Writing Coaches are Mean People

Recently, I met with screen­writ­ing coach Jim Mercurio 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 10×, 100×, maybe 1000× 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 quar­ter­fi­nals 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.

Photo by jugarsan

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.