Writing Coaches are “Mean” People

Recently, I met with screenwriting coach Jim Mercurio (http://www.jamespmercurio.com) to discuss some ideas and screenplays I was trying to pitch.

Jim is a wonderful, highly ranked writing coach and former columnist for Creative Screenwriting. He knows writing and he knows Hollywood. He told me right up front, this is going to be challenging. It was weird, because he said to me every warning I offer my own clients.

Being a writing coach means telling people what they need to fix. Most writers don’t want to hear what isn’t working in a manuscript or screenplay. Having spent months or years on a work, the writer has invested serious emotional energy in the work.

And this horrible, mean coach, is about to tell the client that the work isn’t finished. It isn’t as good as it must be. It’s just okay, if that, and needs to be refined. You hire a writing coach like you hire a personal trainer: expecting to be pushed harder and being told you can be a lot better than you are at this moment.

When a writing coach pushes you, and certainly Jim pushes his clients, it’s because you really do have to be 10x, 100x, maybe 1000x better than what’s already in Hollywood. Your script has to be better, from formatting to the structure. You don’t get to bend or break any rules. Your query letter, pitch, treatment, and logline(s) have to be better. Way better than what you might imagine.

During my last meeting with Jim, he destroyed every logline, every concept, every treatment I offered, shooting them down like he was playing the old Atari 2600 Shooting Gallery. And if I tried to defend my idea, the answer was quick: you aren’t big enough to rely on being okay or good or even slightly better than most.

There’s a reason I don’t charge and seldom work with new writers. They aren’t used to how the system works and how much is expected of a spec script. They don’t have a clue how hard the film, stage, and publishing markets are in this economy (media markets have never been easy to enter) and many writers don’t want to hear anything but how great their ideas are or how easy it will be to tweak the ideas.

It’s not easy for a spec writer. Statistically, it’s nearly impossible. You have to be writing, and writing, and writing. You get rejected, you revise. You get rejected again, you revise.

If you pay for coverage, sometimes they’ll tell you how close you are, or even how great you are. That’s usually not the truth. Sorry, but the truth is your work likely isn’t that close to perfection. These analysts and contests want your money. Have you seen the lists of scripts making “quarter finals” or “finals” in these contests? Pages of scripts, 98 percent of which won’t be optioned, and 70 or more percent of those optioned will collect dust.

Pay someone like Jim or David Trottier (“Dr. Format”) if you want unvarnished, brutal truth. If you don’t want to pay, and are okay with strong opinions based on my experience, that’s fine — but listen and take the advice seriously. Jim, Dave, and even I WANT you to succeed. We WANT you to sell a script or manuscript. But we also know how awesome the package has to be. It’s not personal when we point to weaknesses in a story or in some other aspect of a client’s work. It’s not trying to show that we are mean or picky. It’s to help you sell the thing you’ve created to someone, to some publisher or producer.

I am not a famous script consultant. I’m not a major name. I have taught at universities and I’ve worked with a handful of clients. So, if you don’t want to listen to me, that’s understandable. Yet, my students seem to have done okay and my clients have had some small success.

None of us, from the big name consultants to the (currently inactive) university professors like myself, want you to fail. We want to help other writers be the best they can be. That’s why we point out formatting errors, grammar errors, and problems with story structure. We’re not being picky to demonstrate our expertise: we are teaching you what not to do, so your story will be read and treated with respect by a studio, producer, publisher, or editor.

And if you don’t believe that, fine. Whatever. But I want every student I’ve had, every client studio, every friend I’ve tried to help to SELL something each writer can feel was a great effort and represent the best possible product handed off to a studio, publisher, or media house.

Yes, I take this very, very personally. You want help, I’ll ask questions and hope you listen to what I’m asking. If you want guidance, that’s what I can offer. It might not be perfect and it might not be what you want to hear. If you don’t want my experience, research, or plain opinion, don’t ask for guidance or tips or ideas to help polish and sell your writing.

Look into a mirror, and tell yourself how magical you are and how stupid Hollywood is. You’ll feel much better than I’ve ever made anyone feel about their works.

If you want to self-produce, do it. That’s the best way to get movies made. It’s like theater today: self-produce, and you’ll have a show. Self-publish, you can sell a few copies of a book. If your work is so great, then you go make it happen if nobody else wants it. It has worked for a few dozen filmmakers and playwrights, and even a few authors have sold millions of self-published books.

You want affirmation? Find another career, because screenwriting is about getting fired and replaced by the second or third writing team. You SELL the script, you let go, or you get hired to replace someone you know and like. Writers end up replacing each other, and trying to laugh it off over coffee or drinks.

Professionals all know that writing is hard work, especially writing for hire in the media. There are a lot of writers, all trying for the few jobs and trying to sell one of the few works that a media company will buy and produce or publish. It’s not an easy career choice, and a good coach or teacher reminds you that it is difficult.

Writers Need Editors

Many great writers need great editors.

I recently watched biographies of Mark Twain and Jules Verne. Both of these writers relied on collaboration to craft their famous works into masterpieces.

Pierre-Jules Hetzel edited and published the works of Verne. According to the biography, Hetzel was involved in every stage of Verne’s writing. The editor-publisher would help with outlines, guide character development, and aggressively edited the works of his friend. There is some debate as to how much Hetzel might have written — but that doesn’t matter to me. What is important is that the works of Jules Verne seem to have been sloppy and disorganized without editing.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the legendary Mark Twain, relied on many colleagues to help shape his works, including William Wright and Bret Harte. Twain wrote a great deal, often in choppy vignettes that had to be stitched together with some assistance. Friends like Wright helped Twain balance his wit with storytelling. Pacing a story is not easy, and Twain recognized the value of collaborating to polish a tale.

While these are only two examples, many — if not most — famous writers share credit with editors.

I’ve met too many aspiring writers unwilling to recognize that writing is a collaborative process. The self-publishing boom is not helping this situation. Maybe it is because a writer needs to be confident; rejection is part of the publishing process. Maybe it is because a writer doesn’t want someone else to alter a work that is a part of the writer’s soul. There are probably a dozen reasons many emerging writers don’t want to call on an editor.

Read about famous writers and learn about their relationships with editors and publishers. We are losing those relationships in our digital era, and that concerns me.

Lately, I’ve read too many stories that are not “good” by the most generous of standards. I imagine sitting down with the authors and asking them questions. Yes, I see too many grammar and mechanical errors, but the problems that annoy me involve storytelling. Characters suddenly appear, clues are omitted, and hate turns to love in an instant. Books feel like puzzles that shipped with four or five missing pieces. You can still make out the image, but it is unfulfilling.

If you are set on self-publishing, find an editor. I don’t mean a copyeditor, though that is certainly good advice. No, find an editor with experience shaping stories. You want someone able to tell you why the main character won’t be liked by readers. You need someone to tell you when the story is boring. You need someone willing to bruise your ego a little so that story you want to tell is the one you finally publish.

There are solitary writers, but they are exception. Most writers need feedback to be at their best.