“My writing comes from a special place inside me. It pours forth from my soul.”
“I don’t know where my ideas come from. Maybe they’re in our collective unconscious, and we writers just know how to catch them, like butterflies in our nets…”
“I don’t write characters. I simply breathe life into them, and they speak to me…”
Enough. Please, for the love of God…enough.
I’ve never liked this kind of talk, but in the past it was simply because I found it cloying and precious. Ted, however, pinpointed an actual danger in this kind of neo-hippie discussion: it implies that anyone can write. When he explained this to me, I felt like someone had finally tapped into my vibrant energy and healed my essence.
In other words, I thought he hit the nail on the head.
Let’s be clear. Writing is a skill. Talent is a huge part of it, but there’s also a practice part. A science part. A “read yer freakin’ Campbell” part of it. There’s hard work. Self-criticism. Structure. Vocabulary. A memory for movies. Grammar. Story analysis. Philosophy.
Of course I can’t mechanize the entire process. Of course I have ideas sometimes and wonder where they came from. The problem is…so do producers. So do executives. So does everyone. Emphasizing the communo-spiritual aspect of writing is only encouraging dilettantism, and I really really really hate dilettantism. Shouldn’t every professional?
Yet the more we imply that successful writing comes from the proper milking of some sort of astral gland, the further we tread into swampy egalitarianism.
You know, I blame the movies. As Trey Parker & Matt Stone so brilliantly satirized, films tend to celebrate egalitarianism to the point of reducing all brutally difficult self-improvement down to one simple montage. And the point of that montage? It’s not the work that’s difficult. It’s the mental part. You’ve just got to believe, yadda yadda.
Horseshit. Folks, I really do believe that I want to be in better shape. I go to the gym. I work pretty hard. After an hour on the elliptical trainer, I start to feel like I’m gonna puke.
There’s no puking in montages.
It’s the same thing with writing. My “become a good writer” montage started about 16 years ago. It’s not over yet. And I’m still not what I’d consider good, having defined “good” as “better than I currently am”. And yes, there are days when I’m so disgusted with my own failures and inability to see the answer that I really do feel like hurling.
One thing I know, though, is that when the answer does come, it comes from my tenacity. From my skill set. From my insistence that the answer I currently have isn’t the best answer there is. It never ever ever comes from what Ted calls “sucking at the crack in the Cosmic Egg.”
Remember, when we imply that our writing comes from a Force Greater Than We, we are handing over the keys to our kingdom to every non-writer we meet. We should always talk about writing with non-writers the way computer programmers talk about creating applications. “Yeah, I can write a program that will make you happy. I’d explain how, but you wouldn’t understand. There’s too much to know. Too many specifics and tricks of the trade and arcane techniques that are above your head. If you want to do what I do, take a bunch of classes and go apprentice for a few years, pal. Using Microsoft Word ain’t the same as understanding how to create Microsoft Word.”
With that, I present a list of words I just don’t ever want to hear again in connection with writing, even though I know I will.
Energy. Soul. Cosmic. Healing. Inner. Transcendent. Flow. Magical. Mystical. Collective. Circle. Eternal. Essence. Divine. Ethereal. Organic. Embrace.
In place of those terms, I suggest the following.
Work. Difficult. Skilled. Studied. Technique. Advanced. Effort. Job.
Fellow traveller on the divine path to spiritual enlightenment, take some time to share the mindfood of your soul with me in our comment section. What do you think?
It’s sweeps week here at TAW, so in order to keep the traffic up, we’ll stick with our popular “credits” theme. There’s been some interesting chat over at WriterAction about the Tentative Notice of Writing Credits, that horrifying piece of mail that so often kick-starts the bloodbath known as WGA arbitration.
When a film has completed principal photography, the company must send each participating writer a copy of the final script along with their proposal for the writing credits. How does the company arrive at this proposal? Good question. On the one hand, I’d like to think that a credits expert well-versed in Schedule A of the MBA carefully analyzes all of the writers’ contributions, and then formulates a tentative award of credits per the Guild’s credit guidelines.
On the other hand, they could be jumbling names in a hat. My best guess is that it’s probably somewhere in between.
The larger point here is that it’s the studio that makes this initial determination. Not the WGA. Why the studio? Theoretically, they are the entity most familiar with all of the drafts. Furthermore, if they make a proposal with which the participants agree, there’s no need to burden the WGA with any work at all. Ultimately, however, the studio must make a proposal that is within the limitations of the MBA, and those limitations are actually more strict than the ones the WGA arbiters have. For instance, the studios can only propose that two writers share screenplay credit. WGA arbiters, however, can award screenplay credit to three writers.
Once we receive the TNoWC (which comes directly from the studios, although the WGA is cc’ed), we then have a bunch of options. We can:
I’ll make a point that Ted is pretty adamant about, and I agree that it’s one worth making. While it sure seems that writers protesting credits are essentially attacking each other, the reality is that a writer is really challenging the studio’s actions.
One of the ideas floated is to publicize the TNoWC, so that writers can make sure that they’re not included on one that never made it to their mailbox. Personally, I’m against publicizing the notices for the same reason I’m against web sites publishing reviews of screenplays that are going into production: the information is tentative, but that subtle distinction often gets lost on folks in the press.
In our Committee On Credits Administration (Lord help me, I can’t remember the real name), we’re trying to come up with better ways to notify writers about tentative credits…and also make the entry into the credits process a bit more considerate of the emotions involved. The TNoWC is a very business-like document, and the WGA materials that shortly follow it are also very impersonal.
What can we do to make the very beginning of the credits process a bit more respectful of the intense emotions involved? Is there anything we can do institutionally to help make option #2 (participating writers determining their own credits) more popular or easy to achieve?
Arguing about end credits is a bit like debating whether a parachute or a glider would be the best way off the roof of a burning building…even though you have neither.
We can discuss the merits and drawbacks, but there’s always this sense that the membership won’t vote for them anyway. Regardless, this is an important debate to have, because it’s possible that the membership would vote for end credits, and their justification goes to the heart of the differing credits philosophies.
Currently, our credits system is designed to recognize authorship. The problem with our system is that in cases where the first script written is an original script (i.e. not based on underlying material), a subsequent writer must show that he wrote at least 50% of the final script to receive credit.
In short, you could write nearly half of a script, and not only receive no credit…but no residuals, no awards, no separated rights, no official acknowledgement from your peers. Nothing. Zippo. It’s like it never happened. Even worse (in my opinion), the work that you did do is now fully attributed to someone else. That’s the criminal part.
I’ve never been shy about my view of this situation. We currently award credits based on a socioeconomic scheme designed to reduce the firing of first writers and the hiring of subsequent writers. I consider that immoral. In my mind, writing credit ought to be for writing done. Contributions made. And that’s it.
Suffice it to say, I’m not the only one who thinks this way, but there are plenty of Guild members who disagree. And so, into the breach…end credits.
The idea of end credits is simply to add a list of participating writers in the back credits, somewhere in there between the grips and the gaffers. It’s a way of acknowledging that these writers worked on the movie. After all, as it’s often been pointed out, if you write almost half a movie you don’t get a credit, but if you work for a month at the craft services table, you do.
You’d think I’d be in favor of end credits.
I am…sort of…a little bit.
My basic view is that end credits will clearly diminish the value of the front credits, no matter what the specific form they take (Ted argues that “consulting writers” is the best phrasing, since that doesn’t necessarily imply that they made a contribution). The question is: how can we limit end credits in order to not unfairly diminish the contributions of the author(s) of the movie?
Remember, end credits are blanket. They don’t discriminate between the guy who wrote nearly half the movie and the guy who wrote one line of dialogue. If it’s a crime to suggest that someone who writes nearly half the movie isn’t one of the writers, it’s also a crime to introduce the notion that someone who wrote 99% of the movie may have only written a little over half. That is, in effect, what a blanket end credit could conceivably imply, and since we’re dealing with a public acknowledgement, we ought to consider that equally.
Here’s my stab at how end credits ought to be implemented.
You will receive an end credit if you are a participating writer not receiving a front credit, and:
Obviously, these changes would require membership approval as well as a negotiation for inclusion in the MBA. It’s a starting point. What do you think?
In it, he describes the convulsions our union goes through during negotiations. On the one hand, he says, there are the working writers who view the hinge-points (like residuals, etc.) philosophically.
I assume by “philosophically” he means dispassionately and rationally.
On the other hand, Mr. Long says there are the non-working writers–and they’re a bit more rabid. He writes:
Non-working writers, the Unemployeds, are a different, more querulous matter. These are writers who haven’t sold a script or drawn a writer’s paycheck in years, but remain passionately involved members of the guild and its most impossible to satisfy voting bloc. For some reason, years of unemployment do not lead to difficult personal decisions (“I must stop dreaming of success and riches. I must stop talking to my friends about my next big script sale. I must realize that my job at Blockbuster is not just ‘temporary’ or a ‘great place to people-watch and get material,’ but, instead, my true livelihood, and I will begin to treat it as such by arriving on time and in uniform, and not waste a customer’s time criticizing his rental choices.”) but, rather, lead to a stubborn and highly irrelevant obsession with the writer’s potential share of hypothetical ancillary revenue generated by a script that hasn’t been written, and if written won’t be sold by a writer who is not represented by an agent who won’t sign him because, and this is crucial, his scripts do not sell. Did I mention that this is the largest segment of the voting population of the WGA?
In my experience, Rob’s allegations are actually pretty commonplace, although they’re rarely articulated so well. What I find so amazing about this is that it’s the first time I’ve heard someone publicly put their name to it. It’s been a sort of secret, eye-rolling complaint whispered between writers who feel very comfortable with each other, but never said out loud in mixed company.
I’ll admit: these thoughts have certainly crossed my mind. In many ways, I was cured of them by my service to the Guild. It turns out that in reality, some of the most ardent opponents of strikes and olde-tyme labor union rhetoric are currently unemployed. Likewise, I can think of at least three multimillionaires who would be happy to see us all on a picket line right now.
There’s a larger issue at hand here. I think Rob gets a major part of it wrong: the fracture lines are not drawn along employability. He is right, though, about the other part.
Our Guild has two factions. And just as national politics has seen polarization over the years, I can sense it in our union as well.
A long time ago, I asked some writers to come up with names for the two main groups arguing about credit policies. I guess I’ll do the same again.
Is Rob right? Are we split in two? Is it along employed and unemployed lines?
Personally, I think the two groups are defined by the central belief systems they use when approaching negotiations. For me, the two predominant belief systems are Moral and Economic. The Moralists want us to get what we deserve, and striking is still labor’s best weapon to achieve that. The Economists want us to get what we can get, and striking is just another tactic to be number-crunched on a cost-benefit basis.
Maybe this is a false dichotomy, but I would certainly find myself in Economist camp (as I’m sure Rob would).
Moralists vs. Economists? You guys are writers…maybe you can do better. The larger question, though, is…is this healthy? Or is this union experiencing a nasty case of, well, disunion?
I’ve been familiar with John August’s site for some time, and as we happen to share an agent (now watch John’s industry stock tumble…”he shares an agent with who???”), I was able to call him to ask his advice on blogware a few months ago.
I learned two things from that conversation. First, John’s a great guy. Second, he knows a bucketload more about designing websites than I do.
So I hired a designer.
Regardless, he hasn’t cut my shortcutting self out of his life, and instead was kind enough to plug our new site to his readers. Salve, Augustians!
Here’s another screenblogger with a terrific site called Complications Ensue. We’re artful, he’s crafty…sounds like a meeting of the minds. You’ll find Alex’ site on permalist over in the sidebar. I should check out his book one of these days. Maybe even review it.
Alex, you may commence worrying.
Okay, okay, I’ll make it easier. TypeKey has been a pain in the butt for some, so I’m going to an open comment format.
There’s nothing in the way now. You may indulge your desire to comment with impunity. We’ll keep it like this as long as my comment spam blocker is working. The first hint of free Viagra and monkey porn, though, and I’ll have to put the drawbridge back up.
Over at Yankee Fog, Jacob’s written a great essay about some yutz who tried his hand at screenwriting. Seems he couldn’t get his calls returned. He actually had to resort to offering one of the studio execs a job. Didn’t make a difference. Paramount never did buy that treatment of his.
Oh well. He went on to become slightly important in a different field. Hint: He was President of the United States and his initials were FDR.
I’ll say no more. Don’t want to spoil it or nothin’.
Boy, I’m getting better at provocative titles, huh?
When WGA arbiters sit down to figure out who deserves credit for the screenplay of a movie, they’re not giving credit for Writer A’s draft or Writer B’s draft.
They’re giving credit for the screenplay. What’s the screenplay? The MBA, Schedule A, Paragraph 1 states:
The term “screenplay” means the final script (as represented on screen) with individual scenes and full dialogue, together with such prior treatment, basic adaptation, continuity, scenario and dialogue as shall be used in and represent substantial contributions to the final script.
All of that’s important stuff, but right now the key phrase is “as represented on screen”.
Of course the arbiters are given individual drafts written by the various participating writers, but they are also given the most important draft of all–the shooting script. The shooting script, or final script, is essentially the last compiled draft that was used during production. In theory and typically in practice, no one has written this script. It’s the frankenscript culled together by the production. On projects with only one or two writers, its relationship to individually written drafts is often clear. On projects with ten writers, it’s a thing-unto-itself.
So if no one specifically sat down and authored the final script, then who can we say is its author?
That’s for the arbiters to decide. Screenplay credit is not given for the scripts we write. It’s not given for our efforts or for our time. It’s not given for our struggles. It’s not given for our role in getting the movie greenlit.
It’s only given for our contributions to the final script–the 120 pages no one actually wrote as such, but someone very certainly authored.
I’m not a particularly controversial person, so you won’t see too many overtly unpopular essays on this site (“Puppies: Why They Should Be Beaten”), but maybe this one will get a few pulses racing.
If you’re a professional screenwriter and you’re asked to make a change that you think is awful, say “Yes.”
Always say yes.
Destroy the main character? “Yes!” Change that brilliant ending that brings everything full circle with a twist-and-a-half? “Sure!” If the producer or director has an idea that’s just god-awful, death-dealing, movie-wrecking, story-killing, your answer to the request should be a charming and pleasant “Okay!” Say it with pride. Alacrity, even.
Why? Because saying yes costs you nothing, and gains you much.
When I say, “yes,” I’m giving the following impression: “Dear employer or supervisor, I am surprisingly open to your suggestions. Even though you know that I’m better at this than you, I’m making you feel good by listening and taking you seriously. After all, it’s you who has the esteem problems regarding your own story sense. Not I. Besides, you might be right! And I’m not just saying that. Boy, I’m a productive employee with a good attitude!”
Good lord, what a suckup. There’s just one thing about that sycophantic monologue–it’s all true. Every last word.
Granted, when I first started writing I had a hard time dealing with what Dennis Palumbo calls “that sinking feeling”. The exec or director would make a truly terrible suggestion, and every ounce of my writerness was screaming for blood. Far from saying “yes,” I would instead concentrate on not-punching and not-cursing. Occasionally I’d work on not-flaying-alive and not-bludgeoning-you-with-your-own-femur-that-I-just-tore-out-of-your-leg-meat.
Emotionally rewarding for a brief moment, true, but hardly productive. Even worse, it’s noticeable. These things are always noticeable. Let’s face it–if we were better at acting, we’d act.
What I came to realize is that I wasn’t getting so mad because their ideas were bad. I was getting mad because I was afraid, and the fear was a result of my own lack of confidence. “What if they make me do this terrible idea?” was what I first thought the fear was about, but in time it became clear that the fear was more like, “What if I have to do this terrible idea because I cannot explain to them why it’s a terrible idea?“
I always say “yes,” because I believe I am the best story-teller in the room, so therefore I must fairly judge all ideas who appear in my court of story quality. I must dutifully examine why this person, a potential audience member like any other, might have thought this new idea would be better. I think about the ramifications. I think about the cost/benefit.
I’m the story expert. It’s what I’m supposed to do. We should not defend. We should evaluate. Defending is for the afraid. Evaluating is for the confident judge–a judge whose authority derives from his expertise.
Sometimes, I find pleasing ways to incorporate the suggestions; I haven’t pleased my employers as much as I’ve pleased myself, but their appreciation is a happy side-effect.
Sometimes, I determine after much thought that my first instinct (“This is a bad idea”) was correct. Then I come back to them–and here’s the real point of this whole damn thing–I tell them why.
They love this.
When I hired an interior decorater, I would occasionally make suggestions. Sometimes she’d do them. Sometimes she’d think for a while (that part’s crucial) and only then say, “No, I think it’s probably better if you did this, and here’s why.” It’s not the agreement that makes you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth from your employee. It’s the informed disagreement.
In my experience, this is precisely how producers view things. When I say “yes,” I’m not agreeing to be slavish. I’m simply agreeing to try. If I determine that their suggestion is not to be done, I can explain why. When you remove that initial “no,” you remove 99% of the hostility and disfunction from the writer-employer relationship while ceding 0% of your authority and power. And it’s funny. Ever since I began saying “yes” a few years back, two interesting things have come to pass.
I haven’t had to write anything I didn’t believe in…
…and no one’s fired me.
We had a glitch where previewed comments looked like arse. It’s fixed. Line breaks will preview properly now. Sorry about that.