July 8, 2007 / 1 Comment

Fueling the Fires

So, now you’re writing. Good. It may have been a slow, arduous process to get started, but you’re putting words on paper (or on an electromagnetic memory bubble) and that’s the important thing. You’ve got forward motion and momentum.

The question now is, how can you make sure you don’t lose that momentum? How do you make sure that you keep writing, and this doesn’t become a scattered, every- third-weekend activity? Well, this problem was covered in your driver’s ed class. The simplest way to keep moving is to make sure you have fuel.

Now, hold on, before we go any farther, let’s pause for a moment so I can explain my one, single, simple rule. What works for me may not work for you and it almost definitely won’t work for that guy over there. That’s one of the most important things about writing– finding out what methods and habits will work best for you. My girlfriend requires near-silence to work, but I usually put some music or a classic movie on in the background (the first draft of this little essay was written during The Day The Earth Stood Still). I also dislike too much input once I’ve got the idea in my head, while my friend Eric writes best working with his wife, Trish. I’ve read that Stephen King works mostly in the morning, while Neil Gaiman writes almost exclusively at night (but I’ve never met either gentleman, so that could all be a pack of lies I just made up to round out this paragraph).

In the end, if anyone (including me) gives you a rule for how you have to write, take it with a grain of salt. If they tell you this is absolutely the one and only way the process of writing can take place, have a whole spoonful of salt. Writing is a very personal, individual process, and all any of us can do is suggest what works in our own day to day lives to keep us at it. One of your jobs as a writer is to sift through all the hints, tips, and suggestions you hear and figure out which ones work for you.

Which brings us back to momentum and fuel. The simplest law to follow is the basic input-output rule we’ve all heard since our school days. What goes in influences what comes out. In order to write, you must read. And if you want screenplays to come out, you have to put movies in. Good movies and bad movies, screenplays and scripts, movies in your favorite genre by your favorite director, and movies you’d never watch by people you’ve never heard of.

Now some of you may be like my downstairs neighbor, the Vamp. She wants to write a book, but she’s not really into reading. She’s still pretty sure she can write a best-seller, though. If this also describes you, ask yourself this– if you don’t love watching movies, or if you hate reading scripts, how can you possibly hope to write one?

So, that’s what you need to be doing. Read scripts, watch movies, and study them with a passion. Where you can, read the screenplay and watch the film. Find the best movie you can think of in your chosen genre, examine it, and figure out what it does right. Why is he or she your favorite character? What makes this your favorite scene? Why do people like this film?

Now, once you’ve done that, watch the worst movies you can find and pin down what they do wrong. Yes, anyone can say “it just sucks,” but can you identify specifically what needs to change with the story? Watch the whole movie (not just a random scene or two) and track problems that plague the script. If you got hired for the remake, what would you change?

This is one of the hallmark skills of a good writer. Most of us can tell that a scene works, but being able to tell why things work in a scene is a separate skill altogether. How often have you seen a screenplay copy a scene from another film without really understanding why it worked originally?

Oh, and before you start downloading or running to the Writer’s Guild Foundation to read scripts, here’s one more additional tip. Don’t read screenplays from thirty or forty years ago and use these as your golden standard. Styles change; formats change, and while Chinatown is still an amazing movie, odds are no one would touch that script today. On a similar note, don’t read screenplays by Quentin Tarrantino, Robert Rodriguez, or Christopher Nolan. They may be some of your favorites, but these gentlemen are usually in the extremely lucky position of writing scripts they know they are going to direct, which gives them a little more leeway and freedom in their work. They weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong, but if you or I tried it, we would definitely not be doing it right.

So, now that you know what fuel to use, go forth and stoke your fire. Give yourself the energy to keep moving forward on your projects. And keep writing. Above all, you must write.

March 19, 2007 / 1 Comment

The Basics

People talk a lot about ways to help move your career forward, especially here in Hollywood. There are hints and tips about networking and getting produced and strategies for finding your agent and finding your audience. Yet somehow, amidst all this, they often overlook one of the most basic, elemental components of our craft.

The writing.

How many times have you turned on the television or dropped your ten bucks at a theatre, and found yourself shaking your head afterwards. “Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea? How does stuff like this get made??”

Well, first thing– someone finished the script for it.

Allow me to fall back on a little publishing fact, which I’m relatively sure applies to the film industry as well. Barely one percent of the people who call themselves “novelists” even finish their first novel. We’re not even talking about sales yet, mind you. This is simply getting a whole novel written down on paper. I was at the San Diego State Writer’s conference a few years ago, and watched as a man walked out in an angry huff when he was told no agent would even talk to him until he had a completed novel.

Y’see, it doesn’t matter how many hints and tips and strategies you follow. If you don’t have a completed, polished script in your hand, you can’t make a sale.

Ahhhh, I see the hands already. You there, in the back? Why, yes, yes he did. Just last summer, Creative Screenwriting magazine wrote about how David Koepp pitched the idea for his story Ghost Town to Dream Works and Universal for a very tidy two million dollars.

So, let’s have another show of hands. How many people reading this are David Koepp?

Ahhh, I see only two hands now. One is a screenwriter in New York with over twenty produced film credits, more than a half dozen of them being major box office blockbusters. The other is the marketing exec from my job, Danny, who suffered a head injury assembling the new office furniture and now has problems telling pictures and mirrors apart.

Want a better example? Something a little closer to our (and yes, I am saying our) level? My friend Eric works on a series for the Hallmark Channel. He and his wife had tried writing an episode for the show, but were told the company had a deal with the existing writing team. However, when time began to run short and the writing team wasn’t coming up with anything, the producers pulled out Eric’s script again. His completed, ready-to-go script. And now my friend and his wife are produced screenwriters, just like that.

You see, for those of us (and, again, I am saying us) without a solid resume to lean on, sales depend on actual writing. To be blunt, no one is going to trust us. I may have the greatest story idea of all time locked up in my head, but until it’s written out it’s no different than the worst, most cliché-ridden idea ever, because I’m the only person who can see it. This is why we have to write. Above all other things, we must get coherent words on paper in an established, industry format.

We must write!

Now, let’s look at the opposing example. My downstairs neighbor (I call her the Vamp, not because of her sexiness, but because she’s very pale, has prominent canine teeth, and is rarely seen during the day) found out I was a writer and showed up at my door one day asking for tips on getting a sale. She wanted to know about agents, advances, selling rights, and so on. I answered all of them, and then told her that the thing she really needed to do was actually write out the youth-oriented fantasy she had in mind (starring a character based on a younger version of herself).

“Oh, well the writing’s the easy part, right?”

“Ummmm… Not really.”

“Well, I know how to write, and I know my story. How hard can it be?”

“Cool. Let me know when you’re done. I’d love to read it.”

I ran into the Vamp in the hall one night a month or two later (coincidentally, right about the time Eric told me Hallmark was re-considering his script) and casually asked how the writing was going. She hadn’t started it yet, but was still sure her clever idea would go over very well and earn her fame and fortune.

It’s been said before that if you write two pages a day, at the end of a year you’ll have a novel. By the same token, if you write two pages a day (giving up a night or three here or there), in just two months you’ll have a very solid first draft of a screenplay.

That’s all. A mere two pages a day. That could be as little as four hundred words. Not even half of this column.

That’s the commitment you need to make to yourself if you want to be writer. Your first goal must be to take that rough idea in your head, that amazing story, and put it down on a page. Type it, scribble it, scrawl it, dictate it, do whatever it takes.

Until you have done this, nothing else matters.