The Working Writer


The Freelance Writer's Bible by David Trottier

By David Trottier, Sheila Bender


Interview with the Author, Tips, and an Excerpt

 

A lot of books claim they can help authors who are in a hurry to get paid for their writing. This one is enthusiastically subtitled Your Guide to a Profitable Writing Career Within One Year, and it certainly does include supportive, direct information a freelancer needs to achieve such a goal. Author David Trottier has made his living as a freelance writer since 1988, publishing hundreds of magazine articles in national publications like Writer's Digest and Road and Track and now writes a regular column for scr(i)pt magazine, having written and sold several feature film scripts. His other books include The Screenwriter's Bible.

From an exercise on discovering your "writing soul" and what kind of assignments will suit you to a discussion of the parameters of assignments ("What begins as left-brain activity culminates in a right-brain explosion--the solution bursts, bubbles, or flows into consciousness."), David invites his readers to experience passion and excitement on their path to finding and fulfilling freelance assignments. Understanding writers' blocks, David ambitiously but simply presents methods for de-stressing along side ideas for encouraging creativity. Because creativity is not seeing "what everyone else sees, but to see it in a little different light or a slightly different way"…to convert "the habitual into the original," he presents a "renaming constellations" exercise for help breaking out of boundaries to recognize new ways into any subject. Doing the exercise himself, he created Boris, The Bug. He used curved line for the bug's body, unlike the point A to point B lines we see in maps of the stars. "You may think I cheated in my creation of Boris, The Bug, because I used curved lines. Who says lines must be straight? That's conventional thinking," the author asserts.

After reading this upbeat, no-nonsense "you can do it and you can change your thinking if you think you can't do it" guide, I asked David's publicist how I could interview the author. With his email address newly on my spool, I sent David some questions:

Sheila
How did you start your writing career? How did you grow it to the point where you
felt comfortable coaching writers and writing books that coach them?

David
I was a marketing executive when I decided it was time to write. Because I had a marketing background, I decided to try the most "marketable" types of writing first, and that was business writing and copywriting. I had done plenty of it before as a marketing manager and then marketing VP. My first writing job was just an editorial/proofreading job. I described it in detail on pages 27-28 in my book. Eventually, I built up a clientele, some of which were people I worked with as a marketing executive.

I began branching out into other areas of writing. One of those was screenwriting. I had some early successes in that area, so I began to teach others about it. As I analyzed myself, I realized that I was a teacher first, and that writing was extension of my teaching. I knew the writing seminars I created were very successful and helpful to writers because I started hearing success stories from them. That teaching experience led to the self-published first edition of The Screenwriter's Bible. Since then, I have sold over 200,000 copies of that book.

Two other seminars that I conducted were entitled "17 Ways to Make a Living as a Writer," and "Free at Last! How to Get the Inner Writer Out and Working For You." Those became the source material for The Freelance Writer's Bible. The books have been successful partially because I have worked with so many writers and have an understanding of their needs.

Sheila
I read the story of getting your first copyediting job, going right to the President of a mid-sized company and telling him his brochure was brilliant, but it was too bad he hadn't been shown the final draft because he would have seen the typos and had a chance to correct them. It must have been an interesting moment to negotiate when you realized he'd written the brochure himself. You seem unstoppable and ready to get what you want. How about when you are writing? You mention in the book that we can all train ourselves to strengthen areas we are not strong in. For you, it was learning to develop your free-associational mind despite a well-developed prioritizing, analytical mind.

David
After reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I was convinced there was something to intuition and the subconscious mind, so I began to "listen" to my "masculine intuition." Once I became more acquainted with that "feeling" side, I recalled past experiences where my intuition had helped me. For example, I was a short stop in a softball game, and I got the feeling I should move two steps to my left. So I did and caught a liner for the final out.

Encouraged, I continued to act on my intuition and, like a muscle when it is exercised, it became stronger. Now I promote the importance of using both sides of your brain. Why be a half-wit?

Sheila
What are your hopes for your readers?

David
Payday for me is when I get a call or e-mail from a writer who has broken in or made a major deal. The other night I was at a book signing and two men came in just to thank me. They had just landed two or three major deals with some well-known Hollywood types. I receive a letter and a book from a woman recently. It was her first book and it was selling.

In answer to your question, I have two hopes for writers. First, I hope that they find themselves as writers. Second, I hope that they can succeed with their writing. It's a wonderful thing to experience success in an area that you love.

****

The Freelance Writer's Bible is in its spirit generous; it offers its readers creative yet structured advice that should pay off. Page 92 contains a well-researched list of freelance writing fees in 33 categories ranging from email ads (35 to 100 dollars an hour) to 30-minute speeches (2,000 to 4500 dollars) to video or DVD scripts (10% of the budget). Seven pages on how to attract clients amount to a business plan. Many of the pages contain useful details such as manuscript submission guidelines, kinds of rights you can offer, simple sample submission logs and sample logs for noting important contacts. As a sample book proposal, David includes his proposal for this book. Whether you want to know how to write a query letter, how submit poetry, how to become a ghost writer, or how double your income and double your fun, David has included the information you need in a format and tone that allow you to absorb the information and move on to practicing the necessary steps for success. David's guide offers a "let's get right down to it" discussion of creative vision and the writing process as well as a coach's focus on how to use industry information to make decisions and sell work. That Trottier is a writer and teacher who cares about helping others comes through in this well-organized guide for those who'd like to succeed.

By permission of the author and Silman James Press in Los Angeles, I am reprinting an excerpt from pages 145-148 of The Freelance Writer's Bible. I've chosen this excerpt about how to market yourself as a screenwriter because screenplay writing is a genre many of us consider, whether we are fiction or nonfiction writers, but often without knowing how Hollywood works. Here's David on the issue:

Writing for the Movies

Most screenwriters break into the movies writing a few spec scripts. Let me explain.

The first step to becoming a screenwriter, animation writer, or TV writer is to write screenplays and teleplays on spec. You must do the work first. Agents and producers are simply not interested in your proposal or synopsis because there are so many other writers out t here who have completed screenplays to market. So learn your craft and write a great screenplay of 100-120 pages in correct format. Even if you want to write for TV, you will want to write an original feature-length screenplay as a sample of your work.

Once that script is written, you will approach agents or producers or both. The large producers are not approachable without an agent. So your game plan is to craft cogent and creative query letters to send to small and intermediate producers and WGA signatory agents. A WGA signatory agent is one who uses contracts approved by the Writers Guild of America (http://www.wga.org). The WGA has offices in Los Angeles and New York, depending on which side of the Mississippi you reside. Contact them for a list of approved agents.

You will chose producers of films that are similar to the type of film you envision for your script. You will choose agents that are listed by the Writer's Guild of America. Directories of producers and agents abound, so it is not difficult to find names. One company that produces such directories is Hollywood Creative Directories (5055 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036, 800/815-0503, www.hcdonline.com).

Do your research first and create a list of possible producers and agents to contact. (Review the chapter on "How to find an agent" in this book.) Agents prefer that you approach them first before approaching producers so that they can be the first to enter the market. So if you have written a blockbuster, consider approaching agents first and producers second. However, if your script project is designed as a low-budget film for a small, independent producer (meaning independent of the studio system), then an agent is unnecessary. In fact, most first scripts are sold to producers without the help of an agent. Some of my clients have sold large producers who later referred them to agents.

If your script is perfect for a specific star (called talent in the business), check to see if that talent has her own production company. If so, query the production company. The second best way to get a script to a star is to accidentally meet somewhere. The worst way is to approach the star's agent. Most likely, the agent simply will not be interested in your script unless there is a money offer tendered with it.

Of course, the best way to get your script to anyone in the film business is by referral. If your Aunt Minnie went to school with Robert Redford, then try to use that. I know it sounds lame, but consider exploiting any connection that you can find. Industry people often read referred scripts.

Once you have chosen five or ten agents and five or ten producers (which might include talent), craft the mother of all query letters. A query is a written pitch. See the section "How to write a query" in Chapter 7 of this book. Never query anyone until your script is completed and ready to show. Premature pitching is the hallmark of broken dreams.

Pitch letters can be mailed with a stamped self-addressed postcard or faxed. You may email if your research shows that the recipient will accept e-mailed queries. Follow up by phone two weeks after the query is sent. You are very unlikely to be put through to the agent or producer, so speak to the assistant on the phone respectfully and talk with him about your query as if he were the agent or producer. Ask, "When should I expect to hear from Ms. Bigbucks?" or, if the assistant can't find a record of receiving your query, say, "May I fax you a copy right now, so you'll have it handy?"

Evaluate the responses you receive. No response means "no." Decide if you need to revise your query. Once you receive a favorable response to a query, you will send that person your script with a very brief cover letter saying that this is your script "as requested." The script will have a blank front cover and back cover, a title page, and the script itself.

Do not send proposed cast lists, production art, or synopses unless specifically requested. The script should be three-hole punched and bound with two brass brads or fasteners. The middle hole will have nothing in it. Photocopies are acceptable and expected.

If the producer likes the script, you will be paid anywhere from one dollar to $5 million. More likely, he will want to option the script. That means he will pay you a small sum of money or nothing for the exclusive right to "show" the script for six months or a year. During that time, you can't contact anyone else about the script, and he can't produce it until he pays you the full price for it. The option agreement will define the full price. If the option period expires, then the producer must pay you full price, renew the option for a stated amount, or allow all rights to revert back to you. During the option period, the producer is using our script to try to attract financing, talent, and/or another producer.

If an agent responds to your query, she will offer to represent your work. She may not give you a contract immediately, but all WGA-signatory agents take 10% of any sale. If an agent does not succeed in any 90-day period, you are free to search for another agent. Some agents will charge you for photocopies of your script. Beyond that, there should not be any agent fees. The agent will send your script to the highest-level executives (producers) she knows. If an executive likes it, your agent will negotiate a deal. More likely, the executive will want to meet you. A meeting will be arranged.

At that meeting, the executive will ask you about your work and you'll have the opportunity to pitch a couple of projects. Then the executive will pitch some projects to you and get your reaction. He may then say something like this: "Well, if you have more ideas about this one, I'd love to hear them." That's your cue to go home and develop a sound story around the executive's idea. Your agent will arrange another meeting and you'll deliver and you'll deliver the 20-minute pitch. If the executive likes it, he will offer you a development deal, a deal to develop (write) the screenplay. Most of the deals in Hollywood are development deals. That's because producers already have their own ideas; they just need a writer to write the scripts. Your first development deal for a large producer will be around $60.000 to $80,000.

As you can see, in Hollywood, life is just a pitch. You will need to express yourself orally with these people. Naturally, when you pitch, you can bring note cards. If you want to hear some sample pitches rent The Player. Most of the pitches are pretty bad and delivered for comedic effect, but you'll get an idea of how things work.

In essence, what happens to most successful writers is that their script(s) becomes a sample of their writing ability that finds them work. For more information on writing, formatting, and selling your screenwriting, but The Screenwriter's Bible by Yours Truly, or visit
www.keepwriting.com.

Television and Cable

TV movies and TV shows such as sitcoms and soap operas work in much the same way. Your script finds you work. Even with TV, it is smart to write a feature-length script as a sample. T hen, if you are interested in writing for a particular show, write a spec script (on speculation that you will sell it later) for a similar show, but not the same show. Don't write a Will & Grace script if you want to write for Will & Grace. There are a lot of reasons for that, one being that our script is very unlikely to meet the producer's expectations of what she needs right now. Thus, you write for another show that's similar. Your agent sends these sample scripts to the producer of the show you are interested in, and then a meeting is arranged for you to pitch several episode ideas.

Although you don't have to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter, you will probably need to be near the production company of the TV show you are writing for. Incidentally, sitcom writers make tons of money, but work long hours.

There are numerous cable channels these days, and all are looking for programming. So don't overlook these markets. Some are large (such as HBO ad Showtime) and some re relatively small (such as PBS local stations like KCET). I remember an 18-year-ld student telling me that h e had pitched a project to the Discovery Channel. They liked it, but they wanted to see a sample script. He told, he "I'm not going to write a script unless they pay me." I remember thinking that he had missed a wonderful opportunity to break in.