Thursday, November 1, 2012

Andromeda: Training at Altitude --thoughts on TV writing and book pitching

Athletes who train “at altitude” force their bodies to become accustomized to the lower oxygen found at higher altitudes. Returning back to sea level, the body can perform even better.

And what does this have to do with writing and selling literary fiction or nonfiction?
For the last two months, I’ve been working full-time as part of a writers’ collaborative, doing spec TV writing with the goal of getting a TV show set and filmed in Alaska. The challenges involved exceed my blogging space, but let me just name two. First, about the storytelling. Today’s television writing is more sophisticated than it’s ever been (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Good Wife, etc). Even so, to write for TV is akin to trying to draw the Mona Lisa with a very fat crayon. The format is unforgiving. The attention spans are short. The audience has to be re-engaged every single week. Viewer of episode seven may never have watched episodes one to six. 
There is very little room for subtlety--and yet some shows do in fact somehow manage to be subtle. If you’ve seen The Good Wife, you might recall that the pilot episode opens with a two-minute scene in which the protagonist, Alicia, becomes fixated staring at a piece of lint on the sleeve of her husband, a Chicago state’s attorney, as he reacts to questions about a sex and corruption scandal, in a room crowded with journalists. If you’ve seen The Mad Men pilot, you might recall that nothing is said about the family of adulterous Don Draper until he arrives home at the end, and kisses his sleeping children. The fact that some of the best TV shows lately manage to convey subtlety—and that those particular TV writers had enough faith in the viewers to trust them to get it--verges on the miraculous.

The best TV writers rise to the challenge by creating characters that you understand and care about it within minutes. That’s been a big lesson for me, accustomed to having dozens or even hundreds of pages to urge a reader to truly understand and care. Whether drawing with a fat crayon (in TV world) or a more forgiving sketch pencil (in novel land) I’m realizing now that I have to get certain essential details sketched in more quickly. Surprises and details and deepening will come along—again, think of that Don Draper moment mentioned above—but we won’t care if we don’t have a strong grasp of the character long in advance of the great storytelling moment.
So let’s say in TV land you get ten minutes—or maybe five (maybe two!)—to secure the viewer’s attention and bring a character to life.

Those first minutes seem like a lot in comparison with the thirty seconds you get when you first start trying to pitch a TV idea with the hope of grabbing someone’s interest. (The full pitch will run longer than a minute, but as you can imagine when pitching any idea to anyone, it’s the first seconds that matter most.)
In TV land, most often, before you get to write a story, you have to make a pitch. Even if you’ve already written the story, you have to be able to make a pitch. (And probably not once; probably dozens or hundreds of times.) You say you’re a writer, not a speaker/dramatist/comedian? Too bad! It’s time to bring out those verbal performance skills and try to convince listeners, over and over, that your idea has merits.
The great thing about writing a book instead of a TV show is that publishers generally let the writing—not a brief verbal pitch, or even a snappy query letter – convince them of the project’s merits. Sometimes that can be frustrating, as when you’d really like to sell a novel based on a few chapters, rather than the whole thing. But more and more these days, publishers want to read the entire manuscript. It’s about as different from the TV world as one can get.

And yet—there always comes that time, after a novel or memoir is published, when you do in fact have to boil it all back down to a pitch, just as if you were working in Hollywood. As do the people helping you, from inside the publishing house. Your editor has to pitch it to the marketing people, to get them onboard. Your marketing people have to pitch it to the bookstores. You have to pitch it, whether to radio interviewers or to friends around a dinner party table, when they ask, “What’s your book about?”
I used to hate that moment.

So here’s what “training at altitude,” trying to pitch dozens of different TV ideas (even just to my own writing partners or TV mentors, at first), has taught me so far.  
You have to get over the anxiety hump and simply get used to trying to explain an idea to lots of different people, lots of different ways. As with all things, practice helps. Try, alter, experiment. Don’t hold it all in, waiting for the magic day your book hits the shelves. If you’ve clinched a deal, you probably have a good year to start practicing the explanation of what your book is about—and be flexible. If a certain angle doesn’t seem to convey your novel or memoir verbally, try something else. What works as flap copy may not work delivered at a party, when people won’t focus for a three-paragraph schpiel.   

In other words, it’s not good enough to memorize a canned speech or brief elevator schpiel. According to Good in a Room author Stephanie Palmer, a real pitch is an interactive dance, shaped to the situation and the audience. The sooner if it turns into a conversation or Q & A, the better.
To that end, it’s good practice to answer the “What’s your book about” question with more of a teaser than a speech. If people want to know more, they’ll ask. If they really don’t, Palmer would advise, don’t keep going—and she says this is true even in hard-selling Hollywood. (Palmer is a big advocate of developing rapport and sharing information, but not selling at every opportunity.)

How does this relate directly to how I might explain one of my novels, such as The Detour, to acquaintances now? Instead of launching into a memorized schpiel, “My second novel starts in 1938…” I might try to tease and tailor more. If I knew the listener had recently traveled in Italy, I’d start there. If I knew someone had an interest in classical art, I’d focus on the fact that my novel is about a famous statue. If I knew the person loves a good love story and doesn’t care one bit about history or art, I’d explain much sooner—“The Detour is really a buddy road trip story through Italy that turns, in the end, into a love story.”
Before, when I went “off script” is such a way, I felt like I’d failed somehow, forgetting my stump speech. Now I understand that getting off script—and into a conversation that builds rapport—is much more essential than conveying every detail.

The truth is, verbally describing our ideas and our projects is always tough. Training at altitude, pitching your ideas in various ways and in less-than-ideal situations, you invite the pain in and realize it’s OK. Hopefully, back down at sea level—talking about your book among patient people who really want to know, who will even help by asking great questions!—things will feel blissfully easy.

Andromeda Romano-Lax (lower left, with Alaska TV Pilot Project collaborators), is the author of The Spanish and The Detour. She teaches for the 49 Alaska Writing Center and for UAA's low-residency MFA program, and she is working on a new novel about a 1920s psychology scandal, set in Baltimore. 

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