This week: Calculate LessEdited by: Jeff
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"Some writers enjoy writing, I am told. Not me. I enjoy having written.
-- George R.R. Martin
Trivia of the Week: Since the turn of the century, only one book has reached the threshold of selling more than 50 million copies of a single-volume book. That was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (currently at around 80 million copies sold since 2003). Prior to The Da Vinci Code, the next most recent book to accomplish that feat is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (65 million copies sold since 1988). Relatively current books closing in on the 50 million mark include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (44 million copies) and Angels & Demons by Dan Brown (39 million copies).
I can't take credit for this remarkably concise piece of advice; that goes to either screenwriter Brian Koppleman (Rounders, Runaway Jury, Ocean's Thirteen) or screenwriter Derek Hass (3:10 to Yuma, Wanted, Chicago Fire) depending on who you ask. The advice originally came from an online screenwriting forum where these pros participate with thousands and thousands of other writers and aspiring writers in different stages of their careers, from working writers all the way down to complete newbies who are thinking about writing their first script.
One of the most popular themes on those forums is the idea that there's some magic formula to success, and if an aspiring writer can only find it, they're guaranteed to find success in a notoriously competitive and subjective industry (much like the publishing industry). The sheer number of theories, hypotheses, and even claims for having a successful formula are mind-boggling. Some of the things that have been floated out there include:
A defined structure with specific milestones. If you can nail down an Inciting Incident by page 10, and a Catalyst by page 25, and a Big Twist by page 60 and your climax happens no later than page 90... then everything else will fall into place.
The odds of success. If Hollywood buys X number of scripts a year, and there are Y number of new scripts registered every year, then your chances of selling a script are Z%. You can influence your percentage chances by getting a manager or an agent, making friends with an executive, etc.
Chasing trends. If you can just catch the right trend at the right moment, you can sell something easily. Once that zombie movie comes out, yours will surely sell. When zombies are done and the next thing comes along, make sure you start writing one of those movies right away so people will buy it. Conversely, if a particular movie tanks, you might as well give up on other scripts in that genre because no one will want them. THE LONE RANGER tanked, so who wants to make a Western?
If you read enough advice books, listen to enough podcasts, go to enough seminars, etc. then eventually you'll develop the skills you need or the connections you want to become successful.
Pay attention to formatting. If you get any part of the formatting wrong, people won't read your script. Make sure you don't improperly capitalize a character's name, or use italics for the wrong reason, or put too much white space or not enough white space on the page. Don't be too wordy, but don't be to sparse. Don't say things like "we see" or include camera directions or tell the costume designer how to do her job by describing the wardrobe the characters wear.
Draw attention to your work with additional materials. Put together a "look-book" with ideas for casting and location choices. Spend the money to create a fake trailer of the eventual movie. Pay someone to put together a budget and a schedule and storyboards so that you can act like you have a full movie project rather than just a script.
These are just a few of the discussions that are had every single day by aspiring writers trying to figure out how to break into the entertainment industry and write screenplays for a living. And the thing is, while the specifics of those examples may be foreign to those who are more interested in publishing, I don't think the mindset is much different. From the publishing forums I've visited, I see a lot of the same questions and same ideas come from people trying to get the attention of publishers rather than studios, so they can make a living off their novels, poetry, essays, nonfiction, etc. rather than screenplays. It's the same desire to figure out an objective and defined process and apply it to a profession that, by its nature, is impossible to predict. There is no one way to success, and all the planning and rationalizing and justifying and strategizing in the world isn't going to help because this is not a rational, fact-based, progressive ladder-climbing type industry.
Anyway, after months and months of people trying to explain that it doesn't matter how many other people sell screenplays, how many other movies get made, how many words you have on how many pages and whether they're the right white-space-to-text ratio... Brian and Derek (again, not sure who was first) started replying to those people with those theories with the following two words:
And people freaked out when they heard two established, professional screenwriters - guys doing a job at a level that most of us could only aspire to achieve one day - telling them that none of that stuff mattered as long as they told a great story. None of the calculation or positioning or posturing mattered in the slightest. All that mattered is that you wrote a truly great script.
It's advice that's stuck with me ever since.
Even after years of writing and years of working in the industry, I still find myself prone to "calculating" at times. I think about what I'm writing and whether or not it's the kind of thing people will want to read, the kind of thing people will want to buy, whether my exposition is going on too long or if I should write something a little more mainstream. I worry that by the time I finish my script companies won't have any money left in their development budget for the year, or even if they do that they may not want to read my work because it's too similar to something else that just came out and had uninspiring numbers.
But then I tell myself to "calculate less." Not only is none of that stuff true... but none of it is within my power to control. I can't make a movie similar to mine succeed so that everyone will want to by another script like it (mine). I can't compel an executive to believe that a quirky character drama is something they should be making instead of an action movie. And there certainly aren't defined odds of success where you're bound to automatically succeed if you just write X number of projects and wait for your turn in line.
The only things I have control over are my story and my characters. The world I'm creating on the page is the only thing that I have complete autonomy over, and the only thing whose outcome I can influence.
So, knowing that, what do I do?
Calculate less about all that other stuff, and instead spend that time making my work the best it can possibly be.
Calculate less. Write more.
Until next time,
I encourage you to check out the following items:
After finishing her daily lunch of grilled fish and celery sticks, the largest meal of her day, Alyssa threw away her disposable plate and paced the hotel room. In three hours, she would be competing in her first Junior National Championships. Suddenly, she ceased pacing and gazed in the mirror that hung over the mahogany dresser. She would have to practice her smile, she decided. Maybe the judges would look the other way if she didn’t quite make the twist completely on her new tumbling pass.
Sweat beaded off Jack's hands. His forehead was nearly dripping the stuff onto the digital camouflage of his brand new ACU's, and looking down at his right sleeve he noted with displeasure that the buttoned cuff was already drenched after he had wiped his forehead for nearly the tenth time since he got on the cattle car with twenty other nervous individuals. The sweat alone turned his uniform into a hotbox containing a foul, musty odor that made Jack's nose twitch, even more so when the same aroma seeped from every other uniform in the box car. The heavy green duffel bag on his back was hell to carry, but the black civilian duffel that he bore on his front evened the weight a bit as he stood unmoving amongst his peers. None were able to move even their arms effectively with every body crammed into the cattle car like sardines in a can, and Jack found he couldn't move his arms without feeling considerable strain and having his black duffel slide down his hunched shoulders.
The clock-radio came to life, blaring the 6am news, but Lillian was already awake. Hating being jolted from sleep, she had trained herself to always wake three minutes before her alarm went off. She lay in the semi-darkness and listened to the usual local politics and foreign wars. It was the same every day. With dread falling over her like a heavy blanket, she stared at the thick brown curtains that allowed no early morning light to penetrate her room and thought about the day ahead.
“That’s…odd,” I commented, sitting on a comfortably cushioned seat next to the window. John sat in the seat facing me. The train was underway, gradually picking up speed as it left the station behind. Soon, the city was replaced by rolling, rural hills, green and lush in the damp springtime weather. It all was a blur to me, but I calmed down just watching the passage of the landscape. Funnily enough again, however, the scene didn’t seem to change; it was all the same after a certain point, passing again and again.
She ran as fast and hard as her legs could carry her. Through the house, taking the stairs three at a time and into her bedroom with a bang as she slammed her door closed. I reached her room and stopped when I heard the loud unmistakable sobs of her tears. Why did things have to be so difficult for her? I wondered silently before I entered. My heart shattered to see her battered, swollen, and bloodied. Black eyes, cut lip and a bloodied nose.
It started as a pulse, feeling foreign in my chest. Minutes passed, and all I could do was feel my breaths dragged up through a sandpaper throat. It’s not real. Snuggled into my left side, my child was silently crying, arms clasped around her waist in pain. I tried to comfort her, but no matter the force I put in, my voice remained silent. She couldn’t hear me anyway. Couldn’t feel me. For a moment I closed my eyes and let myself dwell in the unnatural silence. And dwell in the knowledge that in a few short minutes, both she and I would be no more. The thought felt unnatural, surreal in my mind, but it was true.
I own lots of dangerous things I don't need. I don't need my highly modified 600+ hp Z06 Corvette or my Harley Davidson motorcycle or that crazy looking knife I sometimes jokingly say was imported directly from the Klingon Empire (2). All of these things could be used, intentionally or accidentally, to hurt others. Because I have always been careful, peaceful and responsible, none of the things I own have ever been used to hurt another person. (3)
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Feedback on my last newsletter about handling rejection:
miller.ck writes, "LOVE that rejection letter. Hilarious!"
Yeah, it gave me a good solid laugh as I was researching this newsletter.
dwarf2012 writes, "I learned a lesson about submitting: I submitted four poems to an online poetry magazine. I love my poems and waited to hear. I received an email stating all my poems were rejected because I submitted FOUR poems, and the guidelines stated they only accepted THREE poems per submission. So they were all rejected, without being read. Lesson learned: when submitting, READ the guidelines!"
Reading the guidelines is key. There are so many other reasons why people pass on things; no need to give them another one when you can easily avert that pitfall!
Doug Rainbow writes, "Now what? I just got rejected for self-publication."
Ooh, that stings. That publisher sounds like a real jerk.
mblank writes, "Thanks for the article. Just found a rejection letter in my inbox this morning, so I needed the perspective "
Happy to hear this was a well-timed newsletter!
Zeke writes, "Rejection is tough, but if it comes with helpful suggestions it could be useful."
Very true! It's always nice to get some kind of qualitative feedback with a rejection.
9 years whew! writes, "The only rejection letters/reviews that bother me are ones that don't give you a reason. I don't care why just tell me. We have too many submissions like your story and are full. You didn't meet the qualifications. You didn't follow the rules. Anything is better than a form letter stating. NO THANKS! in so many words."
In the entertainment industry, the worst is when you don't get a response at all. Even if someone specifically asked you to send them a screenplay, the most common response is none at all. No phone call, no form letter... just radio silence. Compared to that, I would take a form letter any day of the week. At least then you know where you said, even if not why.
pietroschek writes, "Its a fine and helpful essay which you offer us here! Thanks. Finally I know that "crying into my pillow" is not the one and only option... Pooh!"
Oh, I knew I forgot to include a suggestion!
BIG BAD WOLF is Feeling Lucky writes, "Rejection letters equal fuel for trash fires." (Submitted item: "Redwall Interactive" )
I've sent quite a few of them to the "round file" over the years. Then again, there are also quite a few I've saved over the years and I'll look them over from time to time to remind myself of how far I've come.
Joto-Kai writes, "Cultivate love for rejection: A warrior's love for wild Pegasus; a sleuth's love of hostile witnesses. "There's something I don't know, and it's not going to get away!""
Rejection is definitely easier to handle if you embrace it and take it all in stride.
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