Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
I received an email yesterday from a guy who told me he had a major opportunity to offer me – an opportunity that was so good he was sure I wouldn’t be able to turn it down. “What could it be?” I wondered. Most of the offers I receive via email concern people in Africa who promise to send me millions if first I send them thousands; unbelievably low mortgage rates that I have to see to believe; or ways to increase the size of a specific portion of my anatomy in ways certain to make me extremely popular with the ladies. As it turns out, my correspondent wasn’t offering me any of these things. Instead, he was offering me a screenwriting gig.
He told me he had a great idea for a script – one that was so great, so creatively brilliant, and so commercially surefire that it was guaranteed to sell for a million bucks.
Unfortunately, he’s such a busy man – so occupied with doing the important things that his important life demanded of him – that he didn’t have time to actually transform this 24-carat idea into a screenplay.
That’s where I would come in – since he had already done the hard work of coming up with the idea, he wanted me to do the easy part and pen the script. In return, he would generously share the writing credit with me (in second position, of course) and a whopping 20% of any revenue generated by the script.
As I’m sure you can imagine, my correspondent’s offer made me laugh, for a number of reasons:
- The first, of course, was his sheer hubris – it takes a lot of chutzpah to approach an experience professional with such an amateur proposal.
- The second was his rather naïve estimation of my naiveté – did he really think I would find his proposition enticing (“Sure, I’ll be happy to do 99% of the work in exchange for 50% of the credit and 20% of the bucks”)?
- The third was his lack of understanding of the importance of the individual elements in a screenplay — he clearly thought the idea is the most important part of a script and failed to recognize that good ideas are a dime a dozen and that it’s the execution of an idea that is the most important thing.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I refused the gig.
Obviously, there’s a lot to laugh at in all this, but all snarking aside, this gentleman’s appeal was indicative of something I’ve see in a lot of aspiring screenwriters – the notion that one can be a writer without actually doing the hard work of writing.
I see this notion manifest in a number of different ways:
- In people like my correspondent who seek to engage other people to write their scripts for them but still claim partial or complete authorship. (As outrageous as my correspondent’s offer was, it wasn’t an isolated one. I get at least two or three similar offers every year and I know a lot of folks who get that many or more). While it’s easy to get annoyed at such people for being obnoxious scam artists, in many instances it’s more complicated than that – I often get the impression that people who make these offers don’t think they are being obnoxious scam artists because they really believe that they really are authoring the scripts as much as the people who are doing the actual work. In a way, it’s actually kind of cute. Delusional, but cute.
- In the resistance to rewriting. Every experienced writer knows that “writing is rewriting” – that for a script to be good it must be reworked and reworked a dozen times or more. But there are many aspirants who are reluctant to accept this truism – who want to write but a single draft and then immediately it out and wait for the offers to roll in. When pressed to rewrite, they will “tweak” their scripts — make a few meaningless cosmetic adjustments – but make no significant changes.
- In the never-ending quest for screenwriting shortcuts, as evidenced by the ongoing popularity of books, classes, and screenwriting gurus that purport to teach one how to pen a successful script in just ten easy steps or twelve short days or by channeling the ghost of Paddy Chayefsky or whatever.
- In the desperate desire by so many aspirants to be given formulas, templates, and paradigms that, if followed slavishly, will guarantee them a creatively perfect and commercially successful script.
- In the constant circulation of the myth that a script doesn’t actually have to be any good – that as long as the idea is solid, producers and studios will be eager to buy it even if the script itself is crappy (at which point they will hire high priced script doctors to come in and fix the thing up). And in the constant circulation of its sister myth – that inexperienced screenwriters are able to simply stroll into a producer’s office with no prior experience and sell a pitch for enormous bucks without actually having a screenplay at all.
The simple truth is that there are no shortcuts or workarounds, no easy paths or surefire gimmicks in screenwriting (or in any kind of writing for that matter). To produce a quality screenplay, you must roll up your sleeves and do the hard and time-consuming work – the thinking and writing and rewriting and editing — required to produce anything of worth. In other words, the only way to write a screenplay is to actually write a screenplay.
Of course, what this is really all about is confidence, or the lack thereof. People look for ways to become writers without actually writing because they fear they are not smart enough or talented enough or skilled enough to be a real writer – to take the ideas in their heads and transform them into a fully developed and successful written dramatic work.
So what can you do to boost your confidence? A few things:
- Realize you are not alone: every creative person in the world wrestles with these fears – no matter how successful a screenwriter becomes, he worries that he isn’t talented and that if he once was talented he isn’t any more because it all leaked out of his ear one night when he was asleep; that her ideas are no good or if they are good that she will never be able to come up with another; that he won’t be able to recognize the flaws in his work and if he can then he won’t be ever be clever or talented enough to fix them; and so on. Any writer who tells you he/she does not worry about these things is lying (or sucks – the only supremely confident creative people I have met are usually really bad at what they do).
- Get educated: screenwriting is a craft and like all crafts, there are skills to be learned and disciplines to be acquired. Taking solid, in-depth classes from good, experienced instructors is an excellent way to develop these skills and disciplines. Avoid the quickie classes and seminars from the get-it-done quick and secret formula crowd and opt instead for rigorous instruction that will make you craft ready. The more skilled you become, the more confident you will be.
- Supplement your education by watching movies –all movies: old movies (those made BPF – Before Pulp Fiction) and new ones (to keep current); good ones (to see what they do right) and bad (to learn what not to do). Read screenplays — old and new; good and bad — for the same reason.
- Write a lot: I once interviewed Stephen J. Cannell and he likened writing to weight-lifting. If you work out every day and lift a little more weight each time, eventually you will build super strong muscles. And if you write every day and complete a few more pages with each setting, you will build up super strong screenwriting muscles. And the stronger you become, the more confident you will feel.
- Seek out constructive criticism of your work from people who know what they are talking about and whose opinion you trust – teachers, script consultants, and especially other writers. And then listen to that criticism – if significant problems are identified then roll up your sleeves and start rewriting. Don’t just tweak or futz around the edges. As the script gets better so will your opinion of your abilities.
- Become part of a writing community. Encouragement from people whose opinions you respect and who are pretty much in the same boat as you is an excellent confidence booster. You can become part of a writing community by taking a class or joining a writing group or by just hanging out on a regular basis with some screenwriter buddies.
- Walk away. Ideas won’t come when you are banging your head for them and banging your head is deadly for your self-esteem (because that’s when you start telling yourself you’ll never have another good idea and this is proof that you never had any talent or ability in the first place). If you find yourself stuck for more than a reasonable period of time, then walk away from your work and go lose yourself in some other activity – grocery shopping, cleaning the house, building model boats, looking up old high school classmates on Facebook, and so on. When your mind is otherwise engaged – when you are free from the pressure and the self doubt — the ideas will come and you will feel better.
- Don’t stake your life on selling a screenplay. Screenwriting is an unpredictable game – some people make it, many do not. Too many aspiring writers put all of their eggs in one basket – they put off developing meaningful lives and careers and bet everything on selling a script – once they do that, then their life will be good. But what if they never sell a script? Does that mean their life has been a failure? That they have been a failure? For too many aspiring writers, this is how they feel. And those stakes are much too high – it’s impossible to do good work under that much pressure to succeed. Write movies because you enjoy it, not to win the lottery. And don’t put your life on hold in the meantime. If the stakes aren’t so high, your stress and anxiety levels will be much lower. Your work will be better and so will your confidence. And if you do sell a script or are luck enough to begin a screenwriting career, great, but at least your life and self esteem won’t be destroyed if you don’t.
- Most of all, hang in there. Success usually comes to those who persevere. And there’s nothing better for your confidence than success.
In memory of Paul Van Bloem (1961 – 2015).
Check out my books A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, A Quick Guide to Television Writing, and A Quick Guide to Film Directing. All are available on line and in bookstores.
Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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