Respect the craft and always be a professional…

January 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

how to be a professional screenwriterI’m still not sure where to begin with this next rant.  I recall it was a few years ago, I had just received my new contract for my latest script assignment and I was feeling a natural high because I was back working in my domain.  An old friend contacted me who fancied himself an actor back in the day when we all fancied ourselves as something. Those were the days when everyone had aspirations to be something, youth was on our side and we didn’t yet have “adult” responsibilities.  Many of these dreamers repeatedly came up against the wall and quickly discovered artistic endeavors were not for the faint of heart or spirit. You really must have the burning passion in your soul to slog through the rejection and fear. You have to study your craft as the competition is brutal and the odds are against you.

I remember working in a restaurant as a waiter with a guy who thought “he had a good look” and wanted to be an actor. Another guy said that he “knew all the tricks,” as if studying a craft was about trying to find the easy way around the work and not through it.  After countless auditions and no steady work, do you think these gentlemen are actors today? No, certainly not. Anyway, back to this friend who was trying to sell me on his idea. The pitch was a half-baked mess of random thoughts and dialogue, nothing was in proper format — just ideas thrown at a wall hoping something would stick. At the end he asked me, “so what do you think?” I guess that was the “ta-dah” moment as you’re in front of Jennifer, Harry and Keith and hope they’ll say, “you made it through, you’re going to Hollywood!”

My friend probably assumed that I would say it’s genius and jump at the chance to start working on it with him for free. As if I didn’t have paid jobs that facilitated my income or a myriad of my own projects to work on. When you get paid to write, it is your job. I was fine with him coming to me with his idea, but I didn’t appreciate the fact he didn’t even do his homework or have anything written in proper format—that would at least show me he was serious about being a writer. I’m serious about what I do and so are the producers who pay me to write their movies. My friend should be serious when he approaches a professional with a potential idea.  It showed me that he didn’t have any respect for the craft or what we really do.

At the time I was working on a screenwriting assignment and he was just throwing random ideas at me, as if I could take the time to sift through it and create something from the mess. Some people just think it’s that easy. Throw some ideas together, run it by  a professional who is a friend, and he or she will drop everything, sort through it mess, and fix the idea so it actually works. I get paid to do that. No, thanks. I told him where to find examples of scripts that would help him with proper format. It obviously fell on deaf ears because he showed his lack of interest when his next offer was to “pay me to type while he narrates, because he’s the storyteller and I’m the writer.” Really? He’s now considers himself the storyteller? Could this be any more offensive?

script oddsHe was mistaken about what I do, because what he really needed was a typist. Everyone’s time is important, even mine. I’m a paid professional writer and I don’t have time to work on projects that are on spec. That’s not meant to sound egotistical, but it’s taken me twenty plus years of experience to get to this point, and don’t think some non-writers understand that fact. You don’t fall out of bed one morning having written 28 feature screenplays, selling one spec that was produced followed by thirteen paid writing assignments, 5 scripts in development, and 7 produced films. It takes years of hard work and sacrifice. I don’t hold this against my friend either, because I don’t think he realizes what he was really asking of me, or the precious time it would take to craft his idea into a workable format. Even for pay.

It reminds me of that famous Picasso napkin story. Legend has it Picasso was in a café in Paris when an admirer approached him and asked if he would create a quick sketch for him on a paper napkin. Picasso politely agreed, creating a sketch and handed back the napkin, but asked for a large amount of money in return. The admirer was astonished: “How can you ask for so much? It took you a minute to draw this!”  Picasso replied, “No, it took me 40 years.” “He’s the storyteller and I’m the writer.”

Yeah, I’m the writer—and I never forget it. I still learn something every time I type “FADE IN.” I know with proliferation of screenwriting seminars, the pitch fests, countless books, and screenwriting gurus… everyone with a story believes his or her idea has never been done and deserves to be produced. It amazes me when people have no problem asking a professional to drop everything and help craft their idea into something workable. If they wanted to be professional writers, they would study and respect the craft — and write!  Who wants to sit in front of a blank page at 3:00 AM? Apparently not the “storyteller. When it comes down to it, writers who are serious about their craft write and non-writers don’t. Scriptcat out!

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It’s a funny thing about life if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.”—W. Somerset Maugham

“Do it for joy and you can do it forever” ―Stephen King

The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art” “.

.. The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.” — Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling

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