Just Write! – NaNoWriMo and Beyond

200_dYou know the saying. Every year around November it bubbles up to the general consciousness of nascent writers everywhere. “Just write something every day.” If only aspiring storytellers would heed that advice for more than a month.

Look, writing is hard. If it weren’t, everyone would be a successful author. But it’s more than just the practice-makes-perfect element at play. Sometimes, it’s also the fear of producing something less than an absolute masterpiece.

I hate to break it to you, but the vast majority of us will never create such a work. The key is to not let that stop you from writing. Or, to use another oft-cited cliché, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Storytime. A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless––though not like that guy in Manzoni’s novel––has been a writer for years. Decades even. He has ideas squirreled away, half-finished drafts and novel outlines. But the thing is, he never finishes a work. Oh, he’ll revisit them every few years and get excited, making new tweaks and edits, but nary a one has ever been published.a4-office-records-papers-documents-pile-of-documents-stack-of-documents-CPH5C0

Here’s the rub. Self-publishing is easy. Even for utter crap, it’s laughably simple these days. People upload literary garbage and release it into the wild on a daily basis, sloppy, unedited, and with covers a 6-year-old could design. But this friend? His writing is actually quite good. Better than much of the pap floating around Amazon these days, for sure. Yet his output fluctuates wildly and is often nonexistent. And when he does write, the end product invariably winds up in storage, not living up to his overly-ambitious standards.

He will never publish at this rate.

In ten years he has written bits of several books, screenplays, and treatments, stashing them away while lamenting the difficulties of an author’s life all the while. Meanwhile, in just two years I’ve published thirteen (including shorts collections), with my new five book sci-fi series coming out as a binge reader release (yes, shameless plug). TheClockworkChimera_3Dmockup_books1-5Now, my work is fun, but will by no means ever be considered classics of great literature. But guess what? That’s okay. And there are thousands of readers who enjoy it and look forward to the next release. Good is fine and keeps your momentum. Perfect may take a lifetime and result in just one book.

So take this as a cautionary tale of sorts. Use the momentum from NaNoWriMo to KEEP WRITING. Even 500 words over the course of a day will add up to 182,500 words by the end of a year. Most books are around 90k. That’s roughly 2 novels a year at that rate.

So write, finish, rewrite, polish, and have a professional copy editor fine-tooth comb your work. Then stop messing with it, release it, and move on to the next one. Though not perfect for everyone, that’s how the vast majority will grow as an author and build a body of work.

 

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Really Good Writers Sometimes Write Not-So-Good Material

Working on some fairly big features and television shows over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting but often overlooked occurrence. That of otherwise good writers putting out some truly wretched material.

Sometimes it’s too many chefs in the kitchen. We’ve all seen laundry list credits with scores of writers and story editors, all chipping in their two cents worth, but once in a while there’s the opportunity to observe a single writer’s “shooting script” of remarkable crappiness evolve into a dozen or so revision scripts, also of remarkable crappiness. Let me tell you, it can be pretty impressive, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Recently I had the opportunity to take a gander at some of the clunkiest dialogue I’ve read in years. I’m talking burn the script after 10 pages bad. Instant PASS bad. How does this person have a job writing bad. The twist is, this writer has previously penned a bunch of things I really enjoyed in the past. Apparently this particular assignment just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. I was torn, I wanted to like their work, but holy crap I just couldn’t.

And that’s the thing I began thinking about. Even seasoned pros sometimes blow it big time but keep getting a free pass. This fact really doesn’t do much for us aspiring screenwriters, once you’re established you can fail pretty spectacularly and still get work, but the takeaway for me at least is that a good many of us have quite likely written things objectively better than some seasoned pros. Will that knowledge get any of us work? Of course not. Can we keep that tidbit tucked away for those rainy days when we feel like our work just isn’t up to snuff and want to give up in a fit of frustration and foot stomping while howling at the moon in an angry tirade like a frustrated child with a bad case of colic? You bet your run-on sentences we can. (and that was a painful one to write).

I’m really just posting this as a little pep talk, an incentive to fellow writers, an objective bit of info that sometimes it’s not about the material as much as the connections and name you’ve built up.

Frustration happens and we all have self-doubt sometimes, just don’t let it stop you from writing.

The Value of Friendly Critiques, Script Doctors, and Story Coaching

Some script doctors are amazing at what they do, possessing an almost uncanny ability to cut to the chase and highlight what works and doesn’t in a story. An old friend of mine has this ability, though she is not in the industry, rather working as an attorney these days (but with a solid theater background). She’s fond of saying, “I can’t write to save my life, but I can dissect a story like nobody’s business.”

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach, but our industry may be one of the more notable exceptions to that rule.

I’ve read a lot of aspiring writers rant about having a script doctor review their work only to discover that person has not produced or optioned work of their own. While in many industries you need to have that sort of accolade in your CV to be considered an expert, in the writing game the amount of people with that type of success is miniscule given the quantity of writers out there. Literally thousands upon thousands of scripts are written in L.A. alone every year, but how many do you ever hear about? And of those, only a handful will ever be optioned or win the Nicholl or Page, but that doesn’t mean the other submitting writers lack talent. Some are exceptional, their work just may not have been to that particular reader’s taste on that particular day. In the non-contest world I think it translates to sending out a great script that unfortunately just doesn’t make it to the right desk. It’s a daunting task no doubt, and as we know this business is certainly as much about connections and relationships as the quality of your work.

Is it worth paying for a bit of outside critique?

At a certain point most people of the creative sort wish for some external feedback on the work we’ve poured hours, weeks, or months of effort into. However good or bad the reception is by our friends and family, an objective outside opinion can be quite beneficial, especially if you are open to critique and can read negative points with an open mind. Even coverage that you don’t agree with will most likely hit on a point or two that have validity. The hard part is putting ego aside and being willing to consider that your baby you’ve been tirelessly working on for months on end may not be the perfect and unique snowflake that you believe it to be. That’s why you pay for that outside opinion. Friends may be reluctant to be totally blunt, but a stranger has no such problem.

That said, I  feel writers should have faith in their work and not take a set of script notes as a simple checklist of what to fix or change to make your story great. Guess what, your script may be amazing as-is and changing things per those notes might work great for that one particular reader but may also diminish the work for the larger audience. This is where we need to take a step back and digest the critique, then revisit our work with fresh eyes at a later date to better see if the points have merit. It’s like that trick when writing an angry email, you know the one where you draft it but don’t send it until later. It feels great to get it out of your system, but if you come back to it the next day you’ll almost certainly be glad you didn’t send it and will have a plethora of ideas (no, not piñatas) to make it better.

Now some writers want to keep their Precious safe from outside eyes, choosing rather to hold it close and tight. As for me, I personally like to get as many eyes as possible on my work. Sure, some critiques are great, some not so much, but every single reader, even those I disagree with, has given me something to think about as I walk the road to bettering my writing.