In my opinion, what David suggests in this article is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on screenwriting. I couldn’t wait to share the link: http://www.slashfilm.com/a-letter-from-david-mamet-to-the-writers-of-the-unit/ Ican’t wait to read some more of this blog by David Chen. It looks amazing.
I was around forty when I received the gift of a dream: to be a paid screenwriter on a fabulous television drama. But first, I had to learn the craft. Of course I had the usual misgivings about being too old to start something so difficult, and what a tough industry it is. But my attitude was, and still is, you can’t argue with a dream. After all, it’s not professional basketball, it’s screenwriting. And writing has always been my strongest talent. How hard could it be to transfer over into a different format? (Pretty hard).
Soon after that I learned that I wasn’t the only one who might consider me too old to begin a career. I heard horror stories about Hollywood as a twenty-something boy’s club with little use for women of any age, and whose imaginations were incapable of grasping the fact that a middle-aged woman could not only write well, but could also keep up with current trends and markets.
At first I scoffed. I couldn’t believe anyone would be so ridiculous. I determined to keep up with my craft, and to stay as current and market-wise as possible. That part was easy, considering that I have two teens at home and get all the same channels as everyone else. In fact, teen drama is probably my favorite genre.
My train of thought went something like this, “If they read my writing before they meet me, they’ll know I can do the job by the time they figure out how old I am.”
Fast-forward to the Golden Globes, two days ago. It was a great year for women actresses, as they said repeatedly, and I don’t disagree. They were all there. Jessica Lange, who slayed the role in “American Horror Story” and raised the quality of the whole series. Meryl Streep, who won for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, Tilda Swinton and even 74-year-old Jane Fonda, who looked more beautiful than most women of any age. Even Julianna Margulies and the ever-sexy Salma Hayek, the youngest of the aforementioned group, will each be 45 this year.
The point is obvious. Is any one of those women suffering any loss of talent or ability due to her age? Or is each and every one of them as vibrant and capable as she’s ever been? To me the answer is obvious. The only thing I had when I was twenty that I don’t have now was a lot of insecurity and a drinking problem. The list of what I have now (Wrinkles? Balance? Perspective?) that I didn’t have then is too comprehensive to list.
So now I’m mad. The only reason people think older people, women in particular, aren’t capable, is because we let them, by not being capable. Not standing up for ourselves. By hiding our age, using it as an excuse not to try or apologizing for it, we marginalize ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. I want to be beautiful and sexy forever, but probably won’t be. But a good and capable writer is something I intend to be until my dying day. In fact, unless I had some mind-impairing, dreadful disease, I see no reason on Earth that I shouldn’t continue to get better and better. Move over, boys.
When I first took screenwriting classes, I was expected to meet deadlines on outlining tools and drafts. It was impossible for me to schedule the work, because I hadn’t figured out how long things took, and I was constantly getting lost in my own perfectionism/procrastination cycle. So the deadlines would come and go, and I was always asking my teacher for an extension, and then another one. He was always patient with me, but I was frustrated with myself.
I realized that if I was ever going to finish a screenplay, I needed to change. When I started to turn in what I had, whether it was finished or not, that was a real beginning. I hated turning in drafts before I was ready to let them go, but I learned that it really didn’t matter in the long run. Every milestone reached put me a step closer to a finished product.
Nonetheless, I wanted to do better. The day that really changed my life, I came to the realization that I needed to work my life around my screenwriting. Until then, I had been working screenwriting around my life. The single most important decision I have ever made was to get up each morning and write from 5 to 7 am. In my psyche, with that decision, I stepped over the line and became a real screenwriter.
That was about a year ago. Suddenly, I not only met deadlines, I started to exceed them. That felt very, very good.
This year, I’m learning to plan my work out on a calendar. I have writing tasks designated for each day, a first draft due date, and subsequent drafts as well. Any task will expand to fill the time allotted, so I have many safeguards in place against getting lost in the process.
One of my favorite tricks is to use a timer. If I’m having trouble concentrating, I’ll set it for 15 minutes and stay with a task, then switch tasks when the timer goes off. Most of the time that gets me involved and I no longer want to switch. I also use it to make sure I don’t overdo it with perfectionism. If I’m allowing myself to spend an hour on something, I can spend six if I’m not careful, and end up with something that’s no better than what I had after an hour. So I set the timer, and try hard to stop when it goes off.
The same goes for deadlines. If I spend a year on a first draft, it’s still a mess, because it’s a first draft. At least if I do it in four to six weeks, it’s a mess that I didn’t spend the last year of my life agonizing over. (Agonizing is a topic for another day). Trust me, I’ve done it both ways, and it’s much better to crank it out and let it go. Even a six-week deadline is too long for me to wrap my head around. It might as well be forever. So I give myself shorter milestones for each week. That way I can stay on track, and meet or exceed my deadlines.
I sound perfect, don’t I? I’m a wonder of self-discipline and fortitude. Not lately, I’m not…
Lately I’ve been more concerned with my blog than my screenplay. I’m working on a White Collar Spec, and the project is a lot of fun. But I’m distracted. I wonder if anyone is reading my blog, or there are any new comments. I check my email and face book pages to see if there’s any news. I read other blogs to see what people are writing about. I’ve been cutting myself slack, because I’m new at this. But it’s time to get back to work.
That is a decision I have to make every day.
The best days are the days we get to write. It flows, and the time allotted flies by. Those are the days we leave the computer wishing for more time, longing for the moment we can return. We think about it all day, and even sometimes write in our sleep. Those moments of reverie between sleeping and waking are the best of all. The answers come. The truth about how your character has to respond in a situation that was puzzling you, or where you went wrong in the battle scene.
THOSE DAYS DON’T LAST, BUT THEY DO COME AGAIN
Other days aren’t so fun. Those days, we have to don our editor’s cap and do the outlining, the revisions, the cutting. Sometimes it feels like slogging through quicksand. The worst thing we can do on those days is invite the muse in, let her take over, and give in to creativity. Because without the editor, we can never finish, we can’t polish, we can’t see what’s missing, or what isn’t working. We certainly can’t “murder our darlings.” The editor is every bit as important as the writer. And they don’t always get along. It’s best to keep them separate.
I have a routine worked out for when I’m stuck. First of all, I set the timer for 15 minutes, and continue to work on what I was working on. Sometimes that solves the dilemma. If the timer goes off, and I’m still miserable, I do something else. Sometimes it means skipping a scene and going to one I feel better about. Sometimes I work backwards, and sometimes I switch tasks entirely. There are two things I try not to do. One is switch between my writer and editor caps, and the other is to leave a session stuck.
Whenever I switch from editor to writer in one session, I usually end up writing something that I won’t use. That’s a waste of precious writing time. If I leave a session feeling stuck, that’s worse. It means that I will not want to return, I’ll have to wrestle myself back into the chair and I’ll still have to deal with the stuck part when I finally do overcome procrastination. If instead, I find a more pleasant way to end the session, I won’t have given myself another reason to avoid writing. Life gives me plenty of those already.
Since I am still early in the process myself, some of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn are very fresh in my mind. I’ve decided to share them in the hope that I can help someone. Sometimes we just need to know we’re not alone.
SCREENWRITING IS A CRAFT AND NO ONE IS BORN KNOWING HOW TO DO IT.
If you’re a new writer and you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “Yeah, but that doesn’t apply to me. I’m smart. I’m talented. I learn quickly.” If that keeps you going through the tough times, you go ahead and hold on to that for as long as you can. But if you are at the stage of your writing where you have started to realize you are not the Mozart of screenwriting, after all, then this may be as much of a comfort to you as it was to me.
SCREENWRITING IS HARD FOR EVERYONE.
Some of us are talented, others not so much. But a craft is learned. No one instinctively knows how to write slug lines or manage act breaks. Occasionally, a genius may seem to know how to play the piano, or paint a picture or write a great book, without being taught. I have never heard of anyone who could write a screenplay without going through an extensive learning curve.
If someone had told me how much work was ahead of me just to learn to write screenplays, I wouldn’t have believed them. Actually, that happened. They told me and I didn’t believe them. It’s a good thing, too, because if I had believed them, I probably wouldn’t have started. By the time I figured it out, I had logged in far too many hours to bail. My stubbornness kicked in and saved me.
The good news is it gets easier. The bad news is you have to finish stuff, from beginning to end, with many drafts in between. It doesn’t matter how many fantastic ideas you have or how many first drafts you have under your belt. Not even your mother can see the potential in an unfinished screenplay, and it’s certainly not fair to ask a studio exec to look for it. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a bad idea to show my work to anyone before it’s at least nearly done. The only exception is a teacher or an evaluator that you pay to see the potential. It is highly recommended that you do, because they will tell you what it needs to make it better, so you can finish.
It’s a bitter pill, I know. Somehow, it helps to let go of the denial and face reality. It’s all part of becoming a screenwriter. Each hurdle we get over brings us closer to our goals.
It would be awesome to hear about whether this post helped anyone, or some of the other hurdles overcome along the learning curve. See you next time, when I talk about the importance of ending your writing sessions on a positive note. Happy Writing ’till then!
I have this teacher who occasionally tells me, “I’m glad you’re thinking that way…” When I hear that, I know he’s saying I’m tuned in to the industry. To what’s hip and what’s happening.
Just a few moments ago, I read the Page Awards eZine in which there is an article by John Truby. He much more articulately stated exactly what I said, in my blog about why I’d rather write for TV. The best stories to come from the entertainment business today are in TV drama. I couldn’t believe I chose the same topic as John Truby for my blog. Way to go, Karen. I’m glad to see me thinking that way!
I love to read those screenwriting newsletters, and blogs and books. Anything I can get my hands on, really. At the moment I am reading Hollywood Drive: What it Takes to Break in, Hang in & Make it in the Entertainment Industry, by Eve Light Honthaner. I rented it from Amazon.com and am reading it on my Android phone. It is chock-full of great job-hunting tips and survival techniques.
Another book I love is The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sandler. It includes great charts that are extremely helpful in breaking down scripts of existing shows so you can write a spec that reads like the real thing. It also contains the story of her start in the business. I can’t get enough of those Hollywood success stories.
But my favorite book on writing has to be Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve read it at least three times and each time I do, it gives me a jump start in the dedication department. Hey, whatever it takes to keep me thinking that way.
DEFIANCE: friend or foe?
I’ve always been defiant. Even when I was a little girl, my parents knew that the last way to get me to do something was to tell me to do it. I could be reasoned with, cajoled, asked or bribed, but never ordered.
Through the years, my defiance has gotten me into a lot of trouble. It’s put me at odds with supervisors, clients and friends. It has definitely caused some fights between my husband and me.
When it comes to my writing, though, I can use my defiance to my advantage. True, I often rebel against my own action plans and schedules. That’s okay, as long as things get done in a reasonable time frame, and deadlines are met.
So where does all this defiance help out? It helps when no one but me really cares whether I write or not; when no one thinks I will ever get anywhere as a screenwriter. I’m too old to start, the jobs are too hard to get, and I don’t know the right people. Sometimes the messages come from family and friends, and sometimes from inside me. My defiance says “I’ll prove you wrong.” Sometimes it says “That may be true for the rest of the world, but not for me.”
You can call it tenacity, fortitude, persistence, dedication or self-discipline. All of those words are applicable to my pursuit of a screenwriting career. But when I’m sitting in front of my computer writing a screenplay, it doesn’t feel like any of those words apply. It feels like I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It feels like home.
That’s where my good friend Defiance steps up and says, “I will do this for a living, because I’m good at it. Nothing anyone says can stop me.”
The topic in the forefront of my mind lately has been the TV vs. Movie-writing debate. At a Christmas party last month, I met several new people, one of whom instantly called me a sellout when I mentioned I want to work in TV.
It wasn’t the first time that had happened, either. In the Big Apple, screenwriters are all about their indie features and much too sophisticated to ever sit down in front of the small screen (unless it’s to watch “Mad Men,” which is politically acceptable). It might be different in LA, but New Yorkers seem to still consider the world of TV beneath them.
Since my blog is called karenlovestv, you won’t be surprised that I don’t feel that way. In fact, I think that it’s very difficult to find an indie feature (or any movie in the theater, for that matter) as enjoyable and well-written as a good TV drama. My current favorites are “American Horror Story” and “Sons of Anarchy.” I’m also a huge fan of “Shameless,” “Game of Thrones,” and am getting into “How to Make it in America.”
Since the casts of those shows include big-name movie stars, I have to assume that much of the world agrees with me that TV is the best entertainment available today. As a writer, I can’t imagine that anyone would prefer to write movies!
I can hear the screams from here. But hear me out…
1. Screenwriting is about saying a lot in a few words, and there is no way that can be done more effectively than in a 45 minute episode. Generally there are three or four story lines, each thematically linked (if it’s good) and emotionally satisfying on its own, telling each of those stories in an entertaining way with a beginning, middle and an end. In and out, quick and dirty. Amazing.
2. All of those individual episodes combine over a season or several seasons to tell your story in its fullest and most satisfying and indulgent way. The writer is the first to fall in love with the characters, and then week by week, gets to see millions of people fall in love with them, too.
3. Writing in a team ensures that the vision of the series is respected, the quality stays good, and no one person is responsible for the brilliance of any particular episode. That means that if you have a good team, the end result is better than any one person could come up with. It’s simultaneously humbling and a great relief. You can roll up your sleeves and check your ego at the door.
4. The better the writing is, the more the director, actors and everyone else involved have to work with. That means, they can see things happening and bring new layers to the story that the writers didn’t even know were there. By doing their jobs, they make you look good. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than hearing dialogue I wrote come out of a gifted actor’s mouth, conveying something better than I intended. To have that happen on a weekly basis?… priceless.
5. To write for a living with a steady paycheck, benefits and great money is something most filmmakers don’t get to experience often. For me, it will be a dream come true. And it will be fun to work with other people who feel the same.
6. What a great example it would be for my kids to have a mom who went after her dreams and used her talents and hard work to achieve them. I believe that just going after them has a huge impact on their lives, not to mention the sense of fulfillment I get from using my talents every day. Way better than Prozac.
So the next time someone accuses me of selling out, I can smile to myself. I know the truth. TV is where I’d rather be.
December 31, 2011
It’s been a relaxing week off, but I’ve still managed to get my writing hours in. True, I haven’t had to get up at five to do it. It’s crazy when sleeping until 6am feels like slacking! Reality check, Karen. Yet taking a nap at 2pm feels completely justified. Ah, well…
It’s New Years Eve, which is the perfect time to examine the past and plan for the future. You may notice I have a thing for the number nine.
Victories of 2010:
1. The first six months were spent slogging through several drafts of the still unfinished “Salai’s Secret.” That’s the current title of the original pilot I’ve been working on for two years. It has a nickname – SS.
2. Over the summer I took a break from SS to work on my spec for “The Vampire Diaries.” It was hard work, a lot of fun, and by September I finally had a finished script. Yes, it’s my first one, with three or four others in various stages of rewriting.
3. September through November saw another draft of SS, and another abandonment of the same.
4. December was for breaking down White Collar for the spec I am writing and learning the series backwards and forwards.
5. I finished a two-year class I was taking, learned a whole lot, and was invited to continue in a more advanced capacity with the school.
6. I learned to Network. Yes, me. I fearlessly marched up to a person I did not know, stuck out my hand and introduced myself. That was the first time I noticed the fear in other people’s eyes. And the relief they felt when someone else made the first move. Everyone is happy to get a chance to talk about themselves, and even happier to have someone listen to them. We all think the world revolves around us, after all. The secret to networking is to let it revolve around someone else for a while. It’s easier than we think.
7. I made some friends, learned that I know quite a few people in the industry, and started Social Networking (finally). I still think it’s a huge time-sucker, but I am willing to play the game. I also overcame my fear of the internet being written in indelible ink, so I could start this blog. I hope it helps someone. I always love to hear about people’s process and the concrete steps they take. I’m very practical, for a screenwriter.
8. Last March or April, I realized that if I were going to get my writing hours in every week, I’d need to get up at five and write before the interruptions and activity of the world took over my day. It’s been a struggle at times, but I’ve come back to it over and over. It’s the best decision I’ve made since I accepted I couldn’t teach myself to write screenplays from books. If I hadn’t taken that class back in 2009, I’d still be in Act One.
9. As a direct result of all of the above, I have let go of any fear or shame about calling myself a screenwriter. If nothing else, getting up at 5am to write every day has earned me the title. In any company, I can hold my head high. If I met Quentin Tarantino or Nora Ephron tomorrow, I would introduce myself as a screenwriter. There was a time I was too embarrassed to say that to a neighbor.
Writing Goals for 2012:
I know, I already told you my New Year’s Resolutions. This is different.
1. Finish my White Collar spec by March.
2. Find a collaborator to help finish SS, or at least take it to some stage of completion by June.
3. Work on another spec over the summer (or, preferably, work as a writer for money), and finish it by September.
4. For the fall, I’ll choose between the indie feature that was my first script and needs a couple more drafts, or write the pilot for Showtime I’ve been kicking around.
5. Read and evaluate scripts for school, friends, experience and/or money. Learn something from every one of them. Give feedback in a positive, supportive way with honest recommendations about what each script needs to come together (in my opinion).
6. Try collaborating.
7. Meet deadlines, whether set by self, teacher or industry professionals. Show up, and show up some more. Finish stuff.
8. Keep reading scripts, books, watching movies and TV and soaking up the industry. Make sure to take time out for living life and having new experiences.
9. Apply for Fellowships, jobs, agents, and put myself out there in every way I can think of. This is the year my career as a screenwriter begins.
In the meantime, Happy Writing!
December 29, 2011
The second day of my blog, and I already have a success to report! Okay, it’s not a very big one, but I made it to the quarter-finals of a contest I entered. Since it was my first TV spec, and the first screenplay I actually finished (if there is such a thing), I’m taking it as a good sign that I am on the right track. It’s also valuable feedback because it comes from an impartial source. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the announcement of semi-finals in the end of January.
This morning, my writing time was devoted to outlining and revising the story for the first draft of another TV spec I am writing. It was hard to get started but very productive once I got over that hurdle. Isn’t that always the way? Like I tell my kids, the only thing we can control is how much effort we put in.
Since the kids are on vacation, we’ll be braving the cold to visit some friends in Brooklyn today. It’s difficult to tear myself away from the computer, but we all need some life in our lives. Happy writing!