The banality of good advice

In my last post, I collected a list of best practices boiled down from a year’s worth of blogging and a lifetime’s worth of study.  The bullet points? “Write often, be organized, use an outline.” 

That’s painfully unoriginal advice. Every hack with a website spoon feeds the same basic tenets.  Still, as basic and familiar as those tenets have become, we self-styled gurus will never tire of repeating them. Nor should we.  It needs to be said almost as often as it needs to be heard.


A teacher once told me, “There are no advanced mistakes, only basic ones.” Everyone falls apart on the fundamentals. Your computer can perform a billion computations in a second, but they all break down into six basic functions or primitives.  Whether it’s a computer program or a screenplay, you can generally achieve any effect you want by putting together a series of simple operations.

Screenwriting has thousands of pieces of hacknyed good advice. “Enter a scene late, leave early. Show, don’t tell. Read dialogue aloud so it sounds like something a real person would say.” The list goes on, and it’s all obvious, common sense stuff. But writers (you, me, even the greats), often forget the basics in the heat of battle.

When I show my work to other people, they inevitably point out one or two galling flaws. This is doubly frustrating, one, I hate that I made a mistake, and two, it’s frustrating that I need the same advice as a raw beginner, even after ten years in the industry. It’s a blow to my ego and my self image. Maybe I’m not special.

There are four stages of competence. Sucking, and being unaware of it, sucking and being aware of it, being competent, but having to think about it, and being competent unconsciously (wikipedia can make this sound smarter, but I stand by my capsule summary). It’s this last step that we’re striving for, the unconscious competence that some might even call mastery.

I’m a long way off from mastery. Most days it’s an uphill battle to get to mere adequacy. I take comfort in the fact that my failings are universal, that I can help others with their common problems because I see my flaws reflected in their work.

Most of my writing advice, story coaching, note giving, development, whatever you want to call it, is merely echoing the same banal, fundamental advice over and over again. This is well and good, as the more it is said, the more it is taken, the more it is given, the more likely it is to become second nature.

Best practices for getting started, organized, and through your first draft.

1. Always have a pen and paper (or a voice recorder, or a smartphone with a good battery).  A pen and paper is best, as it’s living testament to your desire to capture ideas as opposed to just having a cell phone.  Productivity nerds call this ubiquitous capture.  The thinking is that your brain won’t give up the really good ideas if it thinks they’ll be wasted, so having a pen and paper is like a catalyst for creativity.  If nothing else, it’ll maximize your productivity.

2. Pick a project and work on it until it’s done.  The more projects you have, the less like you are to finish any one (there are other reasons to focus on one project)).  Make sure your project has a coherent logline, a castable protagonist, and has an actual genre.

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3. Have a trusted system in which to put your ideas.  Remember, this is simplified because you’re writing one project at a time (see above).  You’ll want to keep track of scenes, characters, dialogue, and other material that will feed your draft.  Also set aside another set of folders for any idea you have that doesn’t pertain to your main project.  Record it, file it, and don’t worry about it till your main project is done.  I recommend Evernote or Workflowy.

Ergonomic Workstation - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

4. Have a place to work.  Most people have a desk, but for most people that desk is under piles and piles of bills, old magazines, and office supplies.  A desk is a focusing tool for your mental energies.  It is the physical representation of your control over your environment.  If you’re feeling blocked, clean off your desk, there’s ideas under that clutter.

5. Write every day. It’s tempting to think that you can populate an entire screenplay by careful use of random ideas jotted down at stoplights, but the real work of writing is done while sitting at a desk, sweating out a dozen bad paragraphs for every usable sentence.  Writing discipline is like a muscle, you have to work it every day.  Set a daily goal and keep to it every day.  If you can’t keep that appointment with yourself, this might not be the line of work for you.  Make sure that you harvest the best ideas from your writing and put it in the trusted system.  You don’t need to save everything, just the absolute best ideas generated by the writing.

These are the best practices that keep the writing machine organized and efficient.  You’re working towards a beat sheet, and later a treatment, and finally a script.  Sadly real writing will never be quite as easy as a simple “how to” guide makes it sound, but if you follow these best practices, you’ll be well ahead of the game.

Procrastination is the grave opportunity is buried in.

“We shall never have more time. We have, and have always had, all the time there is. No object is served in waiting until next week or even until to-morrow. Keep going day in and out. Concentrate on something useful. Having decided to achieve a task, achieve it at all costs. ~ Arnold Bennett”

I don’t want to write this blog.  I actually never feel like writing.  I am a goddamn Rhodes scholar at not writing.  It’s my particular genius.  ~ Matt Lazarus

Pity the poor aspiring writer. It’s never a good time for them to write. They have a lot going on. They have money but not time, or time but no money. They can’t write because they’re lonely, they can’t write because they have to spend time with their significant other. They can’t write because they have no ideas, or because they have too many ideas. Procrastinators put all their faith in a magical, golden tomorrow where they’ll be adequately sexed, have the perfect amount of time, the perfect amount of money, and a magical talking desk that automatically transcribes and files their brilliant ideas in the exact right places.

That happy hour will never arrive. Neither success nor failure nor perfect love will make the writing any easier.

Procrastinators doom themselves to failure. They stall and stall, and when and if they do make the time to write, there’s so much pressure to use that time to be brilliant, to justify all the time wasted on past procrastination, that the expectation crushes whatever work they might have mustered.

Getting disciplined isn’t easy. There are a million tricks, tips and hacks that you can use, some can be found on this very blog, but on some level it comes down to pure will – your will to put pen to paper, to imagine vividly, to dutifully record.

I write this not to scold, but to offer a benediction. I free you from all old obligations. All false starts, all your abandoned efforts, all the wasted time, all your costly mistakes. You are forgiven. You are free to forgive yourself and move on. So go and write something.

Some lessons from being on set

So I’ve been working on this movie called Goliath (details) .

It was quite an experience.  As a writer, you’ll write something like, EXT. PRISON YARD — DAY: Guards look down at the segregated yard below. 

Then you get to set and you realize it took dozens of people hundreds of manhours to create a realistic simulation of what to you was a throwaway line to set up the backdrop for the scene..


In the interest of populating my anemic blog, here are some lessons I learned from the amazing experience.

Anything you write will have to be conveyed or said. There is nothing worse than having actors struggle through a Bible’s worth of text while it becomes clear they could have conveyed the same information with a glance.

People take what you write super literally

On set, the crew will work off the script and endeavor to literally put forward what you’ve written. Actors will will ask you about the tertiary meanings of some throwaway line. So when you drunkenly write some bit of business or revelation you need to set up the line you really care about, remember that someone is actually going to have to live with that for a long time.

As a writer, you’re going to be pretty useless on set.

Maybe you’ll be called upon to change a line or some choreography, maybe an actor will ask you some backstory questions, but mostly you’ll wander around set eating snacks of the craft service table., intermittently flirting with the cutest available PA, who will inevitably have a boyfriend . Bring your laptop, drugs, or both.

Enjoy it while it lasts

That being said, it’s going to be the time of your life. You’ll wander through a life sized diorama based on the scenes that you have created, looking at your hands, marveling at what they have wrought. Actors will pal around with you, crew members will am you for career advice, extras will slip you their head shots. Live it up, rock star! Bring a girl to set if you can. Enjoy the rare opportunity to make being a writer look cool. Soon enough you’ll be back to worrying about rent and grinding out dialogue in a Starbucks. Don’t cry when it’s over, smile cause it happened