ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, January 20, 2006

So You Want To Be a Pro Writer?

As most of you have probably noticed, this blog is all over the map.

Sometimes I'll write about reading. Sometimes I'll write about movies, or the box office. Sometimes I'll try to make people laugh; sometimes I'm more serious.

Because so many other blogs deal so well with screenwriting, I haven't written all that much about that aspect, other than to occasionally filter writing ideas through my reading POV.

But now I'm inspired to just rant a little. I'm going to even use capital letters, and bold. (Wow, who knows, someday this blog might even have a photo or two. Nah).

Anyway, this is my thesis for the day:

IF YOU WANT TO BE A SCREENWRITER, PUT IN THE WORK.

You know what the biggest problem is with most young writers today? They sit down to their first script, and they don't say to themselves "I'm going to learn how to be a writer, by writing". They say "I'm going to write something, and sell it to Hollywood".

And then they knock out a script, and then they go over to the Internet message board they have been occasionally hanging out around, and they post "Hey, I just wrote my first script. How do I get an agent?"

Of course, they don't want to hear the answer, which is:

You don't. Throw the script into a drawer, and write another one. And then write another one.

There should be a rule, that you can't even try to sell one of your screenplays, until you have written at least 3. Or maybe 5. 7? 10's a good number. Because that's about the time most writers really start to figure out this whole screenwriting thing.

Of course, writers don't want to hear this, because it's daunting. It seems like work. And meanwhile, they think most movies in the theaters are so bad that anyone can write them.

But look at other careers. You want to be a doctor? You've got to put in a lot of time and effort -- LEARNING -- before you get to perform surgery on someone. You want to defend a killer? Again, you can't just walk in off the street and be a lawyer.

Unfortunately, there's no test for screenwriting. You don't need a license to practice. That's not necessarily a good thing.

Other careers even have rules. You can't even play football in the NFL, until you have been out of high school for at least two years. It's to protect the players, because they aren't ready, even if they think they are.

You think good screenwriting is really all that much easier than medicine or the law? You're wrong. You think you're ready to play with the big boys? No.

You need to treat it like a career. You need to read the books, you need to find writing exercises that sharpen your mind, your characters, your story, your dialogue. You need to see movies, and think about why and how they work.

You need to write scripts without worrying if they are commercial, because it isn't about that right now.

Hell, I think everyone should be required to adapt a book that they like a lot, that they don't have the rights to and probably never will get the rights to. Just as a writing exercise, to take you that much farther down the road. Adapt a J.D. Salenger short story. Do a screenplay based on that fantasy novel you've always loved.

Who cares if no one will ever buy it? That's the point. Write. The more you write, the better you get. And hell, if you adapt something that you like, you'll probably enjoy adapting it. Though if you don't enjoy simply writing, of creating something, then maybe you're in the wrong business anyway.

Of course, I'm terrible at taking my own advice. I haven't really consistently put in the work, outside of actually pounding out close to a dozen scripts. Though through the course of my reading career, I've actually been paid to do assignments that helped my writing.

I was paid to type the foreign film "Kolya" into screenplay form, from just watching the subtitled video. Want a good intensive exercise for screenplay form? Turn a movie back into a script.

I was paid to type the musical "Chicago" into screenplay form, from play form (apparently because execs' brains hurt if they have to read something that isn't a book or a screenplay). Want a good intensive exercise in screenplays? Simply retype the script of something someone else wrote.

Another company regularly hired me to do a scene breakdown of their scripts in development; basically the slugline of the scene and a brief description of what happens in the scene. Again, it's a way to find yourself looking at how scripts flow and come together.

There are a zillion different writing exercises that you can do to make your writing and your scripts better, from writing scenes between characters who never even meet during your script (just to explore different aspects of your characters), to trying to write sequences of your script without any dialogue at all, just to make yourself come up with ways of telling things without dialogue.

If all this sounds like work, it is. That's the point. Screenwriters aren't born, they are made. Talent helps, but unrefined talent isn't going to get you far enough.

Yes, there are stories of people selling their first screenplay, or having their first screenplay place well in a contest. It happens. But when they are inevitably asked "What else do you have", well, it's good to have an answer.

Write as much as you can. Don't make it about the selling, make it about the process. Aspiring TV writers have the right idea; they spec episodes of TV shows, not in hopes of actually selling them as episodes, but as writing samples, to show they can write. And in putting together all these samples, they learn how to write better.

Put in the effort. And if you don't want to, well, it just might not be the business for you.

18 Comments:

At 11:53 AM, Anonymous RPaige said...

I agree.

Nearly every writer gets better with practice and experience. I've seen it in my non-screenwriting work. Even through college, the papers I wrote toward the end of my collegiate career are markedly better than the ones I wrote earlier on.

It's common sense that not enough people follow or believe in, and therefore, needs to be said more often.

 
At 12:05 PM, Blogger Ismo Santala said...

Thanks for the great tips.

My goal is to sell something by the time I'm 30. That leaves me about 7 years to build up the skills to pay the bills. At the moment, I'm a piss-poor screenwriter. But give me those seven years... ;)

 
At 12:10 PM, Anonymous PD boy said...

Excellent post!

Excellent suggestions!

You'd think that what you were saying is just good ol' common sense.

But I think first time writers don't realize this because of an arrogance that writing a script will be as easy as putting on underwear.

You hit the nail on the head mentioning first time writers seeing films of a certain crappy variety. They think they can do better and that's what breeds this arrogance that their first scripts are gonna sell.

As the guys over at Wordplay have mentioned before, this the crap plus one scenerio.

Anyways, super post and something we can all remind ourselves of every once in a while: work, work, work...

 
At 12:35 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

You speaketh the truth.

No matter how true your words ring, every single aspiring writer thinks his/her next one is going to be THE one. You think its gold, and you think you've matured as a writer since that dreck you wrote last August.

You can't rush things, yet you need things rushed. Like right now, unless you can get something sooner than that.

Bottom line is that 99% of aspiring writers will read that and agree. And 98% of them will dream about selling their next script, because that is the goal, and if I have the choice between sooner or later...

 
At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Joshua said...

Good stuff, Scott . . .

Another interesting thing is pulling up something you wrote earlier (in my case, a play I wrote ten years ago or a screenplay I wrote three years ago) and noting how you may have changed as a writer in terms of style, etc.

Really great post . . .

 
At 2:41 PM, Anonymous nilblogette said...

When I was in film school they told us you absolutely had to have at least three good scripts before you could get an agent. Then, I worked for an agent and found out that wasn't the case at all, and the one I worked for sort of lamented that rule going out the window. I think screenwriting contests have a bit to do with it, because if you place in a big one, you get called in to everyone's office and they keep in touch for a little while, but if you don't have more than that one script, or if you can't quickly churn out another, it is a wasted opportunity. Also working for an agent, I saw a writer with no real experience, but one script that was written at just the right time, get a career-making gig, but she kind of wanted to revel in being the flavor of the month and almost blew it, and got lectured fairly frequently by her reps, because she forgot she had write harder than she ever did before, because blowing that gig would have pretty much meant never getting another shot. I figure challenging myself now will ensure that I can perform under pressure and not embarrass myself later.

 
At 6:02 PM, Blogger The Hopper said...

Scott- you're right on the ball with this one. I read something similar on the wordplay website a couple of years ago. I was just out of film school with a couple of good (well, one was good) scripts under my belt. I'd been a wonder child in my pond and I didn't know why I didn't instantly have an agent. Once I realized I didn't have to be rich and famous (or even get a paying gig) before I was 22, it gave me a chance to relax.

It also made me a bit of a slacker. It's key to realize it takes a most people 10 or so years to become an expert--just like a doctor. Just make sure you're working as hard as the medical school kids in the meantime.

 
At 6:17 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I threw this up on Wordplay too, just for the hell of it.

 
At 10:22 PM, Anonymous kristen said...

Ayuh. I learned tons typing (and retyping) a book by WGA writers recalling their favorite comedy scenes. Great experience. Better yet because I was getting paid to do it. ; )

I like the adaptation idea. I've been kicking that around for a while and may try to locate something suitable in the public domain, just for shits & giggles. That's probably a good exercise for everyone.

 
At 12:48 AM, Anonymous Chris Soth said...

I was at USC. They made us watch the same scene from The Godfather 3 times in a row...till we were wondering "WTF?". Then they asked if we thought we knew the scene, we all said yes. They said:

"Now WRITE the scene."

I thought: "Holy shit, I'm in film school now!"

Then we read out our scenes and compared them to Puzo's screenplay.

Ouch.

 
At 1:30 AM, Blogger stu willis said...

On a personal thing, I've moved away from calling that work practice'. I call it rehearsal. Practice always feels pointless to me, rehearsal is all about building towards somethign. It implies momentum and focus, while practice is all about learning scales.

 
At 1:31 AM, Blogger stu willis said...

oh,

and i've learnt more about writing via redrafting my old scripts than i have by starting new ones.

starting new scripts is often like running away, rather than confronting the problems of your work. confronting problems adn knowing how to solve them is hw you become a better writer.

 
At 9:43 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I loved my first script. God, it was goooooodd. Man, I sent that thing out like crazy. Then I started getting reponses. A year or two later, I re-read it.

Oh my god, did it BLOW. Now, I can't even read it. Embarrassing. Not even salvageable with a re-write. My next couple weren't much better but at least they were better.

Not sure if every script I write is better than the last, likely not, I've writtena few that I absolutely love, but after every script I do feel that I've gotten better somewhat.

Good post Scott.

 
At 11:11 PM, Blogger ScriptWeaver said...

Amen, brutha.

And I'm one who believes you learn more from reading bad scripts then you do with good ones.

 
At 5:14 PM, Blogger The Moviequill said...

I write every single day and occasionally throw up something on my blog. I know the journey is long and I am patient (I also packed a box lunch)

 
At 8:32 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

I was given a great piece of advice by a good friend of mine - one of the producers of "Metropolitan":

Have a goal of writing 9 good scripts. If you can make it to 9 scripts and haven't burnt out then send that 9th script out to be read as your first script (but don't tell anyone that).

Get the feedback on old #9 and assess where you are with your skills. Do you think you have it in you to do another 9 scripts if necessary? If not - then get out of writing scripts and do something else.

My friend doesn't read someone's script unless they have at least 9 works under their belt (by that I mean books, scripts, comic books, plays, etc...)

 
At 8:45 PM, Blogger One.Day.Past.Dead said...

Like kissing frogs, you gotta kiss a lot to get to the good one. Excellent advice. Again.

 
At 4:35 PM, Blogger Mark said...

Bravo. Good post.

Like I've said before, the first ten are practice.

Mark

 

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