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.

A whopping 180 degrees

Turn-around
Which way?

The process of overhauling the low-budget comedy has proven to be quite the challenge. Notes from reliable sources had pointed out a few problems in need of fixing, and that’s what I’ve been laboring to rectify the past couple of weeks.

It hasn’t been easy.

One challenge was to let go of “what came before” in the previous draft. Sometimes it’s tough to wipe the slate clean and start anew, and this time was no exception. Once I set up how things play out, it’s not easy to push it aside and do something different.

Which isn’t to sat I haven’t been trying.

Even though you can’t force inspiration, I knew I could think my way through this. So, as has happened many times before, I stepped back and took a look at the full picture.

What was it about the previous draft that wasn’t working? Start with that and figure out ways it could be done differently. Let the imagination run wild and the creativeness flow.

First, I broke it down on a scene-by-scene basis. What’s the purpose of each one? Does it advance story, character and theme? And since it’s a comedy, is it funny? (That last one has been particularly challenging).

It’s been tough, but not insurmountable.

I’d managed to work my way into the first part of Act 2, but then hit a wall. Nothing was working.

I won’t say I was feeling desperate, but it was quite an effort to not pick up my laptop and fling it across the room.

But rather than engage in aggravated assault of electronic devices, I opted to give it one last try.

I went back to the notes. Many of the comments said more or less the same thing, especially regarding one in particular. I’d seen it before, but this time, something really resonated.

One of the most powerful tools in the writer’s bag o’ tricks is the Great What If? Use it wisely.

So I applied it to my problem. If THIS wasn’t working, WHAT IF I tried something different? And what better way to do something different than the total opposite?

And as it has many times before, there it was.

The more I applied this to the rest of the story, the more of it came together. It’ll require a little more rewriting for now, but gosh is this a lot better than it was before.

Forward momentum has resumed. Updates to be released accordingly.

-Bulletin board update! Filmmaker Diane Harder has a crowdfunding project underway for her short Penny Foster. Donate if you can!

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.

Words properly arranged

typist
Behind that disarming smile lurks the constantly-devising mind of a creative genius

Jumping back to focus on the pulp adventure spec, along with a return of that certain ZING! one gets when quite psyched about a story. Yep, still going strong.

Gotta say, this whole “break down each scene to its individual elements” thing is really working out nicely. It’s tremendously easier to have a line-by-line description of what happens rather than trying to figure it all out on the fly.

The most recent wrinkle has been manipulating the events that lead up to and just after the midpoint of the story. I originally had the antagonist explaining their sinister plan, but seeing as how it sounded a lot better in the outline than it does on the page, there’s been some extensive editing, rewriting, cutting and pasting going on over the past couple of days.

And this was just for a couple of pages’ worth of material.

Among the pleasant surprises:

-discovering that a line or action in one scene could easily be relocated, thereby making the new scene that much stronger. All the elements were in place; it was just a matter of finding the right order in which to put them.

-being reminded of the concept of “less is more”. Some scenes as originally written turned out to be simply overly complicated – just too much going on. By eliminating everything EXCEPT what’s necessary in that scene naturally tightens things up, but also really moves things along and gets the point across that much faster.

-figuring out a way to present details of the plot without being so blatantly obvious about it. Implying seems to be much more effective.

It took a while, but the changes that have been made have proven to be most satisfying. No doubt there will be more of this sort of thing in future drafts, but for now it works.

Start with similar, venture into different

path
With one you can play it safe, while the other offers up more of a challenge

In the handful of times I’ve helped out as co-writer or script polisher on somebody else’s project, there have been variations on the following conversation:

ME: And then THIS happens!

THEM: Oh, we can’t do that. ACTUAL MOVIE did the same thing.

ME: Not exactly. ACTUAL MOVIE did THIS, and what I’m suggesting is maybe at the very foundation the same concept, but if we did it THIS WAY so THIS HAPPENS, it would be entirely different.

THEM: But won’t people think we’re just ripping off ACTUAL MOVIE?

ME: First of all, ACTUAL MOVIE has been out for a while, and you’re at least a year away from having this thing done, so I highly doubt the first thing anyone’s going to think is we’re ripping off ACTUAL MOVIE. Second, this is exactly why I think THIS is how it should happen. True, both use the basic concept, but we’re putting our own spin on it so it doesn’t resemble ACTUAL MOVIE at all. They’re similar, if you could even call it that, but still different.

THEM: (thinks it over). Well, okay. We’ll give it a try.

And…scene.

I’ve read about this in articles and seen it firsthand while reading scripts, both times usually associated with newer writers. Somebody really likes how something happens in a film or a script, so then they go and have the EXACT SAME THING happen in theirs. I get that you liked that original, but why, oh why would you want to use it practically verbatim in yours?

Doing the screenwriting equivalent of a “copy, cut, and paste” will do you no good because it’ll be painfully obvious that’s what you did. You’re trying to tell an original story, and THIS is what you do?

If anything, people will definitely think you ripped off that original thing and berate you for your total lack of originality. Was that your goal? Probably not.

Time to get analytical. What was it about that particular something that really got to you? Why do you feel the need to have the same thing happen in your script? That’s the angle from which to approach it.

But this is also where the challenge begins. Once you identify that core detail, it’s up to you, the writer, to figure out a new way to use it in such a way that not only does it serve the purpose you need, but also pays homage to what inspired it in the first place.

You know where things are going, or at least where you want them to go, but now you need to tweak how they get there. Work those muscles of creativeness! Try something new! Don’t hesitate to jump off the beaten path into new territory! If anything, you might come up with an entirely new idea that accomplishes exactly what you needed, but just a totally different way.

Sure, there’s a very slight chance it could potentially remind somebody of ACTUAL MOVIE, but they’ll definitely remember that it came from yours.