Sunday, November 8, 2009

Aspiring screenwriter tip #1: It all counts

As some of you know, I've won a whole bunch of screenwriting (and other writing) contests -- enough to cover my rent and basic necessities for several years. A lot of folks claim that writing contests are simply lotteries, and if that's true, I must be one hell of a lucky person. Maybe so; I am Irish, after all.

But if that's true, I'm not the only "lucky" one. If you follow contests, you'll see the same few names crop up over and over in the winners' circles. Meanwhile, the people who swear that contests are "crapshoots" point to the fact that they themselves rarely place in contests, as proof of contests' randomness. I can't help but notice that a whole lot of these very "unlucky" writers also (coincidentally, I'm sure) make a lot of grammatical errors in their message board/blog posts, and betray a certain tone-deafness in terms of sentence flow and style.

"But I'm only writing fast, on the internet! I try much harder to write well when it actually counts!" is the defense these "unlucky" aspiring writers use to explain their jarring and unreadable posts. Well, haste can certainly account for an excusable typo or two. But if your natural inclination when writing is to spew clunky, illogical, unaesthetic sentences rife with errors, you're at a significant disadvantage in the competition to become a professional writer.

To look at it another (perhaps less threatening) way, imagine two aspiring singers:

Person A has a natural sense of pitch, and sounds good even when idly humming to herself or belting out an improptu karaoke performance. Her voice sounds pleasing to the ear. If you overhear her singing along to her iPod, you immediately think "what a lovely voice" and want to hear more. For Person A, it is her voice's natural inclination to be on-key and aesthetically pleasing...she doesn't have to fake it. In fact, she'd have to really "try" to sing badly.

Now consider Person B. Person B really, really wants to be a singer, and feels entitled to a singing career precisely because she wants it so much. Ever since she was little, she's dreamed being rich and famous, and she loves to be the center of attention, so she believes a singing career is her destiny. Person B sounds fairly good when she sings in the shower (at least in her own opinion), but when she gets the chance to sing publicly, her voice tends to break or hit the wrong key. She blames the imperfect performance conditions, and gets frustrated because if only the audience would be silent, if only there were no distractions, if only the songs were more "right" for her range, if only she had more time to warm up, if only the acoustics were the same as in her bathroom...she's certain she could sound almost as good as Person A. Even so, her voice is generally on key, except for a few wince-inducing screeches, and although her voice doesn't have a "nice" tone exactly, it's not altogether awful, either. It is not her voice's natural state to be on key and aesthetically pleasing, but if she's really, really trying and conditions are perfect and the audience isn't too discerning (in other words, if they possess no singing ability themselves), she's passable. She compares herself only to the worst singers, and finds that she compares favorably. She tries to ignore all the singers who are much better than she is, and if she can't ignore them, she rationalizes that they've all been given an unfair advantage by some kind of rigged system.

To become a professional singer, Person A is going to have to put in a tremendous amount of work (years and years), learning to control her breathing, learning to expand her range and volume, learning how to have good stage presence, and many other skills. If she does all that, she might -- might -- have a shot. much of a chance do you think Person B has?

I have never, ever read a decent script by a person who doesn't write snappy, articulate, properly-punctuated message board posts and emails. Sorry, but you can just tell who can write and who can't, even in a casual setting.

Sure, I know there are those (invariably lazy, illiterate people whose message board posts are riddled with spelling and punctuation errors) who say they can't be bothered writing properly in an email, blog, or message board forum, but who claim to bring their A game "when it counts."

But I don't believe them -- not for a second. You're either a writer all the time, or you aren't. A talented opera singer doesn't default to singing off-key in the shower. Singing on-key comes naturally if she has talent. She still has to work to achieve excellence, but competence is a given!


  1. Ace,
    I've been following your blog for a few weeks now and I wanted to just say thanks. Aside from the numerous helpful tips given, the most important thing that I take from your blog each time is the inspiration. For me, writing is all about doing that "something" you love, and I feel that your blog truly captures that. Your "about" section hits home for me, in the way that everyone is all grown up with their corporate jobs, whereas all I can think about or do in my spare time is write. All in all, thanks for letting us starving writers know that we're not alone!

    - Chris

  2. Thanks! The blog's a bit all over the place so far, but I'm glad you're liking it.

    Yeah...writers have to stick together because the "norms" just don't get it! :-)