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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nate Silver is a baseball stats geek who turned himself into one of the most accurate interpreters of political polls. He nailed the 2008 and 2012 elections while Republicans were deluding themselves over "skewed polls." I wasted nearly as many hours reading his columns during elections as I have recently enjoyed wasting playing Europa Universalis IV.

Silver has expanded his site FiveThirtyEight to cover Big Data analyses of politics, economics, science, sports and culture. Walt Hickey recently posted an analysis of spec scripts. Which genres of scripts get the highest ratings? The data come from The Blacklist, a site that offers evaluations from pro script readers for a fee. They're the people the exec will give your script to first. What do the Blacklist readers like?
First-time writers tend to go one of two ways, said Kate Hagen, a former reader who now oversees the hundred or so readers at The Black List. They write a deeply personal, pseudo-autobiographical screenplay about nothing in particular. “Everybody basically writes that script at first,” Hagen said. “You have to get it out of your system.” Or they swing for the fences and go in the opposite direction, thinking, “I’m going to write a $200 million science fiction movie,” and plan an entire universe and mythology. Those scripts, Hagen said, tend to fail for entirely different reasons.
However, Big Data are not necessarily useful to a screenwriter. If you consider the odds against becoming a professional screenwriter, you'd be mad to try. But, "never tell me the odds." I don't think I know any pro screenwriters who took the odds into consideration. We just kept writing, and got enough encouragement (words, followed by checks) to keep at it. It takes heaps of arrogance to figure you're better than the other ten thousand would-be writers. But then, a screenwriter is someone who creates people, families and worlds, so a certain megalomania is practically a prerequisite.

I would be very wary of Big Data. If you think you're a comedy writer, you should write comedies. Your first will be terrible. Possibly your first ten will be kinda bad. But that doesn't mean you should write dramas, on the thinking that dramas "do better." The question isn't whether dramas do better; the question is whether your drama will do better.

It won't. If you don't love what you're writing, no one else will love it either.

By the same token, don't avoid science fiction because it doesn't "do well." The first script you write isn't going to do well anyway. You're still learning your craft.  Write that science fiction script. Hey, a vampire script got me into the UCLA MFA program. (It was terrible! But, I guess, promising in some way. And here I am.)

In fact, the flip side of it is: if you are, at heart, a comedy writer, then you are not likely to write a better drama than writers who love drama. But you might, with practice, write a better comedy than other comedy writers. If what you love is SF, then you're more likely to break in with an SF hook that no one else thought of, than with a drama that you wrote because you thought you ought to.

"Write what you know" doesn't necessarily mean "write stuff about people like you." It means "write stuff you know in your heart."

On the other hand, stretch your muscles. Don't write drama because it "does well." But do write a drama because it will force you to write strong, dynamic, dysfunctional relationships -- that you can then put into your comedy scripts, which need heart, too. Write a drama because a great science fiction movie isn't just about the science fiction -- it's about people, in strong, dynamic, dysfunctional relationships in a science fictional world.

By the same token, if you're a drama writer, try writing a comedy. Maybe it will loosen you up. Can't hurt to try. My creative writing professor, Kenneth Koch, made the very good point that no one is born with a certain number of words. You won't run out. So rather than dithering for a month about what to write, write something.

You level up by finishing missions, right?

The reason people call this sort of writing expedition an "exercise" is because exercise is what makes your muscles strong.

What you can use the Big Data for is to get insight into the minds of script readers. If they find most SF scripts annoying, make sure that you're not falling into the same errors. Make sure your SF script has characters and heart, not just whizbang.

This gets back to "addressing notes." All feedback is valid feedback, and you ignore it at your peril. If script readers don't like something, there's something wrong with it. They are often wrong about what is wrong with it. But if they think something is wrong with it, you better fix what is wrong with it, or you're not going to go very far with it.



1 Comments:

Thanks. Your thoughts and advice are helpful to us rookie writers!

By Blogger jEFF K, at 3:42 AM  

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