August 22, 2008

Diminishing Returns

There comes a point in everyone’s life when you need to strike out on your own and let yourself sink or swim.

Usually this means moving out of our parents’ home, either for college or just to get our own place. It can also mean getting a job where you’re actually responsible for certain areas, specific information, or maybe even other people. Heck, it can just mean picking up after yourself. What it comes down to is, eventually we all just need to start doing things for ourselves.

For a lot of your writing career, professional or not, there will be people walking alongside you. They’ll be there to hold your hand, give you a gentle nudge (or firm shove) in the right direction, and explain the right way and the wrong way of a given situation. They can be teachers in school or professors at university. Other professionals who’ve taken you under their wing. Maybe you found a group online or someone whose ranting catches your eye. Perhaps you’re self-educated, and read some of the excellent books out there (like Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird , Stephen King’s On Writing, or Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale) or subscribed to a magazine or two (Writer’s Digest or Creative Screenwriting, if I maybe so bold).

However, like any child, student, or apprentice, there comes a time when you need to stop learning things and start doing things.

This is not to say that any of us are going to become the end all- be all of writing somewhere in our future. I’ve been putting pen to paper and fingers to keys for almost thirty years. I’ve taken classes, read the books, joined groups, and been to conferences. And by the very nature of how much I’ve learned, I know there’s still more stuff out there for me to learn.


If you’re learning, there will come a point when the time and money you invest in such expenditures is going to outweigh what you’re getting out of them. That’s the diminishing return. It’s the point when you’ve finally gotten ahead of the learning curve and now you’re in that upper percentage that’s getting less and less out of each book or class you pay for. And this is when you have to move out of your comfort zone and start doing real work.

This is a scary step for a lot of people, because it’s essentially taking away a safety net of excuses. Why didn’t I write today? Well, I signed up for a class. Why didn’t I subit anything this month? I was reading a book about structuring novels. Why didn’t I query anyone? I’m waiting for feedback from my writer’s group. Once a person admits they’re past all these things, they either have to start writing or just admit they aren’t going to start writing.

Over the years I’ve belonged to a ton of writing groups. I took several classes in college. I’ve attended a few writing conferences. I don’t regret doing these things, but it’s also been a while since I’ve done any of them. To draw on a past little rant, I realized I couldn’t keep going off my mom’s opinion.

Time for another story…

I have a friend who’s a development exec for a studio, and another close acquaintance who’s a screenwriter and journalist like myself. The development exec had a small party at his house last year on the same weekend as a major screenwriting conference, one all three of us had business ties to. At one point in the evening it came up that, even though we all knew about it, not one of us had been to the conference that day. In fact, as we all admitted with wry smiles, not one of had even considered attending it…

In the past posts I’ve talked about getting opinions, learning the rules, and many such things. But you can only do this for so long. Eventually, you just have to start writing and doing something with that writing besides hiding it in a file on your desktop. There will still be things to learn, mistakes to be made, and research to cross-reference, but you still need to start writing.

You can read every book, take every class, and follow every single rule… and at the end of the day agents will still return your novel and producers will still pass on your screenplay. There is no avoiding it. Rejection is just part of the process. So stop putting it off and making excuses.

Write. And do something with your writing.

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