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I’ve been working on my primary current project, now, for nine months.
That might not seem like such a long time, until you consider that that “project,” in its current written form, is a four-page document.
It’s not a script. It’s not even an outline for a script.
It’s a pitch.
A television pitch. A proposal for a potential drama series.
And no one (save my partner on it, and my agent) will ever read it.
Instead, they will hear us present it verbally. It takes maybe fifteen minutes to do that.
Why nine months on a pitch, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. In the beginning, I was just batting it around with the writer who brought me the original idea — who I’m now partnered with to write it. Then, I thought we might be onto something, and suggested we turn it into a “paragraph” we could e-mail to my agent. He’s a TV literary agent, meaning he only represents writers, and only for television. Actually, he’s a TV “packaging” agent, meaning his main role is to help writer clients develop show ideas and get them into the marketplace. He’s in the biggest and most powerful department of this kind, at the biggest agency. He individually represents at least three (that I know of) creators and showrunners of successful shows currently on the air.
I say this not to get your admiration, but to set the scene for who he is and what our relationship is. He’s busy. He hears a lot of pitches. I personally send him, probably, dozens of “paragraphs” a year (and he probably he has forty of me that he represents). Most he isn’t wild about. Some I’ll go in and pitch to him at his office. That usually doesn’t lead to the desired reaction, either (i.e. “I love it, I’m sending you out, and we’ll sell this, for sure!”).
In fact, during the last four years, when I’ve been doing this pretty much full-time, he’s only once had that kind of a reaction — over a paragraph I e-mailed him. An idea for a drama series in three sentences. He immediately set up a meeting with a very established producer while I turned that paragraph into the afore-mentioned four-page/fifteen-minute pitch (which he never saw or heard). The producer loved it. The producer’s studio loved it. The network loved it. They bought it and I wrote a script for a pilot episode. That’s as far as it got. Which is pretty far.
Anyway, back to my current idea: the paragraph turned into most of a page, which we finally e-mailed to my agent. I didn’t hear anything. I called to follow up. He hadn’t read it. We hung up while he read it. He called right back and said he really liked it. And thus my odyssey really began.
Since then, my partner and I have written, I think, over a hundred individual “passes” of this four-page document (I hate to call them all “drafts,” because “draft” implies that you sent it out to people). One version we pitched to my agent in person. A couple more since then we pitched to him over the phone. One, most recently, he read on his own time from the page.
There are two reasons why this has continued for nine months. Number one is he loves the idea, more than anything I’ve ever done. Number two is that until very recently, he didn’t think the pitch itself was quite ready to go out into the marketplace — that it needed work.
Now it’s officially pitching season for the big networks (always in the summer time is when they buy the bulk of their ideas for the following development season). He thinks it’s ready. And he’s sending us on meetings with a bunch of big producers.
I do this for a living. And I haven’t earned a cent from this yet. And I might never. And it’s the main thing I’ve spent my time on for lo, these many months.
Why? Well, from a practical business/making-a-living point of view, my experience is that most ideas never get off the launching pad with my agent, and when he believes the marketplace will respond to something, they do. In spades. There may be “false negatives” (he doesn’t get it but I sell it anyway, which has happened), but he’s yet to give me a “false positive.” And this one, he says, exceeds all that I’ve ever brought him — I’ve “checked off all the boxes” of what an idea needs, in order to sell.
So here I am. Operating off HIS faith. And that’s the real subject of this post.
Without his faith, I might well have abandoned this months ago, or at least put it on a back burner. My own faith (and that of my writing partner on the project) might not have been enough to make it such a priority. Even if I thought we were onto something great, which I did.
And yet, as writers, doing much (or all) of what we do “on spec,” with no guarantee of future remuneration, production, or positive impact of any kind on the larger world, this is our typical situation: we have to have faith in what we’re working on, and sustain that faith.
This is not easy. But it may be the most important thing we do: see things through, with persistence, if we really believe in them — even when others AREN’T encouraging. I could bore you with thousands of examples of successful projects that required that of their creator. A recent BIOGRAPHY profile of George Lucas made this point hit home for me. “People think they can’t do things so they don’t try, or they give up too easily. But they’re wrong.” These are the words (I’m paraphrasing) that came out of his mouth. I think he’s right.
It’s easy to give up when no one is giving you any encouragement on something. Even when you like it. It’s easy to give up when you get “notes” after “notes.” It’s easy to give up when there are a million other things you could be doing, and the world (i.e. other people) might think you SHOULD be doing.
Akiva Goldsman said at a strike rally that all his life people told him he didn’t have what it took to be a writer. The secret to his success? He never stopped. (Until the day the strike was called, and then only until it ended.)
Maybe it’s really as simple as that…
If you really believe in it, don’t stop. I say, be open to others’ feedback, absolutely — but don’t be open to them talking you out of it, IF, after you’ve heard them, you still really believe in it.
Hard to do, sometimes, but I think it’s what the most successful writers (artists, entrepreneurs, etc.) routinely find a way to do. And it works.
It doesn’t mean every project will succeed, by any particular definition of success. Or that they should all go on forever. I think different ideas, different projects, last for different seasons, and have different purposes. Many do end up being “trial and error.” I’m not suggesting you obsess over one project and decide all the people who rejected it misunderstood your genius. There is a reality check process, continually, about what the real potential for something is, that does get adjusted as you get reactions from the world, and make changes on it. And sometimes, it’s good to put one down, and move on. God knows, I do that with most of the things I come up with, before they ever get nearly this far.
What I’m saying is that if you remain open, keep working on it, and believe in something about it continuously — which evolves and grows over time as you do new versions and get more feedback, etc. — then keep at it, as long as you have that energy for it deep inside. As long as you feel there’s really something there, and you would like to see what it could become. Don’t talk yourself out of your own ideas that you really believe in. Nurture them and see what they turn into.
Because screenwriting is such a competitive field, and a “tournament profession,” where there are a very limited number of paid jobs compared to the vast numbers of people who want to be doing it for a living — and a system designed to keep most of them “out” until they can demonstrate the sellability of their work — it’s easy to get caught up in thinking of it in terms of “haves” and “have nots”: that there are the elite who are “talented” and thus successful, and then there’s… everybody else.
I like what Akiva Goldsman said at a rally during the Writers Srike. He’s probably one of the most successful screenwriters in the business. Throughout his life, he said, people kept telling him to “stop” — that he didn’t have what it took to make it as a writer. The secret of his success? He never stopped. (Until the day the strike was called — and only until it was over.)
There’s much wisdom to that simple statement. The truth is, none of us are born “talented.” And all of our early scripts (and early drafts of our current scripts, even) are not “good,” in the sense that others would read them and want to buy them. In my view, “talent” (i.e. that “thing” some people have that allows them to succeed) is almost entirely about attitude, and not native ability. And here’s what that winning attitude looks like:
- You have a great passion for doing this that feels like a calling. You continue to have a desire to do it that doesn’t easily go away, and is about more than just superficial lust for notoriety (although that might be present, too). Somewhere deep inside, you sense the rightness of this pursuit, for you. You feel you have something to contribute to the world through this undertaking, and you want to contribute it.
- You are willing to follow your instincts about your ideas, to trust and nurture them in a positive, believing, optimistic way. (This may take a lot of work on a day-to-day basis when one tends to get discouraged, but it’s work you’re willing to show up to do.)
- You are open to others’ feedback in a healthy way, meaning you understand your growth at becoming “sellable” involves continuing to improve how your work impacts others — and that the path of being a writer involves continuously writing and rewriting, and finding a way to enjoy that process.
“Whether you have talent” is really not the big issue. It’s all about what you DO with your DESIRE to write — in terms of your ongoing attitude and actions.
For all of us, on every project, there is a continuum of growth from writing something that nobody thinks shows “talent” (i.e. it doesn’t grab them as believable, compelling and fresh the way “successful” writing needs to), to writing something that others say does show “talent” — and proves you have it.
On my first professional writing gig, which was a script for an episode of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, I wrote many drafts that my colleagues, to be frank, didn’t think showed much, if any, talent. (But apparently I had some, based on other things I had written that got me the job.) They continued to give me notes, and I continued to work to address them. Eventually, I turned in a draft that, to me, was less than 10% different from the previous draft (and I’d lost count of the number of drafts at that point) — but to others, it pushed the script over the edge into something that worked. And suddenly their perception of my “talent” for this project increased greatly, and I was being asked to rewrite some of the other scripts. Did something change within me that made me suddenly have something I didn’t? No.
The difference between the perception and experience of “I don’t have talent” to “I do have talent” is not about your innate worthiness or ability to do this, but about your attitude and actions along the way as you strived to do better and better at what all of us writers are here to do — which is to communicate and engage others emotions.
Anyone can do that, in their own unique way, if they really choose to, and stick with it. So stop wondering if you really “have it” or not. Take that out of the equation. You have “it.” What makes you one of the “special” ones who “succeed” (in terms of making money at it) is about what you do with “it.”
This event is put on by Scriptwriters Network. I’ll be acting as a “showrunner” helping attendees craft a pitch for a new drama series in a limited amount of time, as an exercise on “working in the room” on a television staff.
Should be fun!
It’s happening in Irvine, and I’ll also be offering consultation on writing submissions there.
This one’s new to me…
I was a member of this organization when I first moved to Los Angeles, and appeared there once before as a guest speaker.
This was just posted last week: http://mmmfilmmakers.blogspot.com/2009/03/zen-and-art-of-screenwriting-chat-with.html
It’s a documentary (in rough cut form) following the Cavedogs, a then-popular band in Boston on the verge of a record deal. College friends of mine. It’s called I WANT A NAME: THE CAVEDOGS, and was posted by a member of their fan group on Facebook:
Writers are known for procrastinating, for working in spurts and at odd hours, and for waiting to be inspired. Sometimes, there is resistence toward what a voice inside (or outside) us says we “should” do, or need to do. Intuitively, we know that the best, most worthwhile creative work tends to come from a happy, relaxed, playful, confident state — and when we’re not feeling that way, on some level we know that the work we do might not amount to much in terms of quantity or quality. Although, of course, sometimes just getting started — forcing oneself, at first — helps improve our state, and leads ultimately to worthwhile action.
I think there are three main reasons why creative people avoid work at times:
1. We don’t know what to create next, and are skeptical about anything worthwhile coming. This might also mean that we’re unsure what to DO next on a project — meaning we don’t have a clear sense of our next, achievable task, and thus feel a vague malaise about getting started at all. The movie ADAPTATION covered all this rather well — entertainingly, but also painfully, at times, for those of us who have been there.
2. We’re afraid the process will be unpleasant, a struggle — that we’ll feel bad while doing it. This could happen because we’re not liking what’s coming, not feeling it’s good (or we’re good), or because nothing seems to be coming at all. We may be overly critical, or imagine others being critical, or we may just not be “in the mood.” When nothing flows, there are few worse feelings — we know from experience.
3. We don’t trust that what we do if we sit down to work will be of any value to others or ourselves — that it will lead anywhere in terms of results in the world (i.e. a finished work we and others find worthwhile, and the possibility of payment, publication, production, and future opportunities). So it seems kind of useless.
Obviously these three all point to a fear-based lack of confidence, a worried perspective that comes from feeling in need, vulnerable and alone. To my mind, a spiritual perspective as presented in THE ARTISTS WAY is the antidote for this, so that you turn these three possibilities around in a productive way, on a regular basis, even a daily practice:
1. We sit down with something specific we plan to do — an identifiable, achievable task. It may mean exploring an idea that came to us during a “non-writing” time. It may mean brainstorming to understand more about whatever it is we’re working on, so we’ll arrive at something to write. (This means querying ourselves and that inner source of ideas and inspiration about what we would really like this material to be. Positive questions and openness to possibilities are essential.) It may mean a first pass at a writing a scene we have outlined and are ready to have a go at. Or a rewrite of something we’ve already drafted. As far as “worthwhile” goes, we’re doing this to please ourselves at this point — to record and explore and play with what comes to us and move it in the direction of becoming something we really like.
2. We trust in what comes, and our own perspective on it as we develop and evaluate and play — knowing nothing we do today will be finished, final and forever, nor does anyone ever have to see it until we’re passionate about it (and that includes the critical voice within us that might want to tear things down). Most of all, we stay aware of our emotional state and CHOOSE not to be in struggle mode. If we find ourselves there, we move through it without resisting it. Resisting resistence creates more resistence.
3. We remember that we’re not doing this to get some outcome out of it for ourselves, but to give something within us — and we trust that when that is done with diligent purity of intent, it can only be a positive for us in some way. We believe that what comes to us as creative ideas comes from a source that has our back — that has our best interests in mind — and we trust in that, not needing to worry about what others might do for us down the line to reward our work.