You know what makes a good writer? Learning to write really, really good.
Nowadays, it seems like everybody’s a writer. Seriously. The guy who opened my bank account is writing a film script and I’m not even living in LA (I imagine it’s a hard-hitting drama about why I should get overdraft protection). The old joke that in Los Angeles everyone has a screenplay is now globally true — with the freedom of the Internet, anyone can do anything. And do it badly.
When did writing a script become as easy as scrambling eggs? When did crafting a story become the least important aspect of crafting a story?
Over the last couple of months, I’ve raved about the low-quality of online entertainment. Well, I’m going to point a quivering, judgmental finger at writing as one of the core problems.
For two years I worked as a screenplay reader. I must have read over 200 scripts — I can name 4 that were good. I believe it was two sci-fi films, one horror and one comedy (written by Simona Antonova — at 16, she out-wrote the hundreds of scripts I’ve read over the years. That, ladies and gentlemen, is talent). 4 scripts. Out of 200.
What’s my point? My point is that just because we have the freedom to create, doesn’t mean we get a pass on learning how to actually do it. It’s how San Francisco thinks that good theater is transsexuals talking about transexuality and good art is bad art because expression is expression and who are you to hate my expression, despite its significant inexpressiveness?
It’s an insult to people who dedicate their lives perfecting a craft. To people who, at the sake of just about everything, go into a career where, potentially, they will never, ever succeed. It’s an insult to artists.
So, here’s what I suggest. If you’re starting a new project, be it a film, a TV show, a web series, whatever — you have to do one of the three things below:
Thing 1 — figure out if you’re a writer and if you’re worth a damn.
I’ve published three plays that have been performed all over the world, I’ve written for a small network, I’ve created a fairly successful web series that has had amazing reviews in huge publications and I’ve survived (barely) as a freelance writer for a few years now. And yet, when people ask me what I do, I hesitate before I tell them. Why? Because Sorkin is a writer, because Woody Allen is a writer, because Shakespeare was a writer, and that’s not a club I necessarily see myself drinking tea with.
What I’m saying is, you know you’re a writer when you realize what it takes to be one. You know you’re a writer when after the 17th draft of something, you love it, and then a week later you hate it and start rewrites again. You know you’re a writer when you spend way too much time making sure a sentence has the exact amount of words to achieve maximum poignancy/comedy and then, a month later, re-read it and hate not just the sentence but the whole script.
Okay, maybe it’s a sign of being a neurotic writer — but you get my point. You’re a writer when your everything — your focus, your drive, your desire — is to write.
And even then — it’s a long path to being able to nod your head resolutely and say, “Yep, I’m a writer.”
Thing 2 — if you’re not a writer, find a writer.
If you realized you’re the only one who enjoys your scripts — find someone who’s better. Judge them from their scripts, their resume, their drive and then judge them again. As much as I dislike the impenetrable wall that is the agent’s office, I get it — there are so many awful writers who talk loudly and carry a tiny stick that you have to protect yourself from the countless amount of awful that throws itself your way.
So, find a good writer, hammer out a good script and you’re halfway there.
Thing 3 – if you’re not a writer, and can’t find someone to write for you, learn to do it.
It’s not easy, but it’s something — if you have a knack for it — you can learn. Read as many screenwriting books as you can. Don’t take it all verbatim, but learn structure, learn how stories are put together and for the love of God, learn how to properly format a script.
Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger is one of my favorite books on the matter, it’s an easy read and explains everything very simply.
Read other screenplays — professional ones — and see how they do things. You can read many of these for free online.
Watch TV shows, movies — anything that you love. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t know it yet but he’s my mentor. So is Woody Allen, and Neil Simon, and David Ives, and countless, countless others.
Write, write, write, write, write, write, write and when you’re done, keep writing, writing, writing, writing. If you want to truly be good at something, it has to become your life.
And that’s about it.
Every film, every show, every video has its own world and while the director, actor, cinematographer and editor help craft it, its God is the writer and the absolute last thing anyone wants to be is a lousy God.
Now go write something.
…and feel free to ask me any questions right here on my blog.