It Can Happen Here.

 

In before comments: I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind and I’m not trying to break any new ground in terms of sci-fi tropes. I’ll get around to those things some other time 😉

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#2 No Smoking, No Boozing? (On Writing)

See reddit user beardsayswhat’s original list of “unpopular” screenwriting opinions here.

2. You shouldn’t smoke while you write. You shouldn’t drink while you write. You shouldn’t do anything while you write that you wouldn’t do at your job, because writing IS a job.

I wasn’t going to give this one its own entry, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it and I think it deserves one.

There’s a cliche image of writers as hard drinkers. As alcoholics, even. Personally, I never write while under the influence of anything cause it almost never produces anything usable. (Or legible.)

In my experience, a drink or two at the end of a writing session can definitely grease some gears. The whole point of alcohol—to loosen up, decrease inhibitions—can be helpful for brainstorming or making connections you may not have made before. It can help you to see the forest from the trees. At least it does for me. In my case, it usually quiets the part of my brain that thinks what I’m writing is total shit. Which, you know, is a nice feeling to have sometimes.

Same with smoking. (I assume he means cigarettes.) When I was a regular smoker, a cigarette in the midst of a writing session was how I would pace and reward myself. Countless times I’d end up figuring out what I was going to write next while out for a smoke. I can’t say for certain that it was the cigarette itself that did the trick—but taking some time out to reflect without the taunts of the blinking cursor in your face does have value. I can’t deny that I had many, many good ideas while I was out for a cig. Smoking, as an ex-professor of mine described it, is the perfect “nothing-something” to distract you for a bit. And that can allow for great ideas strike.

And therein lies the misconception. Alcohol (or other substances) can be useful for inspiration, but not necessarily good for translating your inspiration into a coherent work. Writing—the actual act of writing—is a sober activity. Even Hemingway, a notorious drinker, only wrote while sober. As he once told a reporter:

“Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes—and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one.”

The main takeaway here is that writing is a job and should be treated as such. But I’m not you, and at the end of the day, and you should avail yourself of whatever methods or substances that help you get the work done. But place the emphasis on work and extra emphasis on done.

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On “Fan Ownership”

Doing PIONEER ONE was an eye-opening experience for many, many reasons. One of the most interesting was the huge lesson we got in the dynamics of creator/viewer relations. We were thrown off the deep end when we released the pilot, receiving dozens of emails and tweets and Facebook messages daily for weeks afterward. It was an incredible feeling to know that people were watching and enjoying the work we had done, and to all of a sudden be on the other side of the fan/producer divide. We courted this engagement, as one does, but were unprepared for when it actually happened. It was a hell of an adjustment going from an idea in your head, living with it 24/7 while struggling to make it a reality, to all of a sudden being dissected and discussed by people you’ve never met.

Something that’s happened with content creators’ access to and participation in social media is that the boundaries that traditionally separated producers and fans have broken down. As a fan myself, this is a great thing. More than ever, people know what it takes to make a TV show or movie because they have regular access to those who make them. It’s great for creators too, because for the first time, they are able to get real-time, unvarnished feedback from their audience.

Well, mostly great. In some cases, this increased access creates a sense of “fan ownership” of the work. Sometimes, fans feel because they’ve been given a glimpse of the process, they’re experts on that process. Or because they’re so invested in the work, they somehow have a say in the direction that the work takes.

That can be problematic. Especially when fans get nasty. And, as anyone who’s ever read a YouTube comment or a message board can attest, people can be pretty nasty. And the nasty ones are usually the ones with the loudest voices.

I don’t think most people actually want to have a say, even those who would argue otherwise. At several points while we were making Pioneer One, there were suggestions that we open up the writing process and allow viewers to contribute to the story. I understand that impulse, especially since we had already broken ground by crowd-funding and crowd-distributing the show. But what people who had supported us, either by donating money or spreading the word, were really doing was giving us was freedom to make the show we wanted to make the way we wanted to make it. They were allowing us our creative freedom. And, at the end of the day, I think most people still want to sit down and be told a story, and have confidence that that story is coming from a specific point of view and the people telling it have a specific vision. To open up the creative process to the masses would dilute that vision.

We always encouraged fans to engage with us and we always tried to give them a glimpse “behind the curtain,” as it were, on the theory that showing the process would help them understand where we were coming from. But it was always to a point. I think there has to be a space where creators feel free to create without taking into consideration the whims of every Twitter follower or YouTube commenter. And the audience has to be willing to allow the creators to make mistakes, because having the freedom to take creative risks is how you end up with great work.

I think it’s a net-gain. It’s a good thing that people are more aware of how a show or movie is made. The price is that you sometimes have to deal with people who feel like you owe them something and are nasty about it. How you respond is a case-by-case thing. You can tell by the tenor of the comment whether or not its worth engaging that person. I’ve generally tried to stay above the fray, but sometimes, something gets under your skin and you have to weigh in. Most of the time, the person takes a step back and the hyperbole falls away. But not all the time.

It’s amazing that we’ve had this experience, and we owe it to all the fans who have followed us. It’s flattering because it means we’ve successfully engaged people enough that they are chomping at the bit for more show, and want to know every little thing that’s going on with it. If we could do it over again, I would have tried to be a little more transparent about what our plans were. But the simple fact is, back in 2010, there was little precedent for a project like ours. And, more to the point, we didn’t know exactly what it would take to make the show, how much it would cost, or how long it would take. Obviously, armed with this knowledge, we would have done things differently.

We still get the errant irate fan demanding to know what’s going on with the show and chastising us for our radio silence. I understand their frustration. We share it. But, at the end of the day, we’re just a group of dedicated people who shared a vision that was Pioneer One and did everything humanly possible to make it a reality. What are our obligations beyond that?

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#1: Write Rad Shit (On Writing)

See reddit user beardsayswhat’s original list of “unpopular” screenwriting opinions here.

1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.

If there was ever a point where I would have bristled at advice like this, I can’t remember it now. This is just common sense, and frankly, I don’t understand why this would be an unpopular opinion. Maybe some read that and think he’s advocating becoming a sell-out, or to stick to churning out formulaic, commercial fare. But what he’s really saying is don’t be boring. Not to never write something experimental, or that explores real issues, or that says something important. Do any or all of those things. Just don’t be boring while you do it.

As for bit where he seems to shit on character dramas, I don’t think he means you can never write a character drama, or that your high-concept script shouldn’t include strong character drama. Remember, this is advice for non-established screenwriters. Writers who are trying to get noticed. A screenplay about a lovelorn white guy who finds new meaning in life when he meets his manic pixie dream girl isn’t going to raise any eyebrows. (I admit that The Lionshare has surface similarities to some of those cliches, but I think it successfully tells a story with deeper meaning. Plus I made that movie seven years ago, sue me.)

Don’t be boring. That’s a great motto. You know how to tell if you’re writing something boring? If you are bored while you’re writing it. Even if you think you’re writing something with limited appeal, if you have enthusiasm for the material, that enthusiasm will come through. Enthusiasm is infectious. Don’t be boring.

This also doesn’t mean you have to write something that appeals to everybody. If it excites you, there are others out there who will feel the same.

In my last entry I gushed over meeting Ronald D. Moore. You know one of the most important things I learned from him? Not to treat your characters, or your stories, like porcelain dolls. There’s no reason to play it safe when you’re writing a story. You can, and should, take risks. If what you’re writing feels perfunctory, take a step back and re-evaluate. What’s the craziest thing that could happen in your story? How would it change things? What if you, gulp, went ahead and did it?

Go ahead. Kill that character. Jump a year ahead in time. Have the will they/won’t they relationship be consummated between seasons when no one is looking. How did that change things?

Maybe you decide it’s not right. That’s fine. It’s probably not a good idea to shock for shock’s sake. Whatever you do should work within context and should enhance the story you’re trying to tell. But, at the very least, this is a good exercise to challenge yourself and make sure what you’re writing is the best, and most interesting, that it can be.

In short, write rad shit.

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Inspiration is for Amateurs (On Writing)

I had a friend staying with me for a few days, and as much fun as it was to visit, it kicked me out of my writing routine. I’m working on a brand new pilot and I set a deadline of mid-February for a first draft.

Starting to write, especially something new, can be a big deal. At least for me. Because I know that when I start the journey, and I start banging out those pages, I’m going to be living and dying with the thing until it’s out and on paper. What kind of day I’ve had (and mood I’m in) depends on how much I wrote and how good I’m feeling about it. For better or worse, I have my self-worth tied up in whatever I wrote that day.

So it can be tempting to not start, not write anything at all, and wait for inspiration to strike.

But inspiration is for amateurs. At least according to Chuck Close:

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

(Emphasis mine.)

He’s absolutely right. It’s easy to get into a headspace that everything I write has to be perfect, and that if I force it it’ll be shit. But that’s paralyzing. It’s better to work it out by doing the work. By living through the process part of the writing process.

I didn’t feel like writing anything today. But I did. Is it any good? I’m honestly not sure yet. I liked it when it was in my head, but now that it’s real and taking shape, it’s difficult to tell. I used to revise as I went, but these days I’m trying the “vomit draft” approach, where you get everything out without looking back on what you’ve done and fixing it later. I’m finding there are pros and cons to the vomit draft.

The most obvious pro is that you get a full draft down on paper. Even if it’s not great, it’s out of you, and now you have something to mold and shape into something great.

The biggest con, for me, is that all of the necessary revisions can be daunting. When I first did a vomit draft on my last pilot, reading through it was dispiriting, because of the many little nips and tucks I would have caught if I’d been revising as I was going were still there. Those little things add up, and my script was completely covered in red ink. (Yes, I make my initial notes on a draft by hand and in red pen, just like in English class.) Revising from that point seemed overwhelming. I just wanted to start over with a blank piece of paper. At that point, I had a realization: This is why people write second drafts.

Sounds stupid, but I’d never really written full second drafts from page one before. I’d edited scenes, move things around, etc, but it was all work on what was basically still my initial draft.

I’ve recently switched from Final Draft to software called WriterDuet as screenwriting app of choice. Initially conceived as a collaboration tool for screenwriters (hence the name), WriterDuet is pretty great for solo work as well. The feature that won me over, however, was the ability to “switch off” or “isolate” scenes within a script. It seems a small thing, but being able to single out one scene or exclude a scene that wasn’t working or didn’t fit yet made a huge psychological difference to me. It helps break a script down into manageable chunks.

(Even more impressive is that WriterDuet is the product of a single developer working all on his own. I’ll leave it to him to explain the advantages of WriterDuet over Final Draft.)

Software aside, the point is, I wrote today. And I’m going to write tomorrow. I’ve set a daily page count to have a draft by my goal date.

I’m getting to work.

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Class Struggle (On Writing)

The Samuel French Theater & Film Bookshop is a very dangerous place for me. Partly because I can never leave without buying something. But also because of the very extensive section of tempting screenwriting books that are close to the entrance.

I’ve written a fair number of screenplays, and I’ve seen the majority of them realized on screen. That experience is invaluable and has taught me a lot about my craft. But I’ve never written “professionally” in “The Biz,” and the rules are very different. There are gatekeepers. You have to sell somebody in the first five pages. Most of what you write is never going to get made.

So when I see books with titles like How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, Hook ‘Em With Your First Ten Pages, Crafty TV Writing, Successful Television Writing, etcetera etcetera, it’s hard not to wonder “maybe the answer’s in this one…”

How-to gurus.

Screenwriting gurus.

Most are familiar with the likes of Syd Field and Robert McKee, screenwriting gurus who purport to have sure-fire formulas to writing a successful screenplay. (The latter famously lampooned in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.) Many writers will bristle at the mention of their names, and the notion that their craft can be boiled down to some kind of equation where all you’re required to do is fill in the blanks.

Thing is, gurus like Field and McKee aren’t not totally wrong. They’re not totally right either, but they’re not totally wrong. Because how-to systems like that are picking up on things that are recurring elements of successful screenplays. The question is whether or not you need a set of codified rules to write something good, or if writing something good will naturally appear to follow some or all of these rules.

It’s a balancing act. As someone who’s picked up his life and moved to Los Angeles to make it as a writer, books and gurus and systems that promise you all the answers, or at least some helpful tips, can be very appealing. I took a class on story structure back in September, where the lecturer made his points, but always with the caveat that his wasn’t the only way to write. It’s not gospel. Use it as a jumping off point or as a system to fall back on when you get stuck.

That’s how I treat how-to classes and books and systems. Good if you’re stuck, and good to take in for other perspectives on the craft. If you find something that works for you, use it. Advice is good advice only if it helps you. But there is no one panacea.

Ronald D. Moore of DS9 and Battlestar fame recently did an AMA on reddit. One of the things he said struck a chord:

I’ve never been a big fan of writing classes, to be honest. I think either you’re a writer or you’re not, just keep doing it, get criticism, listen to it or reject it, and keep writing until someone says “I love that” and then they buy it.

Ronald D. Moore

Of course, he was able to hone his craft on the job at Star Trek TNG and DS9 with Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr as teachers. But I’d tend to agree.

(By the way, I have a pretty cool story about meeting Ronald D. Moore that I should write about some time.)

The best screenwriting advice I’ve come across recently also happened to come from reddit, in a post in /r/screenwriting:

1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.

 

2. You shouldn’t smoke while you write. You shouldn’t drink while you write. You shouldn’t do anything while you write that you wouldn’t do at your job, because writing IS a job.

 

3. The problem isn’t that Hollywood doesn’t want new voices. The problem is that most scripts are terrible. Every agent, manager, development person, assistant, delivery guy I know is looking desperately for the next great script. The truth is that great scripts are really really few and far between. Most of you guys read shit off the Black List. Those are the well-loved ones. Imagine what the ones that AREN’T well loved are like? And those are the PRO scripts. Write something great. It’ll cut through the noise.

 

4. The Gold Room in Echo Park is the best bar in Los Angeles.

 

5. There is no pro conspiracy to keep amateur writers out. I want your script to be great. I want it to be better than my script. I want movies to be great. I want TV to be great. I want Broadway musicals to be great. It profits me nothing to be better than someone else. I just want rad shit out in the world.

 

6. Way too many scripts about white guys learning to love y’all. Way too many.

 

7. On that note, way too many scripts about white guys period. I get it. I’m white. I’m a dude. I like white dudes. But when EVERY script is white dude does X it’s a little tiring.

 

8. Kale seems made up. It seems like a slow rollout of soylent green.

 

9. Controversy is a poor substitute for craft.

 

10. “Faggot” is not an acceptable insult in the living breathing actual world, and ESPECIALLY not in Hollywood.

 

11. No one owes you anything. Not a thorough read, not a second look, not a phone call, nothing. This is not a charity. This is not about your dreams. In this business you are worth what you can do for other people. Full stop. Don’t pretend any different.

 

12. Don’t mistake watching movies for research. Reading is research. Talking to relevant people is research.

 

13. Final Draft sucks. I hope WriterDuet kills it.

 

14. 1776 was an amazing, underrated musical.

 

15. If you can’t spell your Reddit comments right, I have strong doubts on your ability to write a hundred page document that I’m going to want to read.

 

16. Save The Cat is a great introduction to basic structure and terms. It is not gospel. At all. Please stop treating it as such.

 

17. No one ever wants to steal your script. Ever.

 

18. Also, someone else will come up with the same idea independently of you and it will break your heart. It’s happened to me. It sucks.

 

19. The reason you aren’t Quentin Tarantino is because Quentin Tarantino is Quentin Tarantino. He already did that thing. He owns it. Find your thing. Do that.

 

20. If you want to be a working American screenwriter, you will have to live in LA for several years. After you are a success you can live in NYC or Idaho or Taiwan. But to make your career you gotta be in LA.

 

21. Making a great movie is really really hard. Don’t shit on movies you don’t like. You weren’t there. You don’t know what went wrong. You might have made the same mistakes. Be gracious to the people trying to do the thing you’re trying to do.

 

22. Yasiel Puig is a national treasure and should be celebrated with fireworks and standing ovations.

 

23. The secret to writing is to write more and do everything else less.

 

— user beardsayswhat in /r/screenwriting

Haven’t been to #4 yet, haven’t seen #14 in a while, and had to google #22. Other than that, I find everything said here to be completely on-point and useful. So much so that I may actually use this list as the basis for future On Writing posts.

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