Thursday, March 11, 2010

Aspiring Screenwriter Tip #4 -- What to Eat

Ace has been rather busy working on a very cool new script, so when I bounced an idea off her for a little post here she gave me this kind of wavy go-ahead-and-do-it gesture. At least, I think that's what it meant. She was eating an egg roll at the time, so it may have been a come-here-quick-and-give-me-the-Heimlich gesture.

Y'know, now that I think about it, I haven't talked to Ace since that night...

Well, anyway, Ace and I were talking one time long before the eggroll incident and she told me a funny story she'd heard about a finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship. I'm sure you've heard of the Nicholl, yes? Where they give you $30,000 dollars, spread out over a year or two so you can focus on writing a script rather than worrying about paying the bills. Anyway, said finalist was very gracious and glad to get where he was, and was eagerly awaiting the final word, but he had one problem.

How was someone supposed to live for a year off $30,000?

This blew me away. Honestly. As a guy who's spent most of his life with an income that's average-to-low (and has pretty much just been low since I started writing full time), the idea that someone couldn't survive on such a sum is stunning to me.

Then again, it's not that surprising. People have certain needs and standards. So here's a dinner tip. It's something you can eat that will save you a couple hundred or more over the course of a year.

Swallow your pride.

One thing I've seen again and again is people who want to be writers, they want to have all that spare time, but they're not willing to give up anything for it. They still want to buy organic eggs from Whole Foods and the 7-grain wheat bread and y'know Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is just a little tangier than the store brand (you really can taste the difference). Plus, they want to go out to clubs and movies. And, really, are things so tight that you need to buy the Value crackers in those embarrassing generic-white boxes?

Give it up. Swallow your pride and admit that if you really want to put time and energy into writing you need to make cuts somewhere else. And the easiest place to do it is food. I'm not saying starve yourself, but ditch the name brands, start shopping cheap, and admit that the taste difference between Kraft and Value macaroni & cheese isn't worth sixty-five cents a box. Most movies these days are just as good on Netflix as they are on the big screen, and hell, there's still a lot of good stuff on television. Basic television, I'm not even talking about cable.

A lifestyle that costs less is a lifestyle that takes less to support. That means less time you need to spend selling suits or bagging groceries so expenses are covered and more time you can spend writing. If you're writing full time, there's a better chance that inexpensive lifestyle can now be supported by your writing. Which means more time writing.

I've been writing full-time for three years now. No other job, no savings to live off, nothing else. Every cent in my bank account comes from my ability to string words together in a way that appeals to people enough that they'll pay me for it. I haven't ordered a pizza in those three years because I can get a decent frozen one for 1/5 the price. The last movie I paid to see in a theater was V for Vendetta (no piracy--my job lets me go to screenings, and I can wait for Netflix on a lot of stuff) . Generic rum costs less than half what Captain Morgan's does and when it's mixed with Coke you can barely tell. Heck, after two or three drinks you can't tell at all.

You know what my big splurge was when I sold my second book? We got Thai food. My girlfriend and I walked up the street to a little place near us and got take out chicken pad-thai and curry. Our gigantic splurge was about twenty bucks. Yeah, it's not much, but she understands that freedom to write for another three or four months is far more important to me than living it up for three or four nights.

If you can't bring yourself to do your grocery shopping at Food 4 Less or the 99 Cents Store, you're probably not going to make it as a writer. If you refuse to drink wine that costs less than $8.00 a bottle, odds are you don't have what it takes. If it's impossible to start your day without name-brand breakfast cereal and organic milk, you probably won't be doing a lot of writing that day.

You'll definitely never have a prayer of catching up with me, that's for sure.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Still with me?

I know my screenwriting posts are perceived by some as discouraging. I have no doubt that this blog would be MUCH more popular if it were the super-positive kind, telling people that we're all special snowflakes, that anybody can be a writer, that talent and hard work are irrelevant and all you need are some "ideas," a positive attitude, a little networking, and a fervent belief in "The Secret."

But this blog isn't for those people who think writing is an easy ticket to a quick buck, or that Walter Mitty-esque daydreaming will magically result in impressive accomplishments. This blog is for the people who are serious about writing and want an unvarnished picture of what they're up against, so they can be fully prepared (and, hopefully, triumph against the odds).

When I started out, pretty much the only information you could find about the business of screenwriting came from so-called "gurus" who would tell aspiring writers whatever nonsense they wanted to hear, in the hopes that the aspirants would buy some simplistic "how to write and sell your screenplay" book/course/etc. Nobody who wants your money is going to tell you that the only way to write and sell a screenplay is by putting in many years of grueling work...any more than a diet-book guru is going to tell you that the only way to get in shape is by eating healthy food and exercising consistently, or a "get rich" guru is going to tell you that very hard work and careful saving is the only way for a regular Joe to become a millionaire.

The one exception to all the screenwriting hype was the excellent site, run by A-list screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. My favorite column was a slightly tongue-in-cheek piece by Terry Rossio called "Throw in the Towel." Read it; he's certainly a much better (and funnier) writer than I am.

I think I'd be doing the serious aspiring screenwriter a disservice if I didn't paint an accurate picture of the overwhelming difficulty of this endeavor. But please understand that I'm not saying these things to be discouraging! I'm saying them because I want you -- the person who is really serious about doing this -- to succeed. In any difficult pursuit, you need to know how high the bar is set and what obstacles you'll likely face, so you can plan your strategy. Because screenwriting looks so deceptively easy from the outside, a lot of aspirants become frustrated when they try to break in without a clear strategy and solid preparation, and they run smack into a brick wall they didn't even know was there.

There's a difference between telling someone their dream will be difficult to achieve, and telling them it's impossible. If you've read all my posts about how long and hard you'll have to work, how much you'll have to sacrifice, how much stupidity and ignorance you'll have to endure, and how (even when you finally succeed) you'll still be underpaid and under-appreciated, and you're still here, saying "fine, bring it on, I'm tough, I can totally handle that," then I have great hopes for you. Because talent can only take you so far; you need to be a fighter, too.

And here you are: Unflinching. Determined.

Knock 'em dead, fighter.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Revolting Development (Part Two)

(Continuation of this post about how "crappy scripts" get made....)

In case you don't know what "development" means -- it's when a team of people, who are typically not writers, make lists of changes that they think will "improve" a script. It behooves the development personnel to suggest alterations, because not to do so suggests that their job is unnecessary. (No...really.) The development personnel will actually compete with one another, each trying to come up with bigger and "better" changes. It's the way to get noticed and move up the ladder at these companies.

Have I mentioned that these people are not, in fact, writers?

Based on the development notes -- some of which are clever, some of which are contradictory, and many of which are stunningly illogical -- the writer must go back and "improve" the script. (For an example of these "improvements," one rather prominent and powerful idiot wanted me to re-write an actual, somewhat famous Civil War slave as "a white guy" to make the part more "castable." And when you're forced to make stupid changes like that, guess who the audience and critics believe is the incompetent moron? Yeah: the writer.)

"But," the Ivory-Tower-types demand to know, "why would the writer agree to make changes he knows are stupid and will be detrimental to the script?" Well, the short answer is, he has to, because he's under contract and the producer is his boss. Sadly, the audience doesn't know how passionately we writers fight for our vision. It's a shame that filmgoers have no idea how hard writers struggle to keep the smart and original stuff in there -- the stuff we know will thrill today's audiences the same way those rare, great, classic movies thrilled us and made us want to be screenwriters in the first place. Writers have more faith in the audience than the studios do. Writers kick and scream and get labeled "difficult" for believing that people are smart and want to be awed and challenged.

Fighting for the integrity of the project is a battle the writers always lose. Because it's the producer's job to make the studio happy, and it's the studio's job to make the corporate shareholders happy, and the corporate shareholders don't care what sort of widget their company makes as long as the profits are good. The "money people" know the most reliable profits result from appealing to the lowest common denominator. And without the "money people," the film doesn't happen. So the writer's choice is: dumb down the script, or get replaced by someone who will.

Needless to say, the new "dumbed-down" draft generally comes off as, well, dumb, and the development folks are baffled as to how all this dumb stuff (which they requested!) got into the script. So, the writer is fired. Or, alternatively, the writer refused to make the nonsensical changes -- so the writer is fired. Either way, at this stage, the writer is usually fired. (So, he can forget about seeing the rest of his step payments. All he can do is toil at another spec and hustle lots more pitch meetings and hope he can make something happen again before his rent money runs out.)

In his place, a new writer is brought onto the project, and the development-notes-rewrite cycle repeats like Nietzche's Eternal Return. A single project can go through dozens of writers. (These successive writers may be just as talented, or even more talented, than the original writer, but each writer has a unique style, voice, and vision. Alas, these differing styles generally give the patchwork script a disjointed quality.)

Most scripts never make it out of the development loop, because there's constant turnover among executives and producers, and the new teams don't want the old teams' sloppy seconds. But if the script does makes it past the initial development process, it's sent to directors and/or actors.

Guess what? The actors have notes, too. They want their characters rewritten to be more "X" (sexy, funny, ass-kicking, damaged) if they're going to consider taking the part. This rewrite may disrupt the character's interaction with the plot as a whole. (Some actors admit they don’t even read the entire script -- just their own part!) But if the studio wants that star...the requested changes are made.

This step (the notes, the rewriting) repeats every time a new above-the-line person (star, director, producer) joins the project.

By the time the project is greenlit, the umpteenth-generation script is generally a disaster. It’s a miracle, honestly, that a coherent script EVER gets shot. Who can blame the audience when they wonder why someone got paid to write this "crap"? The original writer designed a Ferrari, and a committee turned it piece by piece into a locomotive and then a spaceship. In the end, the mere fact that the engine turns over is astonishing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How "crappy scripts" get made; or, Revolting Development (Part One)

Screenwriters don't get much respect. This isn't news; in fact it's a cliché. Not that most people think screenwriters deserve respect. Any Joe off the street will tell you that screenwriting isn't difficult -- it surely isn't "real" work -- and he could write something so much better if he could just find the time. During the writers' strike, blogs all over America were filled with rants like: "Those hacks are lucky to get paid at all for writing their crappy movies! I could write better stuff than that in my sleep!"

Sigh. This is by far one of the most frustrating things that screenwriters hear, because unfortunately, most filmgoers (alas, even many Hollywood workers!) are completely ignorant of the process by which a script evolves during pre-production. Most are under the impression that a writer spends a month or so cranking out a hackneyed script, foists it into the right hands via "connections," sells the script for a million dollars, and kicks back to sip martinis while the crew, actors and director make the best darn movie they can from the inept writer's overpriced drivel. Hey, how could anyone believe otherwise, judging from the finished product (yet another mediocre film), or from the awful shooting script circulating on the internet? Right?

Well, the crew DOES make the best movie it can from a sometimes awful shooting script, but it's important to understand just how that shooting script got so awful.

Let's begin at the beginning. (Okay, not the very beginning, where the writer comes up with a promising idea, scribbles it down, puts it in a shoebox with all his other promising ideas, and then continues to mull it over for ages until the idea refuses to be ignored. We'll skip all the time the writer spends working the story and characters out in his head before a single word is even committed to paper; to explain this abstract creative process would be like trying to explain the mechanics of falling in love.)

Once the basic story is conceptualized, a writer spends months (frequently years), crafting a script. Researching. Writing and discarding dozens of outlines and treatments. Obsessing over the story, living with it 24/7. Weighing every sentence. Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until every line of dialogue crackles, every plot point is unexpected yet believable, every character lives and breathes. The writer knows the script inside and out; he has woven theme and subtext and nuance into every scene and given each character compelling motivation and a transformative arc. At that point, when the writer decides the script is as good as it's going to get, he gives it to his agent.

The agent typically gives the script to an assistant (a bright, young, underpaid and overworked aspiring writer or aspiring agent). The assistant will have to read the script hurriedly while dealing with his other somewhat overwhelming responsibilities around the office. The assistant will write "coverage" on the script, summarizing the plot, characters, theme, and story strengths and weaknesses on approximately two sheets of paper. This coverage will also include a list of possible ways to improve the script. (The assistant understands that he must come up with some suggestions to improve the script no matter how much he likes it; it's simply an expectation when one is writing professional coverage. Sometimes these suggestions are insightful and helpful; sometimes they're petty and nonsensical.)

Now the assistant passes the coverage to the agent, who generally doesn't have time to read the actual script. Based on the coverage, the agent will give the writer notes on how to "improve" the script before it can go out.

If the writer is lucky, these notes are actually useful. Otherwise, the writer must try to humor the agent by incorporating whichever notes will do the least amount of damage to the writer's original vision.

The writer resubmits the script. The process is repeated, sometimes with a different assistant or intern reading the script. (For simplification purposes we will assume this writer does not have a manager to add an extra layer of opinions and notes.)

Eventually, after much haranguing from the writer, the agent will finally agree to send the script out to producers. Yay! (Or he won't, and the writer has to fire him and repeat the process with a new agent.)

Next, producers -- or rather, the producers' readers/assistants/interns -- read and "cover" the script.

If the coverage is positive, the script may be recommended (rare) or "considered" for purchase. More likely, the writer is brought in and considered for hire. This means the writer's spec script is declared a "writing sample," (in other words, he doesn't get any money for it) and the writer is asked if he can think up a workable (read: commercial) plot for a toy line, magazine article, old TV show, or other property to which the producer owns the rights. The producer will continually inject his own "cool ideas" which the writer must somehow incorporate into the plot.

If the writer's take impresses the producer, and if he's also very lucky (because there are other variables the producer must consider which I won't get into here), he'll get a contract at this point. Yay! The "sale" is splashed in the trades: "Writer X has been hired to write Big Script for mid-six figures" or some-such. That sounds very impressive, doesn't it? Mid-six figures is, to any reasonable person, a whole lot of money.

But wait. The writer will only see a fraction (if any) of that figure to begin with, because he's paid in "steps." A fraction of the total is an initiation fee (which the writer often fails to receive despite contractual promises), another part is for the completion of the first draft, other parts are for successive drafts, and there's another payment if the script actually gets made (most don't). But let's say the first step is $120,000. Hey, that's still a lot, right? Of course, ten percent goes to the writer's agent, another ten percent to his manager (if he has one), another five percent to the writer's attorney, and a few thousand for WGA fees. Oh, and there's that half that goes to taxes.... Still, there's probably a solid year's salary left over. Forty-five thousand dollars or so is a plenty respectable salary in America. Okay, so the writer didn't get paid anything for the year he spent writing the spec that got him the job, nor did he get paid for the weeks or months he spent going to pitch meetings and development meetings. And okay, forty-five thousand doesn’t go as far in Los Angeles as in Dubuque. But writers live off pizza and ramen noodles anyway, because writers live to write. So, he's happy enough. Now what...?

Now... he writes his "first draft." Again, weighing, obsessing, agonizing.

At last, feeling triumphant, he hands it in.

And then -- god help us all -- the script goes through.... "development."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Resolution time?

"I love to my resolution is to try hard to make time to read some books this year."

I've seen that resolution on lots of blogs this week. Frankly, it puzzles me. It makes no sense to me that people would have to force themselves to do something that they claim to love. I don't know why those people can't just be honest with themselves and admit that they don't actually "love" to read; they love the idea of being well-read because they desire for people to think they're smart. I can speak from personal experience that for people who really love books, reading is such a great joy that you can't stop us from reading. We'll lose sleep to read, steal time for reading at every possible opportunity, and even sneak books into places we shouldn't. But if you don't feel that way about books, so what? Find your own joy. Maybe it's drawing. Maybe it's music.

Even more puzzling (and saddening) to me is this resolution:

"I really love my resolution is to finally force myself to work on that script/novel I've been meaning to write for years and years."

How can someone purport to "love" writing if they never willingly do it? I suspect that there are a lot of Walter Mittys out there who love to dream about being admired and acclaimed for their writing, and confuse that with a love of writing. You know the type: they spend lots of time imagining their Oscar speech, but no time working on their screenplays. Look, writing is hard, and it's quite often a chore, just like any day-to-day career. But for those who are born to do it, there's a certain thrill and satisfaction in the doing of it, too. If writing doesn't bring you that joy, why on earth would you want to torture yourself? I think there are an awful lot of people out there who are making themselves miserable dreaming their lives away.

Resolutions are something you wish to do because you know it's for your own good, although it goes against your true nature. In a way, resolutions reveal a lot about who you truly are.

S0: who are you, really?

I say: the person you are when you're alone, when you're left to your own devices, is who you truly are.

Now, some people don't like being alone, perhaps because they're not all that interesting and are bored silly by their own company. Or they can't stand being alone because they have no idea who they really are, and they're afraid to find out. Or they simply need other people to give them a sense of purpose and identity, because they only know how to "belong" to a clique -- they've never really learned to think and act as an individual.

But let's say you do spend a fair amount of time alone. What do you do?

Do you actually read the "literature" you claim to admire? Or do you read trashy magazines you claim to disparage?

Do you get out and hike in the "beautiful outdoors" you claim to love? Or do you flop on the couch and play video games weekend after weekend?

Is there a disconnect between the person you pretend to be, and who you really are?

One thing I find very interesting is that most of the frustrated, wannabe* writers I know are also (unhappily) single, and complain about the misery of (not) dating the same way they complain about the misery of (not) writing. I don't think this is a coincidence. When meeting potential romantic partners they tend to have the same disconnect between who they really are, and who they fantasize they are. They'll describe themselves as writers -- even though they never write -- or creative, even though they rarely create anything. They'll describe themselves as energetic and active even though they're usually couch potatoes. They'll claim to be adventurous, active, deep, and literate, and a fan of various "smart" pursuits like foreign films and gourmet food and classical music...yet when left to their own devices they'd rather just glaze over in front of Survivor. With such cognitive dissonance getting in the way, no wonder they can't find a compatible match.

My wish for everyone for the new year is that people accept themselves as they are. While we should all strive to improve our lives, I think we should strive to be "me, only better," rather than "me, only completely different."

So -- to all you aspiring writers fighting the good fight, my New Year's wish for you is that 2010 is the best year ever for your writing career. And to all the "wannabes" out there, give yourselves permission to let go of false dreams and find your true purpose in life.

And to everyone, everywhere: may you have peace, joy, and fulfillment.

*not to be confused with "aspiring" writers, who actually do write but just haven't broken in yet.