Author Bob Mayer, ex-green beret, writer of over 30 novels and writing instructor, has written an incisive piece on GENREALITY Blog RE querying by comparing an audition scene in the movie Walk The Line to a writer’s querying a publisher.
Early in the movie Walk The Line, Johnny Cash and his two band-mates go for an audition. I recommend watching the movie and focusing on that scene. Here is the dialogue, with my comments in parentheses:
Johnny Cash singing a cover of an old gospel song—within 15 seconds he is halted:
Producer (read agent): Hold on. Hold on. I hate to interrupt… but do you guys got something else? I ‘m sorry. I can’t market gospel (read generic vampire novel, clichéd thriller, whatever). No more.
Johnny Cash: So that’s it?
Producer: I don’t record material (rep a book) that doesn’t sell, Mr. Cash… and gospel (a book like that) like that doesn’t sell.
Johnny Cash: Was it the gospel or the way I sing it? (was it the book or the writing?)
Johnny Cash: Well, what’s wrong with the way I sing it?
Producer: I don’t believe you.
Johnny Cash: You saying I don’t believe in God?
Bandmate: J.R., come on, let’s go.
Johnny Cash: No. I want to understand. I mean, we come down here, we play for a minute… and he tells me I don’t believe in God.
Producer: We’ve already heard that song a hundred times… just like that, just like how you sang it.
Johnny Cash: Well, you didn’t let us bring it home. (you didn’t get to my hook, climactic scene, whatever)
Producer: Bring… bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying… and you had time to sing one song (write one book), huh, one song… people would remember before you’re dirt… one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth… one song that would sum you up… you telling me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmie Davis tune we hear on the radio all day? About your peace within and how it’s real and how you’re gonna shout it? Or would you sing something different? Something real, something you felt? Because I’m telling you right now… that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believing in yourself.
Johnny Cash: Well, I’ve got a couple songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?
Johnny Cash: I do.
Bandmate: J.R., whatever you’re about to play… we ain’t never heard it.
Within fifteen seconds of singing the song he wrote, the producer knows he is looking at a star.
What did Johnny Cash Do?
He tried even though the odds of rejection were high. We hear the scary statistics all the time about the slush pile. You can’t let that stop you. There are people who won’t query because they’re afraid of rejection. In essence, they’ve just rejected themselves. I heard a very weird statistic: 90% of people who have a one-on-one with an agent at a conference and are requested to send in their material, never do. There are many reasons for this, but the #1 barrier is fear. Why even do the one-on-one if you are never going to follow through?
Johnny Cash walked in the door even though he was afraid. We’re going to discuss fear a lot in this book. We’re also going to discuss ways you can overcome fears.
He went even though his wife didn’t think he had it. There is a scene earlier where he and his band-mates are on the porch playing and Cash’s wife storms off and locks herself in the bathroom. She tells him he’s wasting his time and he needs to get a ‘real job’. Some of us have heard the same thing, haven’t we?
He stayed after being rejected. Most people think rejection is the end. It’s actually a beginning. Use rejection as motivation. Rejection is an inevitable part of a writer’s life. I just got a rejection last week from a publisher with whom I’ve sold over a million books.
He stayed. He got hit with a double rejection: not only was the song not good, his singing wasn’t good. How would you feel if someone told you not only was the book not good, your writing wasn’t either?
Even though he was angry, he was respectful. I just sent the editor who rejected me a polite thank you email for taking her time to look at the material.
He asked questions. I watch people pitch agents at conferences and many rarely ask questions. They’re so focused on pitching, they aren’t using the time as a valuable learning experience. When Cash asked what was wrong, he got a response that allowed him to focus. In that email, I not only thanked the editor for her time, I asked a couple of questions that might give me a way to try a different approach.
He listened. Earlier this year I got some other rejections on a different manuscript. Looking back, I remember my agent making a comment when I was first talking about the idea. I didn’t listen carefully enough to what she was really saying, because in retrospect, what every editor said in the rejection letter was what she had said two years ago. We’re going to cover communication in Force Seven. Listening for the real message is a key skill successful people have.
He used his PLATFORM and tried again. We’re always hearing the buzzword Platform. A lot of people feel they don’t have one. You do. If you watch the movie, note the look on Cash’s face when he’s singing the gospel song about his “Peace Within”. He’s not peaceful. He’s angry. That’s his character arc in the movie: finding peace within. So when he finally sings the song he wrote, he’s singing an angry song. Because his platform right then is anger: over the death of his brother; the fact his father blamed him for it; and he hated his time in the Air Force, being away from his girlfriend (and losing her). Basically, he used his real self and mined his emotions. That’s your platform.
He conquered his FEAR. He not only walked in, he stayed, he succeeded.
He CHANGED. He walked in with one plan, but when it didn’t work, he quickly changed that plan.