I write about writing. I’ve seen dozens of blogs that do the same and suspect there are hundreds if not thousands more blogs about writing I have yet to find.
I routinely visit web sites dedicated to writing, reading amazing posts from amazing (and some not so amazing) writers. And I have two bookshelves dedicated to various aspects of writing, from dictionaries and tomes on prose to bound witticisms and opinions on the minutiae of character, plot and the perfect turn of joke.
I have taken classes on sketch comedy, screenwriting and story editing, and have listened in on dozens of podcasts and teleconferences given by the kings and queens of screenwriting—the latest given by Robert McKee. And I have recently started going to writing conferences, bending and rubbing elbows with writers established and in the birthing process.
All of this information and guidance has been invaluable to helping me understand my craft. But for all those thousands of hours of effort, I’m really not sure that any of it has helped me be a better writer.
In truth, I think there are only really two things you need to do to be a better writer:
- Share what you’ve written
Unless you’re willing to write, write some more, write yet again, and then when your body has given up the ghost with exhaustion, write again, you will never get better. All of the academic training and guidance in the world will not make you a better writer if you are not willing to write.
But writing is a very insular process, so it is equally important that you share what you have written…with literally anyone: your mom, your partner, your dog, the guy on the subway, the squirrel at the park.
How does the other party respond to your work? Are you communicating well? Do they see, hear, taste, what you see, hear, taste?
I am not asking do they like what you wrote. Personal tastes are just that. Rather, you want to know do they respond to what you’ve written…good, bad or ugly.
Oh, and I was only being half-facetious about the dog and squirrel…try it. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
Because most animals can’t read—I blame the current education models—you’ll be forced to read your work to them…the minute your work moves from visual to aural, a different part of your brain opens up and you hear whether you are affected by your work. Invaluable.
So read all you want, whether online or in those ancient paper constructs we call books. Attend conferences, lectures, podcasts and classes. I applaud your effort, your drive.
But I reiterate…there are only really two things you need to do to be a better writer:
- Share what you’ve written
I used to be terrified of failure. If I couldn’t know that I would succeed at something, I would put it off and potentially never do it.
And this was true in all aspects of life.
Driving. Dancing. Playing musical instruments. Talking to girls and later women. Athletics.
I became the best I could at one or two things—the things for which I seemed to have a natural aptitude—to avoid having to worry about being asked to do any of a thousand other things.
To me, failure was not an option. (I could spend months discussing why, but I won’t…at least, not here).
It has taken me a long time, but I have finally realized that I was only half right.
Failure is not an option…it is an imperative.
It is a skill that I must practice time and time again in all aspects of life.
At its simplest, if I succeeded at everything to which I turned my hand, I would stop doing it.
I succeeded. I achieved my goal. What more could I hope to accomplish? Everything after that is pure redundancy and repetition.
When harnessed, however, failure and imperfection can be that thing that drives me forward, when purely creative urges do not.
Failure is my teacher. Failure is my drill sergeant and mentor. And yes, failure can be my devil.
Perfection is an illusion and is therefore unattainable. This means that even at our zenith, we have failed. So what?
Even if we do not strive for perfection, but for an attainable, measurable goal, we are likely to fail if for no other reason than once we have achieved that goal, we instinctively move the goal posts. Our best is always a thing of the past and acts as a goad for us to do better.
Herein also lays the further challenge of failure in Art. There typically is no real metric other than external opinion. Rare is the individual who targets using 7.83% magenta in his next painting.
Wile E. Coyote is about the only artist I know who can actively test the realism of his Art. He has achieved his goal if the Roadrunner runs into the cliff wall painted to look like a tunnel. Ironically, his downfall was the hyperrealism he achieved such that the painting actually became a tunnel. In succeeding, he found failure.
Where I used to fear failure, I now embrace it. I use it to stretch myself and my skills. I use it as a lesson plan.
But for this to work, I must envision failure as something internal and self-defined rather than something external and based on the opinions of others. There lies madness.
Yes, I rely on feedback garnered from others to determine my degree of success, but I do not allow others to define that success.
It is my Art. I define it and in doing so, define myself. And to do that, I must fail and fail again.
(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, which may be an epic failure on my part.)
You’ve hit a wall. You’ve banged your head on your desk for an hour; two; ten. Staring out the window—your go-to maneuver for the last decade—has gotten you nowhere. Is it time to give up?
Might I recommend surrendering instead?
In case this sounds confusing, there is a difference between the two options.
Giving up is about accepting failure. It’s the belief that there is no solution to your problem or if there is a solution, you’re not the one who will come up with it.
Giving up is about telling yourself that you’re not good enough, strong enough, smart enough to solve your problem. It is defeat.
Surrender is different. Rather than giving up, you’re giving over; ceding control of the situation to whatever power you are most comfortable with—God, time, the elements, the universe.
Surrender is about believing that not only is there an answer to the problem, but also you are capable of delivering that answer—just not without help.
We all know what giving up looks like. It’s turning off the laptop with a frown, and maybe a sigh with drooping shoulders. And almost always, it comes with a fear or reluctance to turn the computer back on.
Surrender is calmly closing the laptop of letting it go idle while you take a walk, read a book or vegetate in a coffee shop. It can even including reviewing your work-to-date if you focus on what’s working, what you’re happy with.
The answer is there for you to pluck, but it’s waiting for you to drop your focus. Like that white spot on the inside of your eyelid that moves every time you try to look at it, the answer doesn’t like your stare, so it hangs in the periphery.
That may actually be source of some of your frustration: the knowledge or sense that the answer’s nearby, but you can’t see it.
Don’t give up. You can do it.
You just need to have faith in your universe and surrender the control you never really had.
Four more reps! C’mon, you can do it. Three more reps! Don’t quit now. Two more reps! You’re a champion. One more rep! Almost there. Annnnnd, you are done. Way to go!
As you may be able to tell, I recently started a fitness routine, a boot camp if you will. The nice thing about it is that I can still eat and drink whatever I want and the only reason I break into a sweat is because Toronto’s experiencing a nasty heat/humidity wave.
Just over a week ago, I started a screenwriting boot camp of sorts called Screenwriting U, which is designed to teach you how to create the most stunning and saleable scripts that Hollywood will eat up. (My apologies if this sounds like an infomercial.)
All I know right now is the program—the ProSeries—is kicking my ass.
For the next six months, I will have an assignment practically every day (including weekends) that is designed to push me to excel at EVERY aspect of screenwriting; e.g., concept, plotting, character, conflict, narrative, marketing.
I won’t go into any detail as to what we are doing—that would be improper and unethical as the fine folks at Screenwriting U have to make a living—but I can tell you about the outcomes.
At the moment, we’re working on concepts.
Once most of us come up with a concept that really interests us, we typically start writing right away, whether actual dialogue or mapping out plot points. We’re excited. We want to see our amazing idea come to life. Tomorrow is too far away.
No such luxury here.
In the true Full Metal Jacket sense, the instructors are making us break our ideas down to build them back up. And once we’ve done that, we do it again. And again. And again. Each time with a slightly altered method and/or goal.
In nine days, what was six interesting ideas (to me, at least), has become 30 new ideas, some of which are completely lame whereas others are pretty damned good, and more importantly, a hell of a lot more solid that the originals.
It’s a brainstormers wet dream and nightmare all rolled into one.
No matter how thoroughly I think I have developed an idea, just a little more time (or time away) shows me that I can go a little further with the idea or take it in new directions. As with the writing process itself, it is the permission to fail spectacularly with an eye toward finding something truly amazing.
And like physical exercise…what, I did that once…it is painful as hell in the early going, but it does get easier. And when it gets easier, I’ve got to make it hurt like hell again. I’m building imagination muscle memory. I’m making these thought processes second nature.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go change…oh, wait, that would be telling.
PS Hal Croasmun, our drill sergeant, is nothing like the guy in Full Metal Jacket, unless you wanted to imagine verbal enthusiasm replacing verbal abuse.
(First image is used without permission because I like to push the envelope, or any other piece of stationery, for that matter. Clip art below clipped without permission.)
You seek, you tap, you listen,
Bobbing left and right.
Grasping a toehold,
Grasping at hope.
Brute force, divine strategy
Mingle into a dance
Both aerial and arborial.
Unceasing, unerring, uncaring
Of the lives you disrupt;
Your murderous needs
Foremost in your mind.
Survival of the fittest
In a war of millimetres.
Anger? Frustration? Agony?
Only ceaseless desire
For what you have not yet.
1) Watch a lot of television; especially stuff you don’t like or think is bad. This will establish the belief within you that you could write something at least that bad and still get it on the air.
2) Conceptualize a show that combines one of your siblings or cousins, the second job you ever had, and a famous moment in history. Every idea after this will sound entirely plausible; and hell, this might actually work as a sitcom.
3) Conceptualize an idea that is morally offensive to you and then see if it was one of the shows in Step 1. If not, then the market is ripe for the picking.
4) Describe the absolute worst day of your life, a day when everything went wrong. Then switch one of the disastrous elements. Then, switch another element. Do this 10 more times. Season One!
If you can’t create 13 variants, your day wasn’t that bad and your life is too good for you to be writing for television. Go write greeting cards.
5) Grab a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology and reset all of the stories in modern-day Seattle or the smallest town you’ve ever visited. Warning: Brace for complaints that it’s a rehash of Dallas or Friday Night Lights.
7) Start with Episode Two, because pilots suck and you’ll never want to show it to anyone. You need to know/believe your idea works.
8) No matter what your current idea is, when you go to pitch it and you think you’re losing your audience, suddenly reveal “And the protagonist is a ghost!” Vampire, werewolf and zombie are equally acceptable.
9) Stop reading advice on writing a successful pilot and just write your story, already. There is no telling why someone in a suit will get excited by your story, but I can guarantee they won’t if you’re not.
10) If all else fails, generate a top-ten list of ways to write a pilot that will sell and use it as the basis of a book you will later turn into a sitcom.