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.