January 4, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions

By the time you read this, it might already be 2011. Think carefully on my words, o wise people from the future…

No, wait. It’s definitely 2011. Sorry about that.
And where the hell is my flying car? It’s the future, fer cripes sake…
As is my habit at the start of the year, I’d like to talk for a bit about one of the outer-issues, so to speak, of writing. Normally I try to stick to tips on the writing process itself, but I think it’s good once a year to bring up gurus or networking or one of those elements that has nothing to do with writing, but people are convinced is essential to it.
So, that being said… let’s talk about your New Year’s resolution.
This little rant is really aimed at two groups of people. I’ve mentioned them obliquely here once or thrice. So let me ramble on about them a bit more directly. Or better yet, let me tell you a few stories…
Story the first.
A friend of mine recently lost her job. These days, that’s call for a panic attack, granted, but she kind of lucked out. She actually got a sizable severance package she wasn’t expecting. About three months pay, when all things got added up.
Now, said friend has talked about writing a book for ages, so when I heard this my very first thought was “a blessing in disguise.” Three months pay can be stretched out to four or five months if you live tight, which means at least three months she could devote just to writing. How many people reading this little rant would love such a thing? Three solid months where all you had to do was write your current project?
I said so and my friend agreed, it could be great. But she couldn’t talk for long– she was heading over to a dealership. Y’see, with all this money, she could finally get a new car. Nothing wrong with her old car, mind you. I mean, it wasn’t new. It didn’t have an iPod dock or OnStar or anything. But it was a safe, functioning, fuel-efficient vehicle.
So, new car. Payments. Higher insurance. OnStar fees. Turns out she needed to focus on looking for a new job right away. Yeah, you may argue this is just poor money management. More to the point, though, it really hammered home where writing really sat on her priority list.
How many people do you know like this? They go out to clubs, they see movies, and they go to parties. They spend money on clothes and food and games. These folks insist they want to write, but it seems to be the one thing they never do. Will they give up anything just so they can have a little more writing time? High speed internet? Cable television? Name brand groceries? Dropping any one of these things would mean less expenses, which would mean less time at the day job (or watching YouTube clips) and more time writing.
So if you really want to be a writer, why would you keep doing stuff like that?
That’s the first group. As for the second…
There’s a mentality bubbling that I call special snowflake syndrome. I don’t think it’s anything new, by a long shot. I do think it’s grown in strength because the internet lets these folks get together and talk. If I believe something, and I bump into a stranger or two online who believe the same thing, then it must be true, right?
These folks believe that writing is easy. It’s an art that flows from fingertips easier than water from the tap. It’s a gift to be shared with the world. They’re also loose with labels and definitions. I’ve seen these folks claim you can call yourself a writer if you post on message boards. Or that you’re a successful writer if one person says they like what you wrote.
More to the point, because writing is so “easy,” these people believe they’re all entitled to success, regardless of their skill or effort. They will succeed. Because they’re all special! They expect it the same way most of us expect the sun to rise in the morning and politicians to mudsling during debates. We’d be stunned beyond words if these things didn’t happen. In the same way, the snowflakes just can’t grasp the idea that success may not be in their future. I mean, he succeeded and she succeeded and they succeeded– don’t I deserve to succeed now? My turn must be coming up soon, right?
Y’see, Timmy, the awful truth is that writing is hard work and most of you won’t succeed. No, not even if you know five other people who have. More to the point, you’re definitely not going to succeed if you don’t take writing seriously and put some real effort into it.
Now, if you just want to dabble in writing, that’s fine. We all have a lot of skills and talents we keep on the casual level and never develop. I can do an oil change and rotate my tires. Even once replaced a broken passenger-side window all on my own. But I’m no mechanic. I also dabble in cooking with a fair degree of success, but I’d never dream of calling myself a chef. And I’d never claim I was an artist, even though I sketch and doodle all the time.
Story the second.
In the opening scenes of Scott Frank’s phenomenal script Dead Again, detective Mike Church (who would go on to direct Thor) goes to visit a disgraced psychologist now working in a grocery store (who would, sadly, go on to do not as much). As their talk moves on, the psychologist notices Mike looking again and again at a pack of cigarettes and makes the following observation.
“Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are and be that.”
“Well, I’m trying to quit.”
“People who say that are pussies who cannot commit. Find out which one you are. Be that. That’s it.”
So here’s my New Year’s resolution suggestion for you. It’s going to sound a bit harsh, but if you’ve been coming here for any amount of time, it’s not for the milk and cookies, is it?
Yep, there’s been milk and cookies this whole time and no one told you.
The point is, do you really want to do this?
I know that may sound like a silly question, but do you? Really?
Are you willing to give up anything for this? Tiger Woods pretty much gave up his childhood to become the greatest golfer in the world by age twenty. Leonardo barely ever left his workshop. Galileo went to prison rather than stopping his work. Do you have that kind of dedication? Do you even want to have that kind of dedication?
Are you calling yourself a writer because you want to write, or because you want to be on bestseller lists or get invited to cool Hollywood parties? Do you want to put words on paper, or are you just looking forward to the results of doing it?
I don’t have cable television. Or high speed internet. My car is fifteen years old (but gets phenomenal gas mileage). I don’t own an iPod, a BluRay player, or any type of gaming system past this laptop.
What I do have is the freedom to write full time. Which I put to very good use, as all the Amazon links on the side can attest to. And I have it because I don’t have all those other things.
All I ask you to do as your belated resolution is to figure out if this is really what you want to be doing for a living. If you can be honest with yourself about this, you will be much, much happier in 2011.
Find out which one you are. Be that.
Next time (if I haven’t driven you away), I’ll be ranting again about writing. Just sitting down and writing.
Until then… you’ve got something to think about, yes?
And maybe some writing to do.
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.