How I Sold My Novel

Last Friday morning, I received the call every writer dreams of answering.  I’d been trading emails with a publisher over the previous month.

This time the phone rang.

“We want to buy your book.” “Our editor loved it, and when she loves something, we listen.” “Her words were ‘I want to read more from this writer.’” “I want first right of refusal on the next one.”

The publisher actually said, “We want to buy your book.” several times. It was amazing. My wife and I discussed having champagne for lunch.

Here’s some of what lead up to that call.

First, write the dang book. You have to know your story inside and out. And then be able to give the gist of it in two sentences. That took months to craft. I workshopped my pitch over three separate meetings at the DFW Writers Workshop, giving the pitch and getting feedback and complete rewrite suggestions from published authors in our group. They were brutal. It was humbling. But you learn why this is absolutely necessary.

I wrote a synopsis that was four pages – some agents wanted to see that. I wrote a one-pager, a single paragraph, an elevator pitch, and compacted my entire 80,000-word novel into a 240 character tweet. And at some point in the process, I used them all.

I purchased the upgraded Query Tracker account and filled it with submissions to agents and publishers. They returned the favor with rejections. Mostly. An impressive number never bothered to return anything. Several took months to respond with a form rejection. My personal record is 11 months. And then they misspelled my name. I don’t know who Calvin Holmes is, but your novel “is not right for us at this time.”

One of the great things DFW Writers Workshop does is start every meeting by recognizing who has gotten their work out into the world – members who have submitted, received rejections, and the rare acceptance. Writers rise and tell the group their news. In this Zoom world, members just own it on the video chat. Submissions and rejections are the norm and get applauded for the courage to get the work out there. I submitted a lot, many more times than I had the cajones to stand before the writers group and admit. And I was rejected just as many times. But, occasionally, someone gets to say they’ve gotten a request for pages, or the full. That’s huge.

I attended several annual DFWCon Writers conferences over the course of this process and pitched to agents face-to-face. Ten painful minutes of forced conversation to be enthusiastic about your book. Those presentations earned requests for the first few chapters, but eventually just more rejections. Two long years of pitching, submitting, and rejection.

I signed up to help at DFWCon, volunteering on the Conference committee. That put me in closer contact with agents and editors and the opportunity for elevator pitching. Again, some polite requests for chapters, but eventually, always, “not right for us at this time.”

In the end, it was a Twitter pitch day – #PitMad. I mentioned paring down 80,000 words into 240 characters? Yep, it works. That Pitch Madness pitch party tweet earned a like from a publisher. It was not the first time, and my now jaded response was that it was not a big deal. One of a half-dozen glimmers of faint hope.

But this particular publisher sent a positive response to my synopsis and a request for a partial, then a full manuscript. Four and a half months later, after the publisher had gone through the holidays, a bout of covid running through their office, and their computer system getting hacked, I got the call.

Through these past few years, it did get close. I had one “publisher” even offer a contract. That was exciting and turned out to be false hope. They talked of a multiple book series featuring my main character, something I hadn’t considered. We had serious conversations, but the contract stipulated that they wouldn’t release my book (nor would I see any money) until after I delivered book three in the series. A series I hadn’t ever planned on writing. Then the pandemic hit, and we went our separate ways.

I spent a good six-months working with a university press. The story is set in a college town, and I’d always thought they might be a potential publisher, even though fiction is not their forte. They liked the idea, and after a long period where they had editors and one of their authors read the manuscript, they appreciated the main character and the setting, but the story was too far-fetched. They offered reconsideration contingent on a rewrite and resubmit, but only if I’d take out most of the elements that underpinned the spine of the story. I passed.

After the PitMad “like,” the publisher directed me to Submitable.com to fill out an in-depth look at my book for their consideration. Character studies, first ten pages, first three chapters, last chapter, best chapter, the full manuscript. I’d built most all of this while writing and pitching, so it was a lot of cutting and pasting.

Then they asked about my readers. Specifically. Demographically. Knowing your book is one thing. Knowing your targeted reader is another. They wanted competitives. Where did I see my book shelved? Some of this I knew. Some, I now need to really study.

I did the best I could on the submission, and it took the bulk of a day to complete. A full three months later came an email.

“Are you available for a call on Friday?”

Writing the Novel

I recently had a publisher ask me to submit the manuscript of a novel I’ve been pitching. This book has been years in coming. It feels like I’ve worked on it forever. The characters have practically become family members.

It’s been through dozens of drafts and rewrites. Writers always hear that, but nobody wants to believe that’s what it takes. The basic story has stayed the same, but characters have changed and developed.

It started as a 70-page outline, a long, rambling stream of consciousness document that was mostly telling the story to myself and trying out bits of dialog. That led to an attempt at writing it as a screenplay – everything was present tense because I am a screenwriter by training. But I quickly found the story was too complicated for a 110-page script. Too many subplots, too many characters – it would never be producible as a movie the way it played out in my mind. It might work as a short series, but I never wrote it as a teleplay. And now, the way the book begins, it doesn’t lend itself to a pilot.

So it became a book. I believe the final version that interested the editor who read it was major revision number 11.0. My revision strategy handles it like software updates – major revisions get a new number, minor changes and tweaks get a dot. I keep everything because sometimes in revision 6.2, there’s a spot for that passage I cut back in rev 3.4. Heck, somewhere around draft 4.6, I completely reworked my main character.

It’s hard. And it takes years longer than you think it will. Years. The first rounds were written in first person. At its heart, the story is a detective novel set in the ’40s, so that choice felt right. After it was done, it felt cliché. Changing that took a full, page-one rewrite.

That’s just the writing and rewriting part. The workshopping, the beta reads, the revisions, and tweaks. I color code things using different color font for revisions as I go. It makes it easier to find what I’m working on when I skim through and want to see that dialog that needs touched up or scene description crying for help. When I got through the most significant revision, the manuscript looked like an art project.

And it’s not a singular effort. It does take a village. You need a writers group who listens to reads and offers criticism, and occasionally when you think it’ll never get right, you need their support. I had DFW Writers Workshop. Throughout the project, I had several beta readers whose responses ranged from “yeah, it’s good” to a full, incredibly detailed set of notes from author Ed Isbell. Ed’s notes took the book to the next level, and I genuinely don’t know if it would have garnered a publisher’s interest without them. Thank you, Ed.

Once you get through all the concepting, the outlining, the writing, the rewriting, and all of the revisions, then it’s ready to go out.

And that is a whole other story.

Are You Still a Writer if You’re Not Writing?

I’ve had some personal issues over the last several months. Serious family and personal medical complications because, hey, you can’t go hang out at the hospital for a couple of weeks and not catch something yourself. And when the flu is really bad, apparently it can turn into pneumonia. Who knew?

All in all, that can combine to keep one from having the most creative thoughts. Although the 104° fever dream I had would qualify as some very wild thinking. What were those red contour lines marching across my ceiling anyway? Weird.

All in all, I’ve spent a couple of months away from the keyboard. I haven’t even been able to think about writing. And it comes to me that if I’m not writing, I’m not a writer. I did some reading. I thought a little about a script I have working, and some new chapters in the novel that I drafted, but nothing went down on paper. Or electrons. I wasn’t writing. Ergo, not a writer. Right?

I’m not buying it. If you’re an architect and you’re between building designs, you’re still an architect. A doctor is still an MD even when she’s sleeping. Writing isn’t just something you do. It’s a state of mind. It makes you reconsider using clichés like “state of mind” when you want to convey that it’s more of a condition of what you are, rather than what you do.

Writing is more than a way of translating the world you see – especially if it’s a world you only see in your imagination – into a form you can share with others. Writing is something that gets into your soul and makes you need to tell a story. That may be a simple haiku or an epic poem, a novel, screenplay or a short story. And with this entry to the blog, I’m thankfully back to it.

Just Copyright It

You’ve toiled for months writing and rewriting your screenplay. A trusted reader or two have given some quality notes, you’ve polished, tweaked and proofed. You’ve finally reached those end-of-the-rainbow words: FADE OUT. It’s ready to go out. Life is good.

But…

Before you do anything else, copyright it. A U.S. copyright protects your script for 70 years after you die and costs $35. It’s an online form that takes less than 5 minutes to complete in your pajamas. That’s even if you have to hunt for your purse and dig out your credit card.  Now, being the U.S government, it’s a little more involved than signing up for Netflix, but not much. Your name, address, a little detail about the author(s) and the script, your payment info, and upload a PDF. Boom. Done. And then with all the speed and efficiency of the federal government, in a month or two or three, you get a nifty certificate that shows your registration. It feels very official when you open that envelope.

There are other “script registration” services. The Writers Guild has one. Final Draft even includes a built in link to the WGA service and a few other guilds around the world. Screencraft has one that costs $89 bucks and is essentially is a registration with the U.S. Copyright office that a lawyer looks over before hitting “submit”. It also puts a backup copy on protected servers. These aren’t totally worthless or a complete waste of time, but the question is – why?

The WGA West service is little more than a date stamp that shows when you completed the script. It costs $20 for non-members ($10 for Guild members) and it expires in a five years. The WGA East gives you ten years. It’s a service the Guild provides that I’m sure has some value other than being a means for members to financially support the union, but I don’t really see it.  The U.S. copyright will outlive you and is ironclad proof in court should the need arise.

I’ve submitted more than a few scripts to managers and agents and only in one case can I recall having been asked to provide a WGA script registration number. I sent a copy of my U.S. Certificate and they were fine with it.

My advice – just hit copyright.gov they have a helpful tutorial PDF on their eCo “electronic Copyright office” app, but if you’ve ever bought anything online, it’s not a lot more complicated than that. You can use Screencraft’s service if you think it’s worth an extra 55 bucks, but really, if you can diagram a sentence, you can probably fill out an online form.

Once you have done that, you don’t even have to tell anyone. In fact, for some weird reason it’s considered bad form in the film business to put a copyright notice on your script. Even small on the title page. Apparently this simple thing marks one as a novice and readers are reputed to take umbrage with it. And as listeners to Scriptnotes know, umbrage is a cash crop in Hollywood.

As an advertising guy this strikes me as bizarre because everything thing we send through legal gets dotted with ®s, ™s and ©s. But then corporate lawyers charge by the punctuation mark. Speaking of legal – I should point out that I’m not a lawyer and nothing here should be considered legal advice. But really, protecting your work doesn’t need to be complicated.

 

It’s Always Halloween Online

One of my favorite websites for screenwriting is also one I dislike the most. Spooky, huh? It’s Done Deal Pro and to visit the forums there is to understand the Dr. Jekyll nature of the interwebs.

I’ve encountered some extremely helpful people there. Pro writer Jeff Lowell offered insight and a script to read for guidance. I found a great reader – ScriptGal, and she made the first few scripts I wrote much, much better. Once upon a time there were several pros that would hang out incognito and dispense excellent advice.

But as with every place online, there is also the local chapter of the League of Internet Assholes. People with little to no experience or talent who wish to slam anyone with either. And because everyone is hiding behind an avatar and a screen name, who knows if they have a clue?

But get past the trolls and you can find one of the great things about DDP – the Writing Exercises.  Every few months an ad hoc group will pitch an idea for a themed competition to write a short – 8 pages max and it’s a blast. Typically, there’s a Halloween edition – the timely reason for this post – but I written pieces for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and one of the most inventive ideas for a short piece I’ve read was there for a Noir story competition. Derek Patterson’s wonderful Star Wars detective story of the droid gumshoe called in to solve a bloody murder at a cantina in Mos Eisley.

For screenwriters it’s good writing exercise on a given topic, length and subject. It’s the kind of practice that feels like writing on assignment. Plus, you get a little practice at giving and receiving notes.

To get in the spirit of the season I’ve attached one of my entries from previous years. A quickly scat ode to the local haunted house I called Horror House. I’m not a horror writer and I don’t even really like the genre as entertainment, but I do enjoy the contest.

If you’re a screenwriter, pull on a thick-skinned costume and check out DDP. Once you unmask the Scooby-Doo villains on there, you’ll find a core group of writers trying hard to make each other better.

Horror House

Tips on Pitching at Austin

I recently attended the Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriter’s Conference which is also a mouthful to fit on a badge. Part of the fun of the AFF is the Pitch Competition. You get 90 seconds to pitch your 2-hour movie idea to Hollywood pros.

Because it’s a competition, it’s set up as an initial round where you give your pitch up against  15 others, then the top two move on to the finals. There are 10 heats in this first round, so the finals are the top 20 of those 160 contestants. The finals are held at a huge party at a local bar and you’re onstage with some heavy hitters from the industry as a 3 judge panel – pro screenwriters, big name producers – the list of alumni judges is big – Lindsey Doran, Craig Mazin, Zac Penn, Damon Lindelof – folks you know from their credits.

I’ve competed each of the five years I’ve been there and made the finals twice, once finishing 3rd overall with my pitch for my spec animation script Skweaky, The Email Bunny.  Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Comedy pitches better than anything. Some of the folks you’re pitching against are comedy club level comedians. They have great timing, delivery and often a really funny concept. That’s hard to beat.
  2. First person stories are a close second. Been in a cult? Dad a serial killer? Mom used to be your uncle? These kind of things fascinate the judges.
  3. There are five things to get in your pitch:
    1. Define your world. Sometimes this is easy. Say, “Berlin – 1936” and that does it. But if you’re pitching a space opera and have to detail the galactic wars that brought down the Remitarian colonists on Nebulon VI, plan on making it as quick as you can.
    2. Who’s the hero?
    3. What does the hero want?
    4. What’s in the hero’s way?
    5. What does the hero learn or change?
  4. Show some passion. This is performance art and some of these people are really, really good.
  5. Aim for 80 seconds on a 90 second pitch. You’ll need it. I added a last minute joke and made time for the joke, but not the pause for the laugh it got. I went over time and it cost me the last line payoff – didn’t make the finals.
  6. Relax and have fun. Yes, it’s public speaking. Yes, there are 400 drunk screenwriters in the finals audience. But they are all rooting for you and all of them want to hear you tell a great story – entertain them!

 

 

Austin Screenwriters Conference Recap

Man, I’m beat. Austin was good and bad.

The Good – it’s always a great time, talking writing movies for 4 straight days, met some folks I only know from twitter, learned a lot, and went to a couple of terrific parties. The Bad – some of the panels weren’t fabulous. And on Saturday afternoon I grabbed a street taco between panels and I’m still not over it. Nothing like a bad burrito to ruin your weekend.

Here’s the breakdown –

Rolled in about Noon Thursday. A little later than I wanted – the Conference kicks off with a big welcome gig in the main ballroom at the Driskill Hotel. I missed that because my badge wasn’t right – they forgot that I was a Second Rounder and that took a little time to get squared away. Not a huge deal as the folks who run the show are incredibly helpful. 

It’s hard to be a 2Rer, it’s the top 15% of the entries and when you get that on your badge there are some perks and recognition that go with it. I wanted people in the bar to see it because they’ll strike up a conversation and ask about your work. Sometimes those people are managers or producers or pros. Plus, I’m vain and like to show off that out of 9100 entries I made it a little way up the food chain.

The first session I hit was on How to Work in Hollywood Outside of Hollywood and it was insightful, but not as much as I’d hoped. It was more about people who started out in Hollywood and left, than breaking in from outside. These guys were continuing a career from afar, not trying to start one. Essentially, what I heard all week was “Move to LA. Get a job as an assistant and make it happen.” I don’t want to move to LA. I lived in LA. It’s too expensive and too crowded. Plus, I’m a geezer with a decent paying corporate job. It’s not that fetching coffee is beneath me, but I have no idea how to order anything at Starbucks but an Americano.

But from there the conference got better. Until it didn’t.

The second panel was on Writing Comedy. It was brilliant, hilarious, insightful, and the presenter was David Misch who broke in writing on Mork and Mindy – old line comedy and a blast. Learned a LOT about funny.  Timing, construction and when to toss in the banana peel. They need to have Mr. Misch back. Great panel.

Thursday night there were a couple of parties – basically a group will take over a bar and have a meet up. This one was Stage 32. Met folks I know on there and just hung out and drank a beer. Or six. It was a good party. From there I snagged a table at the Driskill bar – a feat I’m quite proud of and will remember for years. Several writers sat in and we swapped stories, ideas and takes on how to move into, or up, the biz.

Because we had such a good time until late into the evening on Thursday, Friday morning was tough. My first session was a roundtable with the Wibberly’s – Cormac and Marianne – National Treasure, Charlie’s Angels… There were only about a dozen of us in the room and it was a very intimate setting with free form conversation – basically it was an AMA with these two really cool writers. Great folks. Damn impressive writers.

Next was my pitch session. I have an idea for a movie and I think it’s a good one. I didn’t give my best pitch – I put in a joke at the last minute and it worked, got a big laugh, but you only get 90 seconds and the laugh put me over time and I’d didn’t get to give the last line of the pitch, which really wraps it up. So I didn’t make the finals. One thing I’ve learned over a couple of years is that comedy pitches really well in this venue. Next time – more funny for less time. You can read my thoughts on pitching at Austin here. I’ve made the finals a couple of times but not won, so it’s not expert advice – more like informed insight.

But several people in the room liked it, but not more than the two really good comedy pitches that the judges sent to the finals. So we chatted and yakked and I was too late to get into the next session –  Development at Disney & Pixar. I’d seen this last year, but my animation spec is my 2Rer this year and I wanted to beg someone to read it. (I’m kidding, that’s really bad form. Don’t do that.) One of my few complaints about Austin is the crowds. It’s jammed. Plus, they have a Young Filmmakers Program and all of those kids want to work at Pixar. They grabbed all the seats for the Pixar session and it was beyond SRO when I got there.

This happened last year too and I learned then, when you can’t get into the panel you want, go to the Driskill bar. Even if it’s 11am. Last year I spent about 15 minutes listening to Justin Marks talk about Jungle Book and rewriting Rudyard Kipling. I found some writers I had met a couple of years back and we shot the breeze and had an early lunch in the bar.

The next panel was one I’d been looking forward to – Craig Mazin and Lindsey Doran talking about writers and producers working together. Everybody knows Mazin from Scriptnotes podcast and if you haven’t seen Lindsey’s TED talk, Google it and go watch. Now. This can wait. They gave great insight into the relationship and how to take notes, give notes and be a better human. It was great.

From there it was the annual AFF Barbecue. Free beer, free food, autumn in Austin – which means you’re picnicking and it’s 95º. Met more people, had a great time and then went and crashed. Serious nap.

Woke up and hit yet another party. I don’t go out with other people at all for 11 months a year, because all of my socializing happens over 4 days in Austin.

Saturday morning was a Science Fiction vs Science Fact panel. Apparently, the National Science Foundation sponsors a group that will help you with the science behind your SF script. For free. Need info about how a particle accelerator accident might throw your hero into a space time continuum loop? Call 844-NEED-SCI. Seriously – they will hook you up with brilliant people who can help you make your wildest ideas come true – these guys all got into science because they wanted to be Mr. Spock or Scotty and they are thrilled to help.

Then we came to the panel I wanted to see with my animation spec. In fact, I left the scientists early to make sure I’d get a seat – execs from Disney, Dreamworks, Sony Animation and Marvel all talking about how they find concepts ideas and writers. And it’s just the same as with live action – get a manager, have them send over a writing sample, and yada, yada, yada. It was very disappointing to wave my 2Rer badge with my animation spec and hear the VP of Animation for Sony tell me, “Nah, nobody even looks at an animation spec.” Soul crushed.

I drug myself to the next panel – Sports Movies! I’m a big sports fan and the first script I sold was a sports movie. This panel was AMAZING – Aaron Covington – wrote and directed CREED, Bobby Farrelly – because at it’s heart The Big Lebowski is about bowling, Angelo Pizzo – Rudy, Hoosiers and My All-American and John Lee Hancock, a great Texan who did The Blind Side and The Rookie. It was tremendous: It’s not about the sports. They don’t always have to be an underdog story. They don’t always have to win. Great stuff.

I was thrilled and in a great mood and stopped at a taco truck for a quick bite to eat on my way to see Ashley Miller (THOR and X-Men First Class) and Nicole Pearlman (Guardians of the Galaxy) talk about World Building. About halfway through the session, I had the most intense urge shudder through me and I had to visit planet bathroom.

Revenge of the food truck street taco. I was dying. But one of the deals you get with the 2Rer deal is a set of three roundtable visits with working pros. I got through them but it was difficult. And then the Pros I got were all TV guys – writers on The Walking Dead, American Horror and one that I couldn’t tell because I was paying attention to not ruining a chair. I write movies. I barely even watch TV. The list of things I’ve never seen is legendary – Sopranos, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, all but the first three episodes of Breaking Bad, none of Mad Men…. When you think televisions are meant for baseball games, you don’t get much out of TV roundtables and that was disappointing.

Went back to the hotel and was tremendously ill. Got some medicine so I could fight the good fight and I went back out for — another party. The Pitch Party where all of the first round winners take the stage pitch their stuff to Mazin and Lindsey and Edward Ricourt of Jessica Jones and Wayward Pines. I wanted to see the pitches, I had a couple of buddies in the competition, I want to see them. I got a club soda and lasted about 5 pitches. Couldn’t do it. Went to the hotel and crashed.

Sunday I felt a little better. The first event is the Hair of the Dog brunch. It’s at a bar about a 8-9 block walk from the hotel. 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. I was back to miserable when I got there. Stood in line and struck up a conversation with a very interesting producer/director/editor. There are people all over this event doing really cool things. I lived through Brunch. Safety Tip – If you’re feeling a little rocky – the gin Bloody Mary and the peppered eggs and barbecued pork are not bad things to pass up. I had a tortilla and a sip of juice.

Sunday’s first session was Deconstructing Billy Wilder. It was a really detailed look at specific Wilder scenes – The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd. – a little touch of film school with guys who do this for a living. I don’t think there’s anyone in the biz that doesn’t think Wilder’s a genius. and if not, why are they in the business?

Next was Sequels and Reboots – Ash Miller again with Shane Black and Bobby Farrelly. Imagine a panel talking about Iron Man 3, X-Men First Class, Top Gun 2 and Dumb and Dumber To. It was amazing. I really don’t want to think Shane Black is cool, but, dammit, he is.

The Conference ended for me in a 2Rer panel called What’s Next – with a group of Austin alums who have broken through and are working in LA. One writer had been an Austin Second Rounder 9 times. But she’s in New Mexico and doesn’t seem to want to go to LA. Maybe If I got a deal and was good enough I’d think about it. But then I go out there and sit on the 405 and think… nah.

General thoughts – Stay at the Driskill or the Stephen F Austin Intercontinental. Yes, they are unGodly expensive, but that’s where the execs stay and you never know who you’ll meet on an elevator. Plus, they are the heart of the conference and there’s plenty of walking without having to hike over from a hotel. There’s no Uber in Austin so you have to use an offshoot ride that will only exist in Austin. Stay close.

I save up and make it a big trip – my wife goes and this year we stayed at the SFA. They have a private club you can join and while I was in sessions she could hang out all day with champagne and chocolate dipped strawberries. This seemed to be a big hit. Keep the wife happy. 

I’ve stayed at the Driskill and it was OK, but expensive for a very old hotel, that feels like a redone very old hotel. But If I could have them build a replica of the Driskill Bar in my basement, I’d be pretty happy.

It was 4 good days of connecting and learning and partying and I heard there were even some movies shown. One of these days I’ll do that part of it.