Cynthia’s Column Sept. 2009
Hundreds of writers pitched to agents, editors and producers at our conference last month. Many of you got a “send it to me.” If you are in this group, still in the flush of excitement, here is a little checklist of how to handle the next step.
1. Good is Better Than Fast. If you pitched a project that is nearly ready but not quite, don’t rush it into the mail. Get it as good as you can before you send it, even if this means you send it in October. Or even later. When I was young, I thought if you wrote fast it would impress them. I learned that they never remember how fast you wrote it, only how good it was. Also, in the pitches themselves, you may have discovered something about your story that needs to be strengthened or streamlined. Do it. They will remember you. Even if you send it in six months. Plus, you’ll remind them who you are in your cover letter.
2. Cover Letter. First of all, when you send your manuscript (with SASE for book projects; not movie projects) mark the front of the envelope in the bottom left corner in bold with the words “AS REQUESTED.” Don’t risk your piece going into the slush pile. The cover letter should be no more than one page. Just enough to remind them of your project. “Dear Mr. Levy, I enjoyed meeting with you at the W.W. conference. Enclosed is the screenplay I pitched to you about the kid who got stranded overnight in Dodger Stadium. I hope you enjoy it. I look forward to hearing from you. Cheers, George Spelvin. (Or your own name, if you prefer.)” If the two of you bonded during your ten minute pitch and shared a love of the Manchester United or collecting miniature St. Bernards, you can mention it as a reminder, hopefully in a funny way.
3. Waiting for a Response. This is actually the hardest part. I’m still waiting from a few agents I submitted scripts to in the late 1970s. Sometimes, particularly in Hollywood, “No” can come in the form of a black hole. In other words nothing means no. (Too bad the two-negatives-make-a-positive rule doesn’t apply here.) You will probably hear something from Hollywood in 4 to 6 weeks, at which point you can follow up. (See #4) For books it could be as long as 3 months.
Waiting is painful, isn’t it? Part of your job as a writer is to keep your spirits up. Hell, it’s our job to keep everybody’s spirits up. If not us, who? Stand up comics? They’re writers, too. The best thing to do while waiting is write. Begin your next project. Or research it. Or outline it. That way if your first one sells, you’ll have your follow up project underway. If they love your writing, but can’t buy your project for whatever reason, they’ll ask what else you’ve got. So you need to have something in the works that you can pitch and send them when it’s finished. The best thing you can possibly do while waiting is WRITE!
4. Following Up. If six weeks go by and you haven’t heard, (I don’t mean you. You’ll hear. I know you will.) you can follow up. The key to follow up is attitude. Do not be pissy. Or whiny. The right attitude is casual. Friendly. “Hi Frederick, I’m just checking in to see if you’ve had a chance to read my Dodger Stadium script yet. It’s been about six weeks. I know how busy you are. Just wanted to be sure Dodge didn’t get lost in the stack. Cheers, George.” This kind of message can be sent by mail, email or phone.
5. If You Get More Than One Yes. Hey, these things happen. If it happens to you, there are several ways to determine which one to choose. First you may have a preference. You might simply like one better. One may be much more successful than another. One may be more enthusiastic about your work. Or you may have a gut feeling about one. My own policy is to always go with the gut.
6. If You Get Turned Down. You’re in good company. Most of us have been turned down many, many times. Those who don’t get rejected are the ones who aren’t sending anything out there. It’s a crap shoot. Just keep doing the best work you can and keep rolling the dice until your number hits. Don’t wait for next August to try again. Begin sending our fresh query letters immediately. And keep me posted on your progress.
7. If You Have A Big Win please let us know. We need to share our victories to keep each other inspired. Success happens. Right here. Spread the good news.
Some of you will come up with reasons to Not Send Your Piece, even though it has been requested.
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, 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. And then know that your best is good enough.
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.
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 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. No apology. No mention of how long ago the conference was. I don’t care if it’s been three months or six.
These are the top three reasons. Don’t forget our motto, from the film Julia written by Alvin Sargent: “Work hard! Take chances! Be very, very bold!”
I want to thank everyone on our spectacular (and by the way adorable) conference committee this year, led by our amazing and brilliant conference chair Salli Slaughter. Her co-Chair and next year’s Chair the fabulous Stefan Feurherdt. Ann Buenzli not only found us teachers for all 96 different workshops, but also our keynote speaker, the fabulous Chelsea Cain, and our lunch speakers. Elisa Klein got us all our great agents and editors. Gibran Perrone brought in all the Film execs, producers, agents and managers. Bill Johnson headed up registration and managed the office and tons of other superhuman stuff. Our special volunteer staff included Jackie Blain, pitch practice, Herbert Piekow, consultations, Mary Margaret Maitland created the fabulous silent auction with the help of Linda Kuhlman and Joan McBeth, Ann Conway and Marla Bowie-LePley. Leona Grieve, Randal Houle and Lizzy Shannon coordinated the awards banquet. And Mead Hunter coordinated the volunteers. Brian Batson was our miracle working tech guy who gets credit for the registration system working brilliantly as well as the consult schedules. Jerry Isom did our accounting. Stefan handled all the travel arrangements. And Corey Stixrud manned the consultation desk. Gigi Rosenburg created the Writers and Actors lab. To all of you and all who came and played and worked with us last month, THANK YOU! I love you all.