I made a Twitter the other day that I’m too lazy to go looking back through my shit to quote directly, but suffice to say, it went something like this: “Never underestimate the power of having a manager who is more concerned with the course of your career than with attaching him or herself to everything you write.”
And yes, that’s far too many characters for one Twitter post, but stop being such a fucking jerk about it, yeah? This website is about ME and what I’M feeling, what I’M going through, and the last thing I need is YOU coming in here, what with your finger pointing and all your character-counting nonsense. Who are you, Twitler?
(And before you sprint away to claim the @Twitler handle, rest assured that I already checked as soon as I typed that only to discover that it’s occupied by some Hispanic person who we all know is not taking proper advantage of such a genius domain. I’m so angry.)
Where was I? Right.
There was good reason for me to muse the above: I have a fantastic Manager. He gets me – and for a person like myself, whom is gotten by almost no one, that’s a great feeling. I’ve always thought of the Agent/Manager dynamic thusly, and though this is a bit oversimplified, it works much of the time: your Agent is there to get you in the mix for as many jobs as possible and provide you with a direct link to people who want to be in business with you; your Manager is there as your first creative outlet at any step of the process and is tasked with helping you choose which projects you want to chase and how to shape your career.
Sadly, for some writers, their manager can more closely be defined as “The person that auctions them off to the highest bidder and then gloms onto whatever they write as a producer who will probably add little to the mix but will get paid anyway”. Managers such as these aren’t actually managers past the business card they’re all too keen to hand out – they’re leeches who are looking for enough credits to move onto something more lucrative than mucking about with writers.
And it’s really sad. Because managers – at least the ones like mine – can make a hell of a difference in not only the path of one’s career, but how clearly one is able to see it through the trees.
Last week was our yearly sit-down, sort of a Culmination of the Year-style rumination on what’s happened and where we’re going. As of late, I’ve been disappointed with how things have been going. I got royally shafted on a project that I was hard at work on but was having a tough time cracking. I was getting negative feedback on another project that I thought I’d turned in a really, really great draft of. A couple of TV projects that I’d spent a lot of time fleshing out sort of fell apart all at once. Not good times.
What I needed to know was if my work product had suffered. If I was in bed with the wrong people, fine; that’s a lesson learned, but no harm and no foul. If I had just hit a patch of bad luck, fine; the ebb and flow of success for a writer is something we all have to weather as professionals. But if I was regressing as far as the quality of my work product…fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. In fact, there’s no other way to describe the potential of having to hear that. The sight, feel, and sound of it is, quite literally, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”
Luckily, I’ve spent the last couple of years surrounding myself with people who will refuse to bullshit me. The Manager is one of these, and I value his insight above almost all others. What he had to tell me was something that I think I’ve known subconsciously for quite a while, and finally hearing it was something of a Get Out of Jail Free Card.
“Look, essentially, you’ve been working from the same bag of tricks for the last couple of years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great bag of tricks, and it’s served you pretty well. But if I had one criticism of your work, if I’m being completely honest…I’m worried that bag has turned into a crutch.”
Hit me like a brick, man. Not the kind of brick that knocks you out and gives you a concussion, but the kind that instantly blasts some sense into you and wakes you up to the world in which you’re currently stranding yourself.
I’d become satisfied. I’d become comfortable. And, for all intents and purposes, I’d stopped challenging myself.
Luckily – and I hope this comes across as confidence in my craft and not braggery, because I certainly don’t mean it as the latter – I’m a good enough writer that I’ve still been producing good work. I have to believe that , and the people around me have to believe that as well. Thankfully, I’m confident they do.
At the same time, though, the Manager was right – essentially, I’ve been spinning my wheels. I’ve been languishing in one mindset for too long. And it’s started to show. And as a writer trying to establish a long-term career over here, that ain’t a good thing. So the question must be asked: how does one get to such a place?
When it comes down to it, I don’t feel I was *quite* able to say what I wanted to say with GOING THE DISTANCE. Do not get me wrong even for a second – I love the little movie that we made, and I’m damn proud of it. I think it’s great. On the same token, it was, at times, a difficult experience. The director did NOT want to work with me, almost from the beginning. We clashed on what we thought the movie should be. New writers were brought in. Dynamics and details changed. That notwithstanding, I firmly believe that the finished product was in most regards the movie I wanted it to be. At the same time, it also feel a bit short of what I wanted to communicate about that time in my life that I was living, about the surreal and hysterical tragedy that young adulthood can sometimes be.
And so, in each project since, I’ve chased that theme to one degree or another. I’ve tried to imbue a worldview, a “voice” (God I hate that fucking word, hence the sarcastic quotation) on everything I’ve touched. Sometimes it’s worked really well. Sometimes it’s blown dying goat. At least, I can say, it’s always been honest.
But here’s the hard truth: that’s not good enough.
As I was leaving the meeting, descending in the elevator with little more than my thoughts, I couldn’t help but play some of my favorite new lyrics in my head. I realized, sheepishly, that they more or less defined the veritable quicksand I’d just minutes ago recognized I was stuck in:
And I would swim, but the river is so wide, and I’m
Scared I won’t make it to the other side. Well,
God knows that I’ve failed, but he knows
That I’ve tried.
I long for something, that’s safe and warm, and
All I have is all that is gone.
As helpless, and as hopeless
As a feather on the Clyde.
And there we have it, in so many more eloquent words: I’d allowed myself to become a sufferer of complacency and fear.
If you want to be a writer with any chance at sustainability in this industry, you’ve got to eschew complacency and fear as if they’re wrongly prescribed medications. They are your two most mortal enemies. It’s easy to give in to the machinations which have always worked for you in one way or another, to let them cradle you. But to do so is to invite stagnation, staleness, irrelevance. The last thing you want to project as a creative body of any sort is that you’re past your state of usefulness. And I’m not about to do that shit.
With this next phase of my career, I’m going big. I’m not getting away from what I know, what I believe, what I love, but I’m pushing myself further, towards stories and concepts that I’d before felt a little too “not me” to attempt. I’m taking more chances. I’m contenting myself with being seen as even stranger, as even more unhinged, as even more ridiculous. Because what is “me”, really? Who are “you” as a writer? If you’re writing something you love, something that excites you, something that compels you to create it…who the hell cares? “You” are what you choose to put out there, not a genre or a theme or one specific set of ideas. Fuck fitting into a box.
If you’re an aspiring writer, I want you to think about this over the Holidays: have you spent all this time trying to break in doing what you want to do, saying what you want to say, or have you been laboring at what you think OTHERS want? Are you challenging yourself to create bigger, riskier worlds as you evolve, or have you been hammering at the same dead crap ever since you started? Are “They” holding you back, or are you your own worst enemy? Has your rubber been meeting the road…or have you just been spinning your wheels?
I learned one hell of a lesson this week: there’s never a better time that now to take a step back, reexamine your process, and ask yourself honestly if you’re pushing yourself to your potential. Some of us are. Many, including myself, haven’t been.
And so for me, it’s time for a reinvention. And for you? Well…someone’s gotta swim that river. Best be the one who beats the other guy to the punch.
Nice article Geoff. Can you be clearer about what crutch you think you’re holding onto? For example, do you feel you’re writing the same story? Or setting all your stories around the chaos of growing up?
So to move away from that would you switch genres? Choose an unlikely (for you) protagonist and write a mystery? It sounds fun.
Also ‘blows dying goat’ made me laugh. 😀
Without being too specific, it comes down to three things for me, usually:
1. Character viewpoint
2. Dialogue mechanisms
And with most of the stuff I was doing, I was striking points too similar in all of them. To move away from that…it’s going to be a lot of things. Changing genres (to one degree or another) is certainly one, toying with different kinds of characters will be another, and broadening the scope of how I see things will be another.
All part of a much longer process of figuring out exactly what my wheelhouse is and learning how to break the mold in the right ways. And I’ve got to keep in mind that it’s OK if that changes over time – I don’t have to be in the future what I am now as long as I’m producing quality, interesting work that I’m proud of.
Thanks for the honesty. And I hear you. Fear is a big one for me. I wrote a script with damn unicorns in it for christ’s sake. But, I love it and I’ll never not love it no matter what anyone says.
Happy holidays and good luck.
Very nice posting. Some great advice. Can I ask about your TV experience, since that’s something new for you?
Are you looking mainly to sell a pilot project or also open to being staffed? Was branching out into TV your idea or a necessity of the business? How come none of Josh Heald’s tv show pilot scripts have made it to the air yet?
TV experience so far has consisted of pitching a couple of things and selling none. I’m very, very, very bad at pitching still. It’s very hard for me to flesh things out until I start writing – that’s just the way I work – so pitching feels very false for me. I’m either going to have to get over that or just start speccing pilot scripts. Staffing isn’t really an option for me right now considering the amount of feature work I’m still lucky enough to get.
As far as Josh…you’ll probably have to ask Josh.
Geoff, after the negative feedback on your draft, do you still feel it was a great draft?
I do. In this instance it was more that their expectations for the script didn’t match up with what I ultimately wrote. It wasn’t (hopefully) that they thought it sucked, just that it wasn’t what they were expecting.
>>1. Character viewpoint<<
Can you talk a little bit about how you approach character, find unique voices, and imbue a protagonist with a viewpoint that isn't necessarily the same as your own?
Thanks for this, man.
Sure, and great question.
My main problem is, I think, that I’ve actually been putting too much of my own viewpoint in my protagonists. Not always, but too often, and it’s left my leads in a couple of occasions feeling a little too familiar.
So I need to start going out of the box more in terms of this, and I think there are two ways to do that:
1. Creating characters who I WANT to exist – Without knowing it, I did this in writing GTD. An exec that I met with somewhere was talking about Erin and said, “Oh yeah, you very clearly wrote here the girl that you WANTED to date.” And I’d never thought of that before, but she was absolutely right.
2. Drawing from real life – This is almost always the strongest path. Take personalities and traits from people you know well and build them into a character. This is EXACTLY why it helps to spend time around people don’t necessarily have the same morals and values as you – so you can turn them into villains.
(I’m kidding. Kind of.)
As someone who switches up genres a lot in my writing, I’m curious to know if that causes you any problems since you broke in on a comedy script. The usual advice everyone gets is “pick a lane and stick with it,” which makes sense. If an exec likes some writer’s thriller and he comes in for a meeting with my bosses, it’s probably going to be to his benefit to have something similar to what they fell in love with in the first place.
So I get the logic of that approach as one is trying to break in. I had always heard that once you broke in, it’s STILL a good idea to stay in your lane and that if you want to venture out of it, you’re gonna have to write it on spec. Is that pretty much your take as well? From some of your above comments, I get the sense you prefer writing the project to pitching it anyway, so perhaps going from spec to spec is more appealing than chasing assignment work.
The “pick a lane and stick with it” line of thinking absolutely does exist and a lot of people run with it, and that’s not a bad thing. It works, and a lot of writers have long-lasting, sold careers following it. Usually, they, they’re such amazing one-trick ponies that it doesn’t matter or they learn to vary up their narrative enough from script to script that no one notices (I think Dan Fogelman is an amazing example of the latter).
That said, I find this mostly to be the mechanics of the assignment game. If you’re speccing (and BTW, there’s no good way WHATSOEVER to spell that word, so fuck it, I’m going with that until someone comes up with better), you can kind of do whatever you want. True, it might be a little jarring for the buyers that know your “voice” (UGH) if you go from writing comedy to sci-fi, but as long as the script’s amazing, who gives a shit? That’s why you have reps to help you – you’re not always going to send the rom-com script and the horror script to the same people, so when you DO go out with something that’s different for you, you have a plan.
Now: I’ve pitched on non-comedy stuff before, but in most cases when that’s happened, it’s been my Agent or Manager calling and saying, “There’s this job out there, and it’s not necessarily something you’d be thought of for, so hear me out…” And then I’m just so passionate about the idea that I throw my hat into the ring and take a shot. I’ve not once yet felt like I didn’t put my best foot forward and/or have a great shot at every project I’ve approached in this manner. In fact, that’s how BREATHERS came about, sort of.
Is there any way you can do a financial post? As in, can you post the expectant salary of a young screenwriter and then break it down?
I may tackle this at some point, but it’s a topic with such wildly varying circumstances that it’s hard to nail down anything that resembles an “expected” range.
Here’s what I think might be a good barometer, a bare-minimum take on what you could expect as a writer once you finally get a sale under your belt: check out the WGA minimums scale for studio sales. If you sell a script to a WGA signatory production company or studio, there is a base number that they have to pay you ever time to you write for/sell something to them. Each time you bank a new job, your reps generally fight for a slight increase over what your last job paid you; this is called your “quote”. Over time, your quote goes up and up and up until you hit a plateau or you get a script involved in a ridiculous bidding war.
But for now, plan for the WGA minimum and that should give you an idea of where you start. It’s not a perfect jumping-off spot but it’s close enough, and essentially it would help you plan for the “worst”.