I ran across an interesting quote from Stefan Bucher, who has written a book called "All Access: The Making of 30 Extraordinary Graphic Designers." There's an interview with him at www.graphicsdesignforum.com. He was asked what was the big thing he learned from the process of interviewing 30 of the top graphic designers, and this is what he said:
"The main lesson I learned is that nobody ever arrives. None of the designers told me 'Hey! I made it. I'm on top and I'm feeling good about it. Time to kick back.' Each and every one of them still has some sort of monkey on his or her back. Despite years of success, most still have to work for a living, and they all crave new challenges. The journey doesn't end until it's ended for you. Is that discouraging or heartening? A little of both, perhaps."
I think the same applies to writers. I can remember before any of my scripts were produced, I thought "success" meant having your writing actually shot for TV or film. After a while, I re-defined it to having your script shot pretty much as you'd written it. Then, shot as you've written it and featuring good actors. Of course, the more conditions you attach, the less frequently they are met.
Not only do the goal posts move, but we're the ones moving them. The funny thing is now I've gone full circle--or beyond. Now I define success as enjoying writing the first draft...after that, anything else is gravy!
In case you missed the first post on this topic, I’m keeping a diary of the process of getting my next non-fiction book, “Your Writing Coach,” published. Yesterday I had a conference call with two people from the publisher’s office in Boston. The timing of the pre-publication events is interesting if you’ve never seen behind the scenes before.
The book is due to be published in the U.S. in May, but the publisher’s sales reps will be calling on the book store chains the last two weeks of December and the first two weeks of January. After that, they will hit the independents, store by store, for another three months. As you can imagine, it’s the orders from the chains that have the greatest influence on the success or failure of a new book.
Before the sales reps hit the road, they are briefed by the publishers about the new books they’ll be repping, and this is where we have to make an impression. The more excited we can get the reps about my book, the more likely it is that they’ll transmit some of that excitement to the buyers.
The main tool we will have to get them enthused is a sales kit that will include a sample chapter, photo, and some material about what makes this book stand out. The idea of a USP—Unique Selling Proposition—is crucial because there are already a lot of books out there about writing. When that sales kit is ready, I’ll share a few of the features with you.
We also talked about what marketing efforts we can undertake, and the need to get started with that now, a full seven months before publication. For example, I plan to make up a useful tips flyer that can be given away at writing conferences, and to offer to speak at a few of the major events. Because they plan their speakers far in advance, I will have to make those approaches soon. Usually we think of the publicity and marketing of a book as taking three months around the date of publication, but it’s clear that it’s going to be more like one year, starting six months before and going on for six months after.
Stay tuned for more! (By the way, my most recent book is an e-book, “Time Management for Writers,” which you can find on the ‘stuff to buy’ page of my website, www.timetowrite.com.)
Here’s another helpful observation about pitching from writer Chrysanthy Balis (taken from the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Quarterly). About what makes people truly stand out when pitching, she says it is: “Eye contact, confidence in the vision and direction you’ve chosen for the story, and a real passion for the material. Producers know that the story will change in the development process. What they want to know is that a writer has a clear vision, the ability to imagine other ways to go with the project, and gets what’s vital about the story—the selling points.”
I’d add to this that the selling points are always within the story—it’s a common mistake to try to get people excited at the pitching stage about potential merchandizing, spin-offs, sequels, etc. Instead, focus on what it is about your story that will make people want to see it or read it.
One of the best ways to learn about what works is simply to go into a book store and look at the new books. Which titles grab you? Which one-line or two-line descriptions on the front cover? Also check the back covers. What points there make you want to keep reading? Look especially closely at books by previously unknown authors that are now on the best-seller lists—these are the ones selling on the basis of their content and marketing, not the familiarity of their authors.
(PS: if you lack confidence in pitching, consider downloading the 'inner critic visualization' that you'll find at my website--www.timetowrite.com. Click on the 'trances' tab on the left side of the home page to find out all about this and other trances available for download.)
If you want to see a writer's great web site, check out particiacornwell.com. To be honest, I'm not a fan of forensic crime novels (too gory for my taste), but I do admire this site! As you'll see, obviously a lot of money has gone into it, but I think there are some elements that those of us who don't have a huge budget for a site could learn from.
One is her 'forensic challenge'--is there a way to make your site interactive?
Another is the variety of clips of her being interviewed or speaking. OK, these look like they were professionally recorded, but if what you are saying is interesting, even something recorded on a webcam can help attract people.
I'm in the process of designing the site for my forthcoming "Your Writing Coach" website, and I'm going to try to learn something from this site--have a look for yourself, you might find some inspiration there, too.
There's an interesting article in the current Oprah magazine (hey, I read widely), actually an excerpt from Ellen Burstyn's book, "Lessons in Becoming Myself." It's about the movie, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," in which she and director Martin Scorsese wanted one ending and the head of Warner's (who was providing the money) insisted on another.
Quick summary of the plot: When Alice's husband dies, she decides to head West and rekindle her dream of being a singer. She takes their son and starts a road trip across America. She has an affair with a man who turns out to be married and violent, and then falls in love with a nice rancher played by Kris Kristofferson. Since the whole film was about a woman having the courage to pursue her dreams, Burstyn and Scorsese wanted the film to end with Alice choosing to move on to pursue her dream, but the studio wanted her to stay with the rancher.
If you've never seen the film or, like me, have forgotten how it ended, how would you have handled this problem?
It was Kris Kristofferson who came up with the solution. "Come on," he said in character, "I'll take you to Monterey." The rancher is willing to give up the ranch in order to let the women he loves pursue her dream. Happy ending all the way around.
The story illustrates how easy it is to get stuck in black-or-white/ A or B type thinking, when often the better solution is a third way. Hmm, probably that's true in life as well as in screenplays and novels...
My new non-fiction book, "Your Writing Coach" is now on track to be published in April 2007 by Nicholas Brealey publishing (London & Boston), and I thought it might be interesting and maybe even instructive to keep a journal of the process in this blog. So, here's the story so far:
I wrote a book proposal for a book to be called "Time to Write," with the emphasis on time management and productivity for writers and sent it to a new agent (my previous book agent having retired since my last book came out). She offered to represent it and sent it to four publishers. One didn't answer, two said it wasn't for them, and the fourth, a major publisher of writing books, said they thought it was interesting but "it seems like it calls for a lot of work on the part of writers, and we're more interested now in books that offer easy tips, or instant results." I thought that was kind of a sad commentary on the state of publishing these days. (I'm not identifying this publisher by name since I may want to do business with them sometime in the future, but if you have lots of writing books in your library, you'll figure out who I mean). Lesson 1: a non-fiction book is likely to be received well if it makes things sound easy and instant. Lesson 1.5: there's only so far you can go in promising this and still maintain your integrity.
Those four submissions were also the extent of the work that the agent was willing to do. So I sent out the book to three likely publishers myself. One said they were not interested, one never answered, and one, Nicholas Brealey, said they'd been thinking about publishing something in this field and invited me to phone them and then invited me to come in for a chat (since we were both based in London). Lesson 2: Timing is everything. And the more you get your proposal out there, the more likely it is that it will be encountered by someone who is ready for it at that point.
Nicholas Brealey said that he would be interested in a book in which time management and productivity were only two elements. We discussed my background and the fact that I teach writing internationally and have been a coach/consultant in this field, and out of that came the idea for a book that would guide people all the way through the writing process and would include elements that most writing books leave out, for example, how to get the people in your life to support your writing dreams and goals. Although this meant I would be doing a substantially different book, it sounded exciting to me and I offered to put together a new outline. Lesson 3: It helps to be open to changes and to respect the idea that the people who will sell your book probably have a good handle on what will sell.
I submitted a new outline and received some further suggestions and an offer of a contract. As this was now basically a new book, I didn't feel obliged to involved the agent who gave up on the previous one after four submissions. The advance the publisher was offering was modest, but I was encouraged by the fact that he had said that his plan was to keep the book in print over the long run. I felt the contract was fair, and signed. The advance was to be paid out one-third upon signing, one-third upon delivery of the manuscript, and one-third upon publication. Lesson 4 (or opinion four): Your long-term relationship with a publisher is more important than squeezing out every last dollor or pound for your advance.
It took only a couple of months to go from the first contact to signing the contract, which called for me to deliver the manuscript within about 5 months. I made up a folder for each chapter and went through all of my previous writing and the articles I'd clipped from various sources to allocate them to the appropriate folder. I was glad that my sometimes obsessive saving of material that might come in handy someday was paying off. Lesson 5: If you have even a vague idea of writing about a particular subject, keep all the information you run across about that topic.
I submitted the manuscript on time (well, just under a week late, actually, which I guess in the history of publishing isn't too bad). A few weeks later I got the feedback from the publisher, which pointed out that two of the chapters were a bit weaker than the others, which was totally accurate--I'd kind of not wanted to notice that myself. They also suggested that I switch the order of a few of the chapters around, and integrate into the chapters information that I'd planned to put into three appendices. All good ideas. I had planned to use my proposal for this book as the sample book proposal but the publisher felt that might be confusing. Instead, I'll use the proposal for the book I want to write next, which means I now have a firm deadline for coming up with that proposal, which is good. Lesson 6: You're not done until you're done. And when the feedback is useful, that's good.
The deadline for the revised manuscript is November 1, so I'll keep you posted. One other thing I should mention is that the agent and publishers were very interested in my plans for marketing the book. Everybody these days wants to know about your "platform." By this, they mean the method you have to reach potential buyers. The days when authors could just sit back and expect the publisher to do all the marketing are gone (if they ever existed). In my case, my Brainstorm ebulletin reaches about 1500 people every month, and the www.timetowrite.com website and this blog are other ways of reaching writers. The book will also have its own website and I have proposed several marketing strategies that I'll share with you as I continue to write about this project. Lesson 7: Marketing is king. To attract a publisher for your non-fiction book, you will have to propose a credible marketing plan.
One of the people who has participated in my workshops sent an email asking for any tips on overcoming fear of failure. In this case, it relates to doing stand-up comedy, one of the scariest things to attempt (I know, I tried it...once) but the same principles apply to fear of failing in anything. Here's what I suggested--if you are afraid of failing in some endeavor, maybe it can help you, too:
One useful strategy is to re-define success in a given situation. For a stand-up appearance the obvious definition of success might be "to make everybody laugh at every joke and have a great time doing it." But the reality is that not even the most successful stand up comedian makes everybody laugh at every joke. So what if you were to redefine success as, "to learn something useful from this appearance that I can apply to making the next one better" ?
This might include seeing which jokes work best, which ones bomb, which stage moves seem to get the audience paying more attention, how it works to slow down your delivery, how it works to speed up your delivery, etc. Of course it would be great to get a lot of laughs as well, but for sure you can learn something and if you make that your primary definition, it can transform the experience for you.
Related to this, you might specify to yourself before you go on that this time you are going to test one specific thing--again, it might relate to speed of delivery, or how close you stand to the audience, or how much you involve people in the audience, etc.--and your goal is to find out how effective (or not) that specific thing is. That gives you a focus that takes away the focus on fear.
I'm in the States at the moment (instead of my usual London base). I did grow up here, but now that I've lived away for quite a long time, when I come back I usually find at least one thing that reminds me that it's a unique place.
Last time it was a big ad for an exorcism service (they also dealt with curses and voodoo spells).
This time it's the ad for PlaneSheets, which explains: "These colorful seat covers come in either First Class/Business or Coach sizes and easily slide over your seat...you can further individualize your flight by choosing from a host of materials--from toile to chenille to denim--and colors. They even offer kicky patterns like good-n-plenty, leopard, and black toile."
Apparently some Americans are worried not only about terrorist attacks, but the possibility that their seat might be laden with germs (presumably they never use the toilet on the plane). I fly a lot and the seats have been the least of my worries. An oxygen tank, germ mask, ear plugs, and traniquilizing dart gun for the talkative person in the next seat would be much more useful than a leopard pattern PlaneSheet.
I know this post doesn't have anything to do with writing, but writers have to be alert to the weirdness around us, so I thought I'd pass this along.
The Writers' Program Quarterly of the UCLA Extension program includes some interesting quotes about pitching.
Here's what Chrysanthy Balis, writer of the film "Asylum" among others, says about how she prepares for a pitch: "I write out a treatment, sometimes only five pages long, and sometimes up to twenty pages long. When I have finished getting the story to a place where it shows a real vision for a film--having hammered out all the important turning points and major plot beats--I then condense it to bullet-point format, outline style. Now comes memorization and rehearsal time. Using the bird's-eye-view that the bullet outline provides, I put on my "fireside storyteller" hat and rehearse an engaging, conversational delivery of the story, hitting not only the major story beats, but making sure that I draw them into visualizing the story cinematically."
Notice how much work goes into something that--if done right--will appears casual and effortless to the listener!
More on this subject soon.
In his e-newsletter, Tom Peters! Times, the management guru (www.tompeters.com) suggests several ways to get re-excited about a project when you've gone a bit cool on it. Here's one I thought was especially good:
"Sell: The easiest way to get excited about a project is to sell it to someone else. That forces us to think about what is important about the project, and why the project matters. Sit down and develop a compelling 3-minute pitch that highlights the benefits of the project and why you are in love with it. If you can't get excited about your own project, neither will anyone else! Practice the pitch with a friend. Once you feel comfortable with it, share the pitch with someone who understands nothing about the project. This will allow you to determine how clear your pitch is. Lastly, refine your pitch, print it out (in color), and put it in a visible place to remind you of why this project matters."
In scriptwriting or book writing, we are used to pitching something at the start of a project, to get a commission. But it's very common to have the "second act blahs" (the second act being that big chunk in the middle), and re-pitching the project, even if only to yourself, could be a great way to get back your enthusiasm.
On the How magazine blog site (howdesign.com/blog), Tricia shared the following:
"I had the privilege of hearing Ira Glass of This American Life fame speak last night. Here are a couple of notes from his talk for your consideration:
No topic sentences. Good story telling is not what you were taught in school. If you want to engage someone, start with a story in motion. Something happens which causes something to happen which causes something to happen. That is the essence of a story. Use dialogue because then the story switches to real time and the listener is living it with the teller. Use details that help the listener see what is happening. Wait until the end to reveal the big picture. Then the listener has made the journey with the teller and will feel the connection."
A great concise summary of the essence of storytelling! (How is an excellent design magazine that I often find has ideas that apply just as much to writing, and it's a pleasure to look at, too.)
In his book, “Idea Spotting,” Sam Harrison suggests that one of the strategies for coming up with new ideas is to look to the past for inspiration. He cites the example of a group of architects that used themes and patterns from New York’s old garment district when designing an award-winning restaurant. For another restaurant, they drew on the look of 1930’s municipal buildings, featuring restroom doors with mail slots and menus made from government forms. As the song goes, “Everything old is new again,” and sometimes it’s more useful to harvest the past than to try to stay ahead of the latest trend.
In your arena of interest, what are some now-forgotten products, designs, or ideas that you might be able to revive in a new form? For example, a few posts below this one, I mention how Penguin is issuing a novel in parts, similar to how writers used to release their stories in sections in magazines like The Strand.
(Every month I send out a Brainstorm e-bulletin with five items like this plus an inspirational quote. There's on charge, and you can sign up easily at www.timetowrite.com--naturally, we never share or sell our mailing list.)