I’m often asked to speak to groups and classes of aspiring writers, and recently I was speaking to a college writing class, and I realized something that I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve never actually put into words.
Life is a constant pitch meeting.
There were a few dozen kids in this advanced class. Okay, not all kids! I talked for about forty-five minutes, my whole story of breaking into the film business as a screenwriter and then moving on to write novels, all the usual, and for 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 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?
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 woeful tale of being assaulted by his girlfriend over the weekend. She subsequently harassed his roommates, who called the cops and had her arrested.
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 that night. And oh, do film executives love visual aids. Who doesn’t?
At twenty-two or whatever, these kids 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.
And 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 an author’s 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 room, and once you spot them, you can’t take your eyes off them. Watch Lee Child smoke a cigarette, for example, and tell me that’s not a living advertisement for the Reacher novels.
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 that night, I am a highly connected industry professional who was right in front of those students, 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.
If 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.
This really goes double and triple if you attend writing conferences. Conferences are expensive investments in your career, and you need to make the most of the hundreds of opportunities that will present themselves to you over a conference weekend.
You aren’t ever going to be on all the time, let’s just be realistic about that! But you can talk passionately and specifically about your newest projects (without dominating the conversation to the point of being obnoxious and a turn-off) so that editor or agent on the sidelines of the group will make a mental note (“Read that author” or “Keep track of that person”).
You have to sparkle, whatever that means to you.
And if you find yourself resisting this idea, perhaps you might consider this question: Do you 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 ourselves that is putting the brakes on.
So think about the last time you were in a group of authors or aspiring authors. Who stands out? Who stood out? Who presents an intriguing sense of the kind of writing that they do? Who sparkles? Who makes you want to know more
Let’s hear it, so we can all learn something!
—- Alexandra Sokoloff
Alexandra Sokoloff is the bestselling, Thriller Award-winning and Bram Stoker and Anthony Award-nominated author of eleven supernatural, paranormal and crime thrillers. The New York Times has called her “a daughter of Mary Shelley” and her books “Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre.”
As a screenwriter she has sold original scripts and written novel adaptations for numerous Hollywood studios. She also teaches the internationally acclaimed Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshops, based on her Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks and blog.