Basic Sales Skills (for Creatives)

2 Jan


Recently I had the pleasure of helping one of my friends struggling with marketing her manuscript to writers agents and publishers. The manuscript expands upon the story of a feature length screenplay that she wrote first: a dramedy about a dysfunctional family and a young woman running from her past.

We originally met a few years back when I was asked to direct the film. As fellow writers, we hit it off and kept in touch even when funding for the film failed to materialize.

This past month I found myself in the position of fundraising for my own feature film, “GRAYPORT”, and I learned a lot about executive producing, crowd funding, pitching and basic sales and marketing along the way. So when my friend told me she sent out over fifty query letters with no success, I knew something was amiss with the way she was pitching her book.

It turned out the trouble was that a lot of the book (and her pitch) dealt with the main character struggling to overcome the pain of her brother’s suicide. Now, suicide is right up there along with terminal illness, child molestation, human trafficking and the holocaust, as far as subjects people want to stay as far away from as possible, especially when it comes to their recreation, entertainment and leisure time.

All agents, publishers, investors and executives specifically look for projects with commercial appeal and profit potential, because that is their business. Nothing is ever published, shot or financed unless someone somewhere honestly thinks it can make money. (Not counting vanity projects of course…) And the truth is no publisher thinks “Oh goodie, a book about suicide! It will fly off the shelves!”

If a highly unpleasant subject is a big part of a book, film, play, etc – there has to be one heck of a payoff for the audience by the end of the story, because otherwise you are expecting people to voluntarily subject themselves to depression, pain, hopelessness, anger and grief without reason… and that goes against human nature.

Which brings me to basic sales skills for creatives learning to market their work.

Whether you are pitching a book, fundraising for a film or hanging an art show, it all comes down to sales. It’s easy to sell people what they want and like. But it’s impossible to sell people things they would rather avoid, don’t want to think about, and wish didn’t exist in the world.

So rather than speaking of the suicide and all the horrible things going on in this main characters dysfunctional family life in the query letter, I advised my friend to focus on “the payoff” of the book. “The payoff” in this story, was that at the end of all the suffering, the main character had found “the secret” to life, happiness and love… and she was finally at peace with the universe, and reconnected to herself. Now what young woman (her target audience) wouldn’t want to read that book, if she thought she could walk away with enlightenment and the secret to life and overcoming tragedy afterwards?

The purpose of a query letter is simply to entice agents to take the time to read the book – and make a decision about the merits and appeal of the story in full. So there is no need to outline all the darkest details they will discover layered within a rich and complex story, as mere bullet points in a brief, single-page first impression stripped of context and poetry.

Similarly, there are a lot of unpleasant, icky moments and dark themes in “GRAYPORT”, the feature film I am currently working on. It’s impossible to tell a powerful story of good and evil without disturbing the audience at some point. But to take those elements out of context, and present the gory details in a brief “pitch” to potential sponsors, would be a disaster, and miss the overarching moral heart of the story, and the triumphant payoff at the end.

Focusing on the fun, “easy-to-digest” elements of the story, a popular genre, and great perks for the backers, allowed “GRAYPORT” to be fully funded within three weeks of my Kickstarter launch, (which was doubly impressive during the holidays when “GRAYPORT” was competing with Santa Claus for people’s disposable income.)

So if there’s one thing I’ve learned when it comes to the sales and marketing of your creative work, whether a book, a play, a film, or any other narrative – it’s hide the “yuck” and sell the “candy”. Everyone prefers the sugar to the medicine. Never present the worst moments of the story out of context, or expect a logline, query letter or summary to serve any other purpose than entice the audience by whatever means necessary to take the time to enjoy the work as a whole. Tease the audience with the good stuff, and surprise them with the deeper meaning and difficult subjects. It’s a tried-and-true formula in all great works of art, from Shakespeare to Spielberg.

After all, if all you knew of a play was “two teenagers kill themselves” you’d never experience the beauty of Romeo and Juliet.




30 Dec

Genius is simply an obsession that over time results in mastery. ~Aria


Overcoming Writers Block in 5 Easy Steps

30 Dec

Part one of this post, Myths of Creativity: #3 “WRITERS BLOCK”, dismantled the myth known as “writers block” and exposed it’s true function as a psychological defense mechanism. Now in part two, we’ll explore real-world solutions for this wholly frustrating, yet imaginary ailment.

To move beyond “writers block” an author can follow the following steps:

1. Acknowledge that writers block isn’t real.
There is no outside force or illness that robs you of writing ability. There is no change inside your brain that suddenly makes you incapable of writing. What you experience as writers block is just a psychological defense tactic to protect you from some fear, stress, anxiety, negative judgment, or other bad experience you imagine will happen once the writing of your work is complete, or in the writing process.

2. Delve into some introspection and figure out what exactly you fear or worry about most, which is at the root of your “writers block”. It might be the judgment of others. It might be your own judgment. It might be the fear that what you’re writing is “no good anyway” that stops you from working on it, or the fear that after spending a great deal of effort, there will be no tangible payoff. The root issue is unique to every individual, and only you can figure out what’s really bothering you.

3. Brainstorm some real world solutions to the source of the problem.
For example, if you fear the judgment of others, promise yourself that you will only share your first draft with a trusted, and supportive friend. Or that you’ll avoid dealing with rejection letters, by letting a loved one open all correspondence from prospective publishers. If you fear the work will be “no good”, make a decision to go through as many drafts as necessary to improve it until you are 100% satisfied before sharing with others. Sticking by a commitment to only show your best, can be very empowering.

4. Once you have a strategy in place for solutions to the root problem, begin by gently going beneath the level of resistance to engage in writing-related activities, and story-related activities for your current work. Take it one tiny step at a time, and redefine what you call “writing” (brainstorming, outlining, jotting down ideas, making lists, watching or reading inspirational things, all count as part of the daily writing process.)

5. Realize that there is no reason why you must continue work on something that does not inspire you, whether that be the subject or the format, and change to something that is fresh and baggage-free for you (unless you have a business obligation to complete a particular project.) Many cases of “writers block” are simply a matter of not liking the idea! These are usually the simplest to solve, as you can just spend a little time thinking about what you are most passionate or curious or emotional about in your real life at this moment, and use that as the backbone of a story. Works like a charm!

Happy writing!

Myths of Creativity: #3 “WRITERS BLOCK”

30 Dec

There are many myths around creativity that confuse would-be artists, and dampen the creative impulse. These myths are usually made up by non-artists, as a sort of “folklore” about the ‘strange’ creative process they know nothing about. But some myths, are made up by artists themselves to serve as a defense mechanism against the real or imagined consequences of creation. Today, I want to dismantle the myth known as “writers block”.

Writers love writers block. The inexplicable ailment that somehow only writers experience, a great topic of conversation and source of sympathy, one can even brag about how long they’ve had writers block… a sort of competition of dysfunction.

Writers block is a concept that has achieved mythic proportions. Without being an actual illness, it is treated somewhat like the plague… mysterious, tragic, incomprehensible, crippling and possibly even contagious. A promising young writer might be “struck down” with writers block at any time. (Usually right after their first success, in order to avoid the pressure of living up to it.)

To be clear, writers block does actually exist, but only in the same way that fear of the monster under our bed exists as children, because that fear is reinforced and self-perpetuating with every innocent bump in the night, and every day that no actual writing takes place has the same effect.

Writers block is a self-fulfilling prophesy, a myth and a legend that writers love because it’s a special ailment unique to their branch of the arts. It gives a dysfunctional channel to their powers of introspection, and a certain perverse artistic status…

“I’m struggling with writers block…” one might say at a party, dressed in black. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry…”

The problem with writers block is that due to an author’s natural imagination, this ridiculous concept soon becomes a real and tangible “thing”. Like schizophrenia. Or the mumps.

It’s something to fear, and something to “cure”… and definitely something to obsess over, especially when spending time with other writers. Writers, ironically, can spend months writing about their writers block in personal letters, journals or online forums with their peers.

For some authors being in and out of writers block is almost a sort of religion. Going through “writers block” periods becomes ritualistic rites of passage as “real” authors, or proof of depth and significance by “suffering for their art”.

No one ever seems to notice, that while in the midst of “writers block” authors will whip out countless emails, blog posts, witty status updates, social media comments, touching eulogies, delightful birthday card poems, passionate love letters, thoughtful toasts, competent work reports, in depth analysis, glowing letters of recommendation, insightful reviews and criticism, and daily diary entries…

Clearly the “writers block” is very selective in blocking only the writers ability to write a particular creative work. How peculiar!

The truth is, nothing can suddenly rob you of the ability to write, if you are capable of writing to begin with (short of brain injury…) But if authors simply said “I’m not sure how to tackle this next chapter” or “I really don’t have a clear idea of the plot yet”, what would be the fun? After all, that would mean taking responsibility for the creative progress, problem solving and brainstorming solutions, or at the very least defining the problem specifically enough that a solution might be found.

“Writers block” is simply a way of avoiding the issue… and the real issue might be anxiety, inadequacy, fear of failure (or success) or a greater desire for sympathy and camaraderie than the desire to complete a book. There’s no excitement in telling people you wrote a few hundred more words during the lunch break, and are on track to finish your novel by summer – if you are secretly scared of the rejection or humiliation that awaits you, once someone else actually reads it.

“Writers block” allows you the social prestige of being an author, without actually writing anything and being judged for it… a fantastic combination!

Sometimes the harshest judge is oneself and simply by being “imperfect” (or fearing that you will be) in what you are writing, is enough for “writers block” to suddenly pop up. To spare yourself the pain of being disappointed with your finished novel, it’s easier to be “blocked” and have nothing much to look at… nothing you can judge.

For those brave souls willing to move forward past this imaginary ailment, and dismantle the defense mechanism in favor of following your muse, I offer Part II of this post here ~ “Overcoming Writers Block in 5 Easy Steps”

Where You End Up In Life

30 Dec

“Where you end up in life depends a lot on where you decide to go.” ~Aria


The Toxic Artist Part I: Are you toxic?

19 Jun

Of all the things we might worry about as creatives, (inspiration, clients, finances…) there is one rut that must be avoided at all costs. It sneaks up on you when you aren’t looking and leaves you in denial even as your creative energy is leached away and your every prospect withers and dies.

In the majority of cases, the artist is far below ground before they ever realize something is wrong.

This monstrous pit where creativity goes to die, is the black and slimy depths in which the “toxic artist” wallows.

The toxic artist began as a lighthearted creative soul, as inspired and free as any other, ready to take on the world with their ideas, talent and imagination. But somehow, through the slings and arrows of life, they seemed to be ensnared in weeds and thorns – sinking in a putrid bog – trapped in a deep pit of their own making.

See if you have any of the classic signs of the artist who has become “toxic” or know anyone who is:

The Toxic Artist: Signs & Symptoms

~Claims that they are better than almost everyone working in the industry, but have nothing (or almost nothing) to show for it
~Refuses to work without guaranteed pay, (even as clients and patrons understandably cannot agree to pay for work which does not exist.)
~Is terrified of getting “screwed” by the establishment. They refuse to cooperate with others, outraged at the fees or % that agents, managers, galleries, producers, collaborators, publishers, editors, promoters, etc charge for their services.
~Insists on 100% creative control of every project, including the marketing and promotion of their work, even if complete creative control is rare or impossible in their chosen field.
~Needs unrealistic guarantees and promises in order to put forth a full effort, but will always find a way to pick apart any contract, sale, deal, commission or collaboration before it even begins.
~Is full of unrealistic expectations about how the world “should” work and their art “should” be valued. At the same time claim that every art outside of their field or particular medium is worthless, foolish, easy, and a waste of time.
~Is often nasty and critical towards other artists who are making progress, taking risks, getting attention and following their dreams an ambitions. Happy to cut others down in order to lift themselves up.
~Spends more time “researching” and gossiping about other artists to anyone who will listen, than actually creating and focusing on their work.
~Has a social life largely based on their suffering-creativity, and have fully blended the experience of creativity with the emotion of suffering, ensuring their avoidance of creation.
~Believes that they have suffered nobly for their craft and are forced into a callous & skeptical position in regards to opportunities, but in reality have avoided taking chances, making connections and establishing a reputation through continually creating more work.
~Has grand stories about how they would do things if they had the resources of those at the top of their industry (studio space, huge budgets, A-list connections, six figure advances) but does nothing to take full advantage of the limited (though adequate) resources available to them at the present moment.
~Runs away from doing what they know is required in order to join the A-list in their field.
~Is obsessed with how much money the famous in their field are making, and frequently quotes these figures to others around them, complaining bitterly at the unworthiness of the stars and their own lack of recognition
~Is scared of being found out to be not good enough, thus perfectionism and self-sabotage set in and the toxic artist cannot release work which does not meet their ridiculous standards (so almost no work is shown to the public at all.)
~Always has an excuse for why they are not creating… which changes every day.

If any of these signs and symptoms ring a bell, or remind you of someone close to you, be sure to stay tuned for my next blog post, The Toxic Artist Part II: Detox

Myths of Creativity: #2 THE LONE WOLF

16 May

The truth is, there is nothing more agonizing than trying to create in a vacuum.

It’s as frustrating as it is depressing.

Thus, the myth of the “lone wolf” artist, is particularly insidious in dampening the creative impulse.

It’s a romanticized idea: the steadfast, solitary figure, tortured with the burden of their work, struggling alone against the empty page, the blank canvas, the arrangements of the orchestra… on an island of emptiness, facing the marble block, waiting for the angel to reveal itself through the carving.


The truth is, people never create their best work (or any work for that matter!) completely alone. My experience in the film industry shows this on an epic scale. Just the thought of that much struggle in solitude is depressing to most people. In contrast, it’s a liberating joy to brainstorm together, to find a collaborative partner of the same mind, to bounce ideas around with your friends and hear the laughter of the audience which convinces the playwright to pen another. Human beings, by their nature are together much more than the sum of their parts. It is no different with creativity.

Psychologically, we yearn to be part of a cohesive group, collaborating and solving problems together, each contributing the creative skills we are best at, inspired by a greater vision no one of us could achieve alone. This is how we have built bridges that span miles, skyscrapers that touch the clouds, raised the greatest cathedrals and pyramids on earth entirely by hand. So too, it takes many, even hundreds of brilliant artists in their own right to put on a Broadway show, a concert tour or this summer’s blockbuster hit.

But even the toiling novelist, or hyper-focused book illustrator, gets their ideas and inspirations from interacting with the outside world. A conversation with a friend. A walk through the city streets. The support of a caring spouse. The encouragement of an agent, a dealer, a manager, a promoter, a publisher, a distributor who believes in your skill. The family who supported your creative interests, came to your shows, paid for schooling, and brags to the neighbors about how talented you are.

From the snippets of real life conversations that make it into feature screenplays, to the yet-undiscovered-actress whose children make her an Oscar out of clay, we are all expressing our creative and artistic natures as part of a greater, social whole. Rather than creating in isolation and solitude, the artist reflects back the world as they see it through their own unique prism. That is their style and their vision, but without relationships with other people, without being engaged in reality, without “filling the well” – there would be nothing to reflect. Not to mention the profound importance of having stable, supportive relationships in the artists life in order to provide the emotional and moral support which is essential to continued creative productivity and well being.

It’s true that artists in certain fields have a reputation for being introverts, and the nature of their work requires many hours spent alone, focusing on their craft. But the friendships, experiences, relationships, struggles and personal questions out in the real world, are the fuel which lights the fire of creativity, and keeps it burning.

Artists aren’t lone wolves bootstrapping across a vast desert wilderness of complete isolation and spectacular narcissism. They function by being a “meta” part of our world – experiencing, observing the experience, and commenting upon it all at once.

Don’t let the idea that you have to renounce the rest of your life and spend years in a hermit cave in order to be “an artist”, discourage you from being creative. The truth is, the more alone you are, the less creative you become. Inspiration is all around you – and so are the people who will help you bring that inspiration to life.

Myths of Creativity: #1 GENUIS

8 May

There are a lot of myths around creativity, and most of them dampen the creative impulse – for example, the myth of “genius.”

No one can really explain what the label of “creative genius” means exactly, but it’s something like talent… multiplied by a hundred. Or simply being a very successful, famous person in a creative/arts related profession.

“Talent” is a muddy enough concept as it is, “creative genius” even more so. And since when is fame or earning power a reflection of quality and originality? But I digress…

The trouble is, people often use this label to put themselves down in comparison. As in, “well, you know I dabbled in painting, but I could never touch a genius like Picasso” or “I wanted to make films when I was a kid, but I see a creative genius like Spielberg… and I say, what was I thinking!”

They believe “genius” is some sort of quazi-mystical idea of creativity, that the gods have blessed certain special individuals with “genius” and you are not among them. That genius simply “is” or “isn’t.”

Well let me break it down for you – the only difference between you and these “geniuses” is their level of commitment. They both began practicing their craft as children, and they never stopped. They put mastering their craft above all other things, and sacrificed a lot to be as great as they possibly could with their work, while everyone else dabbled, trifled and quit when something easier came along.

Genius, is a sort of relentless obsession – that over time results in mastery.

So to put an end to the myth, I don’t believe in a magical genius fairy that blesses some babies at random but leaves everyone else out of luck. Unless she blesses them with one heck of a work ethic, since the “geniuses” work longer and harder than anyone else.

Whether you’re willing to put the time in, and commit to your work as unequivocally as the creative geniuses of the world have, is strictly up to you. Just don’t chalk up their skill and success to a roll of the dice. Not only does that fail to give them proper credit for their dedication, but it disempowers you of the opportunity to do the same.

Spring Healing

5 May

Does your messy room control your thoughts? Can a filthy kitchen cause depression?


A surprising psychological connection exists between your mental state and your environment. It’s inescapable. There is an evolutionary reason sunlight and open spaces make us happy, cramped, dark and dirty spaces make us miserable.

My dream is to one day live in Zen-monk-like efficiency, with not a single possession that isn’t truly beautiful or useful to me. I can only imagine what an enormously positive effect that would have on my well-being and productivity.

Now that sunny days are finally here, I find myself waking up cheerful, full of energy and ready for anything. This weekend began with the irrefutable urge to tackle some Spring cleaning.

It’s amazing how much better I always feel after getting rid of things I never use. I think there is something wonderfully empowering about making your personal space neat and tidy, finishing old projects and de-cluttering along the way. And when I let go of things that no longer serve me, I love knowing that I can help someone else in the community by giving them away or donating to Goodwill.

It’s fascinating how the state of a space, reflects the state of my mind. A cluttered room, a cluttered mind. A yucky room, yucky feelings. A tranquil, open space – tranquil, open mind. Ahhhhhhh…! Like a breath of fresh air.

It certainly makes me wonder how much human beings are a product of their environment.

The beauty of our free will and artistry is that we can choose to influence, to change and even fully create an environment that pleases us both functionally and aesthetically. Appreciating this incredible power of the environment upon people, is why careers such as architecture, interior design, landscape design and garden planner have always interested me. There is something so noble and lovely about crafting spaces and environments that help people think, feel and function at their best. I firmly believe a beautiful garden in full bloom, or a exquisite living space can soothe, calm, even heal.

Perhaps if the Middle East peace talks were held in the Butchart Gardens, they’d have more luck.

An Artists Confession

3 May

First, let me begin at the beginning…

Before I was a film maker, I was an oil painter. It might surprise some who know the depth of my passion for film, that the studio arts were, creatively speaking, my first love. From pencil sketches on lined notebook paper in grade school, I progressed all the way to making my living as an oil painter and earning my first AA degree in painting/studio arts at Everett Community College – the same school where the renowned artist Chuck Close began his career.  

From my early teens through my mid-20’s I dreamed of one thing… to be a professional painter, selling my original work in galleries up and down the west coast – galleries in beautiful places where I would visit on occasion for shows and special events. It was a lovely dream, and to my credit, I was in many ways very successful as a painter.

As I already mentioned, I earned my living painting full time for several years, and I did it through commissions, portraits, murals, special projects, and selling my work online through places like eBay (back when the original paintings category wasn’t overrun with thousands of “penny listings” from China and the like…) I built my own business from the ground up, managing my website, a newsletter, and a list of previous and potential clients – always open to new commissions and new opportunities. I painted daily with gusto, (often morning ’till night!) had local shows, exhibitions and collectors for my work. I had the privilege of reporting my taxable income to the IRS as a self-employed artist, and ran an artist’s group online that grew to be the biggest in its category. Last but not least, I developed my own personal style of painting, which came from thousands of hours of working with the medium. It may take a fellow painter to understand why the struggle and triumph of developing my own personal, instantly-recognizable, painting style is what I am most proud of – and what I consider to be my greatest accomplishment as a painter to this day.

The flip side… the confession… is the shadow to this rising-star story. There was a self-made, psychological limit to my success, and I found (as many artists do) that it was easier to struggle on the level with which I was familiar, than to enter the ranks of the truly professional creative players. It wasn’t the competition that worried me… I knew my work would sell – I had often enough seen it sell without my even trying, and people were most often genuinely excited and enthusiastic about my paintings in person – but the thought of actually approaching galleries and asking them to represent me, was nauseatingly uncomfortable. So I did what any neurotic artists would do, and ruined my chances. Poised with a polished portfolio of paintings, a list of buyers and local exhibitions, my childhood dream dangling right before my nose – the number of galleries I actually contacted regarding my work came to a grand total of…

you guessed it….


It makes me feel sick, even now, to think about it.

The way I rationalized, justified, avoided, procrastinated and sabotaged my growing career with every excuse in the book.

The truth is, ages ago, my father told me I would never be a “real” painter, and that artists starved. I spent most of my young adulthood fighting back against that belief, only to be completely engulfed by it. It was like an obsession – the more you try not to think about it, the more you think about it. No matter how many friends, fans, collectors, teachers and fellow painters told me that my work was not only “good”, but so good it was worth real money in the real world…. it didn’t seem to matter. The only voice my subconscious was programmed to listen to, was the voice of my father on repeat – replaying that one sentence remembered from one argument we had when I was fourteen years old, and had said how much I wanted to go to art school and earn my bachelors degree in painting.

What bothers me now… what gnaws away at me deep inside… is not what my father said, or that I believed it, or at the very least was doubtful enough to worry about it, or that I haven’t achieved my dream of selling my paintings in beautiful galleries up and down the west coast, or the thousands I might have made, or the amazing career I didn’t have, or the countless unpleasant situations I might have avoided by not starving as an artist, but instead choosing to thrive as an artist on a truly professional level…. what bothers me, immensely, is my cowardice.   

That even still, the irrational avoidance of the goal (even a single step towards the goal!) is pathological. I cannot understand, for example, why my mind isn’t bothered by spending $100 on a new camera accessory, a gift for my parents or a day-trip, but the thought of spending $100 on stamps and postcards showcasing my work to select galleries, suddenly seems like an exuberant and impermissible waste of money. Or, why spending countless hours surfing the web and Facebook doesn’t bother me in the least, but pulling out the paint and brushes again seems like an unbelievable and reprehensible waste of time.

There’s something awfully murky going on in my subconscious… something which makes moving towards the dream so terrifying, that it must be avoided at all costs. Perhaps you too have felt this strange phenomena, opposing your own highest ambitions?

I’ve spoken about this horror before, in a the blog post entitled  “Asking This Question May Change Your Life.” But the question now is… how can it be overcome? CAN it be overcome? And is there time enough to redeem my inner coward, or is the dream of one young artist gone forever in the sweeping tides of time?

For that answer, stay tuned for part 2.





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