SAY WHAT??? Vol 2: Screenwriters Gotta Write
Full confession: for a couple of weeks now I’ve been stomping around. Making it known. A few sentences of the same or similar ilk has been said to me. Pissed me off. And Goddamnit, I was going to write about it. But that is not the confession part. The confession part is that I was sort of hoping that talking about it as much as I did would get it out of my system. But it didn’t. So… here we go.
Ironically, all of this unfolded just days after I published my previous SAY WHAT???? blog post. In some ways, then, this is going to be SAY WHAT??? Volume 2, though the way this is going, I am guessing that if I sit down to vent my thoughts each time I hear something entirely writerly-inappropriate, we are going to be 10 volumes deep before we know it. But rather than waxing poetic, let me just dive on in and tell you all about it:
A few weeks ago, I got an email from a writer I’ve never worked with before. He said something to the tune of: “I have a body of work with two industry-ready scripts to show, but the writers in my writers group keep saying that I should start my next script already as it’s been a little while, haha. But if I already have scripts on hand that other people like, why do I have to write another one?”
Just a few days after that, I found myself sitting with another writer who had gotten a respectable amount of industry recognition some time ago (let’s just say long before Trump was president, or even the likely candidate of his party), but time has passed since his manager introduced his feature script to the industry, and the generals all but dried up, as did any potential for writing assignments. The writer was convinced that it was the manager who was the problem (with which I more than partially agreed). However, a new manager requires a new script, one he would be excited to take out and use to re-introduce the writer into the space. But the writer I was sitting with was not having any of that. “Why can’t I use the one I got my other manager with?” “You mean the one that was written in 2013, and that’s already been sent out wide in the space?” “Yeah! Why do I have to write something new? Why can’t we just use that one?”
Because, well, you can’t. Because not only has that particular script already been read, but also because telling a new manager that even though you haven’t spent the last 3 years in a coma you haven’t written anything of worth since then is the kiss of death
My good friend Adam Finer, who used to be a manager and now teaches at the NYFA screenwriting program, often says: “If you’re not writing, you’re a written.” Which summarizes my irritation with this whole thing nicely, but me being me, let me elaborate:
What baffles me – and openly irritates me – about the above statements is this: Of all the things writers have to do, why would writing be a problem for anyone who attempts this profession? As a writer, as a storyteller, wouldn’t that be your happy place, the thing that you do almost by compulsion, not because you want a new manager or because your writer’s group told you to, but because as a writer, writing is simply what you do? I understand wrestling with the work; I get finishing one project and having a tough time starting another one. I get doubting yourself, your chops, your skill, wondering if the whole thing is pointless to start with – that’s all par for the course. I also get disappointment: Finishing one project, and not seeing it celebrated, or garnering the attention the writer knows in his heart of hearts that it deserves. I understand being let down by the industry, by collective sub-par reaction or lack of any reaction at all. This writing thing is not an easy endeavor by any stretch. But what I don’t understand is a writer not being where he wants to be in his career, and lamenting the writing that he surely still has to do to get there.
Admittedly, this is not the first time I’ve been confronted by this. I’ve met plenty of contest-winning scribes from decades past wondering if dusting off their old recognized work and taking it out for yet another spin might be worth it. But as a writer, your job is to tell stories; to create, fluidly and continuously. And there is no quicker turnoff for anyone working in the industry than hearing that, rather than completing new, exciting content, you are crossing your fingers for a script completed in a previous decade. In that case, you are no longer viewed as a writer; instead, you become one who wrote something a while ago. Once upon a time, with an emphasis on Once. You cease to be someone to watch, and instead become someone hocking the same old wares.
A body of work is not like a wardrobe; it is not complete whenever you have all the basic required pieces sitting on the shelf. It is a living, breathing thing, to which the writer should consistently aim to add, making it stronger, more exciting and all the more current with new work. You have a couple of strong pieces already in your body of work? Great! But the first thing industry folks will ask as soon as you meet them is, “what else do you have?” and you telling them that you are not currently in development on anything and in fact are not really thinking about new projects is the fastest way to tell them that you are not likely to be someone with whom they want to work. The reality is that it is very rare, and very hard, to generate the sort of script that a studio, network or a production company has been searching high and low for. Instead, executives working for those companies meet with writers to identify who they want to be in business with. And every time, those will be writers who are prolific.
Unlike actors, directors, or producers, writers have a great luxury afforded to them: the ability to reinvent themselves and reinvigorate their career on the page. The writer doesn’t need to have a movie shot, a short put on its feet or a starring role in a web series to make his case. All he needs is the blank page and a story to tell. Every new project has the power to garner interest, win contests, get you into fellowships, push your career to the next level, restart stalled conversations and create fans. Which is why the writer should always be thinking of a next project, always ready to roll back his sleeves, always toying with new ideas, often exploring new concepts on the page. A writer’s job is to write. To always be a writer, and never a Written.
Love this, Lee. I have 5 completed features, rewriting another and first-drafting a 7th, and more than a dozen ideas in the back burner ready to be brought to life. I want this to be my career. And when it is, I still won’t stop writing.
Listen the ” I do It for Hip Hop” song, but think about writing as opposed to singing. Ironically, the artist is the best paid rapper alive! Write it because you love writing, write because you like making up stories and worlds and people in your head, because you just can’t fight the urge to just turn on your laptop and write page after page after page until you no longer think about pages.
Pages no longer exist. Time itself seems shattered. You don’t write pages, you write stories. But I’m giving it 2 years and if things don’t work out… How about giving it a lifetime? But I thought I can sell my screenplay and get rich and famous and become… How about loving writing so much, money no longer exist.
The picture is so bleak that screenwriting can’t make anyone wealthy. Screenwriting can’t bring you fame. Before doing this, I had no idea there is such a thing as “a screenwriter”. I enjoyed watching movies and that was it.
Didn’t care who wrote it. I did care about the movie and what could it give me. Could it entertain me? Amaze me? Make me forget about the real world for 2 hours? Could it take my breath away? So, should you write a new screenplay?
I don’t know. Only you can know the answer. If you knew beforehand nobody would ever buy your script, would you still write it? If you received 5 thousand bucks for it, the maximum(I think) possible payment for your stories, would you struggle to write it as quick as possible?
What do you want with your screenplay? What do you hope it can do for you? Do you want to write it? I mean really want to write a new story, with all the required commitments to it, with giving up time you could use for doing something else, for living something else? Thank you for reading this!:)
I love the way you wrote this – and I absolutely agree! A writer is someone who needs to write, even when no-one else is reading it.
My guess is that for many of those writers, it’s rooted in fear. They might not even realize it, consciously. It’s not that they don’t want to generate material, it’s that deep down they’re afraid that it won’t be as good. Every time a writer puts out material, it’s like putting yourself out to be judged (and in the most personal way – because you’re being judged on talent). Similar to the way a certain leader always retreats to his election results, even though it’s been half a year, some might retreat to the last work they’ve had that received positive criticism. That’s why you see writers at coffee shops literally do everything but write (check internet, watch a movie)—they are procrastinating because they’re scared they’re going to generate crap. Of course, there’s always the percentage that do not want to work that hard and are in it for the deals/lifestyle/glamour….for that percentage, they might want to rethink that approach.
I feel a book in the making…
Well said, Lee. Writers write, period. 🙂
Your captured the essence of the conflict beautifully.
Every new story is a frontier. Frontiers are scary. Thrilling. Everything’s new. Old answers may not help with new challenges. The frontier forces you out of your comfort zone. Forces you to put everything on the line.
The fear of that can take your breath away. But pulling the strength from yourself to push through that fear is how you create great art… and art never sleeps.
Between features, I write short scripts for some of the local filmmakers. Low (no) budget films that have limited festival runs, or end up on themed compilation Blu Ray DVD runs. It’s a chance to flex a different set of writing muscles. Limited resources, small casts, and meeting the theme of the compilation. To me, it’s the closest thing to what I imagine real-life Hollywood writing is like, so I look at it as continuing education. I’ve also had the opportunity to sit in multiple theatres and watch what existed only in my mind brought to life on a big screen and an audience. (Which is scary as hell!) but it fuels my fire to write the next feature script.
Am baffled by writers who don’t write. When I entertain the notion of chucking it in, I know I’m still going to keep writing so I might as well keep going.