Story Talk: I’m Talented—Dammit! Why Can’t I Sell Anything?

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hairI recently worked with a writer who was beside himself with despair. He has been writing for years. He has been writing in every genre. He has been writing in every form: poetry, novels, short stories, narrative nonfiction, screenplay, play, automatic writing, everything. He has tried writing partners, writing alone, following a schedule, writing at random, dictating, stream of consciousness, writing software, you name it. With back against wall and painted into his own little corner of literary Hell, he decides he needs consulting help and that this will, at long last, reveal to him the secrets of why his writing is going nowhere fast.

He knows he’s talented (and he is). He knows he’s a storyteller (and he is). And he knows this is the work he must do (and it is). So—why can’t he sell anything? And then the plaintive cry, “Isn’t it enough to be talented? What the hell to they want from me?” “They,” of course, meaning agents, studios, producers, etc.

And so, here lies the problem. And herein lies the lesson. In all his fussing, ruckus, commotion and tumult no one ever told him the greatest truth every writer needs to hear on day-one of their writing career: No! The beaches of Malibu are littered with the bodies of talented writers. Talent isn’t enough. “WHAT?!” Comes the shocked reply, “Then what the #@!% is?”

The response to this greatest truth is a single word: craft. Craft is what makes talent enough. Here was a guy who had a magical way with phrases, wording, subtext, and verbal imagery. But he didn’t know a semi-colon from a steak sandwich and was clueless about the basics of English usage. Beyond the idea of using three acts and having a main character, he had as much use for story structure principles as a concussion.

This poor soul was never told that craft informs talent; not the other way around. There are lots of talented people out there. In fact, everyone has a talent of some kind. Talent is part of who you are, your beingness. Talent is given (by God, Goddess, The Great Pumpkin, whoever). Craft is learned, taught by experience—often under the watchful eye of a master teacher, mentor, or drill sergeant. Craft is part of what you do. And here’s the kicker: without craft, talent will always remain in potential; it will never be more than a pale reflection of what it could become.

Craft takes discipline, confidence, perseverance, and practice. Talent takes passion, intuition, trust, and spontaneity. Marry all these together and you find the artist. Lose or deny any one of them and you have the artisan. This is not to say that an artisan is less than an artist! No, no, no. In fact, artisans who master whatever craft ALWAYS find their talent and cannot help but become artists of that craft. But, there is a relationship that exists between craft and talent that must be understood. Even if you come at it through your talent first, you must always come back through craft to truly find the fullest expression of talent.

To be the artist, as writer, you must learn your craft. This means: grammar, spelling, punctuation, story structure principles, formats and styles, vocabulary and the tools of the trade. Then with discipline, confidence, perseverance, and practice, practice, practice master the trade; become a master artisan. This takes time. This takes effort. This takes work. This takes patience.

In fact, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, it also takes around 10,000 hours:

“The emerging picture … is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything. In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and what have you, the number comes up again and again.” (Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Press, 2008)

This magic number of 10,000 seems to be the amount of time it takes the brain to absorb all the knowledge it takes to master any one subject.  Let’s see, 10,000 hours divided by 2080 hours (the average number of full-time work hours in a year) gives 4.8 years. This means, writing 40 hours per week for almost 5 years will get you “phenom” status.  Well, considering most of us writers only work on writing a few hours each day (if that) the time it takes to actually accumulate those 10,000 hours starts racking up.  In fact, if you only write 3 hours per day, that means you only put in 1092 hours per year writing.  Divide 10,000 by 1092 and you get—yikes!— 9.2 years to get your mastery gold star. Even more if you take off weekends and holidays!  One is left thinking dental school is looking pretty darn good.

The good news here is that the hours are the hours; they will pass no matter what you do. So, use them wisely: practice, practice, practice. If you do, then something magical will happen. Craft skills lift. Talent, always present, begins to stir. Craft gets honed. Talent finds its avenue and begins to flow. Craft becomes second nature, elegant, graceful. Talent finds its voice and soars. Okay, kind of corny and romance novelish, but this is what happens. It’s a beautiful thing. Craft is the door and talent is what passes through it from potentiality to actuality. In time, the two are indistinguishable. You are the craftsperson and the artist and there is no telling them apart. This is the master of their craft and the self-realized creator. This is what we all strive for and what takes a lifetime to evolve—AND WE NEVER FULLY GET THERE. As good as we get, despite the 10,000 hours, we still strive for more, to become more. This is the real mark of the master, not how many hours you’ve put in, but the humility to never settle and to know that the dance of craft and talent never stops.

So, when you are ready to pull out your hair because that success isn’t coming fast enough, or the the deals are more vapor than paper, remember—craft and talent; learn one to release the other. Learn your craft. And practice, practice, practice.

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8 thoughts on “Story Talk: I’m Talented—Dammit! Why Can’t I Sell Anything?

  1. Leona Heraty

    Thanks for the eye-opening article, Jeff. I still believe that great screenwriters can break into this business, and I believe that craft is so important. But more than anything, like you said in your comment above to Clive, screenwriters write screenplays because we love the form, and the bottom line is that we love movies! 🙂

    Also, thanks Clive for encouraging us screenwriters to consider writing prose and finding other avenues for our writing. 🙂

  2. Clive Davies-FrayneClive Davies-Frayne

    My pleasure Jeff… and I totally agree. I see a lot of talented writers beating their heads against an industry that doesn’t really want what they have to offer.
    I also agree about writing prose. I’ve written a lot of articles over the years advocating exactly the same thing. More ebooks, more prose and if you must write screenplays write alt-cinema.
    I shall look forward to your next piece here. I found this thought provoking.

  3. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Clive: Prodigious comment 🙂 I really appreciate you giving so much attention to your response. You raise lots of good points, especially about the “stepping away” from the industry. I have been encouraging screenwriters (for years!) to stop beating their heads against Hollywood’s door and move into writing e-books and getting into self-publishing. The entire infrastructure of the movie and TV businesses is built to keep you out, not invite you in. “NO” is the default setting. And (oops… conjunction) there is no market for screenplays outside of the consensus acquisition channels; meaning, no one is going to be publishing “Volume One: Un-produced Screenwriters 2013” anytime soon. If you want to find a market for your writing, if you want satisfaction as a writer, if you want to be appreciated and not degraded, if you want to actually make a little money writing—then write e-books and novels. There is no future in screenplays, not when you consider that less than 4% of writers in the Writer’s Guild actually work and make a living. What do you think the statistic is for non-Guild writers? YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

    Write screenplays if you must (and I do, because I love the form), but do yourself a favor and learn the skill of prose narrative. It’s a hard transition for most screenwriters, but there is real satisfaction in that venue and you can actually make a living as a writer. You can’t hope to really make a living writing movies.. the beaches of Malibu are littered with the bodies of hopeful screenwriters. I get into trouble with folks when I say this… but, I’ve been in the movie and publishing businesses for a long time and the revolution isn’t happening in film (though TV is showing some nice signs of promise for freelancers). It’s the self-publishing world that is the real shinning light for us writers. Again—write movies if you just can’t not write them, but if you want a real career, learn how to write prose fiction.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful comments.

  4. cphillips103

    Jeff is correct about the craft issue. The writer is selling the execution, not the idea. A poorly executed idea will usually be passed on by the front line of readers. Now, ignoring that, if something came across as being truly unique (like the very first giant robot story, not the fourth or fifth one) then producers might still want to pursue it. However, the writer’s poor execution will probably preclude them from working any further on the project and hired guns will be brought in.

    Regarding the numbers game, yes, there are stories of Oscar winning scripts being passed on by 19 studios and finally being picked up by the 20th. This has nothing to do with execution. It’s more about poor homework. As an example, Jody Foster’s production company is looking specifically for scripts with strong female leads where the protagonist does not have to rely on male help. Now, you send them your Oscar winning sequel to Die Hard, they will pass on it. And don’t send that script to a company that can only afford films for $5M or less. Don’t put square pegs in round holes.

    On a side note, there’s nothing wrong with using a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence. And I’m shocked to see the myth still being perpetrated.

    See the following grammar blog post about the topic:

    -Christopher Phillips

    1. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

      CPhillips: Yep… I agree. I know too many Hollywood gatekeepers who barely get past page 5 if the basic craft elements are not in place. They don’t even bother. You go into the round file. It is a rare instance they read on and find the gems. Just getting over the transom and being read is a huge victory, however. Getting on the reading schedule is sometimes enough to move on to the next level. But, if too many readers find your work too amateurish or unprofessional, it will get iffy.

      At some point writers have to want to just be better writers and screw the gatekeepers. It has to be what I talked about in the article: wanting not to settle and be more as a writer. Take some pride in your craft and writing. This is a critical attitude to have and I think it is essential for success. There’s something to think on.

      And… it’s ok to end a sentence with a proposition 🙂

    2. Clive Davies-FrayneClive Davies-Frayne

      Thanks for the link. Genuinely interesting. One of the problems of getting older, and I mean a lot older, is the things they taught you in a small English town in the 1960’s are superceded by more advanced and by the look of it better thinking. So, I guess that makes my example a poor one. Which doesn’t invalidate the point, it just means that getting old is a bitch.

  5. Clive Davies-FrayneClive Davies-Frayne

    I have no doubt that you are right about the point you are making in this piece: selling is primarily about providing both technical competence (craft) and talent.

    However, I have a different perspective on this.
    To sell a script you need three things:
    1) The right script
    2) On the right producer’s desk
    3) On the right day

    So, for instance, it is entirely possible to write a technically competent script, with a great concept and to put it on the desk of a producer who two weeks earlier would have optioned it in a heartbeat… but, because a similar project just tanked or because a similar project just won a couple of awards, your project is no longer attractive.

    I don’t care how much craft you have, if you put your script on the wrong desk on the wrong day, it will not sell.

    On top of that, you can put a badly crafted bag of hammers, which has a strong idea and which shows potential, on the right producer’s desk on the right day and they’ll go “I like this, we can fix it.” The variables of selling don’t get flattened out by showing good craft. I agree that it’s better to be competent than not, but I don’t have any illusions that knowing how to use a semi-colon is the difference between selling and not selling. On some desks it would be an issue and on some it won’t.

    Which brings me to my next point. There is a lot of talk about craft in the screenwriting community, which is a good thing. However, it’s worth pointing out that craft and structure aren’t objective things, they are subjective. I’ve put the same script on two different producer’s desk at the same time and had the following responses:

    a) Producer A – This is an intelligently written script with a solid structure and precise, tight dialogue. I loved the strong use of sub-text.

    b) Producer B – This script needs a lot of work, it’s got no structure and the dialogue is too “on the nose” for my tastes.

    Same script, two contradictory responses. If that had just happened once, I could put it down to one of the producers not knowing what they were talking about. But, the truth of the matter is, I’ve seen exactly the same thing played out more times than I care to mention.

    Finally: English usage… discuss

    Well, frankly, there is a world of difference between high school taught usage and grammar, and creative writing. For instance, we are all taught that you should NEVER start a sentence with “and.” A person wishing to show good “craft” in terms of usage would always conform to that rule. And yet, conventional usage is there to be bent and broken. If you’re writing text that is meant to be read out loud, you might put a full stop in front of “and” in order to create a beat or break in the delivery. Classical European actors call this technique of using a small pause to create tension or to make a point, a caesura. This technique originates with classical Greek literature. So, depending on your level of education you can either see starting a sentence with “and” as either a demonstration of technical incompetence or a display of a highly evolved understand of classical rhetoric. Or, to put it another way, a writers craft is only as good as the readers ability to grasp it.
    The whole reason I encourage writers to step away from the industry and to embrace avante-garde cinema production and self-publishing is exactly because of the argument you are making. Talk of craft is fundamental to the idea of writer as artisan, writer as craftsman, the safe pair of hands. This is fine for some writers. However, writing isn’t just a craft and writers aren’t just artisans. Some writers are more artist than artisan. And, those writers don’t need more craft, they need to accept that the industry isn’t for them and that they will need to discover their own audiences. The audiences not catered for the by the craft driven industry.
    I’m not saying you’re wrong. You’re right. Writers with ambitions to sell into the industry need to become artisan writers and learn to be happy with that. Writers who aren’t happy with that, who are interested in writing in a well mannered fashion, should come over to the dark side of screenwriting… we’ve got a different party going on, with cake and stuff. OK we had to pay for our own cake, but cake is cake.

    1. SimonBerdellCicak

      Clive that is brilliant and true. I would like to add that at least fifty per cent of feature films, mainstream and independent, should not have been produced because the scripts are so bad that they do not deserve to be produced. However, they have been produced because of relationships, business politics, false promises and many other things which have nothing to do with the writers’ or the filmmakers’ abilities. They have been produced because the people who control the industry can produce them and not because they deserve to be produced. To make the good ones you have to make the bad ones. Everybody knows that. This is something that young writers need to learn.