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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lessons From American Idol: Part II

Yeah, yeah, I know I'm eight seasons too late to be interested in AMERICAN IDOL. I avoided it for a long time. But I'm really struck by the parallels between this show and the journey of writers. Everything from the early auditions, when people think they can sing because their friends and parents told them so, to the current episodes in which singers are adept but not 100% unique.

In particular, there is one singer, Lil Rounds, who has a great voice. The girl can sing. But her choices so far have been homages to other artists but without her own touch - and that has held her back from greatness. She's imitating, not innovating. And that can be the death of many a talented screenwriter.

The same but different is something we've all heard before. It's supposedly what audiences want in a movie. Something that is a little familiar to them, and yet something that surprises and delights them too.

Last week, when Adam Lambert performed "Mad World," we had the perfect example of "the same but different." A familiar song, but he took it to another level of its potential. He put his own stamp on it. A performance like that makes you want to listen to the original again (or even the cover by Gary Jules, featured on the DONNIE DARKO soundtrack) AND to listen to Adam's rendition again and again.

There's no question that all of the finalists on AMERICAN IDOL can sing. They are all talented, no doubt about that. But, the question then becomes who can perform under pressure and pull it out time after time and who can stand out from the pack in terms of originality? Or, as we writers would say - who has a VOICE?

Every day, as I am wont to say, hundreds and hundreds of scripts arrive in Hollywood. The vast majority of them are not competitive. Think of this phase as those early AMERICAN IDOL auditions when you have thousands of screaming would-be competitors crowded into auditoriums, waiting for a chance to try out. Some are delusional, some are clowns - and some - a very few, can actually sing.

You're not worried about the delusional and the clowns. Your competition is the writers who can actually write. Now we come down to meaningful competition. But of those who can actually write - how many are also good in a room, able to handle pressure and able to write not one good script - but another one and another after that? Now the competition dwindles to just a handful.

The sorting process goes something like this:

Writers who can actually write
Writers who can write more than one good script
Writers who write consistently, with discipline
Writers who can handle feedback and take notes
Writers who can handle rejection, disappointment and setbacks
Writers who can generate fresh ideas
Writers who are good in a room and can pitch well
Writers who are fearless and confident

...and even then, Wavers, even when you reach the top tier of confidence, experience, professionalism and consistent writing, the odds are very much against you. But you have to go through the various auditions - the points along the way when other writers either drop out or get sorted out of the running.

There are troubling signs along the way that can sometimes indicate a writer doesn't have what it takes. New writers who get IRATE about notes or feedback - not a good sign. Writers who take rejection too much to heart. Writers who stay on the same level of doing great karaoke but who can't break through to find their own unique voice. But the good news is you can work to break through any of these levels. As they say, the difference between writers in this town who make it and those who don't is that those who made it never gave up trying.

But in order to evolve, you have to recognize where you are on the scale. You have to listen to the feedback you are receiving - sometimes it's silent feedback in the form of not getting read requests off of queries. Maybe it's pass after pass. Maybe you go postal when you get notes you don't like or agree with. Maybe you FREEZE in a room. Maybe you write well but your scripts are soft and derivative. It's okay - just be honest about where you are. That's the only way to reach the next level.

I wonder, when a contestant on AMERICAN IDOL goes home - what do they do next? Do they bitterly voodoo curse Simon Cowell and rage to the skies that they were unfairly treated? Or do they take what they learned and use it to become a better singer/performer? Well, I suppose either choice is a legitimate one. What would you do? Are you going to use your experiences to build a case that the world is not fair to you and that nobody gets your brilliance? Or are you going to make an honest assessment and use the information you gather to recharge yourself and your writing to keep evolving and improving?

Continuing to evolve, being open to feedback and continuing to put that behind in a chair is what separates the men from the mice. Yes, sometimes it's exhausting. Some writers just think you know what, I just don't have the passion, eight scripts in, to keep up with this. And that's okay, that's a legitimate life choice. But you out there, you writers who can see no other life for yourselves than to break into Hollywood and write a produced movie? You are on an Iron Man Triathlon. Others will fall away, the path may sometimes feel lonely and difficult, but nurture that core passion and get back up and keep writing. That's the only way through to the end game. And when you reach that end game, you'll find the most ironic thing of all - it's not the end, it's a new beginning. So you wrote a script that sold and was produced. Can you do it again? Can you stay relevant? Now that you made it onto Sold Writer Island, can you manage not to get voted off?

Writing, particularly writing for entertainment, is not for babies. It's only that weird, slightly obsessive part of yourself, the part that makes you NEED to write, that can be your sword and your shield on this strange journey. Don't be afraid to take stock of who you are and where you are. There's no shame in being like Lil Rounds - she's amazing - she's made it very far. She can sing better than 99% of the population. But in a competition, that's not good enough. If that thought makes you quail, you may not have what it takes. There's only one way to find out. Keep. Writing.

And yes, you will have very bad writing days. I had one just yesterday. Bad writing, not having fun, not feeling the love. Writing sucks, let's just be honest. But it's not going to stop me from sitting back down today and getting back to work. Being a writer is like marriage: for better or for worse, through sickness and health, for richer or poorer. Good writers have bad days. Bad writers have good days. For my money, the absolute worst stage you could be at is not the doubt, not the rejection, not the freezing in a room, but being a screaming contestant sure you can sing but the truth is - you can't. That is horrible. To not honestly know what your skills are.

I find that the intensity of writers is usually inversely proportionate to their talent. I have not done a scientific study but I have worked with hundreds of writers and I have found this to be a pattern. Good or even great writers are generally fairly mellow and humble. Bad writers are usually strident, defensive and insistent that they are great. I think when you're good and you know it, you don't have the need to insist or be validated. When you're not so good, a defense mechanism can kick in, making you need to insist that you are GOOD as a way of coping with the fact that in reality, the idea of being a writer is what you are in love with.

There are Wavers reading this right now who fall into every category I have listed or mentioned in this whole blog post. All up and down the scale. I can't know whether each and every one of you can or cannot write, will or will not succeed. It doesn't matter what I think. It just matters that you be honest with yourself. If your GPS is not set to the true starting point, you'll never get to your destination.

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Trina0623 said...

I like your comparison to "American Idol" and I agree about Lil Rounds. She won't make it any farther if she doesn't learn how to take notes and find her voice. She used to have such confidence and now it's nowhere to be found. She takes the judge's notes too far and just seems to be following what she thinks the they want.

It's like taking notes on your script. You have to learn how to listen to people's opinions and advice with an open mind, but somehow still trust your instincts to figure out what to change and in what way.

Nicholas said...

Crap. I guess this means that because I am defensive I am a bad writer.

Well, unfortunately I have to disagree with that, simply because all people's backgrounds are the different. Some people become naturally defensive after years of being tortured by their peers in grade school. *raises hand* It's something that I am getting better at not being, but some people are just naturally defensive in all aspects of their life because of the circumstances in which they grew up. Couple that with a lack of having validation at a young age, and it causes a need for it when your older.

I think stating that defensive writers, especially the loud ones, are quite a fallible statement. Correlation is not causation.

And here I am defending myself. Crap.

Although, I am only defensive to a point in a kind of quick draw kind of way. Then after a little bit I tend to see the other person's side. I'm really complicated. I'm a walking contradiction (and I say that while sitting down).

Third World Girl said...

Julie, your analysis of the sorting process for writers is totally on point and all of us have our personal weak spots on that list.

But a bit about defensiveness in particular...
The thing about handling notes with defensiveness is that it turns producers off. They're building a relationship with a writer. They don't want to have to deal with that extra barrier at every script meeting/with every set of notes, even if the writer does eventually go back to the script and turn out something that addresses their concerns. In an industry as competitive as this one, they'd, generally speaking, sooner just get in another writer who makes them more comfortable and is easier to work with.

I've found that losing your defensiveness as a writer is a process. The more you write the more you become focused on the success of the "work" as a thing distinct from yourself.

Yoda said...

I think Nicholas makes a great point, even as he underscores yours. It's true that writers are individuals very much affected by their personal histories, but that same defensiveness must be overcome and set aside, no matter what the endeavor.

I tend to be pretty mellow when getting notes on my writing. I tell myself from the beginning of each project that I will not cling to a single word of the finished piece, and when it goes out for notes, the phrase, "I'm not married to any of this" becomes a sort of mantra. I actually hate it when someone reads my writing and says nothing more than, "I loved it!" Why? What made you love it? What would make you love it more? GAAH!

Until you learn to let go, you'll never understand the distinction between, "This is not a commercial idea," and, "You suck."

For all the time we spend in quiet rooms, in front of our computers, asses in seats, writing is a risky profession. You have to say "screw it" just enough to bare your soul to your readers, but care deeply enough to want to know why they respond the way they do...and then work harder and take better risks the next time.

Dave Shepherd said...

I'm not defensive at all anymore. I take the Pixar approach -- if it improves the story, I'll listen to it. I have a system I go through.

1. Evaluate the note -- if it makes sense and improves the story, use it. Don't really care who it comes from, as I'm going to get credit for it anyway. If it doesn't make sense, scrap it.

2. If the note is scrapped, evaluate who the note is coming from. If it's coming from studio reader 1B I won't revisit the note, but if it's coming from Steven Spielberg, I'd go over the note a few more times. Just to make sure.

Though I'd still hold my ground if I thought the note hurt the story.

Julie Gray said...

@Shepherd - THAT is the genius approach. It's not about YOU, it's about the story. It's not personal.

@Nicholas - my comments are not binary ala if/then; that's not what I meant to imply. However, being defensive about your writing does indicate you have not yet reached the level of professionalism necessary to cut it in this industry because feedback and sometimes bad, infuriating, frustrating, stupid feedback is part of the deal. Trina is right, it's not about YOU it's about the STORY.

Christian M. Howell said...

I agree and disagree. It's an apt simile but the major difference is that you don't need any skill level to judge "notes that should never have happened."

But screenwriting - o my GOD - three people see three different movies. I'm not sure if I'm really any good, I haven't won anything but I also haven't read any winners, so I can't examine for character relationships, level of growing conflict, etc.

Judging from the feedback I get from my Writers Group I'm pretty good. I think good enough to make a moderately successful film.

I have gotten reads but some were in the midst of the strike, and afterward mainly the known names got the calls.

I have a ProdCo with my family comedy in hand, so who knows, maybe my first option is in the offing. I'd so love to have my first actual entry in a screenwriting resume.

But I am confident that I will make it. I've managed to succeed at every other career track I've tried.