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“Following Through”

Following Through

Cynthia’s Column September 2007

On the heels of another successful conference, a few thoughts on the next step.

The last day at our wrap up session, I asked how many writers had requests for their manuscripts and many hands went up.  Then I asked how many had had requests other years and had not sent their work to those who requested it and two dozen hands went up again.  Friends, let’s deal with this right now.

What reasons could a writer have for not sending a manuscript to someone who is in a position to help and who has requested it?  There are a few, so let’s stand them up in a neat row in our shooting gallery and take them out.

Reason #1.  It’s Not Good Enough.  Now that I’ve had an intensive weekend getting in touch with the real world of book publishing/film production I realize my work, even though the pitch went great, may not be competitive in The Professional Writing World.

Maybe it’s not quite ready.  You may be right.  So crank up your engine and power through the next draft.  If they have requested the first fifty pages of a book manuscript put all of your energy toward polishing that fifty pages and make sure that the 50th page is a doozy of a cliff hanger.  Make them want to read p. 51 so badly that they beg for the full manuscript (which you are polishing like a maniac while they are reading the first 50.)  Even if you have to cheat and cut some things you will restore later.  Don’t cheat on margins, but find a way to get that whammy onto p. 50.

If it’s a screenplay schedule an emergency meeting of your critique group, or your friends and read it out loud.  Tighten mercilessly.  Listen to the dialogue, the pacing.  Notice when attention wanders or tension slackens.  Polish it until you can’t take out another single word.

No matter what genre you’re writing, now is the time to cancel weekend plans, get up an hour earlier, stop going to the movies or renting DVDs and spend every possible moment getting your project ready to sell.  Now is the time.  This is when procrastination is your enemy.   Kill it.  Even if you only have half an hour, spend it fixing a page or two.  Carry your manuscript around with you.  Seriously.  Everywhere you go.  Take it to breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Sleep with it beside your bed.  Let yourself become obsessed this month with doing everything humanly possible to get those pages into the best shape of any pages you’ve ever written in your life.  You can go out to dinner next month.  How hard are you willing to work to make your own dream come true?  Do it now.

Reason #2.  Prom Date Problem.  More than one person requested it and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes by making multiple submissions.  What if I end up with two dates to the prom?  Everyone that comes to hear pitches at a writing conference understands that you are pitching to many people.  Send it to everyone that requested it and then let them compete to see who reads and responds to the material first.

The Hollywood people even admitted that if they aren’t interested they may not respond.  They don’t want writers following up.  If the script rises to the top of the stack and gets a good response they’ll be in touch.  If it doesn’t you’ll never hear from them.  In other words, don’t wait.  Keep moving your work forward.  The shotgun approach is the best system here.

In terms of book agents and editors, if you sent your manuscript to one agent/editor and he/she took three months to read it and get back to you, then the second took six months, next thing you know a year has gone and the other people who requested it don’t remember you or your pitch and another book like yours has beat yours into print.

Later when they have read and loved your book is the time to go steady.  They don’t love you yet.  You can date other people.  There is an old fashioned system from decades past still clinging to writers’ consciousness that is a terrible disadvantage to us.  If you spend a year (or five) of your life working on a book, haven’t made a dollar yet, you don’t deserve to spend anther two years waiting.  Send your work out.  If worse comes to worst and someone is irritated or embarrassed down the line because they want your book and you’ve already sold it to someone else, it’s a small price to pay for months of anguished waiting on the part of the writer.  Writers are more important than agents or editors or producers, people.  Honor yourselves.  Without you writers, none of them would have jobs.

Reason #3:  I’ve Waited Too Long to Send it and They Won’t Remember Me.  Don’t let yourself get bamboozled by this one.  Don’t apologize.  Don’t waste time worrying about this.  Pretend no time has lapsed.  Time is illusive anyway.  Just remind them simply and briefly of your project.  Like this, and you can use any of these words if you like:

Dear Greg,

I enjoyed meeting you at the Willamette Writers Conference and was delighted that you were interested in my screenplay “Botany Rocks” the teen comedy about cheerleaders who grow pot in their high school greenhouse.  I hope it’s as much fun to read as it was to write.

I look forward to your response.

Warmest regards,

Tiffany Lee.

Short and sweet.  No apology.  No mention of how long ago the conference was.  I don’t care if it’s been three months or six.  They never remember how fast or slow something arrived.  They only remember if it was good or not.  Make it good.  And do it now!

These are the top three reasons, if you have other reasons for not sending your work, they probably fall into these general categories.  (Not good enough, soon enough etc.)  If you have some other reason not to send your work and you need me to shoot it down, you can email me at  (Put WW somewhere in the subject line.)

I want to thank all of you who came to the reading of my new play “The Book of John” at Portland Center Stage in July.  And those of you who came and couldn’t get in, I’m sorry and thank you for making the effort.  Thanks to you, my play was the only one to sell out and the only one to get a standing ovation.  It also got the best write-up in The Oregonian.  Marty Hughley called it “the most stage-ready” of the seven new plays at the JAW Festival.  It was a thrilling night for me.  It made me feel welcome coming home to the theatre.  I thank you all for that.  And hopefully it will mean a real production somewhere in Portland in the next year.  I’ll, of course, keep you posted.  I tell you everything.

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