How to Tell if a Writing Job is Real

Yesterday, I blogged about writing for free.  Today, I clicked on a screenwriting jobs list and made myself dizzy from the eye-rolling it caused.  Here is my favorite ad:

Seeking stealth screenwriter… no pay upfront.

To translate: I’m not going to pay you for the work you do now, and I’m not going to give you any credit for it later.

Oh, pleeeeze let me be exploited by you.  No, really, I’m sure it would be an honor.

But we all need writing gigs.  So how can you tell if a writing job is real?  It has taken me a sadly long time to figure it out, but I share it with you in the hopes of saving you my learning curve:

It’s a real writing job if they pay you.

That’s it, folks.  If they are real, they will pay the writer for the writing.  If they don’t, they’re not.  Feel free to argue with me about this, but you will be wrong.  Every.  Damn.  Time.

Now, I do make exceptions: when you write on spec, that’s your nickel.  Also, a free option is, sadly, standard in the low-budget world.  There’s a lot of free work involved in pitching, with no guarantee of winning the job.  But if they are asking you to write their idea, particularly if you will not have ownership of the finished script, and they are not willing to pay you for it, they are probably not real players in the game anyway.  Take a flyer on it if it’s your best friend from college or if you are desperate for a sample.  But do not kid yourself that the project will ever actually get made.  And I will tell you why:

If they won’t put any money into the script, they don’t care enough to go through the long, hard slog of getting it produced.  Money is an indicator of commitment.  Once they put money into a project – for example, by paying you for your work – they have a stake.  Makes it harder to walk away.  No money… no problem leaving it behind when a shinier opportunity appears.

If you’re going to write for free, write your passion project.  Write a new spec.  Write poetry or your novel or something that feeds your soul.  Don’t fall for someone eager to trade your time and talent for his or her own aggrandizement.



Buying the Cow

My dad is never one to mince words.  As a teenager, his version of The Talk was to inform me that a guy would never buy the cow if he could get the milk for free.  His words of wisdom return to me often – at least when I think about writing.

As a writer, I give away a lot of milk.

And I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, it can be soul-sucking to write for free.  You put time and effort and love into these things and most free stuff – spec scripts and writing samples and slews of pitches – never see the light of day.  On the other hand, many other projects that I’ve written that I *have* been paid for were also never produced.  Do I actually feel better about that because the producer’s check cleared?  Not really.  On one project in particular broke my heart: it’s the best script I’ve written to date, but it was work-for-hire.  I don’t own the underlying rights.  At least with a spec script, I can always shop it around; not so with something that’s been bought and paid for.  I guess part of me wants to be a serial dater – but paid-for scripts are sadly monogamous.

(Quick request: Do not tell my husband about this particular metaphor.)

Not that there’s much I can do about writing for free; writers need product to be able to show off their particular talents.  At least pitching lets us present our stuff without having to write the whole script on spec.  And I do say no – to outrageous requests, to people I don’t like, and to projects that have neither artistic nor financial rewards down the line.

But I still say yes a lot.

Mocha-choca milkshake, anyone?

Talking for Writers

Every so often, I’m asked to speak about pitching to a group of writers.  This is easy for me   because I love pitching and I love writers.  I also love making people cry, and that happens, I am not kidding, about sixty percent of the time.  Not everyone, of course – it’s not like I force them to sit through Terms of Endearment.  But one person in the room, one person with a story she believes to be unpitchable, oh, yeah.  Pass the Kleenex.

Why?  Why is it so amazing to hear your story pitched?  I do think there’s a certain amount of relief in realizing that it can be done.  But I also think we are all desperate to be heard.  When a pitch is right, it conveys exactly what you want the world to understand about the heart of your story.  You get heard.  That’s very powerful.

So how do you get to that?  How do you pitch your story?  Here are the steps:

1) Be accurate.  Do not worry about what the elusive “they” want to hear.  Be honest.  No one likes a bait-and-switch.

2) Set up their listening.  What I mean by this is, prepare them for what they are about to hear.  Is it a book, a webseries, a feature, a play?  If the form is understood – if you’re at a mystery book convention, for instance – let them know the subgenre: thriller, cosy, procedural, paranormal.  If they don’t know what to expect, they won’t be able to connect to your story.  I once found myself performing in a gruesome, dark, emotionally-exhausting scene in what the judges expected to be a comedy competition.   Funny only in retrospect, trust me.

3) Take the time to tell your story.  There is a difference between a logline and a pitch.  A logline is usually a sentence long and its only job is to get them to say, “Tell me more.”  Your pitch is what you say after that, and its job is to get them to request the script or book proposal or manuscript.  Don’t rush, don’t skimp.  You’re a storyteller; you’re already good at this part.

4) Only tell the essence of your story.  This is the tricky bit.  Figure out what the heart of your story is and convey that, and only that.  The details, even the character names – they don’t matter as much as you think they do.  Take whatever time you need, but don’t squander their good will by being unfocused.

5) Don’t be afraid to insert your own passion and your connection to the material into the pitch.  What drew you to tell this story in this way?  That’s fascinating and engaging.  Share.

Speaking of sharing, that’s how you’ll know if your pitch works.  Share it with friends and family.  Watch their eyes.  Notice when they start to glaze over.  Rework those bits.  Also, say it out loud to yourself.  If you get goosebumps, you’re on the right track.


Writers Have Power

Writers have power.

I know you don’t believe me.  Amidst all the rejection we face, not to mention the grueling work of creating something from a blank page every day – nope, sorry, doesn’t usually feel powerful.  But if you think about it, without us, the publishing industry, the film business, theater actors, legions of readers – they’re all left hanging.  Writers form the backbone of multiple industries.  Without us, everything falls apart.

If you look at the contracts you’re asked to sign, what are they, really? They are agreements that you will give up your power for money. Which is fine.  Money, gooooood.  But I recently heard a producer say that writers should be grateful that they’re getting produced at all, they shouldn’t expect to be paid for it.  No, really, she said that.  Her argument was that she’s doing all the work getting the film produced, and she doesn’t make any real money until the movie’s a hit.  Okay… But what she’s not saying is that she gets to make all sorts of decisions along the way, including bringing in other writers to muck with, sorry, improve, the script.  Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, the writer has no power at all in rewrites, casting, choice of director – heck, we may not even get invited to the set.  So pardon me if I want a little cash up front in exchange for the power over my story that I’m ceding to you.

All of this of course sounds a little rah-rah-writers, but that doesn’t make it less true.  Granted, to get published, to get produced – for those things, you need collaborators.  I’m all for self-publishing, but not without an excellent copy editor.  Digital flimmaking means you can shoot your own movie, but not without actors and crew.  Collaboration brings stories to life.  But don’t let anyone convince you that just because you’re the foundation of the process, they can walk all over you.

When Should I Pitch?

When should you pitch?

All the time.

Wow, that’s a short blog post.

You are a writer and you are also the CEO, head of sales and chief bottle-washer for your writing career.  That means you must constantly be looking for ways to get your work out into the light.  When I have lunch with a friend who’s a producer, I ask her what she’s looking for.  When I’m hanging out with a friend who’s a writer, I bat around ways we could do a project together.  Dinner with actors?  I offer to write them scenes for their next showcase.  Some of the stuff I do is a freebie favor, some is on spec, and some is for hire, but I’m always looking for ways to work with people and enroll them in my ideas.  That’s pitching.

And truly, pitching is already something you do all the time.  You just don’t realize it.  Want a friend or spouse to go to a movie with you?  Inviting people to a party?  Raving about a favorite book?  That’s all pitching, that’s all enrolling people in the fun and possibility of your project.  You just need to get adept at doing it for yourself.

Think you can’t?  Ha!  Look at a small child.  All they do is run around saying how fun everything is and how brilliant they are, and you know what?  You, too, were once a small child and expert at enrolling people in how fun and brilliant you were.  You did it then, you can do it now.

Oh, but not right now – there’s a really fun webseries you have to check out first.  It’s free, it’s on Hulu, and it’s about a couple so terrified of parenthood, they decide to practice first.  On a doll.  If you’ve got kids of your own, you’re going to LOL – or weep, possibly.  Faux Baby.  Not, by the way, for when little ones are in the room – occasional adult language and situations.


Too Many Notes

What’s the one mistake you’re most likely to make when putting together a pitch?

To quote from Amadeus, “There are simply too many notes.”  Or in the case of writers, too many words.

It’s not just you; I do it, too.  The novel is so full, the screenplay so exciting, there’s just so darn much good stuff to convey… It’s inevitable.  And it kills the pitch.

You have to narrow your story down to one essential ingredient.  And then you have to think of the most interesting way to convey that one piece.  Not the most complete way; no details please.  You have to be accurate and you have to be engaging – and then you have to be quiet.  They can get all the other goodies once they’ve agreed to read your masterpiece. Getting that “yes” is all the pitch needs to do.