Speak Up to Get Read!

by Barbara Schiffman

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has been quoted as saying, “According to some studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death… This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”

If speaking in public feels worse than dying, it’s no wonder most writers hate to talk about their work or themselves. Writers prefer sharing their thoughts and stories on paper or electronic devices, over pitching to agents, editors, or producers, and being interviewed at book signings or conferences.

This used to be true for me, until I learned how essential it is to speak up to get read.

As a screenwriter and creative producer in Hollywood, I often needed to “pitch” one-liners or brief story synopses to agents, directors, or producers. I was also a panelist at writers conferences and was interviewed on podcasts about my personal development books.

To learn to Speak Up without a pounding heart and hoarse voice, I found support:

In the mid-1990s, I attended the entertainment career accelerator program Flash Forward. It included activities and tools for achieving a big career leap in only 4 weeks that would normally take a year. For me, this was getting my scripts optioned, which required getting them read by as many people as possible, a terror-provoking task. FYI, I produced a staged reading of one script and got a new agent who got it optioned!

In 2004, I joined the popular speaking education organization Toastmasters International. In 2006, I co-founded the first Toastmasters club specifically for creative writers; it’s still going strong and now open to non-LA writers via Zoom. I also recently found a new Zoom-only global Toastmasters club for writers (for info on either, email me at MontanaScreenwriting@gmail.com).

Toastmasters is slanted towards business presentations but also offers support for storytellers. My favorite Toastmasters tool is their impromptu speaking exercise Table Topics. Designed to practice thinking and speaking on the spot, you get 2 minutes to speak about an unexpected topic without preparation. I find this fun and invigorating, and am now comfortable “making it up” as I speak.

Preparing speeches in advance and delivering them without notes is harder for me. But I’m in good company; Mark Twain, who sold his books via public speaking tours, said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

Prepping a pitch is easier with a template for structuring what you might say. I’ve taught multiple pitch formulas at writing workshops that can be customized. A good pitch, aka “logline,” is basically your story in 30 words or less. It’s best to tailor your pitch depending on whom you’re talking to, what type of script or book they seek, and how many minutes you have to interest them in reading yours.

The shortest pitch template is What if…”What if a boy discovers an extra-terrestrial whose spaceship crashed and can’t get home (the film “E.T.”)? What if a slick-talking lawyer vows to his son he’ll tell the truth for 24 hours to prove he can be trusted (the film “Liar Liar”)? What if your narcissistic wife mysteriously disappears on your anniversary and you’re suspected of killing her (the novel and film “Gone Girl”)?

Some pitch tips: Elaborate on your basic premise if more details are requested. Be prepared to share the beginning or “inciting incident,” how the stakes escalate as things go increasingly wrong, and how it all ends. Don’t make your listener guess the conclusion — this is annoying and implies you haven’t worked out the story’s trajectory.

Writers of all genres should also get comfortable speaking about themselves to agents, managers, book reviewers, and book signing audiences. One tool I learned in Flash Forward was having 3 “memorable things” about me ready to share. This helps you stand out from all other writers. It’s even better if your memorable things relate to what you’re writing or pitching (but not required).

One example: my husband Glenn is a specialist in Native American ceremonies; when we lived in Burbank CA we had a ceremonial tipi in our backyard. We also co-developed a feature film concept about a multi-cultural romantic triangle set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation during the 1890 Ghost Dance movement. (Sharing this personalizes our story-pitch and makes us memorable writers.)

So what’s your story — in 30 words or less? And what’s something memorable about you?

Ultimately, if you’ve prepared and practiced your brief story-pitch plus some memorable things about you, opportunities to Speak Up will arise and you’ll be ready to enjoy them!

**On Friday 10/8/21, get more templates and practice your pitch at my 90-minute workshop for writers and filmmakers at the Bigfork (MT) Independent Film Festival. For workshop or private logline and pitch coaching info, email me at MontanaScreenwriting@gmail.com.

What Kind of Reader Are You?

By Janice McCaffrey

In Janet Skeslien Charles’ The Paris Library, Odile the main character interviews staff and patrons with the question, “What kind of reader are you?”

Pondering the question, I took the time to examine my reading habits. Here’s my answer. I either read furiously or not at all. My favorite genre is historical novels, but a good mystery helps keep my brain figuring out the puzzles of ‘who done it.’

My book club has expanded my horizons and introduced me to many other cultures that I otherwise would have missed. For example, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, The Vanishing Half  by Brit Bennett, A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling, The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, and Dot Jackson’s Refuge.

This summer I enjoyed Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. I identified with the discomfort and inconveniences while sympathizing with the characters’ personal and family problems.

My non-fiction favorite authors are Michael Lewis, The Big Short, Money Ball and When Bubbles Burst and Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, The Story of Success, and What the Dog Saw. And I almost always research the historical novels I’ve read to sift through the fiction for the facts.

Asking myself this question helped me get to know myself better.

How about you? What kind of reader are you?

On the Shoulders of Giants

The first and last time I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, I was in college, in the early 1970s.  I loved it then, and now that I’ve just re-read it almost 50 years later, I still love and admire it.  

This science fiction classic is older than I am, but it still holds a wealth of truth and meaning, even though many outward things have changed in my lifetime.  When I was born, man hadn’t been beyond our planet’s atmosphere, there were no cordless phones, let alone cell phones.  Scientists were just beginning to understand the mysteries of the atom.  The stars were fuzzy shapes seen through earth’s atmosphere.  Computers were rooms full of reels, tubes, and wires.  The whole control room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center hadn’t been developed yet, and when it was, it carried the same capacity that we can fit in our pockets now, or on our wrists.

So how can it be that books written before 1950 still have something to say to our modern age?  Because I believe Asimov in this series has dealt with the fundamentals of human thought and behavior.  And he’s done it the way only a very skillful and well-educated scientist/author can.

For me it boils down to the truth that human nature doesn’t really change.  We can be in a setting far in the past, such as The Clan of the Cave Bear, the less-distant past of the European Middle Ages, in books by Sharon K. Penman, the more contemporary settings of most modern fiction set in the twentieth century, or the far distant future that most sci-fi writers use.  Human beings, no matter when they are living, all have the same mental processes, emotions, foibles, faults, and all.

As an author of fiction (mostly science fiction, I confess), I am seeking in my own small way to emulate great thinkers and writers like Asimov.  Perhaps I’m hoping to catch a better glimpse of some far-off truth by attempting to stand on the shoulders of these giants who came before me.  (I know there’s a quote to that effect somewhere, but I can’t remember who said it.)  And I’ll keep on looking for this “Great Beyond” until my dying day, I suppose.

September Book News

Susan Purvis’s memoir “Go Find” has been honored with a Notable Book Award by the Upper Michigan Book Society. She gave a powerpoint presentation on Zoom for the group on August 12, revealing how her childhood in Marquette, Michigan prepared her to become a world adventurer, survivalist, ski patroller, teacher of wilderness medicine, and eventually avalanche dog trainer.

Barbara Schiffman shares: I’ve been learning to use Kindle Vella – Amazon’s new “serial story” platform – to self-publish my new non-fiction book READY SET NEXT: Moving Forward by Embracing Your Past & Empowering Your Future.”

Note: See Claudette Young’s blog post of August 23 about kindle Vella! 

Each chapter (aka “episode” in Kindle Vella lingo) gives a step in the process which includes journaling exercises, NLP timeline meditations, and personal reflection to create an energetic clean-slate. Whether it’s your birthday, an anniversary, a new year, or you just need a “fresh start” — like easing into COVID’s “new normal” — this process is supportive and invigorating. 

Read the first 3 chapters of “Ready Set Next” for free via Kindle Vella on any computer, tablet or smartphone. Purchase more episodes one at a time with Amazon “tokens.” To start, Amazon gives you 200 tokens for free, then you can buy more as needed (only $1.99 for 200 tokens). Episodes are priced by word-count — ex: an 836-word episode costs only 8 tokens (think 8-cents).

This can be cost-effective for readers and also profitable for writers who could earn more per full book than if it were published as an ebook, depending on the length and number of chapters! You can also create a short story collection, like my husband Glenn is doing with his Kindle Vella anthology “Vanishing Points.” Let me know what you think. Check out “Ready Set Next” at: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-vella/story/B09BF1PMWT