Chelsea Fernando and Nora Canby
As a development executive at Norman Lear’s ACT III and Jason Reitman’s Hard C, Todd Waldman scouted up-and-coming writing talent, a skill that would prove useful when he jumped the fence in 2012 and became a staff writer himself. Since then Todd has worked on brand-name shows ranging from “Happy Endings” to “Awkward”. As well, he’s developed pilots at Fox, Warner Brothers, and MTV, and sold a feature screenplay, “Beat Kip,” to Paramount Village.
Todd will be sharing his tricks of the trade in his 5-week TV Comedy Pilot Class, beginning September 30 in Los Angeles, and his 7-week Online TV Comedy Revision Workshop, beginning October 4. We sat down with Todd to chat about his writing career as well as to gain some insight into the mind of a TV executive.
1. What separates a good script from a great script?
Short answer: A voice.
Finding it can take years but when it clicks that’s the jump from from good to great. Voice is distinct with specific dialogue and very unique characters. And it feels effortless. That’s the magic in “great” scripts I’ve read. They make it seem easy.
A “good script” is read in piecemeal over a day. GREAT scripts grab you from page 1, hold your attention throughout, and are finished in one sitting. When someone has a voice, it screams off the page and sticks to your ribs. You’re emailing friends saying, “I just read something so cool and I’m so jealous right now.”
2. What are some mistakes that beginning writers make in their scripts?
Overwriting. Expressing something in five lines instead of two. Ending scenes with a period and not a comma. Lazy prose.
3. How did you land your first TV writing position?
I’d been writing and directing a comedy troupe of USC grads called “Summer of Tears.” We had success with our live shows and videos and got invited to perform at the U.S. Comedy Arts festival in Aspen Colorado. At this show, we won “Best Sketch Troupe” and when we got back to LA everything changed for us overnight. People started calling our agents and wanted to sit down with us. I still worked a day job as an exec so I was sneaking out to take all these meetings. It was pretty wild! We were fortunate enough to sit with Peter Roth at Warner Brothers and secured a pilot presentation deal to make a “Summer of Tears” show. It was sort of like a “Workaholics” before “Workaholics,” but not as funny because we weren’t ready yet. That was my first paying gig.
A few years later, off of the strength of this pilot, and some of our SOT sketches my partner and I were hired as staff writers on a midseason show called “Happy Endings.”
4. Could you talk about some of the differences you’ve encountered in the various writers’ rooms you’ve worked in?
Best (and simplest) advice I’ve gotten: “Every writer’s room is different.” Happy Endings was a deeply joke intensive room. The currency was one liners, plays on words, or sharp cultural satire. When I first started, I felt like I was moving in slow motion, everyone was so damn quick in that room. It really challenged me to become a joke machine and pitch in high volume. Once I got it down, I loved that speed and would regularly volunteer to head up joke rooms. Now, Awkward was a totally different experience. That show had a poetry to the dialogue and a realness to the characters and was not as concerned with jokes per page. Our show runner would work with the room to hash out a theme for every episode, a drive for each act, and an arc for the entire season. Manhattan Love Story was probably a great balance of the two. A serialized love story with really hard jokes per page. But each show runner, each room, all had different strengths and weaknesses that I learned from. It’s important to never say, “This is how things should be done in a room” because every room is different. Just adapt, and pitch, pitch, pitch!
5. Do you have a writing routine? Do you have a special place where you write and do you set it up a certain way to make it inspiring?
It varies, but I like going to this coffee shop Insomnia on Melrose. For a long time they didn’t have the Internet so I was very productive there. It’s got a great history, the creators of Friends used to go there and (no joke) the original title of the pilot of Friends was “Insomnia cafe.” Over the years, the writers of The Hunger Games, American Sniper, and many other big movies and TV shows have worked out of there. They recently got the Internet and I’ll go there in the AM and set a timer. I get about 30 min to check email, read articles etc. then I turn off the Internet and work for an hour. I just have to write, non stop with no filter. Then I’ll take a 20 min break and go back online or go for a walk and then I’ll do another hour. I’ll try to work like this for three-four hours and then spend the last two-three hours of the day editing what I wrote.
When I have a deadline, I deactivate Facebook, delete Instagram, and deactivate twitter from my phone. No distractions!
6. What has been the most surprising part about writing for TV?
Many things, but probably A. How funny some of my colleagues are. B. How awesome the free lunches are.
7. How did you learn to write for TV? Classes? Books? Mentors?
I took a few TV classes at USC but also had a great education in improv comedy. I was fortunate enough to learn character work from The Groundlings and scene work from people at Improv Olympic and it helped my writing. After graduation, I worked at production companies and devoured every script that came in. Every writer should read a thousand scripts before they start writing. I still have hard copies of the pilot scripts of Cheers, Scrubs, Friends, and How I Met Your Mother that I reference often. One book that I often turn back to is Ellen Sandler’s The TV Writer’s Workbook.
8. What was it like working on the hit show Awkward? How did you adjust your writing style for a show that was for young adults and what were some of the challenges of channeling your inner teen?
Awkward was one of the best and most unique jobs I’ve had. I was the only straight male on a staff of 11 women and one gay man. So I was looked at to be the hetero MALE voice of the show. That felt like a huge obligation and the inverse of how it usually works on most network shows where it’s usually 12 men and one women. And when I wasn’t being the male voice, it was a HUGE challenge to write a young teenage girls voice. I worked very hard (my ass off really) to get down the poetry of Lauren Iungerich’s dialogue and prose. That’s her voice, so it was not a very easy thing to replicate. I had to watch old John Hughes movies, read a lot of female blogs (especially Hello Giggles) and really turn off some bad dude habits I had. I had to lean into the emotionality and the vulnerability of those strong female characters.
9. What is some advice that you wish you had gotten when you were trying to break into the industry?
Always be writing. Don’t take many general meetings and don’t chase too many assignments. A lot of times they end up being free work and time flies in LA. You look up and it’s like where did the last 6 months go? And what do I have to show for it? Work on original writing samples and don’t get too distracted with chasing assignments.
10. How did you find your voice as a writer?
I’m still honing and finding it but my best writing (and it’s cliche) is tied to a personal experience. When I’ve gone through a break up or experienced something joyful I find my writing sharper. Put simply, find your vulnerability to find your voice. Don’t be afraid of it.
11. Before you became a TV writer you were a development executive at Norman Lear at ACT III and with Jason Reitman at his company Hard C. Can you talk a little bit about how your experience as an exec influenced the way you approached your writing?
It would take all day to describe how much those guys have influenced me.
First off, I met Jason in college. He ran the improv troupe when I got there and was hands down the funniest guy I had ever met. He was on another level with his comedy. Years later he would bring me in to run Hard C, a company he wanted to be a modern day National Lampoon. Jason is tough, in a great way, because he demands you do the work and elevate the material. He challenges you and I really respond to that. He grew up on the sets of his father’s movies and he knows all of the ingredients that go into a great comedy. One small piece of advice he gave me was, “end every scene with a comma and not a period” and that always stuck with me.
Norman is one of my heroes and a TV legend. Even into his eighties (and now nineties) he was a workaholic. He also had the best stories about working with guys like Jerry Lewis and Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. Norman always was searching for big moments, “something we haven’t seen before,” and I always think about how my scripts need to be bigger and say something important. Hard to do, but he did it and he was the best to do it.
Both Jason and Norman were forces of nature. When they felt strongly about something it got done and it got done right. I often think of their passion and persistence to get things over the goal line in my own work.
12. What should students expect to get out of your class?
A lot of war stories from the shows I’ve worked on. Also, I will try really hard to help them become working writers.
Thanks for talking with us, Todd! Be sure to sign up for his TV Comedy Pilot Class beginning 09/30 and his Online TV Comedy Revision Workshop, coming to a couch near you on 10/4.
By Chelsea Fernando
Sean Russell is a staff writer on IFC’s “Maron,” one of the smartest and edgiest cable comedies to date. He also was a writer on “Scrubs” and cut his teeth in the writer’s rooms of some of television’s best comedies, including “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “Gilmore Girls.”
This September, we’re lucky enough to have Sean teaching our Live Online TV Comedy Pilot Workshop. We sat down with him to learn more about his extensive comedy experience and to hear his advice on how to go from assistant to staff writer.
1. What separates a good script from a great script?
A good script makes you interested to see how it ends. A great script is one where you can’t wait to see how it ends. Good scripts tell solid stories and don’t feel “by the numbers,” but the great scripts I’ve read have been ones that are surprising and have a unique point of view.
2. What’s more important in a writing sample, originality or demonstrating knowledge of the TV writing form?
Knowing how to write in TV script format is important. It shows that you’re serious and professional. Thankfully, learning how to write in script format is fairly easy, thanks to the availability of screenwriting software. But what’s more important is having an original voice and knowing how to get your point of view across in a script. That part is harder to learn.
3. How did you land your first assistant gig? What carries over from being a good assistant to being a solid staff writer?
I started out as a production assistant, getting lunches for the writing staff of “Gilmore Girls.” If fifty percent of television writing is hard work and talent, the other fifty percent is making sure writers get their lunches. I did a good enough job at getting lunches and keeping the writers’ kitchen stocked, and developed a good relationship with the writers. After a season of doing that, a writers’ assistant spot became vacant, and they promoted me
I learned a lot as a writers’ assistant that prepared me for being a staff writer. Primarily, I stepped into the staff writer role being comfortable in a writers’ room. I was prepared to not be precious of my ideas, to not dismiss others’ ideas without having a better pitch, to know how to read to the energy of the writers’ room, to be ready to brainstorm when everybody is stuck, and sometimes to know when to shut up.
4. You’ve worked in the writer’s room of some of the top shows of the last decade (the Office, Scrubs, Arrested Development). Could you talk about some of the differences you’ve encountered in the various writers’ rooms you’ve worked in?
Every room I’ve worked in has been different (except for the constant importance of lunch). The superficial differences have been in how technology helped the writing process. “Arrested Development” was a technologically-advanced room, with a bank of monitors for each writer and a couple of wireless keyboards. “Scrubs” was more casual and relied on whiteboards, and “The Office” was a combination of computers and corkboards with index cards.
The biggest differences come from who the showrunner is. Each showrunner I’ve worked for had different things that made them laugh, different points of view, and were able to assemble writing staffs that could help them achieve their vision. The greatest thing that I learned from working on these different shows was that I know all these different methods for breaking story. If I get stuck working on something one way, I can try a different approach that I’ve learned on one of the other shows I worked on.
5. How much of your writing is drawn from real-life experience and can you give an example of an important lived-moment that made it on a show?
All writing comes from real life, there’s no way around that. But the key is to write about your real life in a way that your friends and family don’t think you’re writing about them. If my wife and I get into an argument and I want to write about it, I’m going to have to figure out a way to do it so that it’s different enough that we don’t have another argument. That’s where creativity comes in.
One thing you should also know is that people talking loudly on their cellphones in restaurants and airports are giving you permission to write down dumb things they say and use them in your scripts. They’re making it public domain, so use it. I’m pretty sure that’s in the Writers Guild bylaws, and I would hazard a guess that it’s okay with the lawyers too.
6. What is a source of story or joke ideas that people would be surprised by in scripts you have written?
This didn’t end up in a script that I wrote, but I had a real life observation that became a pitch that was given life years later. When I was in college I would see this car with a crazy, seemingly vulgar, personalized license plate driving around town. One day I gave a buddy a ride back to his apartment, and that car was parked there. I asked him what the deal was with that car, and he said it belonged to a lady who got divorced, and to celebrate “a new start” she got a license plate that said “anustart.”
I made note to use that later, and when I worked at “Arrested Development” I pitched that to Mitch Hurwitz. He liked it, put it in a file with other story pitches, and years later when “Arrested Development” returned for a new season on Netflix, that pitch was resurrected and became a runner for Tobias Fünke.
7. How did you learn to write for TV? Classes? Books? Mentors?
I started out reading classic screenwriting books by folks like Syd Field and William Goldman. I took a couple of screenwriting classes when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that I found helpful. I believe my real education came from all of the great writers I was lucky enough to get to work with.
Getting a job in a writers’ room is a very difficult prospect, so I would say the next best thing to do is to track down scripts of shows you like and compare them to the finished product. Don’t be afraid to reverse-engineer the things you like. Find out what you can about the influences of people whose work you admire. Try and find out the source of their ideas, figure out how they make the things you like, and see if that kind of thinking helps your own work.
8. Can you walk us through a typical day in the Maron writers’ room? What type of research did you do about Marc and his comedy to prepare yourself for writing on his show? What is the most surprising thing about working on this show?
“Maron” was a different experience than most shows I’ve worked on. Because Marc was the star, and on camera for every scene, we had to write everything before shooting began. So (with breaks for lunch) we’d work in the room all day to break stories. Then when enough stories were broken, we’d all go off to outline and write, then return to the office to give notes and punch up each others’ scripts. Once shooting began we would cover set.
I had been a fan of Marc’s for a while before coming to the show. I watched him back when he hosted “Short Attention Span Theater” on Comedy Central, then followed him to his Air America radio show, on to his WTF podcast. Because his comedy is so honest and raw I felt like I was going into a situation where I immediately knew the boss better than anybody I’d worked for before.
What was surprising was the free reign we had on that show. Coming from network television, where everything had to be shiny, it was refreshing to be able to lean into a more emotionally messy kind of comedy. Both the network and studio encouraged us to make the show Marc wanted to make and not hold anything back.
9. What is some advice that you wish you had gotten when you were trying to break into the industry?
I wish somebody told me that you’re not going to write the perfect thing right out of the gate. You’re going to have to rewrite and rewrite, and it’s probably still going to stink, but you’ll learn lessons in failure.
Also, regarding writers’ room lunches, I wish somebody had told me to order healthier food. Mix things up, get a salad a couple of days a week.
10. What should students expect to get out of your class?
I’m looking forward to sharing some of the things I’ve learned with my students. My hope is that a student leaving my class walks away with the tools to turn their ideas into the pilot they want to write for the television show they want to see.
Thanks for that awesome interview, Sean! You can catch his Live Online TV Comedy Pilot Writing Workshop from anywhere in the country (or from your couch in Los Angeles) starting 9/28.
By Spencer Lee and Chelsea Fernando
Katie Hafner’s writing credits are impressive. Before publishing her critically acclaimed memoir, she was on staff at The New York Times for ten years, where she remains a frequent contributor, writing about healthcare and technology. She has also worked at Newsweek and BusinessWeek, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, among other publications. Her memoir “Mother Daughter Me,” was selected as an 2013 Oprah Book of The Week and Oprah’s one of seven powerful memoirs to kick off the year. The New York Times proclaimed her book “The Best Memoir I’ve Read” in 2013. She has also published five other nonfiction books covering topics from the origins of the Internet, German reunification to the pianist Glenn Gould. Her passion about topics she cares about gives her writing a unique style that inspires many.
Katie took a moment out of her busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about the craft of memoir writing and her writing career. Learn more from Katie in her upcoming 5-week Memoir Bootcamp class starting Sunday, Sept. 20 at Writing Pad San Francisco.
1. Can you tell us how you started your writing career, how you became a journalist and got your book deal for your memoir?
I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I took a class in high school where we kept ‘intellectual diaries,’ whatever that means. I remember writing about odd things that caught my attention. I can recall none of the specifics, but I do remember that teacher loved it. I wish I’d kept that journal, but alas, I didn’t.
I majored in German literature in college, and stumbled into journalism one day during my senior year when I walked into the office of the college newspaper, and loved the buzz of the place — the deadlines, the camaraderie, the quick decisions. I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I then went to journalism school and my first job when I got out was with the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspaper. I had no family or friend connections in the journalism world, so I worked my way up gradually. I started writing freelance pieces for The New York Times in the early 1990’s and then got hired for the paper’s new tech section in 1998.
The memoir was also accidental. I had written five books of nonfiction, and when my mother came to live with my daughter and me in 2009, I saw our experiment in intergenerational living as perfect material for a memoir. My agent thought so, too. So I wrote up a proposal and several publishers were interested. I ended up going with Random House.
2. Where do you find the inspiration to write about subjects such as motherhood, health, and technology? Do they have a sentimental value or a personal connection to you?
As a mother, I have a huge personal investment in motherhood as a topic. Having had a tough childhood, and a mother who was largely absent during my formative years, I have taken the parenting of my own child very seriously. So writing about it feels very natural. I have no particular attachment to writing about technology, but the healthcare stories I do for The New York Times always seems to strike a chord. I love writing about healthcare.
3. As a journalist you have had to do more than just give facts. Can you tell us about your creative process? For you, what makes a story?
I trip over potential stories every day. The best journalists can find stories in the most mundane things. An example: A couple of years ago, my elderly stepmother fell in her apartment in her retirement community, and the circumstances and aftermath of the fall made me think, “Oh my, if she’s going through this, how many other elderly people out there are going through the same thing?” That one small epiphany turned into a nine-month reporting project about falls among America’s elderly, a public health problem that has received little attention. My editor at The New York Times called my stepmother’s accident “the fall that launched six thousand words.”
4. How do you decide what information to include and what to take out?
That’s a great question. Journalism is all about making choices.The overall goal, of course, is to write a balanced story. But the tricky question of what gets included and what gets left out—well, that is something journalists grapple with all the time. The basic idea is that you want the reader to finish reading a story feeling as if he/she has been given a solid, relatively objective (by definition nothing can be purely objective) account, especially when it comes to complex topics.
5. What are the essential elements of a good memoir?
Well, I think that the biggest thing to remember (and this can hurt, I know) is that while you might find your own story fascinating, no one else can be expected to care—unless, that is, you make your own experience universal in some way. This requires distancing yourself from the particulars in order to tell a story that others will read and see something of themselves in.
6. How do you bridge the divide of reporting what actually happened versus crafting the most interesting story? Do you ever exaggerate, change details, or arrange timelines in your non-fiction work?
Okay, confession time: I’m a huge stickler for reporting the facts. But while writing “A Romance on Three Legs,” my book about Glenn Gould’s love affair with his piano, at one point, after months and months of hewing to facts, I came to one little section where I didn’t know the exact sequence of events and decided, ‘What the hell,’ and I decide just to INVENT what happened. I felt terrible about that—but not for long. I’ve told people to try to find the thing I invented and presented as historical fact but they never can.
In my memoir, I did not combine characters and did not invent stories. But in the first scene in the book (the first chapter, that is, not the prologue), there was in fact another person in the car with my mother and me as we drove from San Diego to San Francisco, but explaining him, and the complicated situation that put him in the car, would have burdened the beginning of the book too much. So I took him out. Occasionally I would play with timeline, but otherwise, I wrote true to what happened when it happened. I was sufficiently concerned about switching around the timeline that I asked my editor at Random House about this, and she said that as long as I hewed to the essential truth of the story, that changing a few dates around was just fine.
7. What can students expect to learn in your class?
They will learn how to craft a story about their own life—or a slice thereof—that is not just very well written, but that people who have never met them will actually want to read.
8. Finally, do you have any advice for new or aspiring writers?
Writing badly is easy. Writing well is incredibly hard. It’s why Hemingway—along with countless other writers—was a drunk, and it’s why Didion is chronically insecure. So my advice is this: If you think it’s easy, you’re not trying hard enough.
Thanks Katie! That was very inspiring. If you want to learn how to write a stellar memoir like Katie has, sign up for her 5 week memoir class starting Sept. 20, and you could have your memoir in Oprah’s book club in no time.
By Lauren E. Smith & Spencer Lee
When it comes to personal essays, Sarah Tomlinson is far from being the new kid on the block. Her music reviews, pop culture articles, and essays have been seen in publications such as Marie Claire, Salon, MORE, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Medium and Billboard.com. Sarah knows the secrets of getting published, making editors happy and writing great pieces that let your voice be heard. This past April, she published a memoir called Good Girl, and she is currently working on a variety of projects, including a novel, a pilot, and more personal essays.
Sarah took a little time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about her upcoming personal essay class this October and how she got to where she is in her writing career.
1. Tell us about how you came to writing and what led you to become a journalist and non-fiction writer.
I actually started out as a fiction writer. I took my first fiction workshop when I was sixteen. I immediately knew I was a writer, and I would devote my life to this path. Because I’d gone to an early college called Simon’s Rock, I was lucky enough to graduate with my BA when I was nineteen. This made me feel like I had a little extra time to play with, so I moved to the west coast, where I’d never been before, and started waitressing and writing. The only problem was I didn’t know how to “be” a writer. Although I took classes, hung out with writers, tried to write, I floundered.
After a few years, I was sick of waitressing and not getting anywhere with my writing. I decided I needed to learn a trade to support myself while I wrote my first novel. I opted for journalism school. Little did I know that becoming a freelance journalist for great papers like The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix would be the key to everything. I was paid per piece, and not very much, as newspapers can’t afford to pay as much as magazines. So I had to write a ton of pieces each week, just to barely survive. This gave me discipline and made me much less precious about my work. Also, newspapers are about content over style, so I really learned how to get a message across. From there, I was able to begin including elements of style when I wanted to create a particular impact. By the time newspapers were really struggling in the mid-00’s, I was living in Los Angeles, and I was lucky enough to stumble into celebrity ghostwriting through a friend. Again, what began as a trade has become a meaningful livelihood that has taught me so much about writing and storytelling. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the career I’ve had because it has fed my writing on so many levels I never could have predicted (and literally fed me).
2. You currently write reported pieces, personal essays, and you published a memoir this last Spring. Can you tell us about your creative process and how you approach hard journalism as opposed to more personal non-fiction work?
Because of my newspaper journalism background, I have been trained to follow certain protocols when I’m reporting another person’s story. Even when I’m acting as a music critic, part of my job is to provide information about the band I’m reviewing. And while I do express my opinion in these pieces of criticism, the writing is never about me. It’s there to serve the reader and answer their questions: Why is this artist significant? How does their work fit into the broader artistic landscape? Should I buy this album or go see this show?
When I’m writing my more personal, non-fiction work, the exact opposite is true: everything in the piece is about me. I am trying to be as specific as possible about my experience of the world, in order to share it with others, and maybe even impact their understanding of their own experience of the world. Even when I’m on deadline for a personal essay, I usually need to let the piece percolate inside of me for a little while before I begin writing it down. And many times, the connections I forge within my pieces – between events that have happened in my life, or ideas I’ve had about the world – are forged when I’m not actually at my computer. I’ve been a runner for more than 15 years, and I can’t tell you how many breakthroughs I’ve had while out running. Or washing dishes. Or talking with a friend. The longer I write, the more I trust that these epiphanies will happen. When they don’t, I dig into the piece anyhow, with the knowledge that writing down enough of the story will get me to the place where the breakthrough will happen. And it almost always does.
3. Magazines and papers these days are run on shrinking budgets and online magazines have ever tightening deadlines. Do you have methods for turning around work quickly while maintaining a high level of quality?
I really think it’s unfortunate that many publications can’t afford to have dedicated copyeditors and fact checkers in the same way they once did. It’s incredibly difficult for even the most conscientious writer to be totally responsible for editing and fact-checking a piece, and mistakes inevitably go out into the world.
That said, having been a music critic who often had to turn in reviews the night of, or morning after, a concert, I do have a few methods I still use. Write your first draft as quickly as you possibly can, and as messily as you need to, in order to really get your ideas down on the page. Sometimes this means writing five or six different variations of the lead sentence, until you uncover the best one. Then, save a version of that draft, so you can go back to it if you delete something you later decide you want for the piece. Make your first revision about clarity, rewriting until all of the ideas in the piece make sense and are well-connected. Then, your next revision should be about trimming your piece down to the assigned word count, if necessary. This is when you kill your darlings, and you make sure everything on the page is absolutely essential. Then, before you file, go through and painstakingly fact check every applicable item in your piece, using a reliable source. If you have time, double check the proper names one last time before you email the piece to your editor.
4. You’ve had several essays published in prestigious publications such as Marie Claire and The Los Angeles Times. What’s your biggest piece of advice for an aspiring journalists who are trying to get editor’s attention?
Write the story only you can tell. This is actually something I learned from years of pitching (and nearly selling) feature film scripts and TV shows. In most cases, the idea you came up with has already been pitched to the editor many times before. This is especially true of anything that came to you via press release, or anything related to a recurring holiday or event. You may think you’re being original, but you’re probably not. Editors deal with such a huge volume of pitches these days that it’s incredibly difficult to be fresh. Unless you use your secret weapon, which is your own experience of the world. You are the only person out there who had exactly your own heritage, upbringing, coming of age, and call to the writing life. Draw on your uniqueness whenever possible, even if you’re telling a more universal story. Some of my best pieces came out of my urge to tell a story that editors had not heard before (what it’s like to survive a school shooting, ask a man to sign a contract on a second date, learn to gamble from my father). I knew going into the writing and pitching of these stories that they would probably resonate with editors and readers because they were difficult for me to write – I revealed something vulnerable about myself in each of them – but I was compelled to write them even before I had a home for them. They were in no way about the paycheck. If you can find your version of the essential stories you need to tell, people will probably want to read them.
5. Pitching stories is one of the most crucial steps in landing assignments. What can you tell us about crafting hooks, determining an idea’s viability?
Again, so much of a stellar pitch starts with an idea that is undeniable. And many of my best pieces have taken years to percolate, write, and be published. Give yourself enough time to understand an experience before you try to write about it. Don’t decide you’re going to stop drinking, or become vegan, or bake your own bread for a month and pitch an editor the story two weeks into your experiment. It’s often in hindsight that we really understand the significance of an event in our lives, so give yourself the time necessary before you send out an idea or a finished piece.
Also, try to avoid sensationalism or hyperbole. Editors really have heard pretty much everything before, and so your claims of “first,” “best,” or “most,” are probably going to fall on deaf ears, unless there is substantial merit for your claim. Instead, keep your tone polite but casual. Engage them by presenting yourself as the kind of person they would want to listen to and learn from. If possible, show them your writing style in the language of your pitch, so they get a good sense of what you’re all about right up front. If you’re proud of your Lester Bangs influenced style, don’t write them a pitch that sounds like Miss Manners, or vice versa. Which is also a good reminder to be familiar with the style of the publication you’re pitching and make sure your idea genuinely is a good fit for them. Be gracious. There is another human being on the other end of that email you’re sending, and they will respond to a generous, genuine, likeable missive, just like you would if you were on the receiving end.
At the time this book came to be, I’d ghostwritten nine books, four of them for Gallery Books, which ultimately came to publish my memoir. And two of the books I’d ghostwritten for Gallery had been New York Times’ bestsellers. So I had a proven track record with them, as well as genuine affection and respect for their publisher, Jen Bergstrom, and all of the editors and staff I’d interacted with there. Jen and I discussed the possibility that it was time for me to write my own book, a book that would present my story and my view of the world. She was familiar with my troubled relationship with my dad and had even read some writing I’d done about him, so it was a natural progression for me to write this book for her. At a time when many writers are really struggling to connect with a publisher that will be interested in doing everything possible to put forth their work, I feel incredibly grateful to have found a publisher and editors who totally got my story, and its significance, and worked tirelessly to help me get it down on the page and out in the world.
I have said that Good Girl is my life’s work because it’s the story of my dad and me, and my relationship with my dad is my life’s work. It’s about how he was largely absent from my childhood because his compulsive gambling and metaphysical pursuits consumed him completely, as did his shame over his gambling. It’s also the story of how I invited my dad back into my life in my mid-20s, and we began to heal our past and forge a new relationship, which of course is also a story of forgiveness, unconditional love, and my eventual (if delayed) coming of age. I also touch on what it was like to grow up on a commune in midcoast Maine, go away to college at 15, survive a school shooting, be a female music critic in a largely male dominated field, and come into my own as a woman and artist.
7. What can students expect to learn from your personal essay class?
Students who take my workshop will learn how to uncover what they have to say and who they are as a writer. Sure, I’ll give them plenty of tips, too. But the craft of writing is relatively easily. Like anything else, examining the work of the masters who have gone before you, and practicing on your own, can go far toward mastering the discipline yourself. But the real challenge is to discover your unique story, your individual voice, and then to hone that on the page. Undergoing this process is incredibly rewarding and will not only make you a better writer, but it will also make you a better person. It will help you to write and live with greater authenticity. Which is what I think we’re all striving for in this lifetime. At least I know I am.
Powerful stuff, Sarah! Let Sarah help you discover your unique story in her upcoming personal essay class starting Oct. 4. After studying with her, you might find your voice and join the 74 other students who have taken our personal essay class and sold essays and articles!
Marvel’s summer juggernaut Ant-Man poses the question, “When it comes to super heroes, does size really matter?”
In a season filled with giant hulking heroes like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four blowing stuff up, Ant-Man is an oddity. He’s a guy who gets big things done by being little. What makes this film different is that it promises to put the whole superhero paradigm under the microscope by giving the main character the unusual power of smallness.
Here’s the setup: in 1989, a brilliant scientist by the name of Hank Pym (played by a paternal Michael Douglas) quits a peacekeeping organization called S.H.I.E.L.D. after discovering that a top-secret human shrinking suit he has developed has been co-opted for nefarious purposes. Cut to the present. A fresh-out-of-prison ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) breaks into Hank Pym’s house. Scott hopes to find enough money to maintain joint custody of his eight year-old daughter. Impressed with Scott’s thieving skills, Hank hires the young man to thwart the evil plans of Hank’s former protégée (deftly played by Corey Stoll).
Unfortunately, that’s where the plot veers off into a network of confusing subplots that make Memento look like a walk in the park. At the movie’s very basic core, it’s a heist movie with lots of laughs thrown in for the casual moviegoer. But what should have been a great take on a classic trope becomes muddled and confusing. This may be due in part to the film’s drawn-out development schedule, rounds of rewrites from various scribes and a switch in directors (Edgar Wright of “Hot Fuzz” and Peyton Reed of “Bring it On”).
But Ant-Man is not without merit. I’m a diehard comics fan, and I like exploding cars and all-out superhuman brawls just as much as the next guy.
But it’s the strong character driven stories that get me to buy a movie ticket. What this film lacks in cohesive plot lines it makes up for in character. I found Scott’s transformation from thief to hero to be not only believable but entertaining. There’s a scene where Scott refuses Hank’s job offer because the task seems too big for him. But eventually he realizes that if he wants to be a hero in his daughter’s eyes, he will need to dig deep and find resources that he didn’t believe he had.
If you love character-driven, superhero stories and enjoy a good laugh, this movie is for you. The film may suffer from big plot holes. But it’s a tiny price to pay to see an epic battle in a briefcase, one of the many things that makes Ant-Man a tale that astonishes.