Monday, October 16, 2006

Breaking In or Breaking Out

In March of 2004, I completed my first screenplay -- sort of. It took almost five months to write. It sucked then and countless rewrites later, it still sucks. By the time I finished my second screenplay, I had an agent on the wrong coast and a story beloved by several indy producers (or so they said) but too dark, edgy and expensive to make. More importantly, I had fallen into a trap -- an imaginary and self imposed trap which demanded that I "break in" or admit that I was not a real screenwriter.

Basura. (rubbish)

I didn't start out that way. I started out wanting nothing more than to write great stories. Okay, so they were written in crayon about magic pennies that made Davy Jones fall in love with me and a jealous one legged princess who resembled those goons on Popeye and turned me into a troll so I couldn't sing with the Monkees and cause the group to break up. Thank goodness Gumby and Pokey showed up when they did. Stupid princess. It was a troll that ate her other leg! Was she not worried that I would eat her remaining one? No, she was too wrapped up in that whole leprechaun discrimination thing. Come one! As if lephrechauns PURPOSELY put pots of magic pennies too far for a one legged princess to walk!

I digress... point, point, what was the point?

Oh, yes. The point is that until one ugly day last year, it never mattered to me if anyone read my stories, liked them, or rejected them. Writing was reward enough. I had something to say and I wanted to say it.

Then something happened. No, it wasn't déjà vu and Yoko Ono.

Maybe screenwriters are simply and inherently passionate for breaking in, getting validation, and seeing their work onscreen and maybe it is that passion which drives us to seek out "peer" reviews on sources like Zoetrope and Triggerstreet, befriend other screenwriters, move to Hollywood, and lament day after day over our founts of talent being overlooked because we don't have the right connections.

Whatever the reason, I adopted another way of thinking.

Suddenly, I cared about getting my work onscreen more than I did about the work itself. Story suffered. Creativity suffered. My mind was not full of insane ideas and creative ways to put them on paper. My mind was occupied with an urgency to get inside the gate before it closed, was reinforced with iron bars, and equipped with rookie sensitive cattle prods.

The fun was over.

It was all so serious and unpleasant, tedious and tense. No longer a creative outlet, a release, a thrilling opportunity to clack worlds into existence, writing was now just another overworked, underpaid, and misunderstood part of my life. It was a drag.

So, I quit.

For months, I didn't work on screenplays and vowed not to write another word until --

* I found more joy in writing a single sentence than in the thought of making a sale

* I got that "first love" feeling back every time I crafted a new character

* I wrote for the sheer love of storytelling

It's liberating.

Oh sure, I still sweat over the Nicholl and the AFF but it's the same kind of anxiety I feel when I watch one of my three sons run track, play football, enter an art competition, train for a wresting match, sing, dance, high jump, or play a trumpet solo. I want the whole world to recognize, admit, and publicly proclaim that my kids are better than everyone else's.

Is that too much to ask for my screenplay? I mean -- my kids?

But what I don't do is think about scholarships, commercial art opportunities, dance careers, the Olympics, drum corps recruitment, or professional wrestling contracts. None of that matters right now.

Honestly, I just enjoy watching my kids become who they want to be and I really, really want to raise great kids.

Likewise, I do not submit queries or worry about making a sale. Nor do I maintain a detailed contact list and strategize about how to "break in". It doesn't mean that I purposely miss opportunities and do nothing to promote myself. It simply means that story is what matters most.

Honestly, I just want to enjoy becoming the kind of writer I know I can be and I really, really want to write great stories.

I say this, not to urge anyone to quit writing or to discourage writers from seeking agents, producers, managers, or other writers to help market their work. That's all part of becoming a screenwriter. But I pen this as a plea -- to beg my fellow writers to not allow the desperation of trying to get produced to strangle the joy out of writing.

If that opt or sale or phone call comes that changes your life, I will celebrate for you and if it comes for me, I hope some of you party in my honor. But it's not THE MOST IMPORTANT part of writing.

Break out of that trap -- that vile, deceitful and consuming trap. While I have nothing to support my theory, I suspect that we all have to break out before we can actually break in. Why? Because we'll be much better writers.


wcdixon said...

A very good that makes you go 'hmmmm...'

And I agree with a lot of what you are saying (especially the break out before we break in part)...but only up to a point. And that point is - at their core, screenplays are still only blueprints for a 'produced' film or tv show. Very important blueprints, mind you, but still just blueprints. The first step in a four step process (writing, filming, editing, releasing or distributing)

Unlike a novel or a collection of short stories or poems, screenplays aren't written to just be 'read', they are written to be made. Yes, people today are exposed to 'screenplays' a lot more than they used to be via the internet But as far as being published and put out for sale in your local bookstore..well, that only happens 'after' its been made into a movie or tv show. And generally been a hit.

It took five years from the time I sold my first feature length screenplay and saw it put into development to the time I heard the words 'Rolling!' and 'Action'! And then nearly another year before it screened and aired on television. And it was only then that I felt a true sense of accomplishment and that I'd completed something - not when I finished the screenplay.

It's a funny thing this film/tv making buisness. I've stopped by several blogs where the authors reference themselves as feature writers or television writers even though they've never been produced. And I have mixed feelings about this. Because getting produced seems to need to be part of the gig to claim that mantle...otherwise, anyone in the country who's ever written FADE IN: could call themselves a feature/tv writer. Yet I can also appreciate if one has penned several scripts and they just haven't been made - that they have some right to claim the title of feature/tv writer also. I don't's a tough one.

So you can choose to not worry about all that 'breaking in' stuff or 'getting it made' stuff, but you will be choosing to write scripts as a hobby...for you and your friends. And that's okay, as long as you understand that and are okay with that.

Sorry about the long rambling comment...thanks again for the post.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Good reply and I agree with you -- a screenplay is a blueprint and eventually, I'll get back to pitching & selling what I've designed because I'll want to see it built. But for now, I'm content to busy myself becoming the best architect I can be. After all, I really do believe that the amateur writer's number one mistake is thinking they are ready when they aren't.

Anonymous said...

we share something in common, I started writing screenplays in 2004 too, St Patrick's Day to be precise... and I've been kissing that blarney stone ever since (maybe I should rub it like a buddha belly instead?)

oneslackmartian said...

tis a long emotional and professional roller coaster. but i suppose that keeps us going.

and, MQ, what's with all the kissing and rubbing?

word verification: jewsxpz

humm, i'm sure there's a message in that . . . . Mel?

The Moviequill said...

Martian -- when in Rome heh