What should I write?

Right behind the Most Asked Question is this: which genre should I write in? And, of course, its companion: which genres should I avoid? There’s also this variation: how do I know which of my ideas is the most commercial given the current market conditions? 

Ten years ago, I hardly ever heard these questions asked. Sure, there were magazine articles about what types of screenplays sold and which ones were made, but there wasn’t this idea out there that the screenwriter had to be as calculating and careful as a scientist plotting the course of a space craft, where a mistake of even one centimeter could have horrific and permanent implications. 

I think these questions come from twin desires: 1) the desire to feel like we’re not wasting our effort and 2) the desire to believe that we can reduce the odds of failure.

And I get it. Nobody wants to feel stupid or vulnerable or like we deserve the blame for failing. It’s so much easier to look to external conditions, outside advice, expert opinion and say: but I listened, I did the right thing, I did as I was told. 

The problem with this is it’s a false construct. There are no experts. Nobody knows what anybody will want to buy, watch, read or sell. Nobody ever has. Which is why most movies and television shows fail.

So why do so many people claim to know which genres are viable and which are losers? 

Because they want you to feel like you don’t know, like you don’t have an internal compass, like you NEED them. 

But you don’t need them. In fact, what you need to do is shut them out. 

Is it true that certain genres did better at the box office this year? I’m sure it is. Is it true that certain others did worse? Again. Yes.

But ask yourself this: would any of those experts have told you to write The Butler? Or Enough Said? Or even American Hustle? 

No way. 

Somewhere inside you, you know where your storytelling passion is. You know what you have a true point of view on. You know the story that only you can tell in the way only you can.  If you write that one as well as you can, if you are consistent and rigorous and honest with yourself, if you are brutal with the screenplay, get all the bullshit out of it, get all that you know and feel into it…hey, it’s no guarantee of anything but this: that screenplay will give you the absolute best chance you have to make an impact, get noticed, get started. 

I know that’s not the same kind of promise many of the clowns leading seminars at the Radisson will give you.

But it does have the advantage of being the truth. 

Now dig in. 

How do I get an agent? Honest answer: none of us know. We barely know how we did.

“Yeah, yeah. But how do I get an agent? Yeah, yeah, I know I have to write a great thing. I’ve done it. How do I get anyone to read it?”

I understand the question. I do. And I know where it comes from. How frustrating it is to feel like you are on the outside and the barriers to entry are enormous and almost insurmountable.

And you are not crazy to feel that way. The barriers are built high so you can’t scale ’em, thick so you can’t knock ’em down, and buried deep in the ground, making it almost impossible to crawl underneath ’em. 

Easiest thing to do is give up. Second easiest: complain about how unfair it is.  

Third thing is to recognize the problem and carry on anyway, finding a way to believe that if the work is strong enough, powerful enough, compelling enough that the folks behind the barriers will find their way to you.

Which sounds exactly like what someone who has already made it over would say, right?

But here’s the thing: all you need is one champion, one assistant, one friend of a director, one boyfriend of an intern at a production company to think that your work will make him (or her) look good. 

How do you find that one believer, that one person who decides that carrying your screenplay up the line will help both of you? I don’t know. I have ideas: post it on a website, stage a reading, network, use your Facebook friends and their friends.  

Or make a movie. That’s what Shane Carruth did. He made Primer for $7000 that he saved up over years. And then he won Sundance. Equipment is the least expensive it has ever been. Access to the audience is the most available it’s ever been. Find a way to use those things to make the business come to you. If your work is truly undeniable, someone, somewhere will recognize it. Because it is in their self-interest to do so. 

If you ask 100 screenwriters how they got the read that changed their lives, you’d get 100 different answers. But almost all of them would have to do with one person, only one, seeing something special, something worth sharing. 

The first screenplay that David Levien and I wrote got rejected at every agency. Then Miramax bought it. And all those same agents lined up at our door. It was Rounders. 

I wish there were an easy answer to this question. It’s the one that all writers, directors and actors get asked more than any other. None of us really know. 

We just know this: the only thing that moves you closer is the work. Which is also the only part of it that you can control. Keep grinding away, keep going deeper, keep doing. Keep the faith.   

 

 

Fire Away

One of the entertainers I most admire in the world just followed me on Twitter. This is someone who not only makes me laugh but whose world view and attitude, and the philosophical underpinnings that drive them, inspire me. Someone on my shortest list of people I’d want to have dinner with. I got a quick ego boost when I saw his name pop up, an even bigger one when I saw how few people he follows. But then, the moment I next went to tweet, dread set in. 

What if I lose him, I thought? What if he followed me because he liked one Vine he saw, that Penn retweeted, but then, if he sees a ramen tweet, or if a joke about The Knicks falls flat, maybe he’s gone.

When he wasn’t following me, fine. He didn’t know who I was, didn’t connect me with my movies, whatever. 

But now, now that he’s in,  I face rejection. And not just garden variety rejection. Narrow, specific rejection from someone I put on a pedestal.  How am I supposed to deal with that? 

Guess I’ll never tweet. 

Or I’ll really workshop the next tweet. 

Maybe, yeah, this is it, I’ll test market the tweet, send it as a Facebook status first or email it to a few friends. And then, if a high enough percentage of them laugh, I’ll tweet it. 

That’s definitely a way to go. Crafty. Safe. 

And absolutely crippling. My entire creative journey has been about writing without fear, expressing myself without regard for what any one person will think of it. I get an idea, work on it to the best of my ability and fire away. And yet here I found myself, ready to tweet something–a tweet, mind you, something so small, insignificant and temporary as to barely exist–and holding back. 

And isn’t that something we all do to ourselves sometimes. Don’t we all sort of set ourselves up for defeat, tell ourselves disempowering stories, hesitate out of fear?  I think we do. And I think one of the most important steps an artist can take is to get to a place where s/he’s not scared of losing her audience. 

The person you’re scared to lose might be your wife or your father if you finished that short story you have hidden in a secret folder on your laptop, or those guys sitting in the front at the comedy club who will laugh at your dick jokes but might boo you if you get political. Or maybe you’re worried that if the YA audience knew you really wanted to write thrillers, they’d never read you again. 

Whatever. Whomever. Fuck ’em. They will go on the ride with you or they won’t. But the ride is yours. And the time is now.

Go.

As for me: I’ll tweet away. And if he unfollows, he unfollows. I won’t shed a tear (but I will curse. Very loudly).

Thanks for listening, six seconds at a time.

I started doing the Six Second Screenwriting Lesson Vines on a whim. There was no preplanning or strategy. I just had something to say, so I said it, directly, without any sort of thought to what kind of impact it might have, to who might see it, to what they might say about it. If I had thought about any of that, I might’ve made sure to blink or choose a more flattering light or wear a cool hat or something. 

On reflection, I know that what prompted it were a series of questions I had been getting on twitter whenever I did a q and a. These questions seemed to carry certain assumptions with them, assumptions that came from various screenwriting books, seminars, websites that these (mostly) young aspiring screenwriters were taking as bedrock foundational facts.  As a lifelong student of con artists, scammers and false prophets, it rankled me that there was so much misinformation being slung out there for profit.  Usually propagated by so called experts who had never written any actual movies. Or tv shows. Or anything. 

And it rankled the shit out of me.

So I opened Vine, pointed the iPhone at myself and said what I was feeling, which was: “All screenwriting books are bullshit. Read screenplays. Watch movies. Let them be your guide.” And then, before thinking about what I was doing, I saved it and tweeted it.

The reaction was pretty immediate. A few of my friends made fun of me. Which I expected. But a whole bunch of other people thanked me. Actors, writers, producers, journalists. By then, a few hours later, I had recorded and posted a few more, also mostly as a response to the received ‘wisdom’ that was out there in the screenwriting guru movement. And once again, I saw that there were writers, artists of all stripes really, who were waiting, not for me, but for someone to speak honestly, personally, about what they believed was actually important in the creative process. And what was bullshit. 

So I kept going. I made two rules for myself. 1) I would only say what I absolutely believed. What was absolutely true in my own experience and 2) I would do one a day for as long as it seemed that that I still had something to say and that there were people who still wanted to hear it. 

I’m up to number 86 now. And I have say, it’s been at least as beneficial for me as it has for anyone else. I have realized that the person I am mostly talking to is me, reminding myself, encouraging myself to press on each day, to commit each day to being honest on the page, to writing without fear, to writing despite the distractions, to writing when I don’t feel like it, to writing even when I’m certain that it’s all been a lucky accident that’s bound to end any second. 

As I’ve said before, I was a blocked writer until my 30th year. My goal ever since then has been to keep the dark voices, the inner critical voices, at bay for long enough each day to get something down on the page. 

One of the ways I do it is by talking to you. And myself. Six seconds at a time. Thanks for listening and responding and letting me know that it helps. 

Have a great Thanksgiving.  If you give yourself a day off from writing, do it without guilt. And if you decide to write despite the urging of family and friends, do that without guilt. 

And get up tomorrow and do it again.

That’s what I’m going to do. 

At least I hope so. 

the question of selfishness

Sometimes people around you can start acting strange when you tell them you are embarking on a creative project. They may express skepticism, they may say something like “you’ll quit, you always quit.”  They may be almost overly supportive at first but almost immediately start making little digs about all the time you are devoting, or how absent minded you sometimes seem.  And, of course, they can call you selfish. 

This one really stings. Because part of you may very well feel that way. 

But it’s not true. Yes. you are devoting yourself to something, going inside yourself, spending as much time as they say you away from them and living in your own little world.  Only it’s not selfish.  It’s the opposite. For a few reasons. And it’s worth it to remind yourself of this.  1) you are trying to create something that you will share with others. Whether it’s a song, a novel, a screenplay or a sculpture, you want to produce something that adds value to the world. This one, the one you are working on right now, may not the one.  But it just might. Artists need to remember that the world needs what they do, values what they do.  So it cannot be selfish to do it. 2) if you give in, give up, abandon it, you may end up being more physically available to those in your life. But the version of you they will now be dealing with will be, in some way, bitter, angry, resentful.  Maybe even a little self loathing. Because you will feel that you have abandoned the best of yourself, the highest hope for yourself. 3) Those around you will ultimately become inspired by you if you stay the course and really do it. And later, they will appreciate you and your work even more than you can imagine. Or they’re the wrong people to have in your life anyway. 

This doesn’t mean that being an artist excuses other selfish behavior. Artists do get carried away, do, from time to time, take advantage of their ‘special’ status.  

But it does mean protect your creative time. Guard it. 

And do your work. Without excuses. Because we need you to produce something great, transportive, elevating. To refuse…now that would be selfish. 

Write what fascinates you

This seems simple, right? Of course we should write about what fascinates us, what we obsess over. But so many people approach writing, and especially screenwriting, as if it can be gamed, figured out, strategized.

And if you’re someone who can do that, congratulations. Rock on. Although I wish you wouldn’t waste that kind of strategic brainpower on show business. There’re problems to be solved, out there in the real world. Go figure out how to arbitrage our energy resources in a way that motivates buyers and seller to create a more equitable market or something. I don’t know. Because I don’t think that way. But obviously you do.

As for the rest of us. We need to calculate less. And to look inside to find our subject matter. Or outside at the world we see, but through a prism of enthusiasm. Meaning: we must find subjects that are personally animating. Inspiring and engaging to us.

Once we do, we have a shot at making them inspiring and engaging for others as well.

Because when the story is important to you. When it fascinates you. That passion is tangible. The reader senses it. And, without even knowing why, gives you the benefit of the doubt. You still have to tell the story well, of course, and that still takes an enormous amount of effort and concentration. But: The huge collateral benefit of telling stories that genuinely fascinate you is this: forcing yourself to sit down and actually do the work is much, much easier than when you are merely writing something because you think it is marketable, can sell, is in a genre that’s currently in demand.

So. Calculate less. Write your obsessions. And have a better chance of A) really getting something written and B) making your screenplay into something that excites and engages the reader.

What can I do today to put myself in a peak state to create?

That’s the question I try to ask myself whenever I feel like I’m drifting, going along without intention. And then I make sure to do those things.

It’s a personal question. At different stages of my life, the answer would have been slightly different. But some elements always remain: 1) some form of exercise. These days that mostly means a long walk to wherever it is I am going to write that day.  On weekends, I jog, slowly, for between a half hour and an hour. 2) Meditation. Every day. Morning and afternoon for twenty minutes. 3) some form of journaling, usually morning pages, as described in Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way 4) the right music (today, and many days, that’s an album by The Hold Steady. 

When I incorporate these things into my day, I am able to ease the doubts, quiet the inner critic and get into the state of flow I need to be at my most creative. 

What do you do? Do you even know? Should you start to find out? 

Ask yourself: What can I do today to put myself in a peak state to create? And let me know the answer.