This past Monday night at our script group, my friend Deb put on a full reading of her screenplay. Because the main characters are 14-year-old girls, she went outside the actors in our group, and cast two 15-year-old girls, professional actresses, to play the leads.
The girls were great, and impressively they really worked hard at it. Though it was a staged reading, there was a lot of movement by the actors, and they obviously learned a lot of their lines. These two girls put a lot of time and effort into reading these parts --
Time and effort that has no tangible payoff. Because if this script is made into a movie, they likely won't get the roles. They weren't paid, and they probably didn't meet anyone who is going to further their careers, both of which are going pretty well anyway; one has a fairly-major role in a movie coming out this spring.
So why did they do it? And why do all these other actors pop by the group every Monday night, to read these pages by us lowly scribes?
Because they are actors, and because they like doing it. Because it's a good training tool; every time they read something, cold read a character, practice an accent, play off another actor, it's going to make them just a little bit better, a little bit more comfortable, the next time they have to audition for something.
And maybe it's just fun to exercise the muscles of the thing they have chosen as their lives.
No one thinks it is odd when an aspiring basketball player plays a pick-up game at the local park. No one feels it is strange when a young basketball player shows up at the gym in the morning to take 1000 jump shots from the corner. It's expected. It's what you do.
For actors, it's the same way.
For writers? Ah...
The odd thing about screenwriting is that the screenplay form is a weird beast. It's not really meant to be read by a wide audience; it's just a stepping stone to something else.
Still, it's something solid. Something one can hold in their hands. And that might be the problem.
For actors and basketball players, learning their crafts is a matter of just going out and putting in the work, with insubstantial rewards. Sure, actors can accumulate lines on a resume, but most of the work they do has been forgotten in ten years. Basketball players play a lot of ball, they take millions of shots in their lives, but individual scores of games don't matter as much as the fun of playing, while the immense practice time they put in is only reflected in their improved skillsets.
But writers always have the fruits of their "practice". The best way to become a writer is to learn to write, to write every day, but the catch is that this writing actually produces something, pages that pile up on one's desk.
And I think that's the trap that too many aspiring writers fall into. It's just way too easy to forget about the learning curve, when the learning curve is producing something that "could" be sellable.
So suddenly the learning curve becomes the writing-something-to-sell curve. For way too many writers that I have dealt with, the motivation is not "what can I do to make myself a better writer", it's "how can I sell this first script right now". And they don't want to listen when you tell them that they shouldn't even bother, until they have written 5 scripts, or 10. Really learned what it takes to be a writer.
As someone once told me, when you can't remember how many scripts you have actually written, then maybe you are on the right path.
Still, it's rare as writers, outside of writing class, that we actually write something as pure exercise, as writing-for-writing's sake, to explore something in particular, to hone one aspect of one's writing, or even to have fun. It's rare that we do what these actors do, just show up somewhere one night a week and practice our craft for the hell of it, and not because it's going to produce something tangible.
One reason is probably because writing is by its nature a solitary, internal profession. But another is because, I believe, most of us have trained ourselves to focus all of our writing energy on actually producing something that might just sell, rather than on exercising other writing muscles.
I've actually been lucky along the way, because I have been paid at random times to do some odd, educational writing work. For Miramax (apparently because Harvey's brain freezes if he has to read anything not in screenplay form), I once had to type up the play version of "Chicago" into screenplay form. It's an experience retyping something a good writer has written, you really get a feel for how something that someone else has written flows over a screenplay page.
How many people would do that if they weren't getting paid for it?
For another company, I regularly had to do scene breakdowns. Literally, it was a chart that listed every single scene in a screenplay, where it took place, and what happened in the scene. Again, it's another interesting way of learning how to break down scripts, and see how they build and flow. Not a whole lot of actual writing, but again, something that helped me in some way as a writer.
Again, not something that most writers would even consider doing if there wasn't a paycheck at the end of it. And it's sad, really. I'm not saying that I'm not just as guilty as everyone else; I am. Too much of my screenwriting education has been an accidental side-effect of my day job.
But screenwriting is hard to do well, and Hollywood is littered with the scripts that come out of people who really haven't come close to mastering it, the people who think that the end-result of their playing with the screenplay form for the first time is somehow worthy of actually being made into a movie. That occasionally one hears of someone selling the first thing they ever wrote only feeds this idea.
Personally, I think there should be a law. Writers should be required to write five scripts, while also doing other things to learn their craft. Writers should treat it like they are learning to be doctors; you have to learn the nuts and bolts before you are ready to actually step up and be a pro. Writers should treat this learning process as a time when it doesn't matter what you write, because you aren't allowed to submit it anywhere.
Five scripts. And only then can you start inflicting your scripts on agents, managers, producers.
I know, I know. Crazy. And obviously it's unenforcable, and I know, your third script was great. And your second. And your first.
Take the metaphorical 1000 jump shots from the corner every day for five years. Learn your craft. There are no real shortcuts.