“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
Many years ago I went to a production seminar that had a money back guarantee if you weren’t satisfied after the first day. I left after lunch and got my money back because I didn’t think I was learning anything new. An older and wiser video producer/director I knew later told me, “Scott, you don’t go to a seminar to learn what you already know, you go to learn the two or three things you don’t know that will help your career.”
That simple exchange helped me realize how arrogant I’d been. Because I knew a lot, I thought I knew everything. Now I gladly welcome any opportunity to learn, knowing that I’ll never know it all but just maybe I’ll pick-up two or three things that will help my work.
I know many screenwriters who pride themselves on never having read a book on screenwriting. But usually these are gifted writers who were directly mentored by other writers, directors and the like. Most people don’t have those opportunities so books and CDs on screenwriting are other option to learn.
Don’t take my word for it, here’s what screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirate of the Caribbean) wrote on one of his Wordplay columns:
“Learn the basics. There’s some stuff that, walking into any story meeting in town it’s assumed that you’ve read, so you’d better make sure you’ve read them. ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ by William Goldman. “Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. Syd Field’s book ‘Screenplay.’ ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ by Lajos Egri. ‘Making a Good Script Great’ by Linda Seger… Truby’s story structure course, which I have on audio cassette. There’re so many more I’ll have to make a separate list. Anyway — get this stuff, read it, know it.”
These books usually go for $10-20 new and often times you can find them for $1-10 used on Amazon. Every book you’ll sure to pick up two or three things that will help you improve your writing.
This entire blog was started years ago from highlighted sections of books and magazines over the years that I had just organized for myself. Someone invented blogging and I thought, ‘hey, maybe some other people could benefit from this stuff.”
That was over 3 years and 300,000 words ago. It’s been quite a journey and I’m still learning. And I’ve finally embraced that learning is a life long process. This year I’ve decided to start a new category where I review some of the books that I’ve learned from over the years.
But know that in your own pursuit of becoming a better writer that those big breakthroughs will come more often in your own writing than from reading books about writing.
Even though I’ve read well over 200 books on screenwriting and film & video production, graduated from film school, went to Robert McKee’s famed Story seminar as well as other workshops at AFI and UCLA extension, I still learned a few things from the last book I read on screenwriting.
That book is called The Starter Screenplay by Adam Levenberg. I’ll pull some quotes from it in the next couple days, but what’s most refreshing about this book is it comes not from an academic or a screenwriter, but from the perspective of a film executive. Levenberg is a USC film school grad and has ten years of experience in development including working for Vin Diesel’s company.
You won’t find well crafted Joan Didion-like essays in this book. It’s more of a blunt look at the film business with quick sound bites. It also has the least sugar-coated view of screenwriting contests and agents you’re likely to find. Much of the book focuses on what executives are looking for in spec scripts from new screenwriters and what things you should avoid writing.
Since I’m in the process of marketing a new script I’ve written I particularly liked Levenberg’s section called “Five Steps Getting in the door.” This is the kind of stuff I’ve never heard or read before:
“Here’s how to identify a real literary agent who can sell your screenplay or get you work in the business: Are they within 5 miles of Beverly Hills 90210 zip code?”
Levenberg follows that up with more probing questions for potential agents such as do they have “1 but preferably more than 3 clients who make a living off of selling screenplays or writing or television.” Levenberg is obviously not competing in a popularity content with agents in Hollywood (especially those in the San Fernando Valley).
Similarly, he takes on script consultants by saying before you pay them to give you notes on your script and advice on furthering your career ask the consultant, “Who do you know at CAA? WME? ICM? Gersh? Paradigm? APA?”
According to Levenberg’s book he’s, “transitioning from development to private consulting” where he’s evaluating books for “a variety of professional clients.” Since he is also doing some script consulting through his website hireahollywoodexec.com it’s fair to turn the tables on Levenberg and see just how connected he is. A quick search on the internet I found that he is connected to Christopher Lockhart who is the story editor at WME and has even been a guest blogger on Lockhart’s blog The Inside Pitch.
While I can’t vouch for Levenberg’s script consulting abilities I can say I did learn more than two or three things from his book and the WME connection is a good sign. And if you’re a Blake Snyder/Save the Cat fan, you can sample more of Levenberg’s writings in an article he did for them titled, Do You Need a Consultant?
It would be interesting to hear Levenberg’s take screenwriter Craig Mazin’s (The Hangover Part II) now legendary post Screenwriting is Free.
Update 5/17/13: Since this post is getting a bump today via the Screenwriting Spark post The Best Screenwriting Books Chosen by Screenwriters I thought I’d follow-up my now two-year old post by saying Adam Levenberg did contact me after this article and said he’d do a free consultation of a script of mine to provide his worth (he does normally charge for his services) and I now can say that he does know his stuff and did give me the single best notes I’d ever been given. Read all about it in the post Script Consultant Adam Levenberg.
And at this moment if someone asked me to recommend three screenwriting books I’d go with 1) Story by Robert McKee, 2) Save the Cat Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder and 3) Your Screenplay Sucks! by William M. Akers. (Though Walters, Seger, and Iglesias could be in that mix on any given day.) And for non-screenwriting writing books I’d go with 1) The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, 2) One Writing Well by William Zinsser, 3) On Writing by Steven King. But more importantly I’d tell especially young writers to dig into reading writers they really like in fiction and non-fiction and write everyday to develop their own voice. Even if it’s just following this simple advice:
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”
A Moveable Feast
Scott W. Smith
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