Faking it is a bullshit way to become a pro writer

I'm just as real as everyone else! (image from about a million Pinterest sites)
I’m just as real as everyone else! (image from about a million Pinterest sites)

(Hey, guess what? You can now find The OtherLife Journals on Medium!)

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a brand-new screenwriter with a real project at stake was that I was afraid to ask questions about my craft and my role. What did Real Movie People expect from a professional writer? I had no idea. I knew it was my job to write the script, but that’s like knowing your job is to wash the car. What do real car-washers do? Where do they start? What are the best tools? What are the most important parts to get right? Where’s the gruff-but-kindly gum-chewing grey-haired woman in greasy overalls who gives me a bucket and tells me Kid, make sure you close the windows tight, don’t use a stiff brush, and remember who owns the car?

I got instructions on proper screenplay formatting from books. I found lots of internet posts about the importance of pithy, active, visual storytelling, which were inspiring but not by themselves terribly useful. What I badly needed was specific writing advice on structuring screen stories, sequences and scenes driven by clear externalized goals.

Hard-won pro tip #1 to character-driven-novelists-turning-screenwriters: Feelings are not plot. You need both. I’m sorry. You actually need both in novels too, but you can get away with, for example, a single plot event engendering a whole chapter of feelz. This prose strategy, like so many, is not directly transferrable to scripts, and will not create a selling screenplay for you. Ask me how I know. ←

I also badly needed specific working-writer advice on attitude and approach. Who gets to decide what the story is? As the writer, was I supposed to fiercely defend the movie in my head against all challenges? Or was I supposed to change things up every time someone said boo? Were some people’s notes more important than others? If people didn’t understand the story, or didn’t like it, or wanted to change it, did that mean I was a bad writer? Wouldn’t everyone love it if it were good enough?

I needed to learn everything. But I was afraid to slow down and ask anyone. So I dove in and learned by doing, as I have done with most everything in my life. This is a great skill to have when you need it, when you have to make a wild-ass leap and take your best shot before you are ready. It is a bullshit way to become a professional.

I flailed my way into a place where people began responding to parts of the script with enthusiasm, and I didn’t feel so panicked all the time. What I should have done right then, the very first non-panicked minute, was find the best screenwriting workshop I could (I highly recommend this one), read the hundreds of scripts I should already have read by that point, hunt down writing analysis of scripts online, and et cetera. But I didn’t. Instead I started figuring out by myself what parts of my script people were liking, and how to apply those same principles to the parts that they didn’t.

As I continued to write version after version of OtherLife, I did learn some good craft from notes, from conversations, from blog posts, from sheer stubbornness. Unfortunately, I also learned a bunch of bad craft from those same sources. Most people who gave me specific notes were not working writers themselves, and didn’t know jack shit about how to fix what was troubling them. That didn’t stop them from giving me specific writing instructions, which I did my best to execute because they were producers and managers and agents: they knew what successful films looked like, and I assumed, hoped, clung to the belief that this meant they knew what worked in scripts.

Well, sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they were simply chasing money: a distributor was looking for a film that did x, and if we did x with our film they would read it. So off I went and did x to the best of my ability, often without the right tools. I wrote a lot of perfectly mediocre scenes — good story ideas uninterestingly executed, or over-explained, or too tightly packed because my developmental producer recoiled at anything that smacked to him of exposition.

Hard-won pro tip #2: Explaining is necessary in movies. We need context. We can’t read the minds of characters on screen like we can in novels. And showing — action without words — is important but not usually emotionally sufficient. At some point someone has to explain themselves, or the situation, or the other person, plainly enough that we get it. This is exposition. The skill is in doing it so that it becomes integral to the film moment we are in: the “visitor’s hall/science exhibit” of Jurassic Park is brilliant exposition, pure infodump wrapped in the skin of a theme park thrill ride. Context revealed through conflict — another excellent strategy for exposition, for great examples see every episode of Firefly — is something I understood intuitively early on, but had no vocabulary or conscious tools for. Understanding is good, but having conscious tools and knowing when to use them is what makes you a pro. ←

Other times, when told to do x, I had to stand my my ground and explain that x would completely derail the film because of the changes we would need in the rest of the script to support x if they wanted x make any fucking sense to the audience. Have you seen those movies where things just suddenly…happen? Those Wait, what? moments — that’s someone’s x, right there.

Hard-won pro tip #3: Even small changes to plot and character ripple forward and backwards through the script. This is just the same as short stories and novels, so stick to your guns and be super-specific about what Big Thing will break if this little thing is wodged into the script to make the distributor happy. Because when that Big Thing doesn’t make sense on the screen, no one will blame the distributor. They may not blame you either, but if you didn’t fight for it you will blame yourself. If they insist on the wodging, then do your best to handle the ripples, no matter how inclined you are to let them hang themselves with their own stupid choice. Because it’s your script until they take it away from you; and when they do, don’t you want it to be as strong as it can be even with its fractures? Because that’s your job. ←

Sometimes the people giving notes were absolutely right about the problem, but didn’t offer solutions. They were respecting my role as the writer: they expected me to go away and fix it. That was scary. I could handle trying to implement someone else’s ideas, and I could handle sticking to my guns when I knew an idea was fundamentally broken. But I didn’t know how to do pro-level diagnosis and identify the best solutions, because I hadn’t learned enough and I wouldn’t stop to get that help. Instead I went back to flailing. Sometimes I stumbled onto the right path, and I’m pretty proud overall of the script that made the Australian producers and director want to take on the film. But I could have gotten there much faster.

What was I so afraid of? Well, the surface-level fear was that I had to appear totally professional or I would be replaced. This fear is not unfounded: professionalism is a real thing, especially in a process-oriented creative industry. People making production decisions want a team they believe will do the job without babysitting or personal drama. This belief is based on some combination of credits, reputation, and previous working relationship. That’s one reason it’s such a hard business to break into (for anyone in any creative and/or technical role), and why I was afraid of shooting myself in the foot.

I spent two years terrified on a regular basis of being fired from the project. I didn’t realize until much later that the producers weren’t likely to hire a more professional writer unless another studio, mini-major, or distributor with deep pockets came along, because there would be no more development money until then. Even so, they had the right to replace me: and I knew that anyone bankrolling the film would replace me as part of the deal unless I could be That Perfect. So I continued to wrestle through on my own, with all the big mistakes and stress that any reasonable person except me would have seen coming like a mile-high train down five miles of straight track. Every time I got critical feedback about all the things that were wrong, I felt sad and angry and afraid, and sometimes I made dumb writing choices out of those feelings. Every time I got positive feedback about how someone loved the script, it reinforced my belief that my approach was the the right one: look, I was a better writer! Until the next round of criticism or rejection.

And I didn’t understand that all I had to do was to learn from others. It astonishes me now. I’m good at learning, and I’m good at helping other people learn. It’s one of my great strengths, and for years I turned it inside out and made it into a great weakness. I bought into the idea that in order to survive, I had to “just know” what I was doing. I believed that “acting as if” would magically transmute into “being real” someday. I believed that if I couldn’t do it all by myself, I wasn’t really a writer. And so I couldn’t be vulnerable: not to OtherLife people, not to other writers, not to anyone.

I cannot overstate how abysmally stupid this is. And I have lately come to understand that I have done it before, and that it has been the single biggest slowdown to my learning and growth as a writer and as a human being.

Hard-won pro tip #4: Do not make this choice. ←

I know where a lot of this “need to do it myself” comes from. I don’t think the underlying psychology is special or particular to me. I do think it’s frighteningly counterproductive. It is based in fear, and fear does not help us grow and improve as humans or writers or anything else. Ever. There are better ways to learn, in which we must be brave enough to reach out to others for help; to make mistakes; to practice until we get it right, however long it takes; to deal with how fucking long it takes sometimes; to keep going. We have to do our own work: but we do not need to be driven by fear off the nearest cliff just to prove that we can fly all by ourselves — or to prove that at least we know how to take a landing.

So I’m learning.

The OtherLife Journals are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking. Find them on this blog or on Medium.

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