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 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.

O, the joy of a southernly jaunt

gable colbert
Fortunately, I didn’t have to resort to this

The suitcase is put away. The dirty clothes laundered. The thank-you notes sent.

All the result following your humble blogger’s recent trip to the land of potential future employment, aka Los Angeles, which continues to yield results and, hopefully, keep on doing so.

“Los Angeles? How in the world did that come that about?” you may ask, and probably just did.

I was invited. At the behest of a new media company (as in “new media” i.e. online content, not “a media company that is new”) called AfterBuzz TV that produces a myriad of programs about an even wider variety of topics – all entertainment-based.

This one in particular is called The Unproduced Table Read. As the title implies, after finding a heretofore unproduced script they deem appropriate, they assemble members of their core group of actors and do a table read of the script – first as livestream video, then viewable on Youtube. Following the read, there’s a brief q&a with the writer. Sometimes the writer’s there in person, or if they can’t make it in, done via Skype.

Seeing as how the City of Angels is an hour-long plane ride away, I opted to attend.

They’d found my fantasy-swashbuckler in the archives of the Black List website and thought it fit the bill. The producer contacted me earlier this year, and after some informative back-and-forth emails, it was all set.

Seizing the opportunity of being in town, I also went about setting up meetings of both personal and professional natures. Although the scheduling didn’t work out with a couple of potential representatives, I was able to have some very productive conversations with some exceptionally talented professional contacts.

Networking, people. Establish and maintain those contacts! SO worth it.

But getting back to the table read. It was great. And fun. The actors did a fantastic job, and as a bonus – they really, really liked the script on several levels. I’m quite thrilled with how it turned out.

Was it worth doing? I’d say so, and not just because it got an enthusiastic reception from the people involved. It’s probably a little early to see if it’ll contribute to the career-building aspect, but it definitely makes for a strong marketing tool.

If you ever get the chance for a table read to be done for one of your scripts, take it. You can even put it together yourself. It’s a great way to evaluate the material, plus the actors might provide some unexpected insight. All you need is a workable space and the ability and willingness to feed your performers.

While talking afterwards with the show’s producer and some of the actors, somebody asked what other scripts I had. I mentioned the western. “We haven’t done one of those,” was the reply. Thus raises the possibility of a return trip. Time will tell.

Finding my forte. Mining my milieu. Spelunking my specialty.

e-ticket
A reference only a select few will get. (85 cents?? Truly a bygone age)

While engaged in a very engaging conversation about screenwriting earlier this week, the person with whom I was conversing with asked the simplest and most straight-forward of questions:

“What do you like to write?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, I proudly stated, “Adventures.”

You can’t even say the word without implying the thrills and excitement it entails. Hands on hips, chest out, shoulders back, and a firmly-set jaw are automatically included.

I’ve enjoyed dabbling in other genres (such as drama and comedy), but nothing really grabs me like thinking up and writing out some sort of heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster ride of a scene or sequence.

Those really never get old.

They say “Write what you know,” and although I’ve never actually fought monsters, manned a runaway train, or flown a space-faring vessel, years of reading and watching material of that type and nature has taught me an effective way of how to effectively inject adrenaline into what I’m writing.

More than a few readers have commented that my love and appreciation of the material and genre are boldly evident on the page, which is what I’m hoping  to accomplish every time.

My mantra has always been “Write something I would want to see”, and my list of future projects is jam-packed with numerous ideas and concepts that neatly fall into that category; each one a variation on the topic of discussion.

If these are the kinds of stories I was meant to write, you’ll get no complaints from me. I get a real kick out of cranking this stuff out. There’s no reason to think this can’t develop into what I build a career on and eventually become known for (he said, his fingers firmly crossed). My scripts. Rewriting someone else’s. Contributing to another. It’s all cool as far as I’m concerned.

Until then, all I can do is keep writing and making my readers feel their pulses quicken as they eagerly turn the page, absolutely spellbound to find out how the hero gets themselves out of this particular pickle, and, more importantly, what happens next.

Strap yourselves in, chums. This is going to be one helluva ride.

Just the push I needed

push
What are friends for?

Notes are coming in for the comedy spec, and reactions are pleasantly positive. My always-reliable readers have provided some extremely helpful notes, including an across-the-board opinion about a key plot point.

A lot of what they had to say made some good sense and are really helping solidify the script into something more-than-decent.

While they had nice things to say about the script, each reader threw in an extra little tidbit in the form of comments directed at the script’s writer.

AKA me.

“These two lines of dialogue are an anomaly compared to the rest of it. I know you can do better.”

“Great story, but I’d like to see you dig deeper.”

And these are comments from experienced writers who’ve read some of my other scripts, so they know what I’m capable of. They’re not just saying these things in a casual, generic feedback kind of way, or because they’re trying to be nice. They really mean it, and I take what they say to heart.

I thought the script was okay to begin with, but after getting comments like these, it makes me want to try even harder.

When you’re in the process of putting a script together, you really dedicate yourself to doing a good job, and then try to do better with each subsequent rewrite. It’s how we improve.

But it’s also kind of tough to be able to get yourself past a certain point. You think you’ve done everything you can, but then you get a bit of a supportive nudge and your journey resumes.

It’s quite the confidence booster to know there’s somebody out there rooting for you (especially somebody without a vested interest in you). They want to see you succeed just as much as you do. So you buckle down and throw yourself into making that next draft even better.

End result – you have a stronger script and their belief in you and your abilities is confirmed. Wins all around.

And when the time comes and they ask me for notes on their script, I have a strong suspicion I’ll be able to do the same for them.