No small feat using another medium to be a writer-at-large

HG Wells
The man responsible for tales of time travel, alien invasions, and assorted mad scientists, just to name a few…

After a gap of several years, I recently had the opportunity to reconnect in person with a respected colleague who has had more than their fair share of experience dealing with writers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of talent.

This person used to deal a lot with screenwriters, but now deals primarily with writers of manuscripts. Over the course of our conversation, I was asked about my scripts and my writing (What do I like to write? What genres are the scripts I have now? What kind of stories am I working on?)

As has been documented here before, my genre of choice is definitely adventure, along with hyphens connecting them to other genres (i.e. western-adventure, pulp sci-fi adventure, etc).

I gave a quick thumbnail sketch/five-second elevator pitch for the two completed and the one currently in revision mode.

You’d be harder pressed to find a stronger advocate for using your already-existing material as a springboard to jump into other mediums – primarily books and/or graphic novels.

It was their opinion that all three sounded like very original and fun ideas, which would make each a prime candidate for attracting attention. And this person has also been following the blog for quite a while, so their opinion is also that my writing is pretty solid. They cited examples of writers they knew who’d foregone the traditional route of trying to get in with one of the high-profile publishing houses and done it all themselves, each achieving respectable levels of success. Nothing to break the bank, but still some impressive numbers.

“A script is more or less an outline for a novel. And even though you’re not limited by page numbers, it still takes talent to create a novel,” I was told. “Your stories are original and unique, which makes them prime candidates for this. At least think about it.”

Believe me, I am.

My success in trying to get these scripts through to reps and production companies has been practically non-existent at best, yet I persist. I’m sure I’ll continue along that avenue, but this new alternative is definitely food for thought.

I’ve been told by more than a few people that my writing is very visual (which you would think would make it ideal for film), and that it really moves. In the past, I’ve entertained and even at times partially investigated the notion of applying my scripts to a graphic novel format (a great match), but am also not averse to trying my hand at converting it to pure prose.

I’ve no intention of stopping writing scripts. I like it too much. But I also like the pure act of writing by itself, so for the time being, all this talk about working in other formats is nothing more than speculation and conjecture.

But in some ways, still worth considering.

Things that get in the way

david silverman

Today’s guest post comes courtesy of psychotherapist and script doctor/coach David Silverman.

As a writer-producer in film and tv, David Silverman worked on shows like Mork and Mindy, One Day at a Time, ALF, Newhart, Dilbert, Duckman and South Park. He learned firsthand that “staring into a computer screen day after day could make you feel isolated, frustrated, anxious and even depressed.” Today, he works as a script doctor/coach and as a psychotherapist where he “tries to help writers cope with creative blocks, mountains of rejection, job insecurities, stress, couples problems and the occasional knife in the back.”

A while back, I gave a talk to a group for writers trying to get back into the workforce after a hiatus. It was titled “Things That Get In The Way of Writing”. A quick bit of backstory about this organization: it’s made up of television writers; WGA members who won a class action suit against the studios based on ageism. 

They were able to show that they’d lost income and jobs because they were labeled as “old.” The studios paid out some settlements and included was membership in this group. So there were a lot of older disgruntled writers; some who’d created TV shows, some who’d won Emmys.

They were all so used to getting paid lots of money to write when they were last working, the prospect of writing on speculation didn’t motivate them much. Yet they all wanted to reinvent themselves and restart their writing careers. Some were writing screenplays, others were writing half-hour and hour TV writing samples.

Everything seemed to get in the way of writing for them. So we talked about how writers get motivated to write  – without being paid. They’d done it before, but times were different now.

Having done so much research into the subject of productivity and motivation for screenwriters and TV writers, I didn’t know where to begin. I ended up talking about the methods that make the most sense to me, that I actually use myself, or that I find most interesting.

Most ideas about how people can change themselves involve changing the way they think about things. Psychologists call this “reframing.” Look at things differently. For example, too many writers believe they’ll write one screenplay that will sell and make them rich and famous. Not likely. Sorry.

Instead, it helps to think of this whole selling scripts thing as a long-term process. Tell yourself you’re going to write dozens of spec screenplays over your career. It’s possible that none of them will sell. However, they may get you an agent or a pitch session with a producer.

The producer will hopefully say, “I love the writing in your script! Tell me about some of your other ideas.” They may also say, “Your writing is great and we think you’d be perfect to write this feature idea.” Either way you get paid to write.

So don’t get hung up about having to sell each screenplay you write. Hopefully you will sell one or two. However, writing spec screenplays can have many positive outcomes besides selling. Some writers get locked into this wrong-headed way of thinking. If that first script doesn’t sell, they give up. Or they keep trying to sell that same script for the rest of their lives.

Thinking about the long view also helps you handle rejection better. A rejection (such as when the studio says they’re not going to buy your script) isn’t a soul-crushing experience when you realize there are other positive outcomes that come from writing a spec script.

Another favorite reframe comes from the Woody Allen quote “80% of success is showing up.” It simplifies the writing process. It’s always overwhelming to think of sitting down and immediately writing this great Nicholl-winning script.

Break down the process. The simplest piece is “show up at the keyboard.” A screenplay is not going to pop out fully-formed. Everybody should think about writing as a process. You show up. You have some ideas. You figure it out.

You break the script down into an outline, a treatment, a first draft. Don’t expect perfection in a first draft. In fact, don’t think about writing a perfect script. Write a great script, or a script that will sell.

I remember trying to be a perfectionist about writing a screenplay. I got all detail-oriented, and polished each scene and every piece of dialogue. However, the more I focused on polishing up the little stuff, I seemed to lose track of the big picture. Be careful – the big picture is the one that counts. Tell a great story.

So I brought up these ways to think about writing differently in my talk. Some of the writers thought they could put these ideas to work. I noticed, however, that some of these writers were truly stuck and needed real psychotherapy.

There’s another thing that gets in the way of writing – overthinking. How can you write when your mind is telling you you’re not good enough? Because that’s what your parents told you your whole life? How can you write when you have doubts? Will this sell? Am I wasting my time with this genre?

You have to center yourself and stop dwelling on all these thought while you write. You have to be able to clear your mind. And that’s not easy, because we have all these expectations. Our brains are more than happy to supply us with reasons we’ll never succeed. Learn to let go of those thoughts.

It’s basically Darwinism at play – the survival of the species. A gazillion years ago when sabertooth tigers were lurking around every corner, our brains needed to keep us hyper-vigilant. We doubted all our moves. We lived in a state of “fight, flight or freeze.”

We got civilized, but our brains didn’t catch up. We still overthink everything and have doubts. You can’t write with all those thoughts getting in the way. You have to center. Different writers have done it in different ways. Some hole up in a beach house, or a cabin in the woods. Some go to Starbucks.

Some, like Stephen King, wrote through a haze of beer and cocaine. Phillip K Dick wrote everything – the stories that spawned Minority Report, Blade Runner, and The Man in the High Castle – on amphetamines.

The key is not to let all the noise and overthinking interfere with your writing. Some people have simple rituals that help them center. They make a cup of tea and listen to their favorite music. They go to the same hotel lobby everyday to write.     

Rituals calm us down because of their familiarity. So get that latte at Starbucks, drive to the art gallery where you like to write, open your laptop, plug in your earbuds and listen to U2. Whatever works for you. Then stick to it.

Perseverance pays off.

Remember that bunch of “old” writers? I found out they sold a pilot – no doubt from putting all of my advice to work. But in all seriousness, it was more likely they were doing what I advised them to do – not because I gave that talk, but because that’s why they were successful in the first place.

A lot of writers have learned these lessons, these ways of thinking about their craft and their careers, through experience. Some might have known about them instinctively. Hopefully some of this advice can help you skip years of learning the hard way.

The (much) tougher part

ali hit
99% of the time, you’re George Foreman

In this week’s previous post, I wrote about the necessity of how a writer needs to enjoy the actual writing part of being a writer.

A few colleagues piped in, saying while that part of it holds true, they also find the business aspect (i.e. the marketing of YOU) to be significantly harder and much more challenging. Taking it one step further, lack of progress on that front adds to their frustration.

I can’t argue with any of that. I’ve experienced it firsthand many times.

Friend of the blog Phil Hardy had this to say:

“…this should resonate with most of us that are doing the same thing as you are. However, one of the keys in trying to be a successful writer is spending a fair amount of time crafting query letters, answering ads or attempting to make contact with industry people anyway you can. Many writers fall flat in this area. One should definitely spend as much time as they can trying to promote and sell their work, as well as taking joy in the act of writing it.”

Simply put, marketing and promoting oneself is a necessary evil that a writer has to be willing to undergo and endure as many times as it takes if they want to succeed. Sucks, but it’s the truth.

After working on a couple of scripts and building up my arsenal of materal, I’ve decided to take the plunge again.

I’ve put together what I consider to be a pretty effective new draft of the query letter. Gone through the list of managers, agents and production companies, researching who might a good match for each script.

A few queries have been sent, so the waiting and hoping for a positive response begins yet again. All the while, working on more scripts. It’s all I can do.

My efforts to improve my networking skills have also paid off. Every once in a while, a colleague will send me a listing that seems tailor-made for one of my scripts. Even though none of them have worked out, it’s made me aware of more opportunities than I would have been able to find on my own.

We all know this is not an easy path. It’s extremely tough and really puts your endurance to the test. The question you have to continually ask yourself is “Am I willing to keep working at this until I get the results I want, no matter how long it takes, how frustrated I get, or how impossible it seems?”

I can only speak for myself.

Yep.

-You might find these older posts somewhat relevant and worth a read.

The me businsess – a 24/7 operation

A support staff of one

The reason why

sunset-holden
Only a slight connection here. I just like referencing this movie.

The busy times never stop around Maximum Z HQ. Among the latest tasks being undertaken:

-Rewrite/overhaul of the low-budget comedy

-Sporadic rewrite work on the pulp sci-fi spec, with initial sets of notes being carefully scrutinized

-Crafting together some pretty solid query letters, along with researching the best places to send them

-Jotting down notes for several future projects, including a comedic take on one of my favorite genres

-Providing scriptnotes to patient writer colleagues

You’d think with all of this going on, plus the non-writing normal life, I’d be exhausted.

Actually, I am, but it’s cool.

The way I see it, keeping busy like this helps me be a better writer; continuously working on something helps me be productive and further develop my skills.

Sure, somtimes the amount of actual writing is bare minimum, or maybe even not at all, but that’s okay too. All work and no play and all that.

Most importantly, I’m just getting a real kick out of doing it. If I wasn’t, I’d be a lot less likely to want to keep going.

And there are also days where it all gets so frustrating that I want to just walk away from it all. But I like doing it to much to even consider that.

Some recent interactions I’ve had with other writers have included more than a few of them expressing frustration about their diminishing hopes of making headway with breaking in and getting a writing career going.

I feel for them. I really do. As just about any writer will attest, this is not an easy undertaking. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” right?

Even though all of our chances are somewhat slim, I suggested they keep at it, if only for the sheer joy of writing. Isn’t that what got us all started?

When I asked one writer how their latest project was going, the response was “Really enjoying working on this, even though I know nobody else will ever see it.”

I totally get that. We all have our reasons for deciding whether or not to put our work out there, but the important thing was that they were having a good time with it. And you can tell if they were by what’s there on the page. It it was a chore for you to write, it’ll be that much more of a chore for us to read. Is that really the route you want to take?

So no matter what it is you’re working on right now, I sincerely hope that it’s bringing you as much joy and pleasure as you’re hoping to provide to your reader/audience.

Not exactly “Kryptonian under a yellow sun…”

alex ross superman
…but yeah, kind of like that

As has been much documented ’round these parts, trying to make it as a screenwriter is a long, tedious slog. For anybody. And that includes me.

It is a slog into which I have voluntarily cast myself.

There has been, and probably will continue to be a lot of disappointment and frustration along the way.

It’s the nature of the beast. Nothing I can do about it.

Well, actually there is.

More on that in a minute. But first, an anecdote!

I was digging through my binder of notes and documents, some of which span back a few years.

Among them, the printout of an email from an “industry insider” totally trashing me and my idea after I’d revealed the idea for what would eventually become one of my low-budget comedy specs. There was not one encouraging sentence in this entire communique. “Give up.” “You’re wasting your time.” “You don’t have a chance.”

And that was some of the nicer stuff.

The person who sent it likes to talk the talk, but in my opinion, falls a bit short on walking the walk. I printed out the email as a reminder that if an asshole like this can establish a career (if you can call it that), then there’s no reason I can’t either.

Funny thing about me is that I’m quite the stubborn cuss. I may get annoyed, upset, distraught or even full-blown depressed about how lousy my situation may be at that particular moment, but sometimes you gotta hit bottom before you regroup, reorganize, and resume the climb, more determined than before to get a little higher.

Which sums me up right now.

I’m not there yet, but it feels imminent. While it would be great if something happened in the immediate future, I’ll remain realistic and at least work towards “something soon”.

I’d say I’m in a pretty interesting place right now. I’ve got some quality scripts to show, several in various stages of development (and much further along than expected), and a growing network of connections, many of whom are more than willing to do what they can. When more than one professional says to me “I can’t understand why you don’t have a manager/more interest in this script!”, then I guess I’m doing something right.

Even though there’s been a steady and gradual progress in “making things happen”, this is still all on me. This long, tedious slog will eventually come to a most satisfying conclusion – for the best possible reason.

So until that forthcoming day when fortune finally smiles down on me, I’ve no plans to give up and will continue to push forward. It’s getting close. Mighty close.

Up, up, and away, chums.