a pitch, you should still walk in with a game plan.  Here are the steps:

1) As soon as you discover you’re having a pitch meeting, find out as much as possible about the company and the person with whom you’ll be meeting.  The Internet is your friend… but your friends are your friends, too.  Ask around.  Everyone knows someone.  Get as much of the inside scoop as you can.

You’re not just looking for general information, you’re also looking for a way to connect to this person.  What do you have in common?  Have you seen their movies or read books they’ve edited or agented?  If not, get cracking.

2) Once you’ve found a point of commonality – you’re from the same state, you went to the same college (that’s a long shot but a huge connection, so don’t forget to check), you both love mysteries, or you truly loved something specific about a project they worked on – you can figure out what kind of conversation you’d like to have.  It’s okay to be Fan Girl if it’s genuine: “I just want to let you know how much fun it is to actually meet you.  I loved “Maybe It’s Me” – it was so inventive and funny, and at the same time very joyful.”  I could then mention that I met Julia Sweeney when she did her one-woman show, and voila, we’ve launched a very pleasant connection, because everything I’ve said is true.  And it’s a conversation I would genuinely enjoy having, so if anyone knows creator Suzanne Martin, hook me up!

3) If you come up blank, or if your meeting gets changed to someone new at the last second, don’t panic.  Instead, look around their office.  You’re looking for something that you connect to, something that piques your interest.  Ask a question.  Be interested in them.

4) Finally, when the actual conversation happens, enjoy it.  Listen.  Connect.  Trust that they will let you know when it’s time to launch into your pitch – which they always will.  That’s their job.  Your job at this moment is to warm up the room so that when you do start to pitch, it’s a natural progression of your relationship.

This isn’t the Olympics.  No one is judging.  And anyway, you’re good at this.  Relax, have fun, get warm.

Next: Prep their listening.

How to Pitch

TV pitching season is swirling around me.  In all the chaos, I find that even I have to remind myself the basics of how to pitch.  Here are the stages of a pitch meeting:

1) Warm up the room.  Watch for their signal to begin.

2) Prepare their listening.

3) Tell them the single most important element of your project.

4) Listen to their response.

5) If invited, give them the highlights of your story, chronologically and briefly.

6) Create an opening for their input and allow a real conversation.

7) Clarify follow-up.

Every meeting you take will have these elements in it.  You need to be comfortable and confident with each stage.

I’ll take each one separately over the next couple of weeks, but for now, I leave you with the idea of reframing the pitch in your own mind.  You are not out there to sell.  This is not about you against them.  Sure, you’re putting on a bit of a dog-and-pony show, but at heart you are honestly sharing a project you love in the expectation that they will love it, too, and want to play with you.  There’s a great energy that comes with that – and it is a completely different energy than the one that comes with desperation or salesmanship.

There is joy here.  Have fun!

It’s All About You

My overload freak-out the other day got me thinking about two great friends, Heidi Wall and Michael Hauge.  Years ago, they put together a coaching seminar for writers and used me as a guinea pig before the launch.  The idea was to treat yourself as a character in a movie: what was your story arc?  How could you live it intentionally?  How could you use it to generate momentum in your career?  It was a brilliant idea, masterfully taught.

Totally not their fault that I floundered.

For someone who likes to think she’s on the ball, I have very little ability to see myself clearly.  I didn’t even realize that, as I struggle with perfectionism, I had nonetheless created a brand around the word “perfect.”  It is so much a part of my internal operating system, it’s like air.  I don’t even notice it any more.

And that, you see, was exactly what they were looking for.  Just as  a character in a screenplay goes through a breaking down of their most-cherished beliefs, so, too, they wanted me to examine the thing about me that I never questioned.  They wanted me to imagine living without that; what would I do?  What new ideas, new vistas would open up?  How could I use challenging myself, and the discomfort and energy and new-ness that brought, to take new actions and get new results in my career?

I flopped then, but I’m determined to try it out now.  And I invite you to do the same.  If, like me, you’re a bit blind to your own operating system, ask a gentle loved one to enlighten you.  Or look to the thing that is keeping you from taking a step forward in your career.  Once you’ve found it, don’t expect change to be easy.  I will argue until I’m blue about why my perfectionism is a good and righteous thing, how it has gotten me so far in both my career and my life…

Yes.  So far, and no farther.

To bring this back around to pitching, a lot of people don’t pitch because they’re scared.  Of looking silly, of wasting someone’s time, of getting a no, of the unknown.  Going up to someone and touting their own work is outside of their operating system.  But in truth, only good can come of a pitch.  Yes, I want you to pitch well, but even a bad pitch reaches out to someone.  It creates a connection where before, there was none.

So challenge your self, try something new, get out and pitch.  Don’t even worry if it’s not perfect.

Apparently, Two Things Stop Me

I was going to follow up my When You’re In, You Win post the other day by telling you why I haven’t given my dearest friend a script that she likes and wants to pass along to a producer (hint: it has to do with perfectionism, and it’s dopey).  But that post is going to have to wait because I have realized there’s yet a more powerful circumstance stopping me from moving forward in all areas of my life:

I have too much on my plate.

Now, I could rail at the gods for a good long time, but let’s face it, I’m the one who heaps too much onto the to-do list.  I do the mom thing, the dutiful daughter, the freelance writer, the homemaker, the consultant.  One of my clients has a crisis?  I leap to the rescue.  Friends coming for dinner?  Must clean, file, shop, cook, and make it all look effortless.  Bonus points if I can set up a craft for the kids at the same time.  I am wearing my Superwoman T-shirt today, in the vain hope of convincing myself I can do it all.

In the play Caligula, there’s a wonderful line about how when everything matters, then nothing really matters at all.  I have a suspicion that perfectionism is at the bottom of my overload, which is crazy-making because the very fact that I don’t know what to drop means a bunch of stuff ends up being done half-assed.  I gladly open up the comments to anyone who has advice on triage.  I know this has to stop.  The centre cannot hold.  I was going to devote today to catching up on my to-do list, but what I really need to catch up on is sleep.

Am I alone in this?  Does anyone else suffer from overload?  Can I blame modern society or is it in fact all my fault?

Damn – as I write this, I am not kidding, the oatmeal is boiling over.  (Whew!  Caught it just in time.)

I’m gonna hit “publish.”  And then I’m going back to bed.

 

When You’re In, You Win

Just a quick update from NATPE, where I was one of the consultants helping people prep for their pitch sessions.  Three of the people I worked with that day have called or e-mailed to let me know how their pitches went — and they went very well indeed.  For two of the individuals, every production company they pitched to asked to read their script.  Every.  Single.  One.  A third team batted .500 – and they got an open door to pitch other projects to the two companies who passed.

I mentioned before that nearly everyone I saw was a solid B+, so I’m not surprised.  But I am delighted, and I wanted to share because so many writers think that pitching is like winning the lottery.  It’s not.  Getting a TV show or a movie made – that’s winning the lottery.  Getting interest, getting optioned, writing for hire — that’s all about getting in the door.

If you want to be a working writer, you have to pitch.  You will make connections, you will get a better sense of what a specific company looks for, you will make inroads.  You will get read.   There is no downside.

What’s stopping you?  Let me know.  Tomorrow, I’ll dish about what (sometimes!) stops me.

It’s Not Personal!

For a little tough-love, check out this excellent post, “The No-Moping Zone” by Keith Cronin over at Writer Unboxed.  I don’t want to duplicate his efforts (although I’d love to steal his style - he totally makes me want to use the word “poopyhead” in a post), so I’ll focus on one thing he mentions in passing, and which I say to people all the darn time:

It’s not personal.

We use the term “my baby” to talk about our novel or script or story, but it’s not a real baby.  It’s words on a page.  In fact, it’s probably only even a virtual version of actual paper and ink (which is a good reminder to go print a hard copy right now, just in case, then come back and finish reading.  I’ll wait… Back?  Good.)  Your work doesn’t have feelings, can’t be teased, and won’t be devastated by high school.  Rejection isn’t personal.

Rejecting your work doesn’t mean they’re rejecting you.

When you pitch, it’s not about selling.  Really, honestly, it’s never about selling.  It’s about inviting someone into your story to see if it’s a good fit for them.  If it’s not, you are both better off not getting into business together.  Pitching lets you quickly weed out the 75% of people for whom your work is not right. What a time saver! The remaining 25% may be intrigued enough to give your piece a read, but almost all of those will also not ultimately be interested. That’s okay. You only need one, the right one, someone who will not just publish or produce your work, but champion it.  Every “no” up front saves you time, energy, and disappointment down the line.

It’s. Not. Personal.

But it feels personal because we care so much.  So – and this is hard - we need to care less much.  Yes, you need to be passionate about your work.  You need enthusiasm and drive and professionalism.  You also need to detach from the outcome.  That may not be easy, but it’s necessary.  (Don’t believe me?  Check out the wonderful and sorely-missed Ray Bradbury on the “great blizzard of rejection slips.”)

If anyone has any ideas about how to do that – detach emotionally while still remaining enthusiastic – feel free to share.  For me, having lots of projects going at once helps immensely, possibly because I’m too damn tired to take anything personally.  Other thoughts?

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