Craft Before Content, Part Two: Anyone Can Be a Writer Nowadays, Right?

Nowadays, people are allowed to fancy themselves as anything they like with just a smidgen of experience and a lot of book smarts. When someone asks me what I am, I quickly reply, “I’m a poet.” I can back that up not with book smarts, but with bookmarks on every scholastic, literary and poetry journal in which my words appear, from my first poem “Paradise Lost” printed in Enigma back in 2001 to my current verse packed tightly between other new international voices of poetry and prose in Iodine Poetry Journal and Harpur Palate and many others.

However, I also try my hand at writing screenplays. So far, I have over ten shorts, seven of which have been made into films, and four features, one made, one forever in rewrite hell, and two that found a comfortable home in the shredder. I’ve never sold a script, and for all intents and purposes, I may be an F. Scott Fitzgerald waiting (not) to happen––a wonderful wordsmith but a terrible screenwriter. Therefore, I don’t really consider myself a screenwriter. I’m simply a guy who writes screenplays.

The paradox of today is the fact that I can call myself a screenwriter because simply writing screenplays is sufficient criteria. From the few scripts I’ve read from others like me, screenplays don’t even have to be in proper Hollywood Standard formatting, can have egregious typos straddling every sentence, and don’t even have to follow the traditional structure since as soon as a book is written on the subject, it’s already outdated because everything moves much quicker than they did back in Hollywood’s heyday.

When I decided to delve into this one-time hobby a bit more seriously, though by no means as a possible profession, the first thing I did was learn the craft of how to actually write a screenplay, then the structure, and then I practiced the discipline of sitting down and writing the actual script (this, by far, being the hardest part.)

When it comes to learning the craft of specific forms of writing, I go back and forth between condoning book smart writers and condemning them as “one hit wonderers” who wrote successful piece that people enjoyed and who now consider themselves experts at their respective form. In regards to my own work, I’m in a frame of mind that experience and practice are king. There are lots of us out there, so the ones who stand out are the ones who’ve got the innovative ideas, yes, but they’re also those who know a bit more than just the basics of storytelling and screenplay structure, learned from practice.

Now, I believe that the “innovative ideas” part can’t be taught; that is something more of a gift that some writers have and others don’t. But the other two any aspiring writer can learn in a variety of ways.

Back in 1996, I took my first ever creative writing course with a wonderful professor (and wannabe creative writer) at New Jersey City University whose passion for literature revitalized my spirit when I was all set to pursue a degree in journalism. We used a very basic textbook called Creative Writing. I remember paging through the book’s 14-point font and cheesy contour drawings of egghead writers smiling dumbfounded before a typewriter (as if that’s ever how it really is), and I always marveled at a screen shot from Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein on the page under the chapter title “Fiction Writing.” It was such a ghetto book, but it taught me the very basics of storytelling, which I’d already been exposed to from watching movies and writing my own short stories. When I then took Advanced Creative Writing, there was no textbook and my professor, a fiction writer, made us write only fiction (a challenge for me, since story had never been my forte.)

As an intermittent creative writing professor myself, I recently stopped using a textbook for class. I used to use a Penguin book called Imaginative Writing, which offers lessons on the typical aspects that all writers should know like voice, mood, and point of view, and spanning the three major genres of creative writing, that of fiction, poetry, and playwriting. But I found myself asking too often “who are these editors?” and “What have they written besides this textbook?” Now I Xerox pieces of recent flash fiction like Don Shea’s “Jumper Down,” poems by past and present greats, and I screen short films like Our Time is Up. Primaries, not secondaries.

University textbooks, of course, are miles apart in quality when compared to the more “industrial strength” paperbacks we learn from and love. Books like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and Robert McKee’s Story are important in shaping the screenwriter, and today, I’m noticing more and more that people are coming along calling themselves screenwriters or fiction writers because they’ve digested all the regurgitations of three-act structure and have practically drowned themselves in Joseph Campbell’s world navel, but they sometimes end up taking chances without prior know-how or enough experience with straight-up linear storytelling. Sometimes those writers get lucky, but most times the audience has to work harder to maneuver out of  the labyrinth of a feature that should’ve been a short, a “Young Goodman Brown” that dreams to be a thousand page Stephen King bestseller and so on.

So while I believe that beneath the surface of their expertise, many authors who pen screenwriting manuals, for instance, are just exceptionally good readers of screenplays rather than actual screenwriters, I do believe that in today’s vast realm of aspiring writers, these kinds of books are becoming more and more necessary as teaching tools for tomorrow’s wordsmiths who may not have the luxury of attending Screenwriting Expo or even to take an Intro to Creative Writing course in college.

In that pivotal creative writing I took at NJCU, I originally learned how to write plays, not screenplays. My first short play was called “The Dog of Sorrows,” a dark comedy (way before I knew what dark comedy was!) about a guy who murders his wife believing she’s been unfaithful because his dog told him so (somewhat based on the David Berkowitz story). My professor loved it. But when I decided to go into screenwriting, I had to learn on my own how to write a screenplay. I had plenty of content, but I had to learn that craft first.

The lesson learned is this: Before jumping into a specific type of writing, learn how to write in that form. It’s about the originality of your idea, yes, but you have to play by the ever-changing rules of the game, and the game is format, structure, pacing. Today, writers rely too heavily on the tools and not enough on the knowledge; they expect Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter to take care of the formatting for them, but if you need to format a phone conversation, you have to know how to format it, ‘cause there’s no button for that in Celtx.

The other way to learn structure and formatting is to read screenplays, a practice that every script analyst or consultant stands firmly by. The problem is most of the scripts you find are shooting scripts, and those aren’t the kind of scripts screenwriters at the “aspiring” level will be writing, and I learned that by reading the two screenplays I’ve ever finished from beginning to end––Alan Ball’s American Beauty and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I might read Black Swan when it’s available, mainly for structure. I was all set to read The Social Network, but after finally watching the film, I wasn’t impressed enough with the film to choose Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning adaptation over, say, a Chuck Palahniuk novel just for kicks.

For content, there’s no doubt that reading screenplays can be good practice for aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers. But then again, as my friend Ralph Greco once tweeted to me: “Forget reading the scripts, just watch more JODOROWSKY and you’ll be fine ;)”

Words to live by!

So how do YOU go about learning the craft of the types of writing you do? Tell a little tale in the Comments section!

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