For the past three years, my boyfriend has been writing a screenplay. Rather, he’s been brainstorming, outlining, note-taking, researching, writing, formatting, editing, re-editing, re-re-editing, and shopping his screenplay. He’s been excited, stressed, overwhelmed, elated, confident, apathetic, depressed, and grateful about it–sometimes, it seems, all on the same day.
While it’s my job to work with writers, it’s been a totally illuminating experience having to live with one. I already knew plenty: that deadlines don’t always mean anything, that writing is super hard, that trying to sell something you love is weird. But I didn’t know that pitching a book/screenplay/pilot is like learning another language, that any good news feels like a scam, that contacts don’t always help, how any response–even a rejection–feels like a step forward.
While I’m sure he learned tons of lessons on being a writer, I learned some big lessons (by proxy) on working with them.
– Cut a guy a break: One night he got a request for his screenplay by an agent in L.A. We were watching T.V. (probably “River Monsters” or “American Pickers”–don’t judge) and he was simultaneously re-reading his response for the millionth time, triple checking that he was attaching the most current, most obsessively edited version of the screenplay, and finally hit send. And immediately realized he’d called the agent by the wrong name, and let out the most heartbreaking howl of despair. He immediately wrote back and apologized, but instead of being cool about it, the agent wrote back with a “Who’s Joe?”
People typo my name all the time (Adrian, Adrienne, Adrianna, etc.), and while it’s not the greatest mistake ever, I resolve to never take it personally. Maybe you shouldn’t respond to important emails while watching some dudes go antiquing but mistakes happen, and it’s okay. I resolve to never reject something with a “Who’s Adrianna?”
– Just respond:
“Thanks so much for sending me your screenplay, but I’m afraid I’m going to step aside.”
BF: “That’s so nice, right?! They received it and read it, and they’re sad that it’s not for them! How nice.”
“There was a lot I enjoyed about your work, but it’s not a good match for my list at this time.”
BF: “They really enjoyed it!! That means they didn’t hate it!!”
“I wish you the best of luck in finding a home for your work.”
BF: “Gosh, they’re being so helpful and nice. They think it’ll find a home somewhere else, it’s just not right for them!”
Most of the time, even a form letter is better than no response at all. I had never realized what a bummer it is to work for years on something, send it to strangers, and get no response. Agents get hundreds of unsolicited submissions per week, and it’s a daunting task to figure out how to manage them, but even with form letters authors write back “thanks for letting me know.” A few years ago we tried a system of only responding to queries we were interested in, but decided that any response was better than no response at all. I resolve to always respond.
– Be clear, be patient, be nice: An agent requested a call with him while we were on vacation, on a weekend, in August. This sounded like The Call, and he seemed totally calm, while I was watching him in the yard from the window, pooping my pants in fear.
He had all his questions prepared, had researched the agent and knew his client list, and spent nearly an hour on the phone. There was laughing and enthusiastic hand gestures–good signs!! When he came back inside where I was unpeeling myself from the window, he had no idea if he had an agent or not. The agent had mentioned putting his name on the BF’s IMDB page, but was that an offer?? The agent had also mentioned hiring a publicist, but the BF was too nervous about losing the agent’s interest to say that he couldn’t afford one.
A prospective author has no idea what the deal-breakers are. They don’t know if asking a million questions will annoy an agent out of his/her offer, if saying “no” is ever okay, if knowing the plan for their book is any of their business. So I resolve to be approachable, be accessible, be clear about my hopes and strategies. Wanting to know that you made the right decision should never feel like a deal-breaker.