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 hazardous journey down Contest Road

Flat tire in formal attire
A savvy driver is prepared, no matter what they encounter

I’ve lost count of how many screenwriting contests there are. A whole lot, I believe. But out of all of them, only a handful actually mean anything in terms of helping build one’s career.

The Nicholl. Austin. PAGE. There are others of high prominence, but these three are the ones that really matter.

This isn’t to slight the smaller or lesser-known contests, but someone who’s a finalist in the Nicholl probably has a better shot at being able to use that to their advantage than, say, the Greater Cedar Rapids Screenplay Contest (not that such a thing actually exists, but you get the idea).

As evidenced on my My Scripts page, I’ve done moderately well in some of the bigs, but have also totally fizzled out. I’ve also been fortunate to have done well in some of the second-tier competitions. Every year yields different results.

Sometimes the first thoughts that race through your head when you read that email from the contest organizer that includes the word “Regretfully” somewhere near the beginning makes you think “Does this mean my writing is lousy?”

No. It means it didn’t click/connect with the reader or readers from that contest. A lot of the contests give you at least two reads. Sometimes I’ll receive praise from the first reader, only to have the second one not like it, thereby stopping it in its tracks. Or both readers like it, but not enough to advance it to the next round. Nothing I can do about it. C’est la vie, and better luck next year.

And even if you win, or at least place highly, in a high-profile contest, that’s no guarantee to getting work. I know a Nicholl finalist who had zero traction with their script, as opposed to the PAGE winner who is now super-busy with assigments.

I know writers who’ve never won a contest, and they got work. I know writers who’ve never entered a contest at all, and they’ve gotten work. How? Because the writing wasn’t just good; it was really, really good. That’s what it comes down to. That and somebody liked it enough to want to do something with it or with the writer.

A few years ago, I was a lot more likely to enter almost any contest. And there weren’t even as many then as there are now. Time and experience has shown me that, yes, it’s a nice validation to get that certificate from that small contest you’d never heard of before you entered, but how much did it actually do to help you get your career going?

A lot of contests offer “industry exposure” to the winners, and you do get that – to a point, and it’s probably a safe bet not to the extent you imagine. Your script might get checked out by maybe a handful of reps and production companies, and even then there’s still no guarantee anybody will be interested. I’m speaking from experience on this one.

Contests are just one of the ways in. As someone who’s in it for the long haul, I’ll continue to try my luck with the big ones while also exploring other avenues. Whatever it takes.

And no matter what contest you may have entered this year, I wish you the best of luck. Except for the ones I did. Then all bets are off and it’s every person for themselves.

Fine-tuning in progress

lady-scientists
Aha! Almost missed that extra “the” in that sentence!

As of this writing, the early bird deadline for the Nicholl is about a week away. After some back-and-forth, I decided that, yes, I’ll take the plunge and once again submit my western.

Last year it made it to the top 15 percent, which isn’t bad, but I know it can do better.

And that’s what the next couple of days are all about: taking what I consider to be a pretty solid script and doing a little more editing/tweaking/polishing to make it even stronger.

For a long time I was convinced there was nothing else to be done on this script. Now I’m thrilled to have been so completely wrong. It doesn’t need a lot, but probably just enough to make a significant difference.

Earlier this year, I got some really good professional notes on it that raised some questions I hadn’t considered before. Implementing the suggested fixes really would make a difference.

So that’s what I’m currently in the process of doing. Nothing major, but some little tweaks, modifications, and minor rewriting here and there. And as is usually the case for me, these aren’t as insurmountable as I’d expected.

Part of this also involves going through the entire thing line by line, red pen in hand, just in case anything catches my eye as if to say “CHANGE ME!” Surprisingly, there have been quite a few of those.

I couldn’t say the last time I actually read through the script, but it’s definitely been a while. And it’s probably safe to say that this long stretch of not looking at it has definitely helped in enabling me to identify what needs editing/fixing.

And not to toot my own horn, but gosh this is a fun read.

In retrospect, I probably should have done this before submitting the script to PAGE, but if all this helps it do better with the Nicholl, who am I to complain?

Looking back, planning ahead

champagne-toast
Auld Lang Syne and all that

Well, 2016 is pretty much in the books. I hope it was a good year for you, writing-wise.

Mine was okay.

Among the more noteworthy events:

-I completed the first draft for 3 separate scripts. 2 comedies, 1 sci-fi.

-One of those comedies was written, edited and rewritten/revised over 10 days.

-My western made it to the top 15 percent in the Nicholl and was one of the top 100 in the Emerging Screenwriters competition, but did not advance with PAGE or Austin.

-Several read requests from managers and production companies. Unfortunately, everybody passed with the commonly-used “Just not what I’m looking for.”

-Built up my network of talented writers located all over the world, along with numerous getting-to-know-you in-person chats with those in the immediate geographic vicinity.

-Organized and hosted a very successful and enjoyable networking event for screenwriters. In a deli. A block from the Pacific Ocean.

-Took part in script swaps for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 scripts.

Not a bad compilation.

As for 2017, the usual objectives:

-Along with the aforementioned rewrites, complete the first draft for at least 2 or 3 new scripts.

-Continue the quest for representation. Already a few potentials on the horizon.

-Based on how my western did in the Big 3 contests, I’m torn between seeking professional feedback for one more polish, or just leaving it as is and trying again next year.

-Continue providing notes and doing script swaps.

-Look into hosting another networking event, probably at a bigger venue.

-More networking and establishing connections with more talented writers.

-More getting-to-know-you in-person chats.

-Watch more movies.

-Read more scripts

-Stay confident. Be patient. Not lose hope, even on the shittiest of days.

-Keep trying to make this work. Eyes on the prize.

And a final note to all you loyal readers – thanks for coming along on this rollercoaster ride of a journey. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about it.

All the best from me to you for a very happy and successful 2017. Fingers remain, as always, firmly crossed that this is The Year It Happens.

Disappointed, yet still driven & determined

uphill
One step at a time

The results are in for my western’s involvement with the major screenwriting contests for this year:

PAGE – nope. Didn’t get notes.

Austin – nope. Notes expected later in the year. (They got over 9100 entries for shorts and features this year. That’s A LOT.)

Nicholl – top 15%, which isn’t bad. Two sets of notes; the first reader really liked it, whereas the second’s comments make me highly suspicious about their qualifications.

On a positive note, the script placed in the top 100 of the ISA’s Emerging Screenwriters contest, which is nice. Fingers crossed it advances to the finals.

But back to the big three. It’s a little frustrating that things didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean the script’s bad. A lot of my readers, many of whom have done well in these contests, all had very positive things to say about it and thought it was a solid and entertaining piece of work.

Two things to keep in mind about these contests:

It’s all subjective.

Sometimes you just get a shitty reader.

These also happen to be things we have no control over. Yes, it’s disappointing to get that email that includes the phrase “Unfortunately…”, but just because you didn’t do well this year doesn’t mean you won’t do better next year. This is the mantra I’m going with for now.

I’m also taking a little time off from the western to focus on the comedy and at least one or two other scripts. It helps.

Something else for you to ponder: contests aren’t the only way in. More and more I’m hearing/reading from writers who do well in contests, but nothing comes of it. They might get a read, but that’s it. You gotta keep trying from every approach you can think of.

That’s my plan.

Will I enter the contests next year? Possibly. But they’re not a priority.

Making inroads into a getting a career going is.