Franklin Leonard on the Writer’s Life

October 25th, 2016 by

As the seven lucky writers who participated in the 2016 Black List Feature Writers Lab made their way home this weekend, Franklin Leonard sent them each an email. Normally what he wrote is something he would communicate to the lab writers on our final night together, but this year Franklin had the misfortune of being felled by a nasty stomach virus, and missed our celebratory farewell meal. So instead, he committed his thoughts to writing. And while I’m certainly sympathetic to Franklin for having gotten sick, I’m glad we now have his reflections in writing. Between his recuperation and handling a spate of meetings, what Franklin dashed off represents a deeply insightful take on the writer’s life. I asked Franklin if I could excerpt his comments and he agreed. Here they are:

So much of what happens from here has everything to do with what you choose to write, how you choose to write it, and how you choose to handle the slings and arrows that come with making a life as a professional writer. That includes the big ones – terrible producers, lost jobs, agents who quit the business – and the small ones – meetings that go poorly, bad notes, just not getting your way on something you really hoped would go your way.

None of it is easy. None of it is fair. It shouldn’t be the former, and it will never be the latter. And because of that, it’s critically important that you find another reason to keep writing what you choose to write.

It can be the money, but ask anyone in this business who’s making a lot of money: That never ends up being enough.

It can be the celebrity, but as I’m sure you’ve heard from your mentors: There’s not much of that to be had for writers.

The writers I know who have found the most success – and find the most fulfillment in that success, which is arguably more important – seem to do it for two reasons: 1. The community of people who their writing attracts and 2. The sake of writing the stories they want to tell…

I’ve always thought there was something special about the fact that every Friday night, millions of people around the world go into dark rooms to watch stories about what it means to be human with a bunch of people they don’t know.

It’s a cultural ritual, one that mirrors the religious rituals anyone can see on a weekly basis at churches, temples, mosques, and most other religious institutions.

As writers, you’re the ones who will commit to word the texts that teach millions of people (literally millions if not tens or hundreds of millions) how to see the world, how to treat each other, and what might be possible in this crazy (and increasingly crazier) world in which we live.

All this is to say that on some level, your work as writers is sacred. Treat it as such, and with your talent, the rest might just take care of itself (and we’ll do what we can to help bridge the other gaps.)

I have been hosting this blog for over eight years and have attempted to convey much the same sentiments. Leave it to Franklin to knock it out of the park in one dashed-off email.

My advice: Print it out. Post at your desk. Consult as necessary as you confront the vicissitudes of your own writer’s life.

Twitter: @FranklinLeonard, @theblcklst.

Writing Mantra: “Make words your friend”

October 15th, 2016 by

“In the beginning was the word.” So begins the Gospel of John. Setting aside theological implications, this is where writing begins as well – with words. The most recent screenplay I wrote has 18,864 words. Each of those 18,864 words represents a conscious choice on my part to best reflect on the page the movie I see in my mind. Which means that those 18,864 words are my allies, my troops, my warriors going to battle on my behalf to win the war of imagination with anybody who will read my script.

There is a famous anecdote involving Irving Thalberg, a successful producer and studio executive in the 20s-30s, known for his ability to select the right scripts and make profitable movies out of them. Here is a quote from a biography, “Thalberg: Life and Legend,” authored by Bob Thomas:

“At times Irving Thalberg seemed to hate his very dependence on writers and his frustration that he could not perform their functions. During one heated script session, he said almost contemptuously, ‘What’s all this business about being a writer? It’s just putting one word after another.’ Lenore Coffee (a screenwriter) corrected him: ‘Pardon me, Mr. Thalberg; it’s putting one right word after another.’”

Putting one right word after another” – that is so right. When you bust it all down, writing is about choosing words. A writer can choose them well, or not. What’s the best way to make sure you make the right choices? Another writing mantra:

“Make words your friend.”

Like I say, words are your allies, your little warriors, your soldiers of good fortune. Get to know them. Nurture them. Pay attention to them. Here are a few ways to do just that:

  • Know their definitions. I can’t tell you how often I read scripts in which a writer uses the wrong word, obviously because they don’t know the meaning. Words are messengers, they transmit meanings. I keep a dictionary on my computer desktop, so I can click on it just like that.
  • Know their synonyms. The average person uses 2,000 different words in the course of a week’s worth of conversation. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 290,000 entries with some 615,000 different word forms. Wow! Why write, “He looks at her,” when you can substitute ogles, eyeballs, gapes, peeps, or rubbernecks? That’s why I keep a thesaurus beside my dictionary on my computer desktop.
  • Know their beauty. You can get definitions and synonyms, but you also need to develop your aesthetic sensibilities. My advice: Revel daily in the world of word-imagination. Read screenplays, short stories, novels, poetry. A great web resource is The Writer’s Almanac. It is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and hosted by Garrison Keillor. Every day on The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison honors and discusses writers, past and present, then reads a poem. It is a wonderful way to enliven your writerly mind.

Make words your friend.

Be nice to them — and they will be nice to you.

Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Set a deadline

September 25th, 2016 by

There are a lot of find things to motivate a writer to write.
The desire to craft a wonderful story…
The fantasy of writing a million dollar spec script…
The realization of putting on paper the singular story your life has led you to tell.

And then there’s possibly the best motivator of all…
Or the threat thereof.

If you can orchestrate events so that the fear of being humiliated by not writing is greater than the fear of having people read what you do write, then you will be well on your way to getting your ass in chair and plowing ahead to FADE OUT.

So how to ensure this threat of humiliation?

Set a deadline.
Not just any deadline.
A public deadline!

Prepare an email in which you state your goal — “I am going to finish a draft of my long cherished screenplay ‘Leopard Lips'” — and most importantly, you select and include a due date. To up the stakes, you can add something like, “And if I don’t produce a draft of ‘Leopard Lips’ by [due date], I hereby proclaim you have the right to belittle my manhood / womanhood however you see fit by any electronic means including email, Twitter, Facebook, IM, SMS, BBM, or even archaic conveyances such as smoke signals or semaphores.”

Then take a deep breath, let out a guttural scream, and hit SEND.

You’re screwed…
Unless, of course, you write the draft.

And that’s the point.
You will be publicly humiliated by all your friends and family…
You’ve opened that door wiiiiiiiiiiiiiidddddddddeeeeee open.

The echoes of their laughter (and the exponential growth of the laughter once they spread your email to their friends and family members) will literally haunt you, getting in the way of any form of enjoyment until you…

So set a deadline.
Put into motion the visceral threat of abject and utter humiliation.

That is sure to see you from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

This has been another installment of Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work.

[Originally posted March 10, 2009]

Why do we find conflict entertaining?

September 13th, 2016 by

I’m sure all of us have heard that bromide: “Drama requires conflict.” As I sit here pondering that thought, the single best reason I can think of for why that is the case is we find conflict entertaining.

But why is that? We go through life, at least most of us, attempting to avoid conflict. Yet in most movies, we sit in the presence of conflict [and sub-conflicts] for up to two hours at a time. Why do we consider that to be worthy of or even more pointedly imperative for good entertainment?

Here are some writers on conflict in storytelling:

Maxwell Anderson: “The story must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person.”

James Frey: “The greatest rules of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict, conflict.”


What’s better than being a writer?

September 8th, 2016 by

Being a writer with other writers. And that’s what the monthly Black List Happy Hours are about. Just look at these groovy people:

160907 Black List HH Chicago SMALL

This is part of the group of writers who showed up yesterday for the Black List event in Chicago. I met each writer and a good time was had by all. In fact, three young gents — Reed, Sam, and Zack — made a two hour trek from Milwaukee to participate in the Happy Hour session.

Writing is a lonely gig. Whenever we have a chance to socialize with other wordsmiths where we can share our experiences and hopes, ups and downs, knowing there’s a real good chance the other people get what we’re talking about and going through, that is a plus.

The Black List has monthly Happy Hours for writers in 18 cities. If you think your locale can support this kind of get-together, contact the Black List here to see what you need to do to get something going in your community.

Meanwhile if you live in and around Chicago — or even Milwaukee — circle the calendar for the first Wednesday of every month. That’s when the Black List Happy Hours happen all around the globe. Now that I’m living in Chicago, I plan on making as many of these sessions as possible. Good people, good times!

Speaking of which, one of the writers I met yesterday Devi Bhaduri is connected with the Chicago Review of Books and they just recently announced a new online literary magazine called Arcturus, “featuring place-based fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, comics, art, and photography.” If you’re interested in checking it out and perhaps submitting something for publication, go here for more information.

“Movies don’t owe anybody a living”

August 30th, 2016 by

This is actually a lesson I learned before I became a screenwriter. After I graduated with an M.Div. from Yale and turned my back on an academic career — although I didn’t know it at the time, only thought I was taking a year off before I went on to a doctoral program — I played music professionally for 7 years, then did stand-up comedy for 2. So before I wrote and sold the spec script K-9, I worked in the entertainment business for nearly a decade.

During that time, I learned a lot about writing, knowing your audience, working a room, comic timing, and how to entertain people. I also found out a great deal about life itself.

One thing that stuck with me was a quote. I attribute it to Levon Helm, formerly the drummer of The Band, but I’ve never been able to find a source online to confirm that. The quote as I remember it is this: “Music don’t owe anybody a living.”

Levon Helm

It made quite an impression on me when I first heard it. At the time, I was living and playing music in Aspen. In one respect, it was a great place to be because the town was, at the time, filled with a ton of talented musicians, drawn by the success of Aspen residents including John Denver, Jimmy Buffett, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and others.

Some of the local musicians, living so close to superstar performers, had an attitude that could best be summed up this way: “I deserve that.” In their eyes, there was no substantive difference between their talent and the talent of Denver, Buffett, and The Eagles. I suppose it’s possible they could have been right. But I found their attitude offensive. I’ve always worked my ass off in every job I’ve ever had — even if you don’t know me personally, you can probably tell by the fact that I spend so much time on this blog that I have no aversion to work. To think that anyone deserved fame or success based upon sheer talent rang false to me.

No, I think Levon Helm or whoever it was who said “music don’t owe anybody a living” has it right or at least more right than “I deserve that.”

I carried that attitude with me to Hollywood and the inevitable lean periods I experienced reinforced that truth. But even in flush times, when I’ve written 4 or more studio projects a year, I have always acted like I needed to prove myself. Any story can be your last. The town has an insatiable desire for young, new talent, and rightfully so. In order to feed the filmmaking process, Hollywood owes writers — in general — a living… but not necessarily me. Or frankly you.

So what can you do with this bit of wisdom?

* Even if you sell a spec script, I would recommend not giving up the day job. Just yet. See how things shake out for a year or two. You get a few paid writing projects lined up, maybe then make your move to L.A..

* Sock away at least 20% of what you earn into savings to give you a buffer when the Hollywood winds starting blowing in your face, not at your back.

* Treat each script as if it’s your first and last chance to tell a great story. Yes, there will be assignments you take where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to being ‘great,’ but even then you need to bring your A-game to your writing.

“Movies don’t owe anybody a living.” On the one hand, a harsh truth. On the other hand, if you live by that credo when you work in Hollywood, it can keep you honest — with your creativity and with your Self.

UPDATE: The Internet is a wondrous thing. It turns out the quote does come from Levon Helm, cited originally in People magazine from 1980. I was in Aspen then. Why I was reading People magazine, I have no idea, but I remember that line and it has stuck with me all these years.

Here is Levon Helms’ quote in its entirety:

And you know, playing-wise, music don’t owe anybody a living. Just because you play music, it ain’t supposed to make you rich or famous. It’s supposed to be your life, and it’s supposed to help you, and help those you love, and you’re supposed to play it, really try. And if you get a shot, if you get on national television, or if you get a record out that somebody can remember, great. That ought to encourage you not to quit, but it don’t mean a whole lot. You know, that was day before yesterday, and if that’s the best that any of us can do, it ain’t going to count for long. So, in case we can’t do any better, at least we can show up and have a good time.

I always tell aspiring writers, “Write because you love it.” No guarantees of any financial success. And like Helms said, “At least we can show up and have a good time.”

Here is a 1994 performance of one of my favorite songs by The Band: “Life is a Carnival” featuring the late Levon Helm on drums and vocals.

You can read a great interview with Helms here.

The Spirit Of The Spec (Part 2): You Act On Your Idea

August 23rd, 2016 by

I had a conversation recently with a former studio executive turned producer in which I found myself talking about the “spirit of the spec,” essentially when a person chooses to pursue a project or goal entirely on speculation with the hopes of some eventual payoff. Not everybody would make that choice. To many, with the odds so long against success, doing something on spec is not only illogical, it’s also seemingly inane.

And yet almost all screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and poets have as some part of their creative self the spirit of the spec.

After my conversation with the producer, it occurred to me this is a subject we should discuss here at GITS because it speaks to the very core of why we’re here and what we’re about as people driven by creative impulses. So today through Friday, I will post something each day exploring what it means for a writer to have the spirit of the spec.

You act on your idea.

Yes, I know this line looks like it’s straight out of an early morning cable TV infomercial, but there is a fundamental truth conveyed in it that every dream-selling hack knows:

In order to make it happen, you have to…
Make. It. Happen.

If all you have is an idea, you are little more than this fellow:


A man stands talking, people in groups behind him. Two born
like gadgets are attached to his shoulders; he's wearing a
bizarre space costume.

Right now it's only a notion, but I
think I can get money to make it
into a concept... and later turn it
into an idea.

You are the equivalent of 3rd Man in the L.A. party scene from Annie Hall, talking about making it happen instead of making it happen.

Fortunately for a writer, there is nothing mysterious about what we need to do to act on an idea: We need to figure out the story, then write it.

As we all know, this process is not easy. We know this not only from our own personal experience, but also from the very way we talk about it.

This is where we crack the story, we break the story, we nail the story, we wrangle the story.

Every single one of those descriptors suggests the same thing: It’s a struggle, a fight, a battle.

So much easier to just talk about your idea, like 3rd Man, rather than act on it. I know this. You know this. But let me lay two thoughts on you.

First if it was easy to craft a story, just imagine how many more people would be trying their hand at screenwriting. Or novels. Short stories. Plays. You think it’s competitive now? If writing was easy, the entertainment business would be utterly overrun by writers, a horde of chattering lemmings with stacks of three-hole punch paper jammed in their teeth, sputtering loglines along the way.

Worse imagine how shitty those scripts would be!

So yes, writing isn’t easy and that is a pain in the ass for those of us who write. But every time we take up an idea and go about the process of nailing the story, we play our small, but necessary role in proving Darwin’s theory: survival of the fittest.

Those with the spirit of the spec take up the fight. Those lacking the spirit, just talk about it.

Second I suggest you take those verbs I noted above — crack, break, nail, wrangle — and use them as scene description (they’re actually good, visual words). Instead in referring to your own process of taking an idea and crafting it into a story, try using this verb:

Find your story.

This way you re-frame the task. It’s no longer a battle, rather it’s a journey. A journey of discovery. And the essence of what you are doing is simply this: getting curious.

Curious about your characters.
Curious about who they are, why they are, what they want, what they need.
Curious about their interrelationships and their respective destinies.
Curious about their goals, particularly those that come into conflict with each other.
Curious about the story universe, the various dynamics and influences at play.
Curious about how this unique mix of individuals and plot elements will evolve into being.

Prepping a story is ultimately about the act of asking questions, each one another step on the path to finding your story.

Now think on this: If there is a path, that presupposes there is an end to the path. So instead of a battle over your story where some random barbarian can spring up out of nowhere and split open your meager confidence with a pole axe, if you are on a journey of discovery, it’s all a matter of taking the time, asking the questions, and walking the steps necessary to get you to that end point, where you do find your story.

And once there, you are ready to type FADE IN. Lights up. That compelling first sentence of your novel or short story.

If someone is truly infused with the spirit of the spec, they are not the 3rd Man at parties, talking about how they are going to take a notion into a concept into an idea.

Rather if you have the spirit of the spec, you act on your idea.

You get curious about it. You ask questions. You learn your way into and through it as part of your journey of discovery.

And miracle of miracles, once you reach the end of that path, you make the most profound discovery of all. That while you were trying to find the story…

The story was — all along — trying to find you.

Part 1: You Get An Idea.

Tomorrow: You Write Your Story.

Spirit Of The Spec (Part 1): You Get An Idea

August 22nd, 2016 by

I had a conversation recently with a former studio executive turned producer in which I found myself talking about the “spirit of the spec,” essentially when a person chooses to pursue a project or goal entirely on speculation with the hopes of some eventual payoff. Not everybody would make that choice. To many, with the odds so long against success, doing something on spec is not only illogical, it’s also seemingly inane.

And yet almost all screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and poets have as some part of their creative self the spirit of the spec.

After my conversation with the producer, it occurred to me this is a subject we should discuss here at GITS because it speaks to the very core of why we’re here and what we’re about as people driven by creative impulses. So today through Friday, I will post something each day exploring what it means for a writer to have the spirit of the spec.

You get an idea.

That’s where it all starts.

An image. A feeling. A line of dialogue. A conceit. A character.

Something that catches your fancy. Causes you to stop and think. Triggers your imagination.

Could this be a story? A novel? A movie? A TV series?

You play around with it. Tinker with it. Ask questions.

What genre is it? Who is the main character? What is distinctive about this idea? Is it big enough to sustain a feature-length screenplay? Is it any good?

But the biggest question of all you can ask is the shortest one: What if?

What if I stuck this character in that situation?
What if I made the character a female instead of a male?
What if I started out this character as far away from their goal as possible?
What if I switched genres?
What if I switched Protagonists?
What if I amped up the stakes?
What if…

And before you know it, you are watering this seed of an idea with a cloudburst from your brainstorming. Will the seed take root? Grow? Blossom into a story worth writing?

You likely will not know the answer at this stage.

Here it is just you… and your idea.

The idea may turn out to be a pathway to success. Or a dead end. But if you are a person who lives for creativity, who exists with the oftentimes bewildering ramblings of your instincts, never forget for one second the awe and mystery that is this…

Your ideas.

They are the cornerstone of everything you do as a writer.

For those who live with the spirit of the spec, ideas are our creative lifeblood, ideas are what fuel our stories, ideas are what keep our dreams alive.

How about you? What is your attitude toward your ideas? How do you engender them? How do you develop them? How do you honor them?

Tomorrow: You Act On Your Idea.

Comment Archive

Update: Black List Happy Hours

August 17th, 2016 by

From the good folks at the Black List:

Beginning September 7th, I will become Imbiber-In-Chief at the monthly Chicago events. More information on that in coming weeks.

These are great events in convivial environments, so I encourage you to take a brief break from solitary confinement at your desk, poke your head outside, and make your way to a local watering hole to bend an elbow and talk shop with other writers.

Writing Mantra: “Trust the Process”

August 11th, 2016 by

“Trust the process.”

This is probably my favorite writing mantra. It’s both practical and spiritual, which pretty sums up my experience of the act of writing.

There is prep-writing (brainstorming, research, generating plot elements, developing characters, story structure, scene breakdowns, outline), then there is page-writing (type FADE IN and continue writing until you type FADE OUT). Those two aspects represent the practical part of the process, but out of that ‘grunt work,’ a more spiritual aspect emerges: suddenly, you hear a character say something to you, or a character may refuse to act the way you planned, or a scene sequence you worked out in advance implodes once you start writing it, or a whole other way of approaching a subplot may leap to mind.

Whatever happens at every step of the way, a writer must learn to trust the process.

For some writers and some stories, the process can be neat and straightforward. For others, the process can be confounding and meandering.

Every writer is different. Every story is different. Every process is different.

The writer must learn to accept that and trust that they are where they are for some reason.

M. Night Shyamalan supposedly wrote five drafts of The Sixth Sense until he had this startling realization: the Protagonist, Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis), was dead.

J.R.R. Tolkien finished the first chapter of what would become “The Lord of the Rings” in February, 1938, then didn’t turn in the final manuscript until 1950. On two occasions, after writing hundreds of pages, Tolkien went back to page one and started all over. What if Tolkien had not trusted his creative process? We might never have known one of the world’s most remarkable pieces of literature.

I hit upon that phrase when I was teaching one of my online screenwriting courses in response to a student who was seemingly stuck in their story. A year or so later, I stumbled onto this book, “Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go”. It’s an excellent read, one I highly recommend, and it raises an interesting point about trust, that second part “letting go.”

Letting go of what?

Often what happens when we get ‘stuck’ in our writing, it’s not so much about the story, it’s about what we bring to the writing process — expectations, plans, fears, doubts. Any time we step out of the story, our active engagement in the writing process, we run the risk of losing ourselves in the day-to-day world as well as our hopes and dreams. For example, we may get caught up in seeing the story as a bridge from our life today to our imagined life in Hollywood as a working screenwriter. To carry that weight of ‘responsibility’ into a writing session, that attachment, can easily encumber our actual writing — and soon we’re stuck, not because of the story, but what we are bringing to the writing.

Trust the process / let go — all very Zen, yes? I guess. It also suggests that we look at the Writer in relation to Story not as an “I – It” relationship, but an “I – You” dynamic, something we explored here.

Trust the process.

Try tacking that mantra up onto the wall where you write.

And then believe it.