Life is a pitch meeting.

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I spoke to a college screenwriting class the other night, and I realized something that I guess I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve never actually put into words.

Life is a constant pitch meeting.

There were about a dozen kids in this class. Okay, not all kids. I talked for about forty-five minutes, my whole story of breaking into the film business and what the job is really like and how it’s different from being an author, all the usual, and 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 actually 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?

If I were an executive handing out jobs or assignments, guess which ones would get the job?

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 and was arrested by the cops.

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 last night. And oh, do film executives love visual aids. Who doesn’t?

At twenty-two or whatever, these guys 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.

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 our 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 crowded room, and once you spot them, it’s hard to take your eyes off them.  (Have you ever watched Lee Child smoking a cigarette, for example?  Now, tell me that’s not a living advertisment for the Reacher books.)

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 last night, I am a highly connected industry professional who was right in front of them, 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.

II 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.

I know a lot of us have just been out there at conferences, it’s the season. Think back over your conference experiences. Did you make the most of the HUNDREDS of opportunities that presented themselves to you over the conference weekend?

You aren’t ever going to be on all the time, let’s just be realistic about that! But were you on most of the time? Did you talk passionately and specifically about your newest projects so that editor or agent on the sidelines of the group made a mental note (“Read that author” or “Keep track of that person”).

Did you sparkle?

And if you didn’t, do you maybe 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 US that is putting the brakes on.

So those are my questions for the day, and also – who are some examples of authors who sparkle, for you?

34 thoughts on “Life is a pitch meeting.

  1. NS Foster

    I tend to hope that I will be enough of a contradiction to spark interest. In professional situations, I prefer to dress like a New York exec (with pretty awesome taste in heels). I’m a young woman to boot. Hopefully when I sit someone down to explain the vital importance of the ancient dragon Falak not being summoned as it will annihilate, not protect, a small kingdom, it will create enough of a discord to surprise people 🙂

  2. Karen in Ohio

    One can take inspiration and life lessons from the weirdest places. In the old Sonny & Cher Show, way back in the early 70’s, I can still remember Sonny telling Chastity (who made an appearance on every show, which delighted my daughter who was about the same age at the time) that you have to have PERSONALITY. Emphasis Sonny’s. It made that much of an impression on me, a timid little Catholic girl who had always been told not to put myself forward. Phooey on that.

    Excellent points, Pari. It’s good to get a reminder every once in awhile.

  3. R.J. Mangahasw

    One author who I think does indeed sparkle, albeit not in a "HERE I AM" sort of way, is Ken Bruen. He is soft spoken yet it’s easy to feel the presence that he has.

    As far as myself sparkling, perhaps it’s time to get out the polish.

  4. Debbie Schubert

    LOVE this post! Said another way, marketing is everything. As a writer, every communication I have with a potential agent is ripe for the picking. I try to make every encounter shine, make them want to know more about me, make them want to read my work, even make them want to be my friend. I’m a mystery writer, singer/songwriter, and a doctor’s wife, so therein lies a dichotomy. Those are the elements I hope will spark interest.

    The author that came to mind when you asked the question is Kristin Hannah. The picture of her on the back of her novels "sparkles." I immediately wanted to know more about her, which made me want to read her books. I’ve only read one so far ("Firefly Lane") and was not disappointed.

    Putting your best and most interesting face forward at all times is vital. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.;-)

  5. pari noskin taichert

    This is a wonderful and pertinent post. I always say that "everything you do is PR" and I mean it. That doesn’t mean you have to be strategic every time you walk out your door, or write a post/comment on a blog, or make a phone call or or . . .

    But it’s important to be aware that your actions and self presentation do have an impact whether you intend them to or not.

    I think I do it unconsciously when I’ve slept well enough — or don’t have food poisoning <g>.

  6. JT Ellison

    Alex, fabulous post. It’s so true – I think we sometimes get so wrapped up in pitching a book we forget that ultimately, we’re pitching ourselves. The author is just as important in brand management as the characters, the story, the cover and the reviews.

    As far as who sparkles at conferences? I think you win that contest hands down.

  7. JD Rhoades

    I’ll second JT’s nomination of Alex.

    Another writer who definitely has sparkle is CJ Box. CJ writes great mysteries set in the West, and with his big ol’ cowboy hat, big silver belt buckle and cowboy boots , he lets you know it. When I met him I saw that outfit and expected him to be big mouthed and blustery…but he’s actually a really great guy. You just don’t want to be behind him going through airport security.

  8. Louise Ure

    Alex, I agree with your point that it’s easier to remember the authors who have a consistent image, are approachable and stand out in some way, but does an author always have to be on stage? Do marketers always "sell themselves" and their products at cocktail parties? Do singers always have to trill to impress? My least favorite kind of author is he of that consistent image, overly approachable, stand out style who refuses to sometimes recognize that he’s not the only person in the room and doesn’t have to be the center of attention.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, you were such a standout for me that first Malice I went to – such radiant energy. You make people want to be around you. That’s what I’m talking about, Louise – not the MeMeMe author who sucks all the air out of the room. Sparkling is giving just as much as getting attention.

    And JT, you called it exactly – when you talk about branding. There’s a certain part we play that people want us to play because it tells them the things about us they’re curious about.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Louise, I guess I partly "sell" myself because people enjoy it. I’m just as happy to be the listener when someone else wants or needs the stage.

    Of course, all those years of dancing with choreographers constantly yelling "SELL IT!!!" at us probably has something to do with it.

  11. karen from mentor

    Hey Alex,
    That’s happened to me since I launched my blog. I came out of my shell and said Hello world!
    I don’t think about what each post is going to GET me, I just sparkle the best I know how and I’ve had some awesome opportunities come to me because of it.

    I’m ON in person non stop because I love people and I think you can flirt in varying degrees with everyone you meet be they man,woman or child, oh and DOGS! Dogs are huge flirts.

    An author who really sparkes for me is Fanny Flagg. Fanny is just so warm, funny and ON that she shines through in person and in her writing…

    PS to Stephen: I love the idea of you bathing in glitter Stephen, just don’t get it in your eyes. (or in your new tattoo)

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Karen, you’re right, dogs are the biggest flirts. Except for cats.

    Louise, thanks.

    Tom – pitching is always an ordeal. Always. That’s why making it more a part of everyday is a good plan – it gives you some practice.

  13. Rob Gregory Browne

    Pitch meetings were also a disaster for me, which is part of the reason I got out of Hollywood. I’m not exactly your "sparkle" kind of guy, but I manage to get by on my own limited personality.

    And I think that’s the key. Just be true to who you are. Be honest and up front about who you are — and, of course, knock them dead with your talent — and I think you’ll be ok.

    Frankly, based on the descriptions you gave of the two guys in that class, I would NEVER have looked at their work. They may have stood out, but they sounded to me like pretentious b.s.’ers. And their "performances" would have turned me off in a nanosecond…

    But maybe that’s just me.

  14. Allison Brennan

    I liked Rob the minute I met him because what you see is what you get. He’s humble, smart, and has a dry sense of humor. Rob, you sparkle in your own way because of exactly what you said: BE TRUE TO WHO YOU ARE.

    Damn, between Pari’s post and Alex’s post, tomorrow no one here is going to believe we don’t orchestrate our topics (though Pari’s post did inspire me to write about "voice")

    I hate marketing me, but I love talking about books and movies and characters, anyone’s–including mine. I love talking about my ideas and playing the what if game with other creative people. Toni has been great to bounce ideas off of, especially when I get in a pickle in the middle of a story. My friend Karin Tabke does it for me to, just by asking me questions. So talking about stories, I think, makes me sparkle because I love stories. But I don’t sparkle like on stage, because I really don’t like being the center of attention. I like eavesdropping 🙂

  15. Karen in Ohio

    Alex, I apologize for calling you Pari this morning. Blame getting three hours sleep in the last three nights.

  16. pari noskin taichert

    I’ve been in awe of you every single time I watch you in a public situation — period. Just fantastic how you present yourself and manage to maintain such a level of sincerity wrapped in utter coolness.

    (And Karen,
    I loved that you mistook me for Alex; that’ll be the only time in this life that that will happen <g>)

  17. Rob Gregory Browne

    First off, thanks Allison, for the kind words. You and I clicked at the first Thrillerfest because, I think, we both knew we were getting the real thing.

    You never feel as if you have to be "on" around Allison, and her enthusiasm for stories and storytelling and the mechanisms of this crazy business is contagious. The moment she starts talking about a scene from one of her books, you can see the utter delight she gets from the creative process, and it reminds me that what we’re doing should always be approached with the idea of having fun.

    I don’t disagree with you, Alex, about having to sparkle, but the word "sparkle" means a lot of different things to different people.

  18. Kaye Barley

    I am running SO far behind!!!!!!

    Alex – you win Queen of Sparkle. for real. And because it’s so natural, it’s even lovelier.

    J.D. – you made me hoot.

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Actually, "sparkle" is Margaret Maron’s word – I just think she’s right.

    And Allison is being modest – she is WICKED in person – she just glows with secrets and conspiracies. No one could miss her in a crowd.

    Rob has this world-weary angst that makes him a standout, too.

    And Rob, those guys didn’t just put on performances. They were the only ones who really asked questions all through class, and the only ones who followed up with letters thanking me for coming to class, and courteous questions about the next steps in their careers. What I mean to say is – they’re the ones who sparkled, but theyre doing a lot more right than sparkling.

  20. Sara J. Henry

    Which makes me remember your panel at Bouchercon in Madison where you asked for a volunteer and I stuck up my hand (having apparently left my shy retiring self behind at some point) – which made you remember me when I met you a couple of years later.

    At that Bouchercon I also approached Michael Robotham, whose first two books I’d just read (and loved). Then when I spent five weeks last summer houseswapping in Sydney, we had two meetings where he forced me to talk about the novel I was working on and convinced me to change the title. And in the year since provided email support as I was going through the agent and publisher selection process.

    All because I made myself go up and talk to him – he remembered me because only two people at the conference had approached him.


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