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“The Path Ahead: Step by Step”

The Path Ahead:  Step by Step

Cynthia’s Column  August 2010

You are about to embark on the next step in your writing career.  The step that pulls you out of your own solitary process that you indulge in or hammer away at in the privacy of your home/coffee shop/car/critique group, into a process that will expose your innermost thoughts and creative heart to the world of commerce which exists out there on another plane altogether.  If you find this idea scary, exciting, baffling, thrilling or all of the above, let’s shine some light on the path ahead of you.  The one that leads to success.

Step One.  The Writing.  Obviously, or to a couple of you perhaps not as obviously, you need to have created the work that will get you in the door to this world of successful, working writers.  It is the only ticket in.  It doesn’t matter if your father is Steve Spielberg or your mom owns her own Random House, nobody gets grandfathered into a writing career through nepotism. It is one of the few jobs in the world that you actually have to be able to do well in order to be successful at it.  (Granted “well” can range from pedestrian writers who lucked onto a vampire-in-high-school idea, or geniuses that we aspire to reach the feet of, but the entire range of quality for professional writers is in the professional quality range.  Except for this sentence, actually, now that I reread it.)  My point is, the only ticket that can get you through the door, from where you stand before you break in, to being inside the world of agents, editors, publishing deals, book tours and royalty checks, (or for you screenwriters, agents, managers, producers, story meetings, and big bucks) – the ONLY ticket in is a great piece of writing that you completed, polished, and own, based on no one else’s material, original, sharp, smart, yours.  This manuscript is step one, before which (and without which) there is no game.  So first you do the work.  Sometimes for years.  But it inevitably and happily brings you to:

Step TwoThe Pitch.  For most of you reading this, that next step happens on the weekend of August 6-8, at the Portland Airport Sheraton Hotel, the home of the famous and adorable Willamette Writers Conference.  Here you will be pitching.  Presenting your project to the buyers who are looking for writers and new projects to publish and produce.  I wrote about pitching last month in this space and there are two terrific pitching workshops pre-conference.  July 17 Leona Grieve leads one for novelists and July 31 I will teach one for book and screenwriters.  (Go to to sign up if you haven’t already.)  Once you have your pitch ready, your pitching clothes cleaned and pressed, you show up and deliver.  What happens next is, if it goes right, they ask you to send them your manuscript.  They might ask for a few chapters and an outline or the whole piece.  They will either hand you their business card or give you their contact information.  Congratulations!  You are now at

Step Three:  Submission.  You deliver it electronically if that’s what they ask for, generally in a pdf format.  Screenplays can be sent in Final Draft or as a pdf.  If you are mailing a hard copy, be sure that it is marked on the outside “As Requested.”  Then enclose a BRIEF note (never more than a short page) telling them how you enjoyed meeting them at the W.W. Conference, and are so glad they liked your story about the nosy Chihuahua who discovers the raccoon running the gambling casino under the porch.  (This idea is available by the way.)  Manuscript enclosed.  You look forward to hearing his/her response.  Warmest regards, etc.  If by some fabulous chance more than one person you pitch to this August requests it, send it to them all.  Let them know it’s a multiple submission.  Make a note of when you submitted it, to whom, and then start writing something else immediately so you don’t go buggy waiting around.  Seriously.  Get back to work.

Step Four.  Interest.  I won’t bother elaborating on 2/3 of the possibilities for responses.  (One, they reject it or two, you never hear from them again.)  Let’s focus on the third and more positive possibility.  They love it.  An agent contacts you, wants to read more, wants to represent the project, wants to sign you.  It could be any one of these or all four.  Book agents charge 15% commission fee and screenwriters’ agents charge 10%.  A producer calls you and loves your screenplay.  Generally he/she wants an option for a limited time for little or no money.  Occasionally she/he wants permission to send it around and try and get it “set up.”  Which means selling your script to a studio or getting financing independently.  Your decision to go with this producer should be based on his track record.  Has she gotten pictures made?  Do they have legit connections in the industry?  And how much do they love it?  You need them to LOVE it.  If it feels right in your gut, go for it.  Be clear that all the rights to your project still belong to you until you have been paid for your work.

Step Five:  Notes.  Sometimes an agent loves your book but wants you to work with an independent editor to get it polished, at your expense.  I would do this.  Sometimes an agent loves your screenplay but has some thoughts about beefing up the lead role or maybe a less depressing ending.  If you agree with the notes, do them.  On spec for no money.  This is part of making it as good as you can.  But be clear that this work which you are doing for no pay also completely belongs to you.  Let the producer/manager know that you are happy to do the notes, but they do not constitute any form of collaboration.  It is still completely your screenplay.  They may produce or represent.  They are not co-authoring.  Only do notes that you know in your heart are making your project better.

Step Five.  A Deal.  The agent sends it out and your book is picked up.  You have a book deal.  It may be for a lot of money or a little, but you will have permanent bragging rights and more importantly, a book!  You pitched to an editor, she took it to her company and convinced them to buy it.  The producer who loved your pitch, and your script, was able to get it set up and you get a fat contract in the mail.  You immediately parlay this into an agent representing you, you join the Writers Guild and you’re off and running.

Don’t forget to open that bottle of champagne you have stashed in the back of your fridge in case of success.  These things happen in stages and sometimes the incremental forward moving steps seem small.  Sometimes they are small.  I’m just saying, don’t forget to celebrate along the way.  They loved it, WAHOO!  Then, they optioned it, YIPPEE!  They bought it?  Holy crabapples!  Celebrate.  And let us know so we can celebrate with you.  We want you in our “Members in Print” column.  And yes, we’ll probably take some credit for you.  She’s one of ours.  Whether the ride is bumpy or smooth, scary fast or hair-pullingly slow, enjoy the ride friends.  Some people sit at home and never even climb onto the roller coaster.

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