Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Learning from my own journey as a writer

I've been thinking a lot about my own journey as a writer and what I can take from it to apply as lessons to some of you who are just starting out.

My first feature script began as an assignment for a screenwriting class in 2002. By that point I'd made a number of short films and had even run a campus TV series, where 7 of the scripts were mine. So I already had some experience translating my ideas to the page before this screenwriting assignment. I remember this was a story idea I'd had ever since my senior year of high school. At the time, I thought I had enough for a 30 minute short film (I had no idea the shorts I'd be making in school were to be closer to 5-10 min at most.) Over the next four years I kept expanding the idea with red herrings and twists until my treatment became longer and longer.

I vividly recall that I had that document in front of me one day as my professor started lecturing about the three-act structure and how most narratives we knew fit into that paradigm. I quite clearly remember scanning the document until I found the moment that would be my INCITING INCIDENT. I put a star next to that beat. Then I drew a line across the page where the division between Act One and Act Two would fit. Then another line at the midpoint, and a third line at the climax of Act Two. Just from eyeballing it, I could see that in terms of pacing, those moments were landing more or less precisely where they would in a basic three-act film.

I hadn't used any kind of Save the Cat template when I broke the story. I wasn't thinking about three acts or plot points - but I had internalized so much about films that I essentially did it on instinct. Recalling several of the other stories that came out of that class, I know that isn't always a given.

In this post, I talk about the script I had under my arm when I moved to LA, and just so you don't think I'm saying I had it all figured out: It was written on Microsoft Word and was in Times New Roman. Fortunately on my first internship a fellow aspiring took me aside and explained how I needed to fix it so that it matched industry standards.

Once I did that, the script ballooned an additional 18 pages in length. Oops. I immediately set to work finding what I could cut to make it more manageable. In an embarrassingly short amount of time, I'd taken not 20, but almost 30 pages out of the script. This leaner version was what I presented to the people at my internship and when they came back with notes, I took them to heart and did a decently sized rewrite. So for that reason, I log this as my 2003 script.

Thus, including that script, since 2003 I have written:
  • 9 feature scripts (two of them with partners) 
  • 4 original comedy pilots (one with a partner.) 
  • 4 original drama pilots (one with a partner.)
  • 6 spec episodes. 
That's a grand total of 23 scripts in 17 years, and if you look at the last 10 years, the numbers get even better.

Since 2009 the tally is:
  • 5 features 
  • 4 comedy pilots 
  • 4 drama pilots 
  • 5 spec episodes. 
Or 18 scripts in 10 years.

How many scripts should I write?

You will probably not sell your first script. You likely will not be hired off of your first script. And if you are lucky enough to get meetings off of your first script, the very first question you will get is "What else have you got?" soon followed by "What are you working on now?" When you get that first script to wear you want it, start planning your next one.

I have seen professional writers say that you should be able to turn out a new script in three months. I don't find that to be unreasonable. But that does not mean they are saying you need four new scripts a year. That's insanity. If you're just starting out - set the goal of one spec script a year. BUT that means that by the end of those 12 months, it's in its finished state. In other words - three months for the first draft and the remaining nine months to get notes, do major rewrites and really, really hone it. You should be able to do this and maintain a pretty good work/life balance too.

I personally get suspicious when I hear overeager writers say they churn out four new specs a year. Don't get so caught up that you end up valuing quantity over quality. Early on, no one's giving you any awards for how fast you work. For that matter, the learning curve on your first several scripts is pretty steep. As you rewrite and get feedback on your first couple scripts, the experience will teach you things about writing that can be applied to your later scripts. You need room for that sort of introspection and self-education to play out.

Walk, then run. It doesn't impress people when you say, "I'm on my fifth spec this year!"

Building the portfolio

When I started writing, I gave zero thought to how I was "branding" myself. I didn't see myself as "just" a horror writer or "just" a comedy writer. All I knew is that I'd get an idea for a story I really wanted to tell and I'd follow that muse. Looking backwards, I can see that the kinds of scripts I wrote were almost always a reaction to the LAST script I wrote. After spending a year in the world of a romantic comedy, that part of my brain was tapped out, but I had a GREAT idea for a genre-bending superhero courtroom thriller. And when I finished that, the next thing idea that sounded cool to me was a sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ that was more in the tone of NARNIA. (This was JUST before the trend of mining existing IP really got big again.)

I was writing things that interested me, taking my varied influences and giving them a new spin, but none of those scripts fit well together. I tried to defend this at the time by saying I was a "genre-mixer." I'd take the concept we'd seen a billion times and try to subvert it or give it a new angle by adding another genre's tropes to it. It meant I was playing in a lot of different kinds of worlds and styles, but it confused people about the kind of writer I was.

Yes, there was the challenge of how none of this really fit in a neat box - and I can already hear the complaints of the special snowflakes about how Hollywood doesn't know how to recognize originality and only rewards mediocrity and the same old ideas. Yet if I'm truly honest with myself, I'm not heartbroken that none of those films got made. Genre-mixing often confuses an audience unless it's done very deftly. Get it wrong, and it's a fish with wings. That's what you get when you pitch "Superman meets Primal Fear."

Again, this is not me saying DON'T do this. sometimes it can help you find your own voice when you just follow where the muse takes you. Experiment! Mix it up! But at the end of the day, know that you are making it easier on yourself if you have the material that brands you as the right guy (or girl) for a particular kind of project.

I always describe that as making sure that your submissions tell a story about the kind of writer you are.

I'll give you an example - last year I applied to the Disney / ABC Writing Program. They require two script submissions - one original pilot and one spec episode of an existing show. These samples must match in terms of being both one-hours or both 30-minute shows. In other words, don't write a sitcom and submit STRANGER THINGS as your spec episode. My spec pilot was a dark teen drama thriller and my spec episode was a 13 REASONS WHY. They complimented each other - there was no confusion about the kinds of stories I could tell, about the tone I could play in, about the kinds of characters I could write for.

When I had the opportunity to submit to a showrunner recently, I gave them basically the same submissions except that I swaped out my "proper" 13 REASONS WHY spec for the one I wrote about last year and posted publicly. I did this because during my sit-down with the showrunner, the topic of that script came up and they thought it sounded like a rather clever idea. I think the gambit worked because they enjoyed the script quite a lot - more than I think they would have with the "playing it safe" version.

My most recent one hour drama pilot script started as a half-hour comedy spec pilot I wrote about nine years ago. It was a case where I had what I thought was a pretty unique concept and I leaned into the humor of it. But if you know me, I'm more of a drama writer, and the more I worked in TV drama, the more this half-hour stuck out like a sore thumb among my samples. Eventually as a thought exercise, I pondered - "What about that... but as a drama?"

By the time I was done, the lead of the comedy pilot was reduced to AT LEAST the third lead of the drama. The main POV character was someone who didn't even exist in the earliest version of the script and the second lead was a character who was on the second tier of characters in the original version. I think the script is MUCH better, but it is completely unlike the idea I started with about a decade ago. If you were to read the two, you'd definitely see the relationship and the common DNA, but it's crazy to realize how much of what was load-bearing on the first pilot got completely blown away on the second one.

The changes that got me there mostly didn't happen all at once. It was an ever-increasing number of "What ifs" that I flung at the original concept, each one opening doors that led me to further What ifs that hadn't occurred to me before. I'm not always the best person at drastically reinventing the wheel on some rewrites. This experience is one I'll reflect back on when I need that extra push to REALLY shake things up.

Ultimately, what specifically works for me might not work for you, but I'm a big believer in the value of self-reflection. If something's not working in your process, the answers can usually be found within.

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