Lies we tell ourselves as writers have a direct impact on our potential success. Don’t believe me? Fine, let’s put this idea under the microscope … Ten years ago, I was a young single Mum working out of my kitchen. I’d just finished uni; I had a few scripts in my portfolio, but I had no money – so little, in fact, I couldn’t even take the literary agent’s assistant job offered to me in London or indeed the otherwise unconditional MA offer I’d also received.
In other words, the odds were against me and there were some MAHOOSIVE obstacles in my way. It would have been easy to say all my efforts had been for nothing and I was screwed.
But instead, I decided to turn it around: I would still get where I wanted to be, I would just take another route. I had an internet connection and the will to make something happen. And I did, ‘cos here you are reading about my journey.
‘Get Out of Jail Free’
I credit this not just to having a strategy, being an optimist or to the generosity of others, but also to the fact I do not allow myself what I call “get out of jail free” cards, which are those excuses and lies ALL OF US make from time to time when it comes to our writing, or our place in the pecking order of the industry.
The key is not *not* making these excuses and lies. Yes we can all feel sorry for ourselves, especially in the face of a raft of rejections, we’re only human. But in recognising these excuses and lies for what they are, we blast them out of our consciousness and replace them with strategic moves instead!
But what are these lies writers tell themselves? My top 10:
10. I don’t need permission for *my* ideas.
Damn straight – but then no one is asking you to get permission for them. And if they are, they don’t know what they’re doing: run away – and fast.
What DOES the industry want from writers then, when it talks about making sure ideas work? They want central concepts that stand up to scrutiny. Industry people want YOU, the writer, to be know what you’re doing: you need to know what your story is at grass roots level (via that logline or short pitch), plus anything else that warrants attention when attempting to sell it “off the page”, such as its characters and their motivations; how the story would play out (linear? Non-linear? arthouse/experimental?); or the genre, tone or theme of the story.
In other words, make sure your ideas work.
9. **I** know what I mean.
Great. Please read your work to yourself in a darkened room. The End.
8. “It’s better if I just start writing” aka “I don’t need shackling”.
NEWSFLASH: it’s helluva lot easier if you do number 10 BEFORE you start on the draft, else you may just end up trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Of course, nothing is *impossible*, but it ain’t gonna be pretty. Why make life more difficult for yourself?
But fine, I get it: you’re in love with your idea and its possibilities and you’re just SURE no one has ever seen anything like it before. Why *would* you want a load of “don’ts”, when you want to concentrate on the DOs? Anyone who recommends putting the prep in is a nasty party pooper: Booooo! Hissss!
Well, you asked … Because of this:
Screenplays and novels with solid, bombproof central concepts are most likely to sell and/or garner you attention from the industry. It’s as simple as that. What’s more, you’re far less likely to go around the houses and/or fall into the “usual” traps, such as cliched openers, icky stock characters or those dreaded Zeitgeist Stories.
Work on your ideas … Advance faster in your career. Boom! Done.
7. It IS the “same … but different” aka “it’s better than most of the shit out there.”
Producers want the “same but different” – and so do audiences. We know this. Writers may accept this with great enthusiasm, or they may lament the industry is one big sausage factory. The end result is still the same: we end up with a big fat pile of samey stories.
You want the “same … but different”? You need persuade readers, producers, agents and execs you are aware of the concept of “pre-sold”, yet can STILL offer a new take on it no one has ever seen before.
Yeah, yeah there are loads of supposedly new takes produced that aren’t really – that’s not your concern.
What IS your concern: bringing a brilliant, new idea to the table that is so OBVIOUS and BRILLIANT people will ask, “Why the hell haven’t I seen this before???”
But to do this, you need to immerse yourself in what has gone before. There’s no other way around it I’m afraid!
6. Talent can’t be taught.
Well, durr. And your point is? Usually when this one rears its ugly head, the writer in question is grasping at straws in some ill-advised rant somewhere in the darkest corners of the interwebz. Avoid at all costs.
5. It’s the execution that counts.
Can’t we put this to bed now? Whilst at surface level there may be genres and subgenres that *appear* the same (such as the group of friends who go into the woods or similar and get picked off by a “Monstrous Other”, like a supernatural beast or serial killer), each and every one has a very different HOOK. The hook is that *thing* that attracts readers, execs, agents and filmmakers – and your potential audience. None are the same. Don’t believe me? Here are 6 movies, with 3 premises, with 6 different hooks.
Now, repeat after me: it is NOT the execution that counts …
4. It’s all about the writer’s voice.
… Except when it’s NOT!! Look, I agree: the world does not need any more vanilla screenplays or novels – we want vibrant, real, flamboyant writers’ voices that reach up off the page and poke us in the eyes!
But it’s not JUST about writer’s voice I’m afraid. I have read some GREAT writers’ voices who’ve ground to a halt in their careers, simply because their ideas are derivative (number 7) or confused (number 10) or because they’re too difficult to work with in real life (number 9), or even because they never finish their scripts (numbers 2 & 1).
But guess what? Combine your fantastic voice with a fabulous, bombproof concept and super-duper writing? BOOM! Suddenly everyone will want you and/or your work. What’s not to like?
3. Structure is just a formula.
Structure is NOT a formula. Structure is the way human beings understand the world. There is structure everywhere, not just in stories.
Maybe you’re reading at this work? (Naughty writers). Your day’s work is structured: it begins; you work during the morning; have lunch (hopefully); work in the afternoon; then you go home.
Your turn: WELL DURR. But wait a sec: the above description can be *any* job. What you do IN that time will mark out WHO you are and WHAT you do for a living, whether you’re a builder, a brain surgeon, a script reader or a web monkey.
It’s the same for characters in screenplays and novels.
They require a structure – nobody cares how you do it. As long as you do it. And of course there are no rules FFS – but there are ALWAYS ways of grabbing people’s attention, in ways they haven’t seen before. Human beings prize novelty – never forget that.
2. Just one more set of notes and it’s done.
I see so many writers caught up in a kind of repetition compulsion: write a draft; send it for feedback; utilise feedback; write a new draft; send for feedback … and so the cycle goes on. Sometimes for YEARS.
If you want to advance in your writing career, you need to realise one thing: you MUST NOT write too much.
WTF? A writer writes, you say.
Of course, I say: but it’s not just about the writing. It’s also about the reading, the thinking, the talking, the networking, the GETTING OUT AND THERE AND DOING IT.
1. It’s not finished yet.
This may seem obvious. And it is. But you must finish.
As Lee Jessup states in this great blog, time is NOT on your side. You should be producing new work all the time. You should have a strategy to measure this work’s success (or not) against. And if that idea or draft fails to attract anything or anyone? Then you need to let it go and concentrate on the next one.
Nothing is wasted. There’s always ways to put old stuff into new stuff – and projects do spookily come back to life. I’m working on one such project at the moment: originally written ten years ago, the writer has had it optioned several times, yet it never came to fruition for a multitude of reasons. Now we are revamping it – though crucially, it is very different. What’s more, had that writer not let it go, but tried hawking it over and over? He would have stood still. Because he let it go, it has come full circle again on the back of other projects that DID work out … because he moved on.
You must have the guts to finish and move on, where necessary.
Because what else is there?