“When it comes to screenwriting, it’s the writing. You don’t hear people who want to play professional tennis ask to be introduced to the head of Wimbledon. No, they’re out there hitting a thousand forehands and a thousand backhands. But for some reason, in the case of screenwriting, people don’t think that way.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight)
Today starts a year of touching more on television writing than I’ve ever done since starting this blog in 2008. And while I’ll soon be looking at the differences of writing movies verses writing TV programs this is one area where they share something—a work ethic. (This post is also a nice companion to Screenwriting & a 10 Foot Concrete Wall and ‘Keep Sawing,’)
“I’m sorry if this hurts your feelings, but your first couple of scripts are probably garbage. Whether or not his calculations are accurate, you’re working on your Gladwellian 10,000 hours. You are going to write a bunch of terrible things that no one cares about before The One that gets you an agent, and that One will get you a paid job. The good news is, whenever you have that perfect sample, your agents will send it out to people and claim it’s the first thing you ever wrote, and you will be lauded as a genius. The others will be wiped from your hard drive and memories. I bet you’ve heard lots of stories about people who wrote one pilot over a weekend and then were magically discovered and immediately writing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine — untrue. Writing two half-hour scripts and then waiting for TV stardom is like taking a couple of showers and then signing up for the 200 yard Butterfly in the Olympic Trials. You can get there, but give yourself the space and time to hone your craft.”
How Does an Aspiring TV Writer Get Discovered by an Agent?
I should add that when Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hour rule in Outliers (based on the study of FSU professor Anders Ericsson) he was talking about it taking 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert in a certain field. So how does that explain writers Diablo Cody (Juno) and Lena Dunham (Girls)? Both who found success in their mid-twenties?
Perhaps because in terms of dramatic writing the clock on 10,000 hours is running as soon as a child starts watching TV shows and movies—and reading books—along with various forms of writing. At least in Cody’s case she said in interviews that she’ been writing (poems, short stories, etc.) everyday since she was 12-years-old.
So even though Cody’s first screenplay won an Oscar she’d been working at her writing for 15 years—including a four year degree in Media Studies at the University of Iowa. So don’t get too caught up in the whole 10,000 hour thing, the chances are good you have a better foundation than you think.
At the same time, you can’t ignore the time honored tradition of just cranking out pages.
“Heavens, how I wrote! Never was there a creative fever such as mine from which the patient escaped fatal results. The way I worked was enough to soften my brain and send me to a mad-house. I wrote, I wrote everything–ponderous essays, scientific and sociological short stories, humorous verse, verse of all sorts from triolets and sonnets to blank verse tragedy and elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas. On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for fifteen hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from my passionate outpouring in order to eat. And then there was the matter of typewriting. My brother-in-law owned a machine which he used in the day-time. In the night I was free to use it.”
Novelist Jack London (The Call of the Wild)
Chapter 23 of autobiographical novel John Barleycorn
Come on, Jack London started out typing stories at night on a borrowed typewriter. And he was a working class guy without a college degree. So while you’re honing your craft—no excuses.
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic
10,000 Hours vs. 20 Hours “If you invest as little as twenty hours in learning the basics of the skill, you’ll be surprised at how good you can become.” Josh Kaufman
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours