I’m not being lazy this week. I just thought for a change of pace I’d class up the joint and serve a guest blog from good friend and Hollywood A-lister Scott Frank. There’s probably more quality advice contained herein than a year of my musty musings. So without further ado…
What to write? When to write? How to write? For how long?
Every writer asks these questions. I ask them every day. Sometimes I ask them about small things: What do I want to write today? How do I write this scene? When can I have that meeting/lunch/coffee with so and so and still get my work done? When will I knock off work today? Sometimes I ask the same questions, but with a slightly more global bent: What do I want to write next? What do I want to write someday? How will I do that? How long will it take?
Every time I speak to a group of writers, it’s a given that I’ll get asked the same questions. What should I write (i.e. what sells)? When do you write? Early in the morning? Late at night? What’s a typical day like for you? How many hours a day do you work? How did you learn how to write?
Today, I’m going to vomit all over my pal, Doug Richardson’s blog and use it to answer these questions. I’m going to simplify your life by taking the guesswork out of your daily self-quiziosity. That’s a word. Look it up. But wait until I’m gone.
First, what to write?
I’ll answer this one by telling you what not to write. Don’t write what your agent tells you to write. Your agent only knows what people are buying right now. Are you going to be done with your script right now? Your agent doesn’t know shit. Your agent only knows what people have bought. And there’s a difference. Yeah, I know, studios and networks are always saying, “We’re looking for the next 24,” or the next Friends or the next Guardians of the Galaxy or whatever. But that’s right now. Not next month or next year when you’re finished and ready to start exposing yourself to the world.
But here’s another, more important, question: who cares?
You’re not a hack. You’re a writer who thinks up his or her own shit to write about. A writer doesn’t try to guess what stories people want to hear. A writer tells the stories he or she wants to tell and hopes to fucking Christ that other people want to hear it.
Write what you know, write what you don’t know—I have no clue which is better. I say write the thing that gives you the biggest rush when you think about it. The thing you can’t get out of your head when you go to sleep at night. The thing that pops into your head every time you hear some cool tune and think That could be in my show/movie/novel/play/webisode/whatever.
Write that. Otherwise, you’re starting off as a hack. And there’s plenty of time to be a hack and take the dough down the road when you need to pay for that new baby or college or that kitchen remodel. But, man, at least start off pure of heart and mind so you have at least one creative period to remember and look back on fondly.
At this point in your life, no one is telling you what to do or how to do it. That’s known in the writing business as “A gift.”
Next question. When to write?
Depends. When do you feel at your best? Are you a morning person? Write in the morning. Vampire? Go ahead, work all night. Whenever you feel you’re at your sharpest. Whenever you feel like you can most easily get lost in something for an hour or two. Seems obvious I know, but most people will go the gym when they should be sitting down to work.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the gym or exercise in general, especially after sitting at a desk all day, but you don’t earn your living going to the gym. Your life isn’t going to be organized around yoga class or Soul Cycle. It’s going to be organized around the thing that you love which early on in your life is your work, and later, unless you’re an asshole, will be your family. And, man, finding the time then, finding the air, to work is even harder.
So get in the habit now of figuring out those small sections of the day where you feel the most creative and go to work.
At this point, I gotta skip ahead to How long? The truth is I only put it last up at the top because it read better in the run, but it kinda goes with the whole When to write? question.
So how long? Not too long. In fact, if you’re just starting out, you should make your writing time ridiculously short. Like fifteen minutes a day, or even less.
I know. How can anyone possibly be productive in fifteen minutes? Well, you can. But that’s not the point. The point is not to hate yourself. Not to begin and each day with such self-loathing you become a heroin addict. If you say to yourself something like, Okay Josh/Jessica, I’m going to write for four hours a day. As soon as I get home from work. Or as soon as I wake up, I’m gonna write my ass off and get my script/epic poem done in three months and then when you don’t accomplish that, all you’re gonna feel is bad.
Expectation is toxic to a writer. Expect nothing. Get comfortable with not knowing what’s coming or when and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised. Again, if you expect to work for a few hours a day, if you set that as your GOAL, and you don’t do it. You’re gonna start to feel like a failure. You’re gonna start to feel lazy. And you’re gonna miss the whole fucking point about writing.
It’s messy. It doesn’t always come when you want it to. You just have to be sitting in the chair and trying, even when everything tastes like chalk. It can be miserable. So, if it’s been tough for a while, look for the downhill. What’s an easy thing you can do? Maybe take some notes on your main character or particularly the “girl” in your story other than “She’s hot.”
Maybe write a scene you’ve been holding off on writing. Maybe do some research or pick up a novel that’s kinda like what you’re writing and see if it doesn’t jar something inside you. Listen to some music. All of that counts as “work.” Whatever feels downhill, do it.
And if you’re only supposed to be sitting there at your desk for 15 minutes, whatever you get done is gonna make you feel great. If you’re there for four hours, chances are you’re gonna go off the rails at some point, whiff some porn, shop on Zappos, go on that rookie writers chat board and get embroiled in bullshit argument/gossip about credits. You can avoid all of that for 15 minutes at a time. And if you can’t, go for 10 minutes. Or 6 minutes, whatever you can handle. Whatever keeps you away from all those distractions.
Distractions are for the pros. Guys like me who are used to being in agony and know that the messiness and distractions are just part of the process. I feel like shit at the end of most days for my ridiculously limited output. But somehow, at some point, it all starts to flow. And by some miracle, eventually, it all gets done. Or at least, it gets to a point where it’s ready for the next step.
So. Fifteen minutes. Make it easy on yourself while you still can. Or, if you’ve been writing for a while, as a way of restarting.
Last question because, as I write this, I’m becoming increasingly anxious over the stuff I’m supposed to be writing, and because I know how much I’m beginning to sound like one of those coffee shop platheads who likes to “teach” while tweeting/instagramming screenshots from their latest script. So I’m going to quickly get to the last question and wrap this all up before I’m lost forever…
How to write?
This one’s easy: read. If you don’t read, you’re not a writer. And I’m not talking about reading scripts which are awful to read. Granted, we can learn a lot from reading a good script, but we can learn so much more from reading a barely decent novel.
And here’s the best part about reading: it’s part of writing. You can claim it as work. To be honest, you can claim staring out the window as work, too, but reading is definitely part of writing. There are so many books to read with so many examples of great character, great dialogue, story, structure, tone, voice—all of it’s already been published and every novel that we enjoy, that we read and feel the pure pleasure of the story washing over us—is a lesson in writing… if we’re paying attention.
And one thing I know about all writers—they pay attention.
And that’s all I got. My apologies to Doug and his now thoroughly soiled blog. Now go spend the next few minutes writing something. Anything. Just a few minutes…
Scott Frank is a writer, director, and now author. His picture credits include Get Shorty, Minority Report, and The Wolverine. I highly recommend you read his new thriller, Shaker.
“I never give quotes. But I love thrillers. And SHAKER is the best thriller I’ve read in years. Someone needed to say that.”
— William Goldman