Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Writing: Beginning

I get paid to write. Writing, when you do it every day, for money, is a tricky little job. When you do it well, you change people's lives. When you do it poorly, you also change people's lives, by, say, bankrupting their studio or crushing their career. But I digress.

I'll be posting a bit later the first installment of dispatches from working writer-hood. Many people who don't write for a living have some romantic ideas about how it goes. Even those film school students who consider themselves savvy usually get beaten about the head and shoulders for the first year or so of their careers. These articles are not about following your bliss, or finding your vision, or whatever. There are countless, countless books on that side of the "creative process". These articles will be about about developing stories, finding act breaks, choosing viewpoint, and generally putting words, tens of thousands of words, on paper every year, year in and out.

Before we get into the ugly bits, I thought I'd start with a sort of overview of my role in Hollwyood.

It is very, very small.

In the five-ish years I've been in LA (not counting the three in New York working on Cosby) I have written three half-hour TV pilots, one one-hour TV pilot, three two-hour TV movies and multiple drafts of 18 different feature films. By the end of this year the count should be an even 20.

I don't say this so you can goggle at my resume. I point to this and remind you, that, despite what would seem to a young film student to be a prodigious amount of work, YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD OF ME. That's one of the first adjustments you have to make when coming out here. As a novelist, you ARE the process. As a stand-up comic, you ARE the process. As a screenwriter, you are PART of the process. What winds up on screen, what tiny percentage of what you do that winds up on screen (I'm considered to have a decent average at 16%, for God's sake ...) , after passing through the studio process and filming, is never -- never -- exactly what you wrote. Sometimes it's NOTHING like what you wrote. And the second, the millisecond you let that get to you and stop caring, stop fighting for the script you believe in -- you're a hack, and you don't even have your identity anymore.

Many, many writers would never do the work I do, or take the workload. That's cool for them. I LIKE writing too much. As much as I love working on my original material, I enjoy coming into broken projects and trying to fix them. Sometimes I intentionally take stuff that's been stuck for years just to see if I can be the guy to slog it out of the hole. (Sometimes, it should've stayed in the hole)

I am, in short, the Hollywood equivalent of a left-handed reliever.

To ease in, I'll start by excerpting the article I wrote for late lamented CHUD magazine MOVIE INSIDER about ...

23 comments:

Pierce said...

Yeah, but don't left-handed relievers make a few hundred grand per? Are you a power pitcher or more of a submariner? How's your slider?

1031 said...

First of all, lefty relievers, the good ones, can make upwards of a million a year, and they may only pitch to a single batter in a game.

Hell, the bench warmers are still getting $300,000 and they're lucky to get 100 at-bats a season.

Anyway, I have a question, John. You may be planning on getting to this later on, or it may not even apply to you, since you do this for a living, but...

I have a lot of stories bouncing around my head, and I've started writing many of them, and my problem seems to be that I can't pick just one to work on. The minute I start messing with a certain story, an idea for a different one pops into my head, and I keep going back and forth and I never seem to make much headway on any of them. I can't seem to keep concentration on just one, and it's not like I have ADD or anything...

Any (helpful) advice?

Sizemore said...

Ohhhhhh! A left-handed reliever is an American sports reference!

I honestly thought you were comparing yourself to the guy who keeps the cocks hard on a porno shoot.

I'm British so I'm allowed to jump to these conclusions.

I've been writing full time for almost a year now and I'm still trying to find my niche so it's refreshing to read someone being so candid on the subject. Thanks for sharing.

Pierce said...

Sure, the great relievers, or at least the ones with great agents, get big money. Arthur Rhodes will get 3.7M for the next two years despite pitching only 38 innings last year with a 5.12 ERA (he got a great long term deal a while back).

Sorry about the hijack - I love baseball. Carry on.

1031 said...

Believe me, I know Rhodes and his god-awful contract. My father is a Pirates fan from way back, which sorta makes me one, too (bigger Cards fan, though), and I was aghast when I read that Rhodes was part of the the deal that sent Kendall to Oakland.

Luckily, he was soon traded to the Indians for Matt Lawton...did I say luckily?

Oy, it's gonna be another long year for Bucs fans...

Pierce said...

Ah, a Cards fan. Damn good team. Love your manager too - La Russa's a class act. Lifelong Braves fan here. Yes, even before '91 - though it's easier to watch now.

1031 said...

Yeah, La Russa's good. That World Series was tough, though.

I'm not necessarily a Braves fan, but I've always admired what Cox and Schurholz have done there, especially last year. No matter what, they just keep winning the division.

Hope John's a baseball fan...

Pitchers and Catchers Report February 17th!!!

Anonymous said...

the chud link doesnt work for me, any help?

1031 said...

Try this one: CHUD

Rogers said...

Blogger's behaving weirdly -- the link to CHUD is over in the link list to the right.

Rogers said...

Advice on hopping from project to project, eh? It's my bane too, to tell you the truth. Hemingway (I think) used to say that each story only had so much vital energy, and that each time you told it, either in outline or even to yourself, you discharged the desire to write it.

Everyone has to work out their own process. When I get stuck, sometimes what I do is choose what is, to me, the most interesting moment in the story. Just write that. Then, back up out of it, writing what you need to get there, and also fill in what happens afterwards BECAUSE of it. Even if that moment is just a line of dialogue, or an image, get it down. Let that be the seed.

Anonymous said...

sorry, thought it was a direct link to what you wrote, not just the basic website. i could have found that easily while using common sense, but who wants to do that?

1031 said...

I like Hemingway paraphrase. That's exactly how it feels a lot of the time. Or when I talk about what I'm working on, and I'm not too far into it, I sorta lose a bit of passion for it. I need to stop that...

I like that idea, though, writing that key scene, or favorite scene, first, and then working around it...

Alex Epstein said...

Disagree with Hem about the energy stories have. I find they get better with the telling. Now, Hem was a bitter drunk and not a cheery Irishman, or he'd have known that.

I think the more often you tell a story out loud, the better it gets. And the more you're forced to keep it interesting. The boring parts, sure, they die off. But they should.

When you're in the writing room, don't you go through the beats to see if they work? And don't you hit bumps, and have to beat the bumps into submission?

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