Dreams on Spec, part 2Complications Ensue
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Monday, August 27, 2007

I checked out DREAMS ON SPEC. It's an effective documentary about three spec monkeys, one of whom is seeing his slasher film made. I had trouble watching all of it because I personally find it a bit painful to watch writers, or any other creative types, being unsuccessful. Especially when you suspect they're unsuccessful because, from the little you get to see of their actual work, they're bad. But maybe that's a sign of how effective a documentary it is.

There are nice snippets of interviews with pro monkeys like Carrie Fisher and James Brooks, for balance. Amusingly, the successful writers are just as nerdy as the unsuccessful ones. (Okay, except Carrie Fisher.) I bet Charlie Kaufman is at least as weird as that guy Joe who's been writing the same script for three years. The only way you can tell the pro monkeys before a subtitle identifies them is that they have self-confidence -- and haircuts -- that getting paid six or seven figures a pop gives even the nerdiest nerd.

I went through, oh, about ten years of being not a successful screenwriter. I wasn't exactly a spec monkey. I wrote a stack of specs, but I also did a bunch of sub-Guild commissions, starting in film school. And I had agents for most of the time. And I was making a pretty reasonable living as a development guy. So I felt more in the loop than the guys in the film did. But I can sympathize with the frustration.

How do you know when to quit? The problem is that the inability to recognize defeat is one of the marks of a successful screenwriter, but it is also the mark of a crazy loser. You can tell once you're successful easily enough -- the checks start clearing -- but how do you tell if you don't got it? Stephen King wrote any number of bad novels he couldn't sell before he wrote CARRIE. Should his wife have told him to cut it out and get a real job? Apparently not. Should I have quit after eight years? Ten? Apparently not.

And believe me, I was considering it for a while there. Fortunately I couldn't think of anything else I was qualified to do, my computer science skillz having pretty well lapsed over the course of the decade.

On the other hand, I listen to the script reading that guy Joe has, and I think, owwww. Stop. Please. Or, at least, consider it a hobby, not a career track.

Is there such a thing as talent? Or more importantly, can anyone spot it? Or is what we perceive as talent just the state of your craft at the moment? In which case you can be untalented this year and figure something out about yourself and be talented next year. A lot of people said kind things about my writing in those ten years, but I was missing something crucial. Then in 2000, things started happening for me. New city? Maybe. Breaking up an unhappy marriage? Feeling relaxed because feeling loved? A definite possibility. Or maybe I recognized that I wasn't putting enough of myself into my scripts, and I worked on putting more in, and my craft just got 5% better and that put me over the top.

In NO DIRECTION HOME, one of the interviewees remarks how Bob Dylan was just one in a long line of West Village coffee shop folk singers. Then one day he went off, and came back a month later, and he had it. People wondered if he'd met the Devil at the crossroads. I'd sure like to know what happened. But maybe it all just came together.

I read recently about a study of classical musicians. They asked teachers who were their most gifted students and who were not. They caught up with the musicians ten years later to see which were successful.

No correlation with their teachers' rating of their talent.

100% correlation with how much time they practiced.

But Joe's been writing for twenty years, so why does he still suck?

I think it's possible that talent is not what we think it is. It may not be some innate ability to write well, which only needs to be honed. It might be the ability to hear criticism and respond to it. Talent may be above all the ability to listen.

Thing is, you almost always know when you're not listening. You just don't want to hear what you're hearing. So you shut it out.

That might be the hardest thing about being a good writer. Not the rejection. You can tune that out. But forcing yourself to hear what you don't want to hear. Not going down the same old path you've gone before, but hacking your way into the brambles because that's the direction you need to go. That's what separates the writers who are kidding themselves from the ones who are only unsuccessful for now.

Where is your writing weakest? What is the writing project that would force you to get stronger in that aspect? Okay, that's your next writing project.



What bothered me about Joe was that he was so damn insistent that he was good and that the reason he hadn't succeeded yet was that because everyone else was an idiot who couldn't appreciate his genius. Poor, poor misunderstood Joe.

By Blogger Steve, at 5:07 PM  

From casual research on the subject, I've notice that many in the entertainment industry, from actors to directors to writers, don't find real success until about the 10 year mark.

That doesn't mean that they didn't have any smaller victories and encouraging events along the way.

Seems like Joe is consistently being told he's not good, and you're right, he's not listening. I think you were able to keep going because you were getting positive feedback along the way, and having an agent is a great motivator.

As for King, he threw Carrie in the trash, and it would have never been published if his wife hadn't insisted he finish it. Another example of listening.

I moved to LA less than a year ago and just won 1st place in one of the bigger TV writing competitions. That little victory will keep me plugging along for at least the next 5 years, even if nothing else happens. But I've committed myself to trying to get into TV writer for at least 10 years.

There's nothing else I would rather do.

The good news is that I love LA and would live here regardless if I ever becomes a TV writer. But let's hope I don't have to prove that statement...

By Blogger Claude, at 5:37 PM  

Interesting stat about classical musicians. Once having been a prodigy, it reminds me of the advice on how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice, practice, practice).

By Blogger Christina, at 11:39 PM  

I agree with almost everything Alex said about DREAMS ON SPEC -- except I found the movie compelling.

It IS all about how far any of us should go in the pursuit of our dreams. Whether we're screenwriters or in another creative field, it's something we have to think about all the time.

And we watch three almost archetypal screenwriters face this on screen. Are they any good? Are they going to succeed?

Joe gives it his all. Deborah puts all her hopes on one script and she's got to get something happening in a couple months or she'll run out of money.

And David is the most savvy of the bunch who writes what producers want -- and he scores with a slasher film!

I thought the film perfectly captured the perils and the promise of filmmaking/screenwriting.

By Blogger Dominique Sarantee, at 1:36 AM  

Great post Alex...

By Blogger wcdixon, at 2:57 AM  

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but you can't ever get to a place without making progress towards it. The trick to making progress in writing is the ability to look at what you've done and see how it compares to what you intended. What's in your sights is always vague and distant and perfect, but in the execution it's always something less. There has to be a constant drive to close the gap.

Outrage at the market is an occasional safety-valve but it doesn't actually move you along. And feedback can be useful. But it's the self-criticism that's essential.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 5:22 AM  

Great, great post, Alex . . .

By Blogger Joshua James, at 11:24 AM  

I just posted my review as well, Alex, and thank you for saying the things here that I unwittingly censored myself from saying. You're right.

By Blogger Fun Joel, at 12:57 PM  

I'll say right up front that I haven't seen the documentary yet, but as far as success is concerned, particularly as a writer, I always remember the advice I read years ago in, I believe, Writer's Market. The author pointed out that more important than talent is perseverance. And on that point she said it helped her to look at it as a numbers game: Out of a hundred people who have an idea for a novel or script, only a few will pursue it. Of those that pursue it, only a few will get beyond brainstorming and outlining. Only a few of those will then actually write it. By the time you get to rewriting, and doing the work to understand how to rewrite, and polishing, and then doing the really hard part for most writers -- marketing your product -- you're down to maybe a couple of people. As long as you keep moving forward, and do the work that only the most committed will do, you at least guarantee that you're closer to the sideline, even if you're not yet in the game.

By Blogger Clint, at 1:16 AM  

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