Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work (Part II of II)

A Great White Shark attacking a lineIn Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part I, I broke the rules by suggesting that we writers can benefit from two reality TV shows: Project Runway and Shark Tank.

While Project Runway inspires creativity and shepherds me through the writing process, Shark Tank teaches me how to pitch my work for publication without becoming prey.

Pitching in Primetime

Shark Tank grants inventors the opportunity to pitch their products to venture capitalists (the sharks), who then decide whether to invest. The pitch room is called “the shark tank” for good reason: Investors are shrewd entrepreneurs who cut their teeth as they battled their way to the top. They don’t suffer fools, and they smell blood in the water a mile away. They extend investment offers only when a great product comes from a well-prepared inventor.

Pitching Basics from the Boardroom to Publishers

The same applies to publishers. Nonprofit presses enlarge the tank we writers dive into, but the feeding frenzies that surround submission are no less intense. Pitching a book is so similar to what Shark Tank portrays that watching TV feels like taking a course. When pitching to agents or editors, writers have three minutes to describe their target market, highlight their book’s unique features, and convince “paper sharks” that investment will lead to profit.

The show provides a second benefit, too. While agents and editors rarely explain why they reject a piece of writing and don’t give feedback unless they sign the writer, Shark Tank investors do both.

Let’s Meet the Sharks!

Like reality shows, however, not all sharks are created equal. Several seasons have helped me identify species that bear striking similarities to people who comment on writers’ work.

WHALE Shark (Robert Herjavec).

He proposes only win-win deals, and he wants investors to succeed whether or not he backs them. Whale Sharks don’t have teeth; their writing-world counterparts have no agenda. They don’t need to show off, have their ego stroked, or hear their own voice, so they speak little but convey a lot. Seek them out in writing groups, conferences, and critiques. Listen carefully. Take what they say to heart. Employ their advice; it will lift your work to the surface like a buoy.

The GREAT WHITE Shark (Kevin O’Leary).

Whether O’Leary or his writing-world counterpart, the Great White lives to get his teeth into writers and tear them to shreds, but only after batting them around for his own amusement. He panders to an audience he imagines is awed by his power and amused by his antics. He’s not above nipping at fellow sharks, swooping in at the last second to grind their offers—and the inventor/writer—to minced meat. He cuts down others to raise his profile, so unless you find value in something he says, ignore it all.

The BULL Shark (Mark Cuban).

Bull Sharks are mercurial: docile enough to hand-feed one second, voracious enough to attack the next. Their gut guides their every move. How their writing-world counterparts react to a text depends on their perception of its author. If intrigued, they offer a win-win deal—but only after they investigate to a degree that unnerves. If provoked (even unintentionally), they strike. If not engaged within the first 20 seconds, they dart out of reach and disappear. Regardless of their reaction, heed whatever feedback they give; they have a killer instinct.

The LEMON Shark (Laurie Greiner, Barbara Corcoran, and guest investors).

Lemon sharks prefer to observe from the periphery before they enter the fray. Smaller and less aggressive than other species, they rely on agility rather intimidation; therefore, they navigate shifting currents with ease. Their writing-world counterparts’ feedback may conflict, but that’s what makes it special. Keen eyesight aids them in glimpsing flashes of insight in murky depths. Consider their comments carefully; some are sinkers, while others’ quiet wisdom makes them rise above.

Finally, Shark Tank reminds me to pursue publication with a sense of humor. The most successful inventors laugh, even as the quake. The more shark teeth they reveal through smiles, the less likely they are to get eaten alive.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work

Runway models on a fashion show cat walkPart 1 – Project Runway

Warning: I’m going to break the rules.

Instead of preaching that screentime pollutes productivity, I’m going to recommend indulging in its trashiest form: reality TV.

But not just any reality TV. My distaste for the medium allows two exceptions: Shark Tank and Project Runway. Together, these shows comprise a writing process guide.

Project Runway Inspiration

Project Runway gets the creative juices flowing. I draw inspiration from fashion designers’ myriad approaches to conveying a unique “voice” while balancing risk with a traditional aesthetic. As contestants, designers face constraints I relate to: time, materials, genre, purpose, audience. Watching them problem-solve sparks ideas for troubleshooting my writing process free from the angst that accompanies studying writers I admire.

Designers grapple with broader concerns writers recognize, too: competition, insecurity, rejection, fatigue, and creative blocks. Every designer hits a wall at some point during 16-episode seasons; seeing how each pushes through and to what effect serves as a primer from which I pluck ideas.

Finding Your Muse at Mood

The show slingshots contestants past their limits, where they are forced to abandon tried and true creative processes—at least temporarily. Designers who are accustomed to sketching everything from hem to zipper and fabric texture to thread color before laying a finger on a material, suddenly find themselves scurrying through Mood Fabrics, hoping a print or color will anoint itself their Muse. Similarly, designers are accustomed to skipping through Mood empty-handed and -headed, confident a shape will emerge organically, trade free-spirited methods for digital drawing. They all fumble—many leaking tears and ego along the way—but most stumble into a breakthrough as they grasp for a purchase. I benefit from the reminders that experimentation is essential for evolution.

Taking Tim Gunn Advice

Designers’ desire to “wow” the judges drives them to overcomplicate garments. Their mentor, fashion guru Tim Gunn, advises them to “edit constantly and carefully.” As a writer who battles to squeeze everything she wants to say within allotted word limits, I find it helpful to channel Gunn when I revise: “Are you trying to do too much? Is there a simpler way to convey that idea? Do you really need this?”

I mimic Gunn when I teach, too, because of how artfully he delivers brutal truth without brutality. During critiques, he says,

  • “What I’m getting from this garment is X; is that what you intended?”
  • “The judges might see this and think . . .”
  • “What does your gut tell you about this?”
  • “Have you thought about …?”
  • “How would you respond to replacing X with Y?”
  • “My concern is . . .”
  • “Hmm.”

“Make it Work.”

Don’t discount that last phrase. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Designers fill ensuing silence by identifying and solving problems they hadn’t known existed. Something similar often happens when I utter the phrase to students.

But more than anything, I appreciate Gunn’s signature catchphrase: “Make it work.” The perfect antidote to self-pity, Gunn’s saying applies equally to fashion, fiction, and nonfiction:

  • Dyed your fabric the wrong shade of yellow? Make it work.
  • Your main character wants to live in Florida instead of Minnesota? Make it work.
  • Essay theme change again? Make it work.

After Gunn’s consultation, designers revise and submit their garments for evaluation. Judges’ deliberations help me understand that whether sending a model down the runway or a manuscript through the mail, we creators are assessed according to an elusive mix of objective criteria and subjective appeal. Judges sometimes reject a garment that fulfills criteria because it doesn’t fit their taste and vice versa. While that means I may never know why a publisher rejects my work, I take comfort from knowing that rejection doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of talent.

Project Runway Lessons on Criticism

Finally, the last gem I glean from Project Runway is a mantra for handling criticism: Avoid becoming defensive. Even the best designers elicit disgust if they smirk, whine, argue, or interrupt. They lose viewers’ sympathy, competitors’ respect, judges’ esteem, and potentially a round of competition. Their inability to accept feedback also stalls their growth. Designers who fail to curb defensiveness inevitably hear host Heidi Klum declare, “I’m sorry, that means you’re out.”

Successful designers, on the other hand, soar through critiques gracefully by:

  • Breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Maintaining a neutral expression and posture.
  • Listening without interrupting.
  • Nodding to acknowledge comments.
  • Answering questions honestly and completely.
  • Explaining without making excuses.
  • Asking questions.
  • Refusing to trash competitors.
  • Thanking judges for their feedback.

I try to emulate these designers. It helps to remind myself that listening to comments doesn’t commit me to acting on them. I stash feedback at the back of my brain (or notebook) for 48-72 hours before I examine it. During that time, my emotions settle; then I can effectively sort comments according to those I’ll apply now, those I’ll ignore, and those I’ll use later.

Critiques are rarely fun, and rejection always stings, but neither has to bite. Tune in next month for “Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part II,” where I’ll share how watching Shark Tank helps me avoid becoming chum.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1746615/