Say What??? The “Don’t Tell Me…” Edition

It’s back!!! Time for a new SAY WHAT???? blog post, as writers continue to say things to me that leave my mouth agape while I shake my head (even if only on the inside) in disbelief. The first quarter of 2018 has only just wrapped up, and already it’s given me some fantastic SAY WHAT??? nuggets, ones that will go along perfectly with previous installments in the series, THE DOG MADE ME DO IT, SCREENWRITERS GOTTA WRITE and the one that launched it all, THINGS SCREENWRITERS SHOULD NEVER SAY.

While most of the writers that I have the privilege of working with are thoughtful, prepared and self-aware, every once in a while I will come across a writer who will say something so outlandish or uninformed or inappropriate that I can’t help but do a bit of a double take. And believe me, I’ve heard everything. I’ve even had a writer tell me – literally – to F-Off after giving his screenplay a less-than-glowing critique. Which is to say… I really have heard it all. But in order to make sure that none of my readers ever repeat those mistakes, I thought I would once again put these out there.

The truth remains: we all say things that we shouldn’t. We all put our foot in it every once in a while. And it’s the self-aware writer who at least becomes cognitive of such mistakes, and does what he can to correct them, if not go into full lament. The bottom line is that things don’t always come out of our mouths the way that we intend. I am just as vulnerable to this as anyone else. So when I go into meetings, I do my research and prepare. But just as important as showing up ready for action, is knowing what not to say. In this DON’T TELL ME edition, we will explore some of the things that have been said to me in the past, that should really not be repeated – if you can help it – under any circumstance:

DON’T TELL ME… That you don’t have time to write. Sure, all too often life will get so nuts that getting to the computer will look and feel like a Herculean effort. But that should be the exception, not the rule. If you find that day to day, no matter how much you want to write, you just don’t have time to write, then… guess what? You probably don’t want to write badly enough to make it a significant enough priority or make time for it. In my experience, I learned that whatever you decide HAS TO get done usually does. And if it doesn’t? Then it is likely negotiable for you. Remember, it’s 10,000 hours to mastery. If you can’t get close to putting in a solid 8, 10, 14 or even 20 hours per week (yes, some people with a job have managed to do that), then don’t bother. You will be competing with others who have found a way to make writing a priority in their lives, and they are giving their all to fighting for their screenwriting career and developing their craft, even if it means waking up at 5am every morning before they have to see their kids off and start their day. So if you’re going to make a serious push for the writing thing, you’re going to have to figure out how to show up in a meaningful way.

DON’T TELL ME… That you are sending me your screenplay because you’re looking for representation and you thought I would be a good fit for your script. I am not an agent or a manager. And, most importantly, I am not a fan of people who don’t do their research. Thinking that you can write a script and throw it out there to a list of names and someone will pay attention just because you showed up is incredibly misguided. Pleading ignorance is not going to do you any favors. Agents, managers, executives, and yes, even coaches, want to work with writers who take themselves and their craft seriously, who are willing to put in the hours and do their research, and who are ready to at least make an effort to learn the industry.

DON’T TELL ME… That you don’t read current scripts and don’t watch TV shows made today because they all suck. You have to know the landscape that you are trying to work in, and you have to understand your place in it. If nothing being made on TV today – or, for that matter, for the big screen – offers any inspiration, then you are probably working in the wrong medium. The people making those TV shows and movies would be the very people who would be hiring you. If you tell them that you are – effectively – better than what they are making, they will not have any desire to work with you. Equally, you have to read industry screenplays. Not pilot scripts from 20 years ago, or feature specs for movies that have come and gone. You have to know what’s happening in the industry NOW. If you were trying to make pop music, you’d listen to the radio. If you had your sights set on fashion, you’d check out what’s on the runway. This space is too competitive to allow yourself the luxury of not knowing what’s going on or what’s getting made, and way too challenging to think that you can garner any real interest in your work and your brand without understanding what else is happening in the space.

DON’T TELL ME… That you grew up in the Holocaust when your holocaust was in a comfortable 5-bedroom home in Connecticut and from which you emerged completely unscathed. If you’ve done any research about me whatsoever, you’d know that I grew up in Israel. And if you know anything about the Jewish state, you’d know that Israel came to be in 1948, after the Holocaust ended. Even though I am a few generations removed from that event, the Holocaust was never too far away. So I do know what it actually looked like to grow up in, say, Auschwitz. That is, if you made it out. No matter how tough your upbringing, trust me when I tell you that it doesn’t compare (and if you’re not sure watch SCHINDLER’S LIST and see what you think then). On that same note, don’t tell an African-American executive that the writer’s room you’ve worked in is akin to slave labor. No slaves I ever heard of made $3,600 a week before paying agent fees and taxes, with an option for a year 2 bump that would more than double their pay. So be sure that you know who you are talking to, and for Pete’s sake, consider your words.

DON’T TELL ME… That you don’t really have a preference between writing features and writing TV, because they are pretty much the same thing. Seriously? Saying something like that tells me two things: 1) You have not studied craft enough to know the difference, and 2) You might be missing a healthy dose of humility. This is not to say that feature writers can’t be perfectly apt at writing television, and that television writers can’t write an entirely contained story. But it’s the lack of understanding of the difference that would quickly become a cause for concern.

DON’T TELL ME… That you are tired of being the best writer in any room you’re in, be it with your writers group or with other writers in a TV Writers Room. While there are scenarios in which you may very well be the most experienced, and potentially most talented writer around, it’s the assertion that you are always the most talented writer in any room that leads one to wonder whether you actually know what you’re talking about. While there have certainly been situations in which less-than-brilliant writers have gotten staffed or been invited to join writers group, the writing trade is made of mostly hard-working, thoughtful writers, each of whom is likely to display a respectable modicum of talented. A little humility goes a long way… 

As mentioned in the beginning, everyone says things that they later regret. That is completely par for the course, and to be expected in this crazy, volatile world. But in order to show up in the most effective, professional way, no matter what your career stage, remember that people like to work with other professionals who – when needed – take time to consider their words in order to make the very best impact.