Monday, March 19, 2007

The Basics

People talk a lot about ways to help move your career forward, especially here in Hollywood. There are hints and tips about networking and getting produced and strategies for finding your agent and finding your audience. Yet somehow, amidst all this, they often overlook one of the most basic, elemental components of our craft.

The writing.

How many times have you turned on the television or dropped your ten bucks at a theatre, and found yourself shaking your head afterwards. “Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea? How does stuff like this get made??”

Well, first thing-- someone finished the script for it.

Allow me to fall back on a little publishing fact, which I’m relatively sure applies to the film industry as well. Barely one percent of the people who call themselves “novelists” even finish their first novel. We’re not even talking about sales yet, mind you. This is simply getting a whole novel written down on paper. I was at the San Diego State Writer’s conference a few years ago, and watched as a man walked out in an angry huff when he was told no agent would even talk to him until he had a completed novel.

Y’see, it doesn’t matter how many hints and tips and strategies you follow. If you don’t have a completed, polished script in your hand, you can’t make a sale.

Ahhhh, I see the hands already. You there, in the back? Why, yes, yes he did. Just last summer, Creative Screenwriting magazine wrote about how David Koepp pitched the idea for his story Ghost Town to Dream Works and Universal for a very tidy two million dollars.

So, let’s have another show of hands. How many people reading this are David Koepp?

Ahhh, I see only two hands now. One is a screenwriter in New York with over twenty produced film credits, more than a half dozen of them being major box office blockbusters. The other is the marketing exec from my job, Danny, who suffered a head injury assembling the new office furniture and now has problems telling pictures and mirrors apart.

Want a better example? Something a little closer to our (and yes, I am saying our) level? My friend Eric works on a series for the Hallmark Channel. He and his wife had tried writing an episode for the show, but were told the company had a deal with the existing writing team. However, when time began to run short and the writing team wasn’t coming up with anything, the producers pulled out Eric’s script again. His completed, ready-to-go script. And now my friend and his wife are produced screenwriters, just like that.

You see, for those of us (and, again, I am saying us) without a solid resume to lean on, sales depend on actual writing. To be blunt, no one is going to trust us. I may have the greatest story idea of all time locked up in my head, but until it’s written out it’s no different than the worst, most cliché-ridden idea ever, because I’m the only person who can see it. This is why we have to write. Above all other things, we must get coherent words on paper in an established, industry format.

We must write!

Now, let’s look at the opposing example. My downstairs neighbor (I call her the Vamp, not because of her sexiness, but because she’s very pale, has prominent canine teeth, and is rarely seen during the day) found out I was a writer and showed up at my door one day asking for tips on getting a sale. She wanted to know about agents, advances, selling rights, and so on. I answered all of them, and then told her that the thing she really needed to do was actually write out the youth-oriented fantasy she had in mind (starring a character based on a younger version of herself).

“Oh, well the writing’s the easy part, right?”

“Ummmm… Not really.”

“Well, I know how to write, and I know my story. How hard can it be?”

“Cool. Let me know when you’re done. I’d love to read it.”

I ran into the Vamp in the hall one night a month or two later (coincidentally, right about the time Eric told me Hallmark was re-considering his script) and casually asked how the writing was going. She hadn’t started it yet, but was still sure her clever idea would go over very well and earn her fame and fortune.

It’s been said before that if you write two pages a day, at the end of a year you’ll have a novel. By the same token, if you write two pages a day (giving up a night or three here or there), in just two months you’ll have a very solid first draft of a screenplay.

That’s all. A mere two pages a day. That could be as little as four hundred words. Not even half of this column.

That’s the commitment you need to make to yourself if you want to be writer. Your first goal must be to take that rough idea in your head, that amazing story, and put it down on a page. Type it, scribble it, scrawl it, dictate it, do whatever it takes.

Until you have done this, nothing else matters.

1 comment:

Nathan E. Harvey said...

Very well said, and motivating! I'm bad about writing every night for a week, and then taking such a long break that I have to read back over all that I've done before I can start back up again. Small steps will easily add up faster than what I've been dishing out.