How to Get Ahead: Never Be in a Hurry to Send It, And Never Send an Outline

Someone important has agreed to read your stuff: Hallelujah! You want to take advantage of this opportunity, and you want to strike when the iron is hot. Of course, you had hoped to take one more pass at it to fix some glaring problems, but you can’t let an opportunity like this pass by!

Nope. Stop yourself. Don’t send it yet. Even if they said they want it right away. Even if they said they have a brief window of time to read it. When they say they want it right away, they really mean “I want it as soon as it’s perfect, however long that may take.” If they read it and they don’t absolutely love it, they won’t cut you any slack and say “But at least it got here on time, so that counts for something.”

Just about every opportunity in this business is a one-time opportunity. There are thousands of would-be writers out there, swarming around. If someone decides you don’t have the goods, they’re not going to check back in later to see if the goods have suddenly developed.

So make them wait for it. If they were willing to read it during this window of time, they might also be willing to read it during their next window of time, so you have to take that chance. Only ever send out work that seems great to you.

One more point: Never send them a numbered outline. You’re telling a story, not a series of disconnected beats. An outline automatically reads as “And then, and then, and then…” Force yourself to rewrite your outline as a prose treatment, and it will be more likely to read as “And so, and so and so…”, which is what you want.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #187: Own It (But Don’t Let It Own You)

We finally got around to watching Whale Rider the other day, which was great, and one thought I had while watching it was how much the New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro and novelist Witi Ihimaera owned the material.  They were telling their land’s story, one that no outsider had.  The emotions were universal, but, to a non-Maori audience, all of the details were wonderfully exotic and unique.  There is real power in that authenticity.

I made a fundamental mistake when pitching my Alan Turing script around town.  They would all ask me how I found this story and I gave the wrong answer: “I randomly ran across it in a book, liked it, read a bunch more books, and decided to write it.”  They would look a little uncomfortable and ask me what my connection to the material was, and I would blithely blabber, “Funny you should ask: absolutely none!  He’s a gay British mathematician, and I’m not any of those things!”  I didn’t realize that I was killing my sale.

Instead, when you’re pitching, you need to play up your authenticity, establish your connection to the material.   Even if you don’t “own” any source material involved, you have to own it.  Be necessary.  Prove that you’re the one writer who is perfect for this material.  Assure them that, if they had been the one to have this idea, and they could have hired any writer in the world to write it, you’re the writer they would have hired. 

After all, as soon as they buy it from you, it is their idea, in every sense of the word, and you’re their employee.  You don’t want them to suddenly wonder, “Why did I hire this guy?”

But be aware that there’s a tipping point at which your connection to the material stops being an asset and starts being a liability.  It’s one thing to say, “I’m the perfect guy to write this, because I’m a gay British mathematician myself” (in fact, Turing’s most in-depth biographer was all three), but the fear is that you’ll then say, “And I’m gonna tell the real story, instead of all that phony Hollywood crap!”  Suddenly, all of the enthusiasm will drain out of producers’ faces. 

You have to own it without letting it own you.  You have to have a deep reservoir of unique real-world knowledge, but then you have use it or discard it as necessary in the service of a great story.  

Look at “The Americans”: creator Joe Weisberg sold that show based on his own experience as a CIA officer, and indeed the show offers many real-world aspects of spy work that you rarely see onscreen, such as the recruiting and handling of long-term assets, but it also exaggerates and re-writes the facts at will. The detailsare authentic, but the story is pure fiction. 
In this excellent AV Club interview, Weisberg makes it clear that the spy stuff was always restricted to being a metaphor for the family stuff, and never the other way around.  He uses all of his spy knowledge, but he doesn’t let it take over the show. In the end, he’s not even writing about spies, he’s just using his authentic tradecraft knowledge as a source of unique details to enrich a universal story of family strife. 

Storyteller’s Rulebook #179: Be Happy to Start On the Ground Floor (UPDATED)

Here are two of the dangerous things a writer can think:
  • “I like these creators, so that means I’m now good enough to write for them.”
  • “I’m not impressed by those creators, therefore I’m already too good to write for them.”
As Ira Glass points out in this great interview, you can’t confuse your taste as a consumer with your ability as a creator.  At the beginning of your career, you’re not going to be good enough to write for any of the people you really respect.  And you’ll probably never be good enough to write for your very favorite creators.  This just makes sense: There’s a huge difference between liking the very best and being the very best.  Your taste will, and should, always exceed your talent.
Here’s one of my biggest regrets of my career: One day in film school, I casually mentioned to my mentor that I’d had an idea for a tween show.  He liked the idea and suggested that he set up a meeting with a producer he knew in that world.  But I then realized that I didn’t really care enough to develop the pitch that far: “Are you kidding?  I’m busy writing spec scripts for all the deep, complex, dark shows on TV, and now you want me to change gears and pitch for some kiddie network I’d never even watch?”

A lot of writers say that you should never write something you wouldn’t watch yourself.  On the surface, this seems to make sense, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: Do the writers of “Dora the Explorer” really love to watch “Dora the Explorer”?  The fact is that most unsophisticated kids’ shows are actually written by sophisticated adults…and that’s the way it should be.

Actually, it gets worse: when you first start out, not only are you not experienced enough to write for the shows you love, you’re not even experienced enough to know why you like them.

So many of of us in film school would say “I love ‘Sopranos’, ‘Mad Men’, and ‘Breaking Bad’ because those shows prove that you don’t need a sympathetic protagonist!”  We failed to perceive that while, yes, those shows chose to sacrifice some sympathy, they made up for it by generating more empathy: we don’t like Tony, Don, and Walt but we do love them.

I have nothing but respect for those shows, but I now realize that part of their design is to flatter the audience in a very cynical way: On the one hand, they say, “You’re a sophisticated audience that doesn’t need likable heroes”, but on the other hand, they work extra hard to subtly manipulate us into loving them.

Of course, I only figured that out later, once I’d tried to create some unsympathetic heroes of my own and discovered that everybody hated them.

I should have dropped everything else and written that kids’ show.  I should have started on the ground floor.  I should have tried to figure out how to get an audience to likea likable character (which is, believe it or not, very hard to do) before I tried to get people to love an unlikable character (which is even harder).

UPDATE: Two day after I posted this, the Onion AV Club ran a great interview with the supremely talented Graham Yost (“Band of Brothers”, “Justified”) where they talked about this:
  • GY: Hey Dude was my first real “paid to write scripted television” experience. It was very low-budget. We were shooting on location at a real dude ranch in Tucson, so it looked pretty good for the paltry sum. We’d shoot an episode in three days so we were shooting 10 to 15 pages a day in the half-hour format. It was a great experience. The budget was a challenge, but the big challenge was just that we weren’t necessarily the best writers; we all became better. Lisa Melamed started on that show, and she’s gone on to a long career in television. That was the starting point for me, and we learned a lot by doing, and that was really cool. You could just see things to do and not do. 
  • I got asked recently, I think it was by TV Guide, to write a short thing about Hey Dude. There’s a story I always tell: This producer from Knoxville, Tennessee—after I had this character give this long bit of exposition about how they ended up where they are—said, “You know, you could have just had her say, ‘I’ll tell you later.’” And I was like, “Oh my God. You’re absolutely right. I should have done that. That would have been so much better.” I still kind of overwrite, so I haven’t entirely learned the lesson.
  • AVC: There are so many good TV writers who have come out of children’s TV. What do you think makes that a good proving ground or a good learning ground?
  • GY: The thing that jumps to mind is that it’s the equivalent of writing a sonnet, which is that there are limitations, and you have to be creative within those limitations. So perhaps you come up with solutions that you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you could do anything you want, you might not have thought of [this]. I think that discipline is very helpful in television. It’s just also the volume. For me, I think we did 65 episodes of Hey Dude, and I wrote 13 of them. So one in five episodes I wrote, as well as doing a lot of rewriting. It was just a lot of work, and that discipline of just getting up and having to write. It was pretty wonderful.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #136: Burn Through All Your Good Ideas

I can’t recommend highly enough this tribute that Louis C.K. gave to the late, great George Carlin, which basically describes the moment you realize that you’re nowhere near good enough to make it, but it’s too late to go back:  “I’d been doing this fifteen years but nobody gave a shit who I was and I didn’t either.  But what could I do?  After fifteen years, it would be like getting out of prison! How could you re-enter the workforce?”

The solution that he heard from Carlin turned his career around: Use up all of your “best” material as fast as you can and never think about it again. Take all those ideas that you’re cherishing and holding tight to your breast, the ones that might make you big someday, and just use them all up. Write them and send them out and forget about them.

Whenever I find myself saying “I can’t write that one yet, I’m not good enough,” I always try to remind myself that, If I’m not good enough, then my ideas probably aren’t good enough either, so it’s the always the perfect time to write whatever ideas I have.  And even if I do find that I’m tackling something overly ambitious, that’s great, because it will force me to get better quickly. 

The worst thing you can do is to slowly polish some idea for years and years, convinced that it will one day make you rich.  That will keep you looking backwards, not forward...and it will ruin the idea.  You don’t want to add any polish to your ideas, you want to do just the opposite: strip them down to their essence.  The more polish you apply, the more you’ll have to scrape off later. 

Precious material is death.  The only way to get better is to generate new material, and the only way to do that is to find out what’s buried underneath every old idea that you’re still hoarding.  What you’ll find is raw, uncomfortable, specific, personal, honest material.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #135: Don’t Take The Wrong Lesson From Their Success

We all know, here in ambitious-writer-land, that the wildly successful “Twilight” series of books and movies is “bad”, and it’s easy to get furious about that… but that’s a trap .  In fact, though you, as a person, may loathe the message that it sends out, there’s no reason for you, as a writer, to resent the success of that series.  

Theres a difference between “Wow, this person can’t write!” and “This person is writing for an audience that doesn’t include me.”  It’s very easy to read something that has an annoying tone, or a certain set of affectations, and say, “That’s just bad writing,” but there’s a chance that this writer has identified an audience who craves that tone, and those people will eat it up.   

(And for that audience, the fact that that tone annoys you, Mr. Snooty Reader, might actually be a big plus.  They love that these stories are for them and justfor them.  If you don’t get it, then you can’t be in their club.) 

When the success of a series like “Twilight” infuriates you, the danger is that you’ll end up saying one of these three things:
  • “Twilight” is poorly written, and yet it sells, therefore there’s no point is learning how to write well, since it’s all a crap shoot.
  • OR: “Twilight” is poorly written, and yet it sells, so therefore all I have to do is write something that I think is much better than “Twilight” and I’ll sell even more copies than Stephanie Meyer did!  
  • OR: “Twilight” is poorly written, and yet it sells, so I should stop writing for my audience and start writing for her audience instead, since they’re obviously less discerning.
None of these things are true.  Just as you have to work hard to learn to please youraudience, Meyer had to work hard to learn to please her audience.  Pay no attention to lies in the press about “it came to me in a dream and I just started writing it down.”  Press agents love to claim that the writing of a book was effortless, because then the audience can believe that these are somehow real characters who simply spoke to the author from another world.  If the press agents admitted that writing was a lot of work, then audiences would start to realize that the author, like all authors, is trying very hard to manipulate their emotions.

Instead of the self-destructive statements above, it’s far more useful to say to yourself. 
  • “Twilight” sells, despite the fact that its deeply annoying to me and seems to do everything wrong, because it focuses on pleasing a specific audience, rather than a platonic ideal.  Rather than worrying about what every audience should want, how can I focus more on what my audience does want (even if my audience is very different from Stephanie Meyers)?
  • AND: Is there a way to push more pleasure-buttons in my own work without sacrificing the subtlety and nuance that my audience desires?  
Most importantly, do not convince yourself for a second that Stephanie Meyer herself thinks that “Twilight” is bad, and that she’s just cynically exploiting the low standards of the girls who love her books.  It never works that way.   Successful “bad” art, whether it’s Stephanie Meyer, or Thomas Kinkaid, or Michael Bay, or Seth McFarland, is always made by true believers, who are making their own favorite type of art for their own audience. 

Storyteller’s Rulebook #134: A Bad Movie is Actually Kind of a Big Deal

So recently I’ve been eating my spinach, which is to say that I’ve been catching up with the ScriptNotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin.  I feel I must listen because this is an opportunity to hear two big-money screenwriters give inside tips about how to survive the business, and I do appreciate that they’re taking the time to do that, but I have to force myself to do it because I find them both to be pretty obnoxious.

I’m not going to fall into the trap of casting aspersions on their produced credits, because I certainly understand that a writer has very little control over which jobs they get (In fact, John and Craig did a pretty good episode about that here) but I don’t have to, since my problem is with each guy’s online persona…. 

Craig ran the ridiculously smug blog “The Artful Writer” for many years, and he’s rather infamous for his disastrous interference in the 2007 writer’s strike.  John’s eponymous blog is occasionally fun, but the good is mixed in with a lot of blasé cluelessness, such as his piece about how you shouldn’t write any screenplays about people trying to get a million dollars anymore, because a million dollars is just chump change these days (to guys like John).  

And it’s that last one that points to the most infuriating element of the podcast.  Almost every week, for one reason or another, they launch into an attack against people who get upset by low-quality movies.  “Who cares?”, they demand to know, “Bad movies aren’t hurting anybody!”  These giddy tirades inevitably end with a pumped-up Craig yelling “SHUT UP!  SHUT UP!” while giggling. 

Can you spot the connection?  A bad movie isn’t a big deal…if a million dollars is chump change.  But for most moviegoers, neither of these things is true.  After a long week’s work, if you go to a movie by yourself on a Friday night, you’re dropping $10-$17 for the ticket.  If you bring your family, it shoots up to $60 or more.  For many American families, that’s their entire entertainment budget for the week, and even if it wasn’t, that’s the only “night out on the town” that they can carve out from a 50-hour work week.  

I hate to shock John, but for the average joe, a million dollars is actually a lot farther away now than it was thirty years ago. Wages haven’t kept up with the rate of inflation (but costs such as movie tickets have exceeded it).

So yes, if you use up several hours’ wages and the only entertainment time your family has on a bad movie that none of the moviemakers really cared about, that is kind of a big deal.  John and Craig are allowed to goof off all they want going to free screenings, so they don’t realize what they’re asking of the people who have to pay to see their movies.  Which, come to think of it, explains a lot.    

Storyteller’s Rulebook #131: Write Down Your Bad Ideas

Yesterday, we were talking about the benefits of being highly critical of your own work.  But how do you keep writing if you’re no longer confident that you’re spinning gold?  Well that’s the million-dollar-spec-sale question.  The answer is: learn to love revising.  You have to get to the point where the whole point of the first draft is to anticipate the fun you’ll have revising it later.

The purpose of the first draft is just to create raw material.  You’re just mixing together a big bowl of sculptor’s clay.  Your second draft is a pile of lumps you’ve shaped out of that clay.  Your third draft is the first one that anyone but you would recognize.  Your fourth draft is where it begins to get beautiful.

And how do you keep making those drafts better?  Not by shutting out the world and dwelling on your inner muse.  By getting feedback!  You can only see one side of your own work.  In order to figure out the shape of it, you have to ask other people with different perspectives what they see.

The biggest mistake a writer can make is to think, “I’ve got a bad (or half-formed) idea in my head, so I’ll wait until it gets better before I start writing.”  The best possible advice for any writer is this: WRITE DOWN THE BAD IDEA!

This is what people mean when they say that writing is re-writing.  Perfect writing almost never begins with a perfect idea.  Even if you do have a perfect idea, you’ll probably blow it, because you’ll be paralyzed by fear of ruining perfection as you stumble through the actual writing process.  It’s much safer to start with a so-so idea and perfect it as you go along. 

When I’m stuck, I’ve been known to create documents with names like “ “THE DUMBEST VERSION” or “EVERYTHING THAT DOESN’T WORK ABOUT THIS IDEA”.  These titles liberate me to dump all the crap out of my head and into list form. Inevitably, as I savage myself, picking the flaws apart, I wind up pruning away most of the bad parts and leaving something good behind.

Bad scripts become good scripts all the time.  Good Will Hunting started out as a techno-thriller.  Can you imagine how terrible that would have been?  Whether you love or hate the final product of Titanic, you should check out Cameron’s published script.  
I love the movie (I know, I know, how tacky of me!) but the original script was terrible!  There’s twice as much Billy Zane Snidely Whiplash over-the-top villainy.  By the time you’re done reading, no matter how you felt beforehand, you’ll see the final product as a masterpiece of restraint.  

Storyteller’s Rulebook #88: Sturgeon + Zeno = You’ll Never Be On Easy Street

Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. Zeno’s Paradox states that it should be impossible to cross a room, because first you must cross it halfway, and before you can cross the remaining distance, you must cross half of that distance, and so on into infinity… So crossing an infinite number of half-distances should take forever. 

Anyone who has ever read a TV Guide or judged a talent contest knows that Sturgeon’s Law is true and immutable. Anyone who has ever crossed a room knows that Zeno’s Paradox is not. But just try to get a job in the film industry, and suddenly Zeno doesn’t look so dumb. Time after time, you get halfway there, only to find that you still have an infinite number of ‘halfway’s still to go.

Why? Because of Sturgeon’s Law. In any creative competition, you can only compete with your peers at your current level. The good news is that 90% of the peers at your level will always be crap. If you can prove that you’re not crap, then you get elevated to a new level, consisting solely of that “talented tenth”. So now everybody’s great, right? Nope, because this is a new group, and so Sturgeon’s Law kicks in again. 90% of this new group, when compared to each other, is also crap. You’d better start scrambling again, hoping to avoid the next decimation.
How many times does this happen? How many decimations? At what point do you “have it made”? I don’t know yet. The one thing I’ve learned is that you’re never anywhere near the end. Let’s follow a typical path:
  1. 90% of those who start writing their first screenplay don’t finish it.
  2. 90% of those who finish a screenplay, never write another.
  3. 90% of those who write several screenplays, never risk taking the next step (in my case, film school, but there are other paths as well)
  4. 90% of those who apply to film school, don’t get in.
  5. 90% of those who graduate from film school, never even get representation. (But they all have to pay back every penny of their loans.)
  6. 90% of those who do get representation, never sell any scripts.
  7. 90% of those who do sell scripts, never see any of them turned into movies….
And so on into infinity? I don’t know, but I’ll let you know if I ever cross the room.
Wow. Depressing, right? I’m sure that no one is that shocked by steps 1-4, but you might not have known about steps 5-7. I sure didn’t. Before I arrived at my “elite” film school, I assumed that all of the graduates would be set for life. They sure didn’t let us know up front that their graduates have an 0.1% placement rate in the industry. Even after that sunk in, I still assumed that once you had reps you had it made… Nope.I cannot recommend highly enough this excellent ten-part series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) by Irwin Handleman about the ups and downs of his screenwriting career. It’s brutally honest and hilariously droll. Irwin has gotten past me to Step 8: seeing one of his scripts made and put on screen (transformed into an Usher vehicle called In the Mix). The result? He did not get any job security from that at all. Crap. I’m never going to be set for life, am I?

Storyteller’s Rulebook #84: Everybody’s Success Helps Everybody

Some of my black film school friends on facebook can’t help but get infuriated by the success of Tyler Perry. “This guy is selling crap to our audience! There’s no room left for us!” Its tempting to feel that way, but if you ask me, this is absolutely, wildly, totally untrue.

If a rival of yours becomes crazy-successful, as bad as it feels, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t help you. If their work is better than yours, then they’re going to convince producers to go on a buying spree looking for similar product, regardless of quality. If their work is worse then yours, that’s even better for you. Bad work does not destroy the audience for good work. Just the opposite: it creates a vacuum.

Tyler Perry has disproven a lot of recent prejudices:

  1. A movie can’t make big money if it’s targeted solely at black audiences: DISPROVED
  2. Even if that audience existed, you couldn’t trust black filmmakers to write, direct or produce those movies successfully: DISPROVED
  3. If they did somehow manage to do it, the studios could just buy them out, rather than work with them on their terms: DISPROVED

The fear, however, is that, along the way, he has created a new prejudice:

  1. Black movies have to be broad, manipulative and conservative.

But if you’re the writer/director who can disprove that prejudice, then the existence of that prejudice helps you. Perry’s huge success has created a market, and then failed to satisfy a significant segment of that market. That creates a vacuum, just waiting for you to fill it. No funder will trust you to create an audience from scratch, but it’s much easier to convince them that you’re going to be “Tyler Perry meets Tarantino” (or “meets Woody Allen,” or “meets Tina Fey,” or whomever). Perry has created an audience for you to highjack.

Every success story helps all of us. The danger is not that people will see the other guy’s movie instead of your movie. The danger is that people will stop going to the movies. Anyone who gets people into theaters is creating a bigger audience for everybody. There is almost no limit to the potential demand for movie tickets. When people see good movies, then they want to see more good movies. When people see bad movies, they want to see a good movie next time instead. If you want to sell movies to people, then anyone who gets people into theaters is your friend.


The Story Project #5: They Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent

This is hard to believe, but ten years ago, comics fans were still convinced that the movies would never take them seriously. Then Sam Raimi hit the first two Spider-Man movies out of the park, and the scales fell from Hollywood’s eyes. They suddenly realized that, in the hands of skillful adapters (which proved to be the tricky part), comics could prove to be a theretofore little-touched treasure trove of high concept story material. Wa-hoo! It was land rush time! Now, of course, even an old school superhero fan like myself is sick to death of all the adaptations. They pumped out the well until it was dry and now they’re already insta-rebeooting franchises like Spider-Man and X-Men (along with Pirates and Bourne and many others). Gee, maybe they can get Tobey Maguire to come back and play the new Spider-Man’s dad! (or slightly-older brother.)

Why won’t they let the party end? Here’s one theory: Development people had always feared that the studio bosses were secretly illiterates who only pretended to read those dry stacks of scripts on their desk. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when they saw how much happier their bosses were about taking home stacks of graphic novels, which came pre-visualized and pre-set to maximum badass-itude. Once the comics well ran dry, they couldn’t force anyone to go back to reading dry prose, especially screenplays which are even duller than books, since they’re only blueprints. 

Things got so bad in Hollywood that many screenwriters, myself included, were advised to convert our screenplays into fake graphic novels that we could then adapt back into screenplays. The most infamous case of this was a “property” called “Cowboys and Aliens”, which pre-sold for big bucks, then put out one issue from a comic book company that existed just to generate material for adaptation. The project has been cited as an example of what’s wrong with the system so many times that I was a little shocked to see a trailer recently and realize (1) the movie finally got made, and (2) the trailer isn’t even half bad.

But comics were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The biggest problem is simply that failure begets failure. Too many bad spec scripts were sold, which happened to coincide with a time in which a lot or adaptations were unexpectedly successful. These and many other forces combined to create the vague impression that original material was now a hard sell, and once that set in, the great unspoken embarrassment about making up a story from scratch reached out and seized everybody’s heart.

If you try pitching an original movie to a development person today, even if they love it, they know that they’ll be in for a hard slog if they try to pass it on up the ladder. They have to explain that they liked a story that nobody else has ever bought before. It’s so much easier to say “x number of fans can’t be wrong!” (Even in the case of Cowboys and Aliens, where x equaled zero) They’re not in the storytelling business anymore, they’re in the franchising business. They’re not creating commodities, that’s for chumps. They’re trading commodities, that’s less embarrassing.

Our president liked to tell a story on the campaign trail about an idealist showing up to help out with a local Chicago campaign only to have the boss ask him which political machine had sent him over. When he answered “nobody,” they responded “we don’t want nobody nobody sent.” They, too, didn’t want to create value, they just wanted to trade it back and forth. That’s become the American way. But there’s just one problem: Americans crave new stories. If we keep trying to tell original stories, the producers will eventually have to listen to us, even if they don’t want to, as long as we refuse to be embarrassed about what we’re doing.