Stuck In A Rut
Is your writing stuck in a rut? You’re not alone.
It’s been a week since I posted *that* post about avoiding low budget depressing drama & high budget science fiction/fantasy spec scripts if you want to stand out from the crowd … And what a week!
Some writers have been expressing: AMAZEBALLS! I TOTALLY GET IT! INVEST IN IDEAS! YAAAY!
Others have been decidedly lukewarm: *Grumble grumble* MY SCRIPT IS ONE OF THOSE AND I HAVEN’T GOT ANY LEADS SO I “SPOSE” YOU “COULD” BE RIGHT *Grumble* …
And others have said, point-blank: YOU’RE TOTALLY WRONG, GET BACK IN YOUR HOLE, DON’T TELL US WOT TO WRITE YOU EVIIIIIIIIIL SCRIPT READERY NAZI BOOOOOOOOOOO!
Now first up, I’m not telling anyone what to write. Like I say in the actual post, I am suggesting moving “sideways” and differentiating, in order to get noticed (I would have thought the header would have given it away).
But anyway, so we’re clear: I like drama; I like science fiction and fantasy – *and* of course it’s always possible to get a reader’s attention with a drama or science fiction/fantasy … as long as you have something new.
Also, to the people who’ve told me that as spec writers it’s “all a learning curve” and they should find out for themselves … I agree! Every person makes their OWN journey.
But this is mine, in demystifying the spec pile. So if it doesn’t suit or interest you, don’t read this blog or follow B2W. Off you go. Bye!
Still here? Great! Where was I? Oh yeah …
… I talk to writers – screenwriters, novelists and filmmakers. A LOT. Some are wet-behind-the-ears new; others are professional. Most are somewhere in the middle.
And it’s these writers whom I find are the most frustrated and stuck in a rut. I remember going through this myself. I think all writers do at some point.
So I get it: these writers KNOW a fair bit about the craft … They work hard … They have a good portfolio … They’ve had plenty of read requests and got some good feedback … Maybe they’ve had a contest win or high placings … Or maybe they’ve been talking to agents and producers and/or snagged the odd meeting or three.
… Yet still *that* breakthrough eludes them.
Help Me, Obi Wan
It’s at this point these writers will often come to me and ask, “What do I do? I feel like my writing’s stuck in a rut”.
Now my advice will obviously depend on the individual writer and where I feel they’re *at*. (Plus it’s only my opinion, though it’s worth remembering this industry is built on just that – opinions!).
But very infrequently does that writer turn around and say …
“Hey yeah, I’ll try that! Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? I feel like I’m standing still anyway.”
Instead, though they may not realise it’s what they’re doing, they will be resistant to my advice.
That’s right: even though they asked for it.
It’s a bit like when your mate who has a HORRIBLE (note – not abusive) partner comes to you and says, “Oh my life is terrible! Every day is a nightmare with him/her. What should I do?”
The answer is clear to you: Dump him/her. One thing – bam! Life will be improved by about a million per cent. Yet your mate can’t see it. It’s almost like s/he WANTS to have this horrible time. Like they’re getting a negative kind of satisfaction out of it.
And it’s the same with some writers: it’s like they WANT to struggle and say everything is against them … And these tales of woe will fill up Twitter and Facebook every time things don’t go those writers’ way, but ESPECIALLY around the time contests and initiatives announce their shortlists. Very often, these same writers will also be incredulous, saying “WHY aren’t I getting anywhere? MY work is so much better (than this script or movie that won/did well)!”
So here’s 7 possible ways your writing is stuck in a rut. Have you said any of these?
1) “If we keep on doing what what we’re doing, we’ll get somewhere”.
Yes! And No. It depends. And as unfashionable as it is to say this, it’s perfectly possible to work like a dog and get absolutely nowhere. Everyone’s got a story about *this producer* or *that agent* saying to writers, “C’mon on in, the water’s warm!”
Yes, it IS warm. But it’s also INFESTED WITH SHARKS and you’ll get your legs bitten off before you end up collapsing, bleeding and exhausted on the shaley, stony shores of PROFESSIONAL WRITER LAND. Once you’re there, you’ll be called a “new writer” for about twenty years, despite having a stack of credits/published work, an agent and a Wikipedia, IMDB page or blog/social network as long as your arm.
You’ll still be hustling for work of course – that never stops – only this time, you’ll be up against a bunch of ACTUAL “new writers” who blithely tell you if you just write something good enough you’ll get your stuff made or published. And you can’t bear to break it to them that actually, projects go tits up for all manner of insane reasons that aren’t even remotely your fault – so I will instead, in this blog post. HARSH. But seriously, give up this notion of “making it” … No one ever really does. Except for the ones that do. So don’t wait for any sort of validation that you’re a “professional writer”, ‘cos it ain’t coming.
2) “No one person is the same: we’re all unique, with unique experiences, thus our work must be unique.”
Yep: we’re all individuals, that much is true. You may have lived through loads of stuff that’s interesting to you and your family or friends. But unless it’s REALLY crazy like …
- winning a high stakes game show (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE)
- or you were a self-taught single Mom who took on the sleazy corporations and won (ERIN BROCKAVICH)
- or you had your baby stolen by a dingo (A CRY IN THE DARK)
Then chances are the average person “out there” ain’t interested. We don’t want to just hear about “your life”. We want stories that are LARGER THAN LIFE. If it’s literally true, the madder and more unlikely the better.
And in addition to all of the above, it’s also worth remembering we’re also part of a collective culture. We’re exposed to the same things & experiences, at the same time. This means we all buy into a notion of a “universal norms and values”, whether we recognise them or not.
So whilst *you* are an individual, you’re also part of what is essentially a herd.
This means there’s all kinds of stories and truths we all buy into. From here is frequently where collective responses (ie. cliche) springs.
So next time you think you’re unique, thus your work must be … think again. Is it you, the individual writing it, *whatever* it is – or you, as part of the herd?
The difference is subtle, but it’s like chalk and cheese – shit! Cliche. You know what I mean. AND YOU REEEEEAAALLLY DO.
3) “This (MOVIE) or (PROGRAMME) or (NOVEL) sold/ got made.”
… And your point is? Things will always get made, including really boring and hackneyed stuff. Why? Because the people developing it don’t think it’s boring or hackneyed. Sometimes they’re wrong and it bombs. Other times, inexplicably, it works *for whatever reason*.
Sometimes it spawns demand for more and producers end up in a frenzied rush to find The Next One, though nearly always from those “new writers” who aren’t really new writers at all (see 1).
And sometimes that new-writer-who-isn’t-really-a-new-writer will get hired on movies and shows and tie-in novels and have to enact INSANE notes that make no sense that drive the fans so mad they try and tell that new-writer-who-isn’t-a-new-writer how s/he *should* have written it! Niiiiiice.
And so the sausage factory goes grinding on … Until someone brings The Next Big Thing.
4) “Originality is overrated anyway.”
This is usually another interpretation of the “it’s Execution that counts” argument. So let’s consider it this way …
There’s 20 things in front of you, let’s say cakes. 15 of them are vanilla; 2 are chocolate. The last 3 are three very different, distinct favours: let’s say coconut, almond & mixed spice.
Oh! And what luck, you happen to like all those flavours … Except, you don’t want vanilla. You want one that no one else has got … so coconut, almond or mixed spice is top of the list. But failing that, one of the chocolate ones.
Why? Because the less there is of something, the more we want it: it has more “value” to us. It’s just part of the human condition.
Now let’s go back to scripts … Those chocolate ones are those concepts that never going away (Revenge Thrillers, Haunted House stories, body swap comedies). The distinct flavours are those super deluxe concepts that come out of nowhere where we all think, “Why didn’t I think of that??” (and frequently spawn franchises or series after series) …. Aaaand you guessed it: the vanillas are those samey stories.
So yes, technically anything can happen and your script/vanilla cake *can* get picked … But in reality, how likely is it, when it’s the same as the rest?
We’re only human, we WANT to be the ones that discovered “The Next Big Thing”. The more original it *seems* (within that notion of “pre-sold”), the more “value” it has. That’s just the way it is.
So whilst we ALL love cake, some cakes have more appeal than others … And it’s wise to know what that appeal is and why.
5) “I’m doing the “Same … But Different” already!”
When we start out writing, just about all of us write principally for ourselves. Just getting words on paper is an achievement. We look at the page, filled up with stuff we put there and are AMAZED. And good for us.
But then we move on, get more experience and suddenly that first script or novel isn’t the best we can do anymore … and we may even get a little bit embarrassed by it.
So around this time writers will realise the industry is all about “The Same … But Different” and the whole “pre-sold” notion … and their first mistake is concentrating too much on the “same” and not enough on the “different”. So they write scripts that feel like a story that’s already been told and when it goes nowhere, those writers complain, usually using arguments 3) & 4).
6) “You Should/Should Not Write What You Know/Like.”
“Write What You Know” is a bunch of BS peddled by people who should know better. Imagine saying that to the likes of a young HG Wells. Writing scripts and fiction should stretch you and take you to places you never knew existed, either literal or metaphorical, else what’s the point?
But equally, you can take it too far as well. Trying too hard to be “different” is as bad as staying within your comfort zone. Like anything, it’s about balance. But you know this really, c’mon.
7) “Yeah but … If you write something well enough, it will get a deal eventually.”
The good news: this is true. The bad news: it’s not true.
See 1) for starters but also … Why the hell are you waiting? “Eventually” — when’s that?? You could be hit by a bus tomorrow (another cliche alert) … Life’s too short (and another!). This is usually the part when writers tell me it’s all down to Lady Luck (cliche meltdown!).
But what if I told you it’s actually not about waiting, praying, that someone will see how great your work is – but rather, MAKING it happen?
And it’s all about realising this … seriously, this will SET YOU FREE!!
Yeah, yeah execution might count if you want to use your screenplay as a SAMPLE … But even then, the great sample that unlocks doors is all about the kick ass concept, too.
I have never, ever written the note: “This is too original“. I have however written that a script or novel ” … needs to differentiate from (THIS MOVIE) or (THAT TV SERIES) or (THIS NOVEL)”. Countless times. Every project needs its own Unique Selling Point. Why? Because of this:
Mediocre concept + great writing = no sale.
Great concept + mediocre writing = sale.
I’ve seen both of the above, countless times. I have been left in zero doubt. I’ve seen fabulous writing cast by the wayside for great concepts, over and over and over, especially in scriptwriting, but also in the novel writing world too.
I’ve written before I wrote my novel and it sold a month after I finished. An editor said to my agent in an email, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it”. And she didn’t mean how great my prose was, much as I’d have liked her to … It was the concept that made it fly.
Rightly or wrongly, “just” writing well does not cut it. But that doesn’t mean we can just sit on our hands and say craft doesn’t matter. That’s another way of getting stuck in a rut. So, for our best chances of sale?
Great concept + great writing = EVERYBODY WINS.
(That’s assuming of course your great writing doesn’t get developed to death, of course). But hey! We’re optimists here.
Don’t Get Stuck In A Rut
So to recap, if you don’t want to get stuck in a rut? You need to invest your concept, premise, controlling idea – whatever you call it. From this acorn, big oak trees grow and all that.
Yes yes that’s another cliche … but it’s actually useful this time. Without a proper seed, your story can’t grow. Seriously. It will wither and die. Now can you see?
So don’t get stuck in a rut, find that great concept. Road-test it, make it bombproof. You got this!
I understand what you’re saying here but surely that leads to the fear that someone will steal your concept if that’s what really sells it to producers. It’s all very well saying that ideas are ten a penny, it’s the execution which counts, but your experience seems to give the lie to that. It seems great ideas/concepts are not that common which suggests they need guarding carefully until they are fleshed out. So what about the testing your premise out with lots of people advice? I haven’t worried about people stealing my ideas for years. Now I’m not sure. Perhaps I’m having a paranoid morning.
Fact is Helen, YES, anyone can “steal” your idea – because you can’t copyright them. So whether you talk about your great concept at idea level, or let someone read your script when it’s fleshed out as you say, it will NEVER be safe … because you can’t copyright ideas. And thank God for that, else we’d soon run out of stuff to write about!
And it’s true, great concepts ARE like gold dust … But here’s the rub. You can’t usually just dream a fantastic – and whole! – concept into being *just like that*, on your own. Like writing actual drafts, you NEED feedback … because there will be obvious oversights, missed opportunities and things you can’t necessarily be privy to, because 2 (or more) heads ARE better than one.
So what’s the answer, especially if you’re the paranoid type? Simple. Ensure you create a trusted circle of feedback-givers. The same as you would for your drafts.
Tell everyone. Absolutely bloody everyone. See what sticks. See what doesn’t. Conduct market research. Splurge your ideas everywhere. Be known as the ideas wo/man. Get everything you need in terms of riffing your ideas off other people … creating something out of the MANY different bits of feedback you get … which will inevitably be quite different to what you first conceived.
Concept SELLS. Loved your write up!