Saturday, 12 September 2009

Pangs and Olson

If you write, professionally or otherwise, and you haven't yet read this piece by Josh Olson, writer of the screenplay for A History of Violence and other things, then I suggest you read it immediately. (Go on - read it now, I'll still be here when you get back; be warned it contains language that may offend from the outset, blah, blah, blah).

Read it? Good. Okay - it's a lovely story, as you'd expect from a professional storyteller, and obviously there's a lot of truth there. But I felt the odd pang while reading it. For one thing, I can't help but think that there are plenty of anecdotes, books, and articles out there - a lot of them by professionals like Olson - that give diametrically opposite advice to his, i.e. hustle, network, use any relationships you can to get your work to a wider audience, nothing ventured nothing gained, etc.

Screenwriters can find mentors who are more established, and to do so is a good thing. And to do so will almost inevitably involve at some point asking someone a question that might get a reply along the lines of "I will not read your fucking script". But, it might just as easily get the response "Fuck yeah, I will read your script". Sometimes, it might be worth the risk to ask; but, how to ask the right way, and how to choose the right time to ask? Only experience can teach you those things.

The best advice I ever got was to treat the whole thing like you would asking someone out (and this goes for trying to get any writing gig, not just for trying to get a mentor): tread soft, be aware of non-verbal signals from the other person, choose the right time, don't push too hard, and don't look too desperate. I can't fault this advice. Trouble is, I have hardly ever asked anyone out in my entire life. I'm far too shy, and would end up waiting forever for that right time. It can be like that trying to get a writing gig too. The last thing you want to be as a screenwriter is shy; but, if you're of that disposition, I could see how you could read Olson's article and be scared off. That brings me to my second pang.

Olson says, quite rightly, that you can't dissuade a writer (or else they're not a writer). I agree with this. You need to have that slight mental defect that, no matter what, makes you feel guilty when you don't write. You need that. But you also need other things. You need to be able to forget your shyness sometimes and hustle, network, use any relationships you can to get your work to a wider audience, nothing ventured nothing gained, etc. You might not be able to dissuade a true writer from writing, but you might just be able to persuade him or her to never show anything they write to anyone ever again. I could get all macho here and say that this would be a good thing, as it would cut down on the competition, but I'm a soppy sod and I'd like anyone with the talent and something to say to get their work out there and recognised. And that brings me to my final pang.

How do any of us know we're talented, or that we've got to say is worth saying? It's all very well having self-belief, but deluded idiots have self-belief too. And writers are all - at least in my experience - riddled with doubts about everything. So how can we know? Only by asking someone qualified to answer. And the most qualified person is going to be a professional. So, I don't blame Olson's acquaintance for asking. It wasn't a 'dick move'. (Though it is bewildering to a screenwriter based in the UK to imagine a wannabe who has all their hopes pinned on one movie project - it's like the US have a film industry ferchrissakes; only wannabe novelists can behave like that in my country.)

Olson should have kept to his line and turned him down politely. And, of course, by the end of his tale, he realises this. But the acquaintance was at fault when he rejected the advice that had so carefully and thoughtfully been given. There's no excuse for that.

So, anyway, who wants to read my latest script then? Any takers? Don't all shout at once!