That breakthrough moment

 by Alexandra Sokoloff

There’s a question authors often get in interviews – more so in the early professional years than later: “Can you tell us what was it like when you got ‘the call’?”

Meaning the phone call from your agent that your first book had sold.

I think people like to hear those breakthrough stories because it’s a little like rehearsing for your own “call”.  You hear in various New Age philosophies that you need to actually feel your own success inside you to draw it to you.

My own call happened first with a script. I wrote it with a partner I’d met in a writing class, and while we had both written before, this was the first all out effort at a spec script. And it was good. We knew it. It got us our pick of agents, and he took it out to the studios. 

Well, we got into a bidding war situation, which was both electrifying and terrifying. It lasted almost an entire week, which I know sounds like lightning speed compared to the glacial pace of publishing, but it was the longest week of my life. Studios were in, studios were out. Producers we’d never met were calling us trying to talk us into going with them. To say things were tense is the understatement of that decade; sometime in the middle of the second day I started crying and basically didn’t stop until the script sold. 

Well, that’s not exactly true. I did go to a party the night before we got the call. I cried all the way through getting dressed, then stopped crying when my friends picked me up. We went to the party and, well, partied, danced, whatever – I was laughing and sunny and enjoying myself. I don’t remember now how four of us ended up walking through a park in the early hours of the morning – we couldn’t possibly have walked all the way from the Westside of L.A. to my apartment in the Fairfax district. Probably a bunch of us went out to a nearby deli (Canters, one of the only open-after-midnight eateries in L.A. back then) and then these three guys walked me home from there. I remember feeling like Dorothy on the road to Oz with the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion; my friends were actors I’d gone to college with and we’d acted together in many more unusual configurations than that. But there was a numinousness about that night; I felt poised on the verge of something massive.

I hugged them all at my door, closed it, and immediately burst into tears again, and stayed up the rest of the night (morning) crying.

 I should have mentioned up front:  I’m not a crier.  It’s very rare for me. The fact that I had a week-long fit of weeping is still amazing to me. But that’s how long this writing journey had been for me, and how stressed out I was at being so close to what may or may not have turned into a breakthrough.

And the next day we got The Call. The script had sold for quite a bit of money, much more than I’d ever had before in my life.  It changed my life substantially –not having to constantly worry about finances was a huge relief. But more importantly, I was “in”. I’d always pictured the movie business as a city inside an enormous glass dome, with all of us film hopefuls circling the dome, trying to figure out how to get inside. From then on L.A. looked exactly the same, but it didn’t feel the same, ever again.

Since then I’ve had other variations of The Call, including my first book sale and the moment of Huntress Moon hitting the Amazon bestseller charts. I’ve never cried for a week straight since that first time; I don’t think anything after can ever be the same as that first concrete affirmation that yes, you’re doing the right thing and you really can actually DO IT. But there’s always a heady sense of exhilaration mixed with massive relief – relief that all that obsessive work was leading to something, relief that someone values that work enough to pay you enough to do more of it.

For me the feeling of this moment is much more easily captured in music than on film or on the page; I really love songs about this breakthrough or that are about an artist right before the breakthrough, songs that have that dual sense of poverty and struggling along with the sense that the breakthrough is coming.  And I wonder if collecting those songs had a little bit to do with my own breakthroughs: that I knew from songs how it was supposed to feel, and sought out that feeling for myself.

The best ever to me is Springsteen’s “Rosalita”. No other song has ever captured that exhilaration of that “through the looking glass” breakthrough so perfectly; when I hear it I feel I can do anything. And who can NOT dance?

I also love the Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones”, another fabulous dance song. This one is very personal to me because I know some of the band; as a matter of fact one of my favorite memories is a party during which one of the guys – pre-breakthrough – fell off my second floor balcony clutching a life-sized statue of St. Francis (neither were hurt – if you’re going to take a dive off a balcony, make sure to take a saint with you.) 

And as over-rotated as Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is, I never switch channels when it comes on.  All those sad people in the bar with their big dreams, and you listen to it knowing that when the bar patrons tell the pianist, “Man, what are YOU doing here?” that he won’t be there for long.

So of course I’d love to hear stories about “The Call.” And does anyone have any  breakthrough or “on the verge” songs for me? 


24 thoughts on “That breakthrough moment

  1. Jake Nantz

    May not mean the same, 'cause I haven't gotten "THE CALL" yet. Then again, I haven't finished and sent out my second WIP yet….

    But anyway, I do remember the feeling when my first short got accepted. It wasn't the first one to actually get into print, because Spinetingler was in a transition phase, and the issue was pushed back a few months. But I still remember sitting down to check my email, and opening the one from Jack Getze. I was excited because I thought I might actually get personal feedback with this rejection instead of just a "no thanks", since it was coming straight from Jack. Instead he wanted to know if it was still available for pub.

    I let out a little sound, kind of an "Oooh", and it must've been louder than I thought because my wife came down the hall going, "What the hell was that?"

    That was a really good, validating feeling. I love that feeling. I can't wait to see what "THE CALL" feels like.

  2. Richard Maguire

    Alex, I'm just wondering if you were on a creative high after you'd sold that first screenplay. I mean, did so many new ideas start flooding your brain that you wondered how you'd ever find time to write them all? Or were you suddenly offered gun-for-hire jobs, rewriting the work of other screenwriters? And if so, how did you feel about taking on those assignments?

  3. David Corbett

    To quote Richard Ford: This is a sad story, I warn you.

    I got the call when Terri was dying of cancer, and when I went into our bedroom to tell her the full story – she’d overhead my conversation on the phone in the next room — she pulled up the covers to her chin and said hauntingly: You’re going to become famous now, and leave.

    She’d had such a rough childhood, with love so conflicted and precarious and hard. Our marriage had been her first true safe haven. To hear those old fears come back, and at such a pitiless time – and pointed at me — it broke my heart.

    I sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked her face and said: Oh, baby, I’m never gonna leave you.

    She died a little more than a month after that.

    I’ve had nice moments since then, perhaps more than my share, but there’s been no smooth sailing, so I’ve taken the tack of moderation – don’t get too high with the successes, don’t take the setbacks too hard.

    Perhaps that’s why my “victory” song is “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” by the Pogues, an anthem of joy in the face of death, even damnation. It’ll kick you onto the dance floor for sure – but your heart will catch that cautionary Celtic minor mode.

  4. Lisa Alber

    I had the pre-call call, which is to say the call from an agent offering to represent me. In fact, I've had two of them. I felt like I was on the verge — finally — and I was so excited I froze up a bit, like stage fright or something. But I was pumped. So pumped.

    Too bad neither worked out in the long run. The first agent left the business, and the other–well, I still don't understand what happened there–except that I was devastated when she later blew me off. I also had another agent start working with me–very hands on–to fine tune my manuscript for submission to editors only to have her back out half way though, saying she doesn't do that kind of thing anymore…she doesn't have time. Whah?

    And then, how about the agent that sends me back a great note saying how publishable my novel is, but…she still doesn't want to rep it.

    Going off point here…I'm really interested in the New Age philosophy you mentioned. Do you believe it? I've always kind of believed it…but shit, it's hard to maintain when the years and the obstacles and the disappointments mount up. I could use some strategies, that's for sure. I'm so pessimistic these days…

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Richard, I did a lot of work for hire after that first sale, but novel adaptations, not rewrites. I think the business of rewriting other screenwriters' original work is reprehensible.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, I'm afraid I do believe it. I think we all struggle against pessimism, it's really hard to NOT obsess on the worst when things haven't gone well for a while, but it does seem to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I'm no expert, but I have found Al Anon (or any 12 step program) incredibly helpful in training myself to release fear. Even if you don't have an addict or alcoholic in your life there's something to learn. Meditation is lifesaving, too.

  7. Lisa Alber

    Thanks, Alex. In my 20s I read a book called "Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow." It helped me a lot. There's so much we can't control. But that can be a positive thing too. I know from past experience that surprising, serendipitous things can happen. That's the positive side of having no control. I remind myself of that often…meditation would be good too!

  8. Jake Nantz

    David, definitely heartbreaking, but I'm so glad you shared it. It certainly gives a separate viewpoint from the joy we as writers might experience.

    And I, also, love the Pogues. I'll listen to anything with a good Celtic pace to it, whether it's hardcore punk like The Dropkick Murphys and The Blaggards, or something lighter like Gaelic Storm or the Young Dubliners. Awesome stuff!

  9. Dan Erickson

    What a great story. I'm not sure when I'll get "the call" as I've chose to forego traditional methods at this time. I'm self-publishing for now. My first book has received great reviews form those who've read it. Like you, I know I have something good. I know it has movie potential. But for now, I'm just building my portfolio and honing my craft. My second book comes out in the spring. I'm having fun. Maybe someday they'll call me. Or maybe I'll seek an agent after I have a few books under my belt.

    I love your selection of music, too.

  10. KDJames

    Alex, I can't imagine you crying like that. Sounds like a recipe for a massive migraine.

    I haven't gotten "the call" but I have received a couple of encouraging emails that came out of nowhere and really blew me away. And a writer friend I know only from brief online conversations reviewed my little self-pubbed collection of essays (ahem, blog posts) and said my writing reminded him of Bill Bryson. That left me speechless (and yes, a wee bit teary-eyed). Such generosity.

    The song that popped into my head reading this is What a Feeling from the movie Flashdance. I don't remember the movie as being all that remarkable, but I really like that song. The way it starts all slow with:

    "First when there's nothing
    but a slow glowing dream
    that your fear seems to hide
    deep inside your mind."

    And then, when the music picks up and kicks in, it feels like a victory. Makes me want to dance.

    Lisa, hang in there. You too, Jake. I know you're both probably sick of hearing that it takes time and persistence (so am I), but I think honestly it just takes more than we ever imagined.

    David, difficult as it was, I'm glad you got that call while your wife was still there to share it with you. From what you've written here about her, I have to believe she was also happy and proud of you.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, I've always thought "Do what you love and the money will follow": is the unofficial California state motto.

    Have you ever tried keeping a synchronicity journal? Every night (or the day after), write down synchronicities that happened that day. The more you keep a record, the more you will notice intuitive guidance. It really works!

  12. Boyd Morrison

    That's a great story, Alex. I remember asking you this question when you were on a panel at the first ThrillerFest because I wanted to get a sense of what it would be like when the day finally came for me (although I think your answer was different because it was about when your first novel sold). My own call happened in a restaurant where I was eating lunch with my wife and her parents. When I saw it was my agent, I snatched it up and retreated to a secluded corner, my heart pounding like a jackhammer as I listened to the news of an offer. After I got off the call, tears didn't flow, but the wine sure did!

  13. Murderati

    KD, we are still working on the comment issues. We're trying to figure out a good way to keep the conversations flowing, so please accept my apologies on behalf of the group for the filtering issues.

    Hoke Smart
    Site Administrator, Murderati

  14. not KD, really

    Oh, Hoke, you don't need to apologize to me! I'm not angry, just a bit frustrated. And I'm sure the issue is way more frustrating for you than it is for me. It's entirely likely that I've used words or phrases that the filter deems unacceptable (as would most of polite society, probably) and it's just doing the job intended.

    Thanks for continuing to rescue me from the dungeon. 🙂


  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, thanks, Dan! It's much more enjoyable to look back on than to live through. Actually,big stress always seems to come just before a big breakthrough for me, in which case my next book should go through the roof. That's a pleasant thought!

    With self-publishing I think it's not so much about a call, but the breakthrough of a massive influx of readers is SO much more gratifying, I've found. Good luck with it!!!

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    KD, I always miss you when you don't post. I am SO SORRY Squarespace is being so messed up these days. It's giving me fits, too.

    You're absolutely right about "What a Feeling" – those are better lyrics than I remember. Actually, I've never seen the movie. Is that incredible, or what? I guess it came out during one of my extended non-media periods during which I was taking so many dance classes that stole from the choreography – I felt I'd not just seen the movie but LIVED it.

    It's a great musical and physical example of breakthrough.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Boyd, Happy New Year!!! And Mardi Gras!!!

    Yeah, my first book sale was in the middle of a house sale and attendant frantic move to get out of the house – equally dramatic in its way, but I was so distracted I didn't really have time to celebrate the moment But the pattern is the same, actually – enormous stress coming right before a major breakthrough.

    Flowing wine is always a good way to celebrate.

  18. PD Martin

    Late to the party…as usual/often.

    I LOVE the What a Feeling lyrics. And for some reason "Gloria" always makes me feel like I can do/achieve great things. Maybe because I remember it from Flashdance and the whole 'living the dream' theme.

    Great blog, Alex. And what an amazing story re your call. A whole week of it, too. No wonder you were beside yourself.

    As for me…I do rememeber the call. It was in 2005 for Body Count. I opened a bottle of Krug champagne to celebrate. Complete luxury!

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