A writer named Charles Hugh Smith penned this in 2005, so I have no idea why I stumbled upon it nearly a decade later, but seeing as it serves as an effective counterbalance to the happy chatter that issues forth from the Hope Machine (“Now you can learn how to write a million dollar spec script!”), I thought it was worthy of our consideration. Here is just a taste of Smith’s truth-telling bromide:
I’ve had the good fortune to have had two Hollywood agents, real live people who’ve slogged out a living in Tinseltown. The publisher of my novel I-State Lines (it hits the shelves April 2006) told me they receive 6,000 manuscripts a year and publish six. (They also publish new works by their current stable of authors, but they leave six slots open for new authors.) This is a small but well-regarded publishing house, The Permanent Press, NY. If a small house gets 6,000 manuscripts or pitches a year, what do you reckon the big agencies and publishers get over the transom? My first agent didn’t even hazard a guess–just “hundreds every month.” Multiply this times hundreds of agents and you get an idea of how many stories are being pitched each year.
The odds in Hollywood are even worse. I have to laugh (cynically, of course) when I read ever-so-helpful authors suggest that aspiring writers ask agents for their list of clients, to see if they’re a good match for your brilliant work. Excuse me while I ROTFLMAO. I tried this with the second agent interested in my novel and he wrote back a terse, scribbled note that said it all: “You’re lucky anyone is even looking at your material.” That, friends, is the truth. Agents have their fill of “brilliant” writers, “brilliant” ideas so amazing that someone is sure to steal them (you should be so lucky–large agencies don’t even open your pitch just so they can’t be accused of stealing your $100 million plot), and poor foolish devils naive enough to think their story is going to blow down all the doors in New York or Hollywood.
Like a prophet crying in the virtual wilderness, Smith lays it on the line, point by point, underscoring what I have said on this blog over and over again: The odds against financial success as a screenwriter, TV writer, any type of writer are extremely long. If you are serious about pursuing your creative ambitions, you just have to face — and live with — that fact.
There are no short cuts. No magic formulas. No secret systems.
There’s just the craft. Learning it. Writing. Writing better. Then writing more.
And always there is a fire-breathing beast known as COMPETITION stomping around, looking to crush as many souls it can lay waste to.
These truths are important to remember. And yet whenever I post something like this, I always have to provide a caveat: The fact is people do break into the business. Every year. We’re not talking a tsunami of writers, rather more like a rivulet. But it happens. Hell, by some capricious stroke of dumb luck, it happened to me.
So my bottom line for living with this dialectic: “Feet on the ground… head in the clouds.”
Two other things struck me as I read Smith’s piece.
First, what is success? If the only criterion we use is significant financial gain from our writing, we are setting ourselves up for deep and abiding disappointment. If, on the other hand, we think of success being about the craft itself — generating strong story concepts, digging into our stories and writing them well, completing our stories, setting and hitting writing goals, and so on — then we have in place a mindset in which – at the very least – we can enjoy our creativity. In a harsh, competitive field, this may be the single biggest key to fueling the persistence we need to keep pushing toward a breakthrough.
The second thing is this observation by Smith:
Everyone in Hollywood claims to be “good at story,” which goes a long way toward explaining why most Hollywood movies are mediocre. Great fiction is built on character, not story.
As obsessive as I am about starting and ending the story-crafting process with Character, we have to counterbalance this argument with a well-known quote from arguably the dean of contemporary American screenwriting William Goldman who said, “Screenplays are structure.” And pretty much whenever anyone in Hollywood talks about Story, they are referring to Structure.
There’s a logic to this in that a screenplay does serve as the guide to produce a movie, a blueprint if you will. Thus the architecture of the Story — its Structure — is crucially important.
My thing is this: How do we get to the Structure? I would argue the very best way to do that is through our Characters. So here is where I can circle back to Smith’s point: Great fiction is built on character… and everything emerges from the process of immersing oneself with our characters, including the story’s Structure.
To read the rest of Smith’s post, go here.