Scary How-to Books

Though I try to read as many How-To books as I can, I find it very stressful sometimes. I want to make sure I come across as a professional, so I read lots of books about screenwriting and novel writing so I know what to do and what not to do. I find these books stressful to read because sometimes they tell me more than I want to know. Things I would rather not think about. Though it’s not really the conventional wisdom anymore, experts used to warn you that you absolutely had to live in Los Angeles to make it as a screenwriter. Once in a while, people still argue that it’s still true, even with the advent of the Internet, faxes, and all the other newfangled stuff out there. I hate that argument. It scares me. I’m always afraid that it’s true. I can’t move to L.A. I won’t move to L.A. Can’t because I have a husband and kids here, plus a claustrophobic mother who wouldn’t be able to get a plane to come visit. I wouldn’t move anyway. I’ve heard too many horror stories. Everyone says people there really are plastic surgery-enhanced walking Barbie dolls who are so coked up and drunk that it’s a wonder they can even speak, let alone act or write. I’m still convinced that a big earthquake is going to hit one day and the whole state of California is going to break off and float away into the ocean. (Seriously, people! Nobody seems to heed these warnings about CA, even with the recent tragedy of epic proportions in Haiti. Noooo, it can’t happen here. This is Hollywood!).
There are also plenty of stories about people who DO move to L.A. – then move back. Moving to the West Coast might get you more connected to the right people. Or it might not. You can move there, get a job, and then it’s kind of like….now what. I’m here! So….ummm…You’re there with about a million other people who moved out there for the same reason you did. There are only so many studio jobs that are available. And to get THOSE jobs, you have to know people, too. I’ve always felt that if I’m not going to make it as a screenwriter, I’m going to not make it right here on the East Coast. Here where I have family and friends and support and a life outside of the harsh world of screenwriting. Still, it scares me when people say moving is a must.
Those how-to books either offer harsh truths or sometimes sugarcoat things so much that I don’t know what to believe anymore. Screenwriting books like to harp on Passion. If you are just Passionate enough about what you are writing, it will shine through and everyone will fall in love with your work. If you love it, other people will too. They also like to say that Hollywood is always looking for fresh new ideas. However, everyone knows that many of the movies that come out are old, recycled ideas with very little passion. It’s hard to imagine anybody feeling a deep passion stirring within their soul to the point where they simply had to write that story about putting The Rock in a tooth fairy dress….
Screenwriting books also like to convince you that 99.98% percent of the scripts written are truly rotten, so yours is sure to shine, right? They say that at least 80% of screenplays submitted to contests are pure garbage, so naturally yours will have a great shot! No so, in my experience. A perfect example – the Slamdance screenplay competition had this to say about my script “This is a very well written script. I thought it was interesting and entertaining. The structure of the script is well planned and carefully carried out. The writer does a very good job of interluding upcoming plot points, having them unfold in a truthful and consistent manner, not comprising her characters. I can’t see that there is very much room for improvement.” Not much room for improvement should mean it’s pretty damn good, right? The script was not in the Top 50 Finalists, so clearly at least 50 were better than my pretty damn good script. I have also gotten letters and emails from producers telling me that they really enjoyed my script. Some of them even provide some specifics on what they really liked (as opposed to form letters), yet somehow they still passed on the script. Seems to me that they must be reading a lot of scripts that are even better than my “pretty good” scripts.
I write with plenty of passion with ideas, at least in my opinion, are original or at least have not been done too many times before. So far, no dice. I guess it’s best to keep in mind that these how-to books are out to sell more books. They have to tell you some harsh truths, yet not make it seem so impossible to break in that you want to kill yourself. It’s their job to tell you – “You, too, can make it!” Those books like to build you up to the point where you think that you’re the exception. Most of the other writers out there are no good, but you! You’re different.
It’s been my experience that there are plenty of good writers out there. More than they claim. More than you think. There are about 50,000 screenplays registered with the Writer’s Guild. Sometimes I think I have to be better than all of them or I will never, ever make it.
I don’t want to end this entry on such a down note. There are plenty of things those books are wrong about. They tell you that your first screenplay will never be any good. You won’t get anywhere with it – that one’s just for practice. I optioned the first screenplay I wrote when I was 19 years old. True, it was just a “free” option, but it was with a real production company in Los Angeles. They sent the script to Disney TV and Showtime and a few others.
The books will tell you that you will never get anywhere without an agent. I didn’t have an agent when I optioned my script and I still don’t.
The books also tell you that agents won’t bother with you until you’ve written a stack of scripts, if even then. I have found this mostly to be true. However…when I sent out my very first batch of query letters to agents, I bought a brand new picture frame. I was all ready to frame my first rejection letter. The very first letter I ever got was a YES. Sure, Ms. 18-year-old first time writer with only one screenplay under her belt, go on and send it! We’d love to read it! Things don’t always go the way they’re supposed to. Nobody who was ever diagnosed with cancer, got hit by a bus, or won the lottery, ever really thought it would happen to them.
I think it’s like William Goldman says “Nobody knows anything.” Who know why a screenplay sells? Who knows why it doesn’t place in a contest? You can’t predict these things. So I don’t try. I’m gonna write what I want to write with all the passion that I can muster. That way, at least I will be happy while I’m writing. That part is a guarantee. That part I have control over. The rest is up to chance. Success doesn’t happen too often to Wannabes, but you never do know when it will strike. I have the following quote hanging up in my office, just above the box where I put my acceptance letters:

But once in a while, the odd thing happens
Once in a while, the dream comes true
And the whole pattern of life is altered
Once in a while, the moon turns blue.
– Arden