Let's All Be Brave...Together
Hello friends,

This newsletter is a bit late. And although I've been under deadline for another project, I'm just gonna call out the real culprit.

I'm late because I'm preparing to do something I haven't done in a looong time. Just thinking about it fills me with dread.

Heart racing. Panic inducing. Dread.

I'm going to pitch a story. To a showrunner I've never met.
Look, I've been on the receiving end of story pitches for years. I know what makes for a good pitch. And I also know that sometimes a great reporter sends in a terrific pitch, but for one of a million possible reasons, it's not the right pitch at the right time.

Rejection is not personal.

And...to be fair, I pitched hundreds of stories during two decades at Only A Game. Sometimes I'd bring a stack of ideas to a story meeting and my colleagues would hate them all. That's just what happens when you're trying to push the envelope and try new things. (And you are trying to push the envelope and try new things, aren't you?)

Rejection is part of the creative process.

And still, I find myself using every possible means to procrastinate. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I have rewritten every sentence of this newsletter at least half a dozen times. Why?

Because I've decided that when I finish this newsletter, I have to write my pitch.

With every word I type, the dread creeps closer.

It kinda reminds me of my all-time favorite children's book -- which is, of course Sesame Street's The Monster at the End of this Book.

(There's also an adorable animated version with Grover reading his own book on YouTube. But YouTube didn't exist when I was a kid, so that kinda feels like cheating.)
Are you subscribed to Narrative Beat yet?
Subscribe now!
I know I'm not alone in my fear of pitching. Many of you mentioned it in your survey responses. (Click here if you haven't filled out the survey yet.)

So I figured I'd spend this newsletter going over some of the do's and don'ts of pitching.

Do...pitch a story that only you can produce.

Accepting a pitch from a new-to-me freelancer was always a gamble.

I've commissioned stories based on the strength of the narrative arc, only to have the reporter virtually ignore that narrative arc (or any narrative arc) in their first draft.

I've prepared a list of interview questions for a reporter who didn't know what to ask, only to have that reporter ignore those questions during the interview.

I've gone through long, painful edits with reporters, only to discover that they weren't writing down any of my suggestions.

Frankly, sometimes it would have been easier to do the story myself.

But you know which stories I can't do myself?

The one about how your grandmother and your sister traded poems about Duke basketball.

The one about confronting your high school bully, only to discover he wasn't such a bad guy after all.

The one about running a race to raise money for juvenile diabetes, because you were diagnosed with the disease at the age of 11.

None of these stories would have even been stories if they were reported by anyone else. It's the personal connection that made them work.

So if you have a personal connection to a story, lean into it.

Don't...pitch a story that's too easy to find.

Look, I read the news, too. I don't need you to tell me about the story that's gone viral. (Unless the subject of that story is your second cousin's next door neighbor who is fearful of the media and will talk to no one but you. If that's the case, pitch away!)

In my mind, there's a sliding scale. The easier a story is to find, the better the story needs to be.

Let me explain.

If you're going to pitch an interview with the author of a new book, it better be the best story I've ever heard. We're talking diving inside of an iceberg cool.

That's because the book author is going to be on a book tour. She's going to be interviewed by everyone and their mother. Why should I hire you, dear freelancer, when the author's publicist is already calling me?

On the other hand, if you want to talk to an author whose book I've never heard of, because it was published more than a decade ago and was largely ignored because no one wanted to believe young gymnasts were being abused by people in power in their sport, an now everyone knows gymnasts were being abused by people in power in their sport...you might just have something.

No matter how much -- or how little -- experience you have, the main thing that's being evaluated isn't YOU.

It's your IDEA.

So make sure you're bringing an idea that's going to surprise the person you're pitching.

Don't...pitch a topic to a storytelling show.

Look, it's great that you're interested in the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. But that's not a story.

That's a topic.

How do you turn a topic into a story?

Here's a good example.

Not so long ago, I needed to find a story about sports and Hollywood. So I started just by thinking about all the ways that sports and moviemaking collide.

The first name to pop into my mind was Esther Williams, a swimmer-turned-actress who starred in dozens of "aquamusicals" in the 1940s and '50s.

(If this is sounding familiar, it's because I mentioned this story in a previous newsletter.)

I'm fascinated by Esther Williams, and I probably could have made a story about her life, her rise to fame and the indignities she faced in Hollywood.

But in one of my Google searches, I stumbled upon something called the Esther Williams Trophy. Simply put, the trophy was a photo of Esther from one of her earliest films. And the Allied Navies fought over this photo, in a weird game of capture the flag, for more than 70 years.

But I still didn't have a story. I had something I've heard described as "a really interesting fact."

So I took that fact -- that little piece of trivia -- and I figured out its origin story. I spoke to some of the men who had witnessed and participated in "raids" for the trophy. I found logs from the ship-to-ship communication between the winners and the losers. I talked to people who could explain how and why it came to an end. Eventually, I had assembled enough plot points to craft an arc.

Speaking of which…

Do...center your pitch around plot.

Look, the best news peg in the world isn't going to convince a storytelling show to take your story.

The quirkiest character won't convince them to take a chance on you.

But the best/most unexpected/most tension-filled sequence of events just might.

So lead with that…

And also character.

I know, I know, I just said that character alone ain't gonna do it. And I stick by that sentence! (Otherwise, I'm gonna get stuck in endless re-writes and never get around to writing that pitch!)

In my experience, it's easier to find a character to carry a plot than it is to find a plot to carry a character. So start with a really great plot and then look for ways to bring compelling characters to that story.

But when pitching a narrative/storytelling show, don't worry too much about a news peg. Pegs can be a bonus, but often don't play too big of a role in the showrunner's decision.

Don't...write a book.

If you're pitching a 10 minute story and your pitch takes me 15 minutes to read, we've got a problem.

For one, it indicates that you haven't reallly figured out what your story is about.

But more than that, I simply don't have 15 minutes to spend on your pitch. I've got maybe 60 seconds to decide whether it's worth my time to click on your links and see if you've got the chops to do a story for me.

Okay, so what would a "good" pitch look like?

Let's take our silly "airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow" example.
As a child, Arthur Swallowfinder loved watching old Monty Python clips with his great uncle Herbert. One day when Arthur was seven, he watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail. From that moment on, he was obsessed with answering the question asked in the movie, "What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?" (Link to clip.)

Over the next four decades, Arthur became the world's foremost expert on the migratory patterns of swallows.

And then one day, shortly after Arthur's 48th birthday, something unexpected happened. An African swallow landed on the branch of an old birch tree in Arthur's backyard in Oxfordshire, England ... and started talking.

And the stories that bird told changed everything Arthur thought he knew about why swallows migrate from place to place.
Okay, that's a ridiculous example, I know. (Though, if you have access to this story, for goodness sake...pitch it!)

But you get what I'm after, right? A strong character, a WTF plot, a hint to some larger truth/understanding.

You've caught my attention.

But there are a couple of other things I'd want to know before I'd hit reply on your email.
Arthur and the talking swallow (his name is Bob) have agreed to participate. If necessary, I can also secure an interview with a preeminent ornithologist who can attest to Arthur's status as a leader in his field...and the fact that African swallows do not generally have the ability to converse with humans.

I am a freelance reporter working out of Oxfordshire, so there would be no travel expenses involved in the reporting of this story. Here are links to a few of my other stories.
And yeah, if you're going to get work, you really need a couple of links.

I can't speak for other showrunners here, but I didn't give a hoot whether your links were from a well-respected pre-existing show or your school project. What I wanted to hear is something that indicated that you understand what narrative is -- that you can actually tell a story.

In fact, I was once burned by a freelancer who linked to a story that they did for a major podcast. The story was so good, I assumed this person knew what they were doing. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

So yeah, if your school project is good, link to it! If you haven't produced anything yet, make something. Interview your mom, your best friend, your next door neighbor. Put a story together. Let me see (and hear!) that you know what you're doing.

I can't guarantee that other showrunners will take a chance on you. But if I was still in charge, I would.

One last thing…

Do...be brave.

Follow me here. Have you ever seen the really awful 2011 Matt Damon/Scarlett Johanssen movie, We Bought A Zoo?

The actual plot of the movie is unimportant to my point. All you need to know is this piece of advice the main character, played by Matt Damon, tells his teenage son.
We Bought a Zoo, 2011

"You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it."
This is what I tell myself every time I need to do something scary. Yes, it takes longer than 20 seconds to write a pitch. It takes longer than 20 seconds to apply for an open job, or to ask someone you barely know for a networking chat, or to do any of the things that can help your career move forward.

So this is what I do. I write the email. I tell myself it's just for practice. (Leave the "To" field empty, so you can't actually send until you're ready!)

Then, I proofread the email, take a deep breath, and summon my 20 seconds of insane courage. 20 seconds is more than enough time to fill out a "To" field and press "Send."

I don't always get the answer I wanted, but something great always comes out of being brave.

So, if you're in the mood, I invite you to join me in doing one brave thing this week. When you do, feel free to reply to this email and let me know what you've done. I'd love to hear from you!
Resources I Love
"If You Can Make Sure You're Not An Idiot, You've Done Well."
Fascinating storyteller tips from economist Tim Harford - Freakonomics People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 15.

[Project Name] Goes Here

Okay, yeah, it's a little weird to be promoting my own stuff in this space, but if you want to know a little bit more about who I am, this Medium post will help.
Thanks to John Dean on Unsplash for the scary "High Voltage" photo.