Talking to David Henry Sterry is like sitting down to a feast. Where do you start? Normally, I’d dig right into his days as a sex worker (read his book “Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent”) but David is also a book doctor and God knows I want a piece of that. Here is an interview I did with him for Style Weekly. Catch David this weekend at the James River Writers Conference. He’ll be doing his much lauded Pitchapalooza with Arielle Eckstut.
Me: You’ve written eleven books since 2001?
David: Twelve books now.
Me: I don’t understand that. That’s amazing
David: I have an addictive personality….and so instead of pursuing addictions that are horrible for me, after years of therapy I’ve channeled it into something that’s productive.
Me: It’s nice, because it seems to me that you got the material when you were in the addictive phase…
David: Yes, I have stories to tell.
Me: So you’ve got books on sex, partying, The World Cup, children’s books, books for writers who want to get published…did I miss anything?
David: Well, I wrote a series of books for 11 year old girls who want to know how to throw a great pajama party….I give a lot of really cool tips on how to do that. I’m just also interested in lots of different things.
Me: Tell me about Pitchapalooza.
David: We’re really looking forward to coming down there. I love Richmond. In my head I thought Richmond was some backward place in the South and it’s such a cool city. I’ve been down there a couple times now.
Me: It’s surprising, isn’t it? I came here from San Francisco. I’m shocked how much I love it here.
David: I was saying to Arielle we should move down there…houses are so cheap. Interesting people from all over have gravitated there.
Me:What can people expect from Pitchapalooza?
David: One of the most neglected, under rated things in the whole writing book business game is the pitch, I think. Because no matter how you plan to get published, whether you’re going to try to get a mainstream publisher like HarperCollins, Simon Shuster, Random House, or whether you are going to publish yourself….and there’s so many options these days with ebooks, print on demand….you gotta have a great pitch. Because the pitch is the thing that’s going to attract an agent or an editor. And it’s going to attract a reader. The pitch follows you throughout the whole experience with a book from the time you first tell somebody. They say “what are you up to” and you say, “Oh, I’m writing a book”, and they say “what is your book about?” That’s your pitch. The answer to that question. From there to when you get on Fresh Air and Terry Gross asks you…. so, what’s your book about? The answer you give has to display how brilliant, entertaining, informative, funny, tragic ,wild, serious… whatever your book is, that pitch has to, in 60 seconds or less, display all of the great unique, fascinating qualities your book has. And if your pitch doesn’t do that, and most pitches honestly don’t, you have a really hard time getting a book deal.
Me: This is news to me. I had to work up some pitches because I was trying to sell screenplays for a little while.
David: I did that.
Me: God damn it, that’s hard.
David: It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
Me: So I’m turning my screenplay into a novel.
David: That’s what I did. I was living as a screenwriter in Hollywood for some years and I sold a screenplay. It never got made into a movie and I sold it three different times. I turned it into a middle grade novel. And sold it in about 5 minutes. So we’ve had the same experience.
Me: Not exactly. I’m in the middle of working on mine. I think it will actually end up a face book post. So the pitches are a bitch.
David: They’re hard. That’s really why I came up with Pitchapalooza, because of my experience in Hollywood. I spent five years of my life going into executives offices and pitching ideas to them. I studied it relentlessly. That’s actually a great way to learn how to pitch. In a way they’re like movie trailers. That’s the art of a pitch. You have to present word pictures for people and it’s in the details-the minutiae. So you have to really draw people in with particular details, because the universal is revealed through the particular. And then present the big themes and the larger picture and how your story fits into it towards the end of the pitch.
Me: That’s different….I’ve always thought of it as cramming the whole story into 60 seconds or less.
David: That’s what we call a plot heavy pitch, where you say all the details from your plot. The ideal response to a pitch is “I can’t wait to read that book.” When I think of the great stories that I gravitate back to like Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind… I wouldn’t lay out the entire plot. Most of what I love about those books are Dorothy from Kansas and Scarlett O Hara. So that’s the other key…if you are doing a pitch that’s a narrative-a story with a beginning middle and end- whether it’s a memoir, nonfiction or a made up novel, we have to identify and fall in love with our hero, out main character. And that’s something else people neglect. There should be a villain.
Me: So you are even going to stick that into your pitch?
Me: So what are you going to do with the people at the conference?
David: Here’s what happens: people come to the Pitchapalooza and they get one minute to pitch the book. We’re very strict about this. Because if you can’t tell your story in a minute, that’s a problem. These days, agents and editors are bombarded with material and you’re lucky to get a minute with an established agent or editor. And, frankly, with the public. We now have this short attention span and brain that’s just getting worse. Forty characters. That’s what you get these days. So you get a minute. Then we critique the pitch in a gentler kinder way…we are the American Idol for books without the Simon. No one is going to make fun of your hair or ask you who dressed you this morning or call you stupid. Our goal is really to help people get published. Pitchapalloza is to make you pitch better. And then at the end of the pitchapalloza, we announce a winner, and we hook that person up with an agent or an editor. In the last three weeks, three of our Pitchapalooza people have been hooked up with publishers and we’ve gotten them book deals.
Me: Oh my god! You’re going to need a body guard pretty soon. I’m thinking of kidnapping you already. It’s such a good idea to keep your pitch in mind as you’re writing, too. I mean, if you can’t put together a pitch, you might want to look at your book.
David: Yes! I’ve videotaped a bunch of pitches and put them up on you tube and on our website bookdoctors.com. It’s a great way to sort of observe. There’s a couple things that I would say that people do over and over again that are big mistakes. For example: people are always telling us that their book is funny or sad or thrilling. In the end, I don’t want you to tell me your book is funny. I want you to make me laugh. Don’t tell me it’s sad, make me cry. I don’t want you to tell me it’s thrilling, I want you to make my heart pound faster. Anyone can say I’m funny a funny guy, but not many people can make you laugh.
Me: I think Richmond is dying for this. This is awesome.
David: We’ve done this from coast to coast. we have encountered over and over again wonderful writers with fantastic stories to tell. But they don’t have any connections to anybody in the publishing business. It’s so hard if you’re an outsider sending cold emails to agents and publishers or putting your ebook up when you don’t know anybody. The publishing business is so exclusionary because so many people want to do it and there’s so few slots available. So that’s part of our job is to help people. Either to connect people or to help people figure out how they can get to somebody on the inside.
Me: That’s so necessary. There are so many writers who are introverts.
David: That’s so true. They just want to sit in their rooms and write their books. Exactly right.
Me: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
David: I would say there’s four main keys. One is research. Find out other books that are similar to yours. We had someone come up to us and say, look I’ve got a great book. It’s everything you want to know about pregnancy and giving birth. And we’re like, did you know there’s a book called “What to Expect When you are Expecting?” They were like, no…I’ve never heard of that book! Their book had already been written. And if you want to write a book about pregnancy and birth, you need to say my book is different from “What to Expect When You are Expecting” in these ways. Because there are problems with “What to Expect When You are Expecting.” There’s a lot of backlash against that book. And someone can write that book. But you can’t do it without knowing about “What to Expect When you are Expecting.” So research. Find similar books to yours. Find out who agented and edited those books. Those are the people you’re going to go after. Find out the audience for those books.
Also….networking. Find a community of people who are interested in the same things you are. That’s huge. And a lot of writers don’t do that. The world wide web is a tremendous gift for the shy. For the writer who doesn’t want to go to cocktail parties and hob nob. You can do that in your bathrobe with bad hair on your computer now. You identify who are the movers and shakers in the blogosphere, as it relates to the idea you are writing about. Because every book has people who would be interested in it. Or if it doesn’t, you’re going to have a lot of problems. Whatever it is, find the group of people who are interested in the same thing and network with those people. Identifying them and becoming friendly with them is a huge part of becoming a successful writer. And then of course…writing. A lot of people call themselves writers and they just don’t write. You have to do it everyday. And then, perseverance. That’s something that is key in everything, but especially in writing.
Me: It seems like things have changed. I sort of grew up thinking that all I had to do is write a book and if it’s good enough, it will be fine.
David: Maybe once in a while it happens. But by and large it’s people who are really aggressive and persevere and won’t take no for an answer. I’m the sort of person where if I think a publisher or agent is right for my book, I’m going to go after that person until they take out a restraining order. What I learned in therapy is a term called ’healthy detachment.’ You know about this term?
Me: Yes, people have been trying to teach me this for years.
David: This idea that….I don’t take it personally when someone doesn’t return my email. I keep going until they say don’t ever email or call me again. It’s the godfather model. It’s all just business. And people take it personally. They send out an email and if they don’t get a response so they say that person hates me. If you send out an email to an agent or an editor somewhere, chances are they didn’t even look at your email. Not that they hate you or think your work is bad. They don’t even know you exist.
Me: But they might if you keep going.
David: I really wanted to interview Neil Gaiman. And so I found out he’s very active on twitter. So I tweeted Neil…hey, wanna be interviewed on twitter? I thought that would be fun. To interview him in 140 characters a pop. So I tweeted him. I didn’t get anything back. I tweeted him again, I didn’t get anything back. I tweeted him again…on the 5th tweet he said Oh, that sounds like a cool idea. Yeah, lets do it.
So the normal human reaction after one or two or three attempts at communication where you get nothing back is to give up. That’s normal. That’s what most human beings do. But by the 5th time…he’s a busy guy, he’s writing books, he’s got a couple of kids…after 5 tweets I was able to interview this guy. And that’s the beautiful thing about social media. I would never in a million years be able to get in touch with this guy by telephoning him or writing a letter. I was able to have this really fun interview with this guy who was known all over the world.
And then when I finished my young adult novel, I emailed his agent and in the subject line I said “I emailed Neil Gaiman over twitter” and I pitched her my book. Ten minutes later she emailed me back…this very famous agent…and said oh, fun, you interviewed Neil…please send me your book. So that’s a weird way to get an agent.
And it’s all through perseverance and networking and writing…all those principles I just laid out are exhibited in that story.
Me: It’s terrifying to me, everything you just said.
David: I get that all the time. I’m curious, why is it terrifying?
Me: Well, remember when we were talking about people who just like to sit inside and write?
David: That’s you?
Me: I’m pretty social, but that whole network thing is….it seems so…well, basically, I just sat inside and wrote for a number of years and then I had to get out there and do exactly what you are talking about and I’m in the early stages of it. It is wonderful the way you lay it all out like that.
David: Thank you. I mean, what’s the worst that’s going to happen in a story like that? I’ll send 10 or 20 tweets and I’ll never get anything back. It’s only my time.
Me: Right. And that godfather thing means it’s just about business.
David. Just business.
Me: And I think that’s the biggest problem: the writer’s little squirmy just out from under a rock in the blazing noonday sun ego is so wrapped up in the business that we just get ground into dust.
David: I see it all the time. Many really talented writers with great stories are in exactly that predicament you’re talking about. It makes me sad because they won’t get their books published even though they’ve written really good books.
Me: Even though they deserve it.
David: They’ve worked hard at honing their skills. They have stories that are important to the world and they are just going to sit in a file on the computer.
Me:Thank heavens there are people like you pulling us along.
Some of you might notice I refrained from asking David about his astrological chart.