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.

Q&A w/Phillip Hardy about Hosting vs DIY

Phil Hardy

Phillip E. Hardy is a four-time optioned screenwriter who also runs The Script Gymnasium script consultancy. His work has recently been presented to Jay Roach, William Morris Endeavor, Tyler Perry Productions and A&E Network. He has placed and won at 45 film festivals and contests including Page International, Austin Film Festival, Cannes Screenplay, Shore Scripts, Screencraft, Beverly Hills Film Festival and Sunscreen Film Festival.

Today’s post stems from a discussion between Phillip and myself regarding the benefits and drawbacks of posting your script on a hosting site or taking a more proactive role and doing the work yourself.

You’ve had some experience with both handling your own material and hosting sites. Do you find one to be more effective than the other, or is it more of a case-by-case basis?

I’ve had varying degrees of success with different hosting sites. But it’s a total crapshoot, especially with paid hosting and pitching sites. One of my colleagues swears by Virtual Pitchfest (VPF). And, at 10 bucks a pop for a pitch, they look attractive to writers on a budget.  I’ve done ten pitches at VPF and though I received some very good feedback on one of my period piece dramas, nobody at that website has requested a script read.

When I first started out, I used Project Greenlight (PG), which was expensive and the responses I received were very sloppy and unprofessional. I did get one read request from a video game company. But I would never use PG again. I know of nobody who has scored with them.

Don’t ask me about the Black List. Okay, I’ll tell you. I hate them and everything they stand for. However, if you wish to pay their reviewers (frustrated writers with their own axe to grind) seventy five dollars a pop to review your script, then that’s the site for you.

International Screenwriter’s Association is fairly inexpensive for a premium listing. However, anyone that uses them can call themselves a producer or director. I’ve made several connections there but they led me nowhere and have netted no financial remuneration.

I’ve also hooked up with a few folks on Craigslist (CL), which can be a real pain and you have to answer a lot of adds to get any action. One of the best connections I made on CL was with one of the stars of the TNT show “Falling Skies”. So you never know who you’re talking to but you should vet them out before sending them your scripts.

I’ve had my best luck at Inktip, which allows you to list a script for four months at a price of sixty dollars for four months. Producers at Inkitp shop loglines and will read your summary or request a script read if they’re interested in your spec material. For example, I had multiple logline reads today and two of them read the synopsis as well. However, a lot of Inktip clients troll loglines and do little else. I’ve had a number of script downloads, which have also netted zippo. However, the Inktip Newsletter has been much more effective for me. The price is the same as the listing. The difference is you can pitch producers looking for specific genres and concepts. I’ve also written pitches for these clients, which led to a script option and three right-to-shop agreements with a producer that got my work into the hands of some big time production companies and cable networks. I’ve also bullshitted people and told them I had scripts I hadn’t written yet. And then banged them out in a week. This method is not for the faint of heart.

I’m sure most writers know that Amazon Studios has an open door policy about submitting television and feature screenplays. Unfortunately, that door leads to oblivion. And if you can locate one unproduced writer that has something produced by Amazon, I’ll buy you lunch at my local Sonic drive-thru. Several months back, I did some research on this and could find no unproduced writers who have made it out of development purgatory. And by unproduced, I mean you’ve never had a big budget movie made from one of your screenplays.

Lastly, I’ve used Stage 32 for paid pitch sessions and gotten script requests from four major players including Ridley Scott Productions and Good Fear Management. But if you do a written pitch, you better make sure your logline is catchy, your synopsis is clear and concise and you include the character arc for your protagonist.

The bottom line is use any means possible to get your work into the hands of people you are looking to make movies.

If you’re going the DIY route, what methods have worked for you?

Smack-talkin’, bold action has worked best for me. I hooked up with several producers looking for projects by telling them I had scripts already written about things they were looking for, including a story about Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in the Papuan Islands more than fifty years ago. In this particular instance, the producer was advertising and I wrote a logline and synopsis in three hours and pitched it to the guy. He optioned the screenplay I wrote in six days.

In another instance, I did the same thing with another producer looking for an Angela Davis screenplay. However, when the producer asked me if I had a script, I said “sure, it’s sitting on the shelf with my screenplays about Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.” He got the joke and we wound up working together on several different projects. The DIY Method should include whoring your wares at any given moment and making as many connections as you can. Also, make friends with writers like Paul Zeidman.

Never heard of him. Keeping that theme going, what do you recommend when it comes to using hosting sites?

Passive hosting sites where you don’t aggressively work the leads may be a waste of time. Just listing a script without supporting efforts offers little chance for anything happening to further your career.

What’s your opinion of hosting sites overall?

If you’re not living in Hollywood and getting meetings with producers, hosting sites, along with promoting yourself vigorously and IMHO, competing in film festivals and script contests to relentlessly build your brand, can be a very useful tool to get you access to producers and agents. As a direct result of hosting sites, I’ve had material read by A & E, History Channel, Emmett Furla, William Morris Endeavor, Jay Roach, Tyler Perry Productions, Ridley Scott Productions, Zero Gravity, Good Fear Management, Zane W. Levitt and many others.

After putting your script on a hosting site, what should you NOT do?

Don’t nag the contacts you make. Don’t be a pain in the ass if someone’s interested in your work.

As an experienced writer, what tips would you like to pass along?

-If you’re a delicate, sensitive woodland creature, then scriptwriting isn’t for you.

-Learn to suck up constant rejection. Never spend more than a few hours wallowing in rejection or failure. Remember, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. With each setback, learn how to sally forth with renewed vigor.

-The best cure for rejection is writing; particularly if it’s better writing.

-Sometimes a script just sucks. Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a script. More often than not, they’re wrong. Sometimes a script just sucks, no matter how many times you rewrite it. Therefore, don’t attach yourself to any one effort too much. It may take writing fifty scripts before you find something that really resonates with readers.

-If you see writing scripts as a path to riches and fame, you may wish to consider other options.

-There ain’t no such thing as writers block. There are only writers that write and ones that don’t. Look at Bukowski. Drunk or sober, he did great work every day of his life.

-Writers who build relationships, maintain their humility and help their colleagues will do better than ones who don’t.

-If you keep losing script contests, then write better scripts until you win one.

-Read books, take classes, seminars, and good advice about scriptwriting and then march to your own creative drummer. If I listened to every asshole who told me I couldn’t do something, I’d never accomplish anything.

What are some absolute “Do NOTs”?

-Don’t tell anyone “this is my first script”. But don’t think you’ll set the world on fire by writing one script.

-Don’t write something because you think it will have commercial appeal. Write something you believe in.

-Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Endeavor to be an original.

-Don’t ever rest on your laurels. Keep writing until it becomes second nature AND you can produce even under the most adverse or stressful conditions. You may one day have a job that presents you with just that set of conditions.

A label I wear proudly

sturges
We work wherever, whenever, and however we can

I can’t remember exactly where I saw it, but a couple of days ago there was a comment in a screenwriting forum that read something like “All you wannabe dreamers are just wasting your time”.

Oh, how I adore the encouraging words of total strangers.

But in all seriousness, I take issue with that statement. Nothing wannabe about me at all. I’m a total dreamer, through and through, and I don’t see this as wasting my time.

Far from it.

I think up stories and put ’em down on paper, and I really like that I can do that. A lot. (So much to the point that I think I could actually make a living at it. Here’s hoping, anyway.)

Other dreamers express themselves using any form of different methods. They’ll paint, draw, sculpt, compose, act, or sing. And it’s probably correct in assuming they get the same joy out of doing it that I do.

Is everybody good at it? No. Does that mean they shouldn’t even try? Of course not. We do it because we enjoy it.

One consequence about being a dreamer is that there will always be somebody like that anonymous naysayer. You don’t have to listen to them. It’s a lot easier to tear someone down than it is to build them up. That person may have had been bad experiences trying to do the same thing, and if they couldn’t do it, then nobody else can (or so the theory goes).

But you should also be realistic. Not everybody’s going to create The Most Amazing Thing Ever. Don’t let that stop you from trying. Speaking from my own perspective, even though I’ve made some forward progress for both skills and career, it’s taken a long time, with the number of setbacks and disappointments being significantly higher, but despite all that, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Better to put myself through all of that rather than to have given up and not tried at all.

What can I say? It’s the dreamer in me.

So here’s to all of us dreamers. Long may our imaginations and the ability and methods in which we express them reign in an effort to make the world a slightly more enjoyable place.

Oh, and screw the naysayers.

Nothing a little maturity wouldn’t cure

tantrum
You’re so mean!

Okay, I admit it. I daydream about being a successful screenwriter. Who doesn’t?

“That mega-hit blockbuster? Yeah. I wrote that.”

It’s nice to think about, but again, it’s still just a daydream. I’m not counting on it. I’d be happy just to make a decent living at it, and that’s what I’m working towards.

I try to be realistic about this, learning from my mistakes and missteps. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to ask advice of writers with more experience than me, and I have heeded that advice to the best of my ability.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of activity online involving writers (usually in the early (read: uninformed) phase of their careers) asking questions regarding a wide variety of topics.

A majority of the time, they get quality answers from seasoned (read: informed) writers. In theory, the original askers respond with “Thanks! That really helps!”, or “So glad you told me!”, or even “Great to know!”. These do happen. On occasion.

And then there’s the other response.

“You’re just trying to kill my/their dreams!”

“What do you know? You only have X credits on IMDB!”

“You just don’t want the competition!”

“I’ve never heard of you, so your advice is worthless!”

“What makes you so important?”

Sigh.

People are going to believe what they want to believe, or are more likely to believe advice that works in their favor, rather than the cold, hard truth. And if that cold, hard truth runs counter to the answers they want (despite them claiming to “seek” them), the harder they’ll reject it.

You may not like the fact that there’s not a snowcone’s chance in hell a major studio/agency/prodco will look at your script, let alone greenlight it for production, even with your without-a-doubt absolutely certain belief they’d grab it in a second if they’d only read it to see how totally awesome it is, but getting angry (and even berating) at somebody who tells you “that’s how it is” makes you look foolish and amateurish. And you’re also setting yourself up for continuous disappointment.

One of the things a screenwriter needs to accept early on is that there are certain truths about the industry and how things work within it. Unless people are completely blown away by the sheer genius of the writing in your first or second draft, (which they will not be. Trust me on this one.), you and your script are not going to be the ones that “change all of that”.

Learn the way things work. Ask questions of those who know better (and more) than you. Accept the answers and adapt. You need to. The industry has no interest in and will not be adapting to you.

No matter how many tantrums you throw.

**Shameless self-promotion! I had the good fortune to be interviewed by my pal Justin Sloan, who hosts The Creative Writing Career podcast, which covers a wide variety of fields and types of writing careers. We had a great time discussing trying to make it as a screenwriter. You can listen to it here, or subscribe to it on iTunes. Thanks for listening!

Knocked down, but not staying there

Skating Waiter
Just give me a sec to get back on my feet. Bonus – drink remains unspilled

The Chinese restaurant script got the standard “Just isn’t what I’m looking for” response from a producer.

Years of experience has taught me how to properly respond to this kind of situation.

“Well, that sucks. Okay. Moving on.”

Thus the struggle continues to gain a new foothold on this constant uphill climb. But I’m in it for the long haul.

Sure, it’s frustrating to get yet another “no” about a script, but getting upset about it won’t do me any good.

And what better way to get over it than by working on something else with the intent of making this one that much better? And there are plenty of something elses to keep me occupied.

A revamping of the outline of an older script continues, with pleasantly productive results (along with some phenomenal feedback on the logline). More insightful notes have come in for the comedy spec. Setting up a few more get-to-know-you meetings with other local writers*.

(*A meeting last week with one writer about her current project resulted in me being able to offer up some suggestions to another writer feeling frustrated about his. He, in turn, felt very encouraged with a renewed sense of hope, and was excited about some possible new avenues to try. I’m just happy to help.)

Hearing “thanks, but no thanks” still stings, but only for the briefest of moments. It’s taken a very long time for me to get to this point.

A few months ago, all that pressure I’d been putting on myself just went away. And I’m a lot better for it now.

And patient.

Success will happen when it happens.

But having it happen sooner rather than later would still be much appreciated.