After months rewriting my latest comedy feature, the script is finally going out. I’ve earned some play time. Flopping on the sofa, I turn on the TV and watch animated bears wipe their bums with plush toilet paper. Next, a teary bachelorette begs for a rose. And then a bearded hillbilly pronounces roasted squirrel to be food of the gods. But none of this drowns out the insidious voice whispering: “What will you write next?”
Like Poe’s telltale heart, the question echoes in my brain over and over again. Screenwriting, like any career, is a numbers game at its core. The more you practice, the more impressive your skill and the higher your demand. The bigger your pile of desirable material, the bigger your chances are of getting THE script into the hands of THE person who can help to launch your career. Hollywood is a town built on dreams and for the screenwriter, the tunnel into the fortress is dug with all the scripts you have yet to write. So, we writers will always be haunted by the insidious voice. I’m going to need a plan.
Based on my years of studying horror films from between my trembling fingers, there are only two responses to a proper haunting. The first involves going to the basement or tool shed in my underwear and it’s winter, so that’s out. I opt instead to make friends with my pushy poltergeist. Perhaps, there is a way it could actually help me.
I begin by cleaning out my office of old files, making space for the inspiring artifacts that one needs, to perform an exorcism of creativity. Framed proof of my previous successes now line the walls. My shelves are free of dust and a new blankie lies across my chair. My brain is filled with insightful film history from David Thomson’s The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies. I sit down, set my fingers on the keyboard, and wait.
Three hours later, my bladder is bursting but my laptop screen is empty. I’ve typed and deleted over fifty awful story ideas. For a full hour there, every concept actually began with the words “following a supernova.” My delete key has quadruple the mileage of all the other keys put together. I need a change of scenery but where to go? I drive to a local coffee shop and spend a while soaking up caffeine and town gossip. Next, I wander the aisles of the library, sliding my hand along shelves filled with thousands of ideas already taken. I leave dejected and doubtful that I will ever find just the right Next Big Idea.
This is when I remember something my friend and career guide Lee Jessup, once said to me, “Don’t write to market. Write to your strengths and when the market comes around, you’ll be ready.” The truth is that after the race to get my current script to market, my brain feels rather empty.
When I wrote my very first script, it was just me and my imagination, telling a story that kept me up at night. Now, I’m very lucky to have a group of interested industry contacts, who take my calls, read my scripts and most terrifyingly, follow up on my progress. This intimidating group of people, whom I collectively call The Shredder, is waiting to hear what my next script is going to be. Desperate to get it right, I end up writing boring loglines, or worse, loglines for scripts they like but I have no desire to write.
During my last round of meetings in L.A, I asked some very successful writers about their abilities to create bankable story ideas. An executive whose resume includes two of the world’s most successful production companies summed it up for me. “Find an idea you’re passionate about and then figure out how to make it commercial (aka universal).” In other words, the force is within you, Luke Skywalker.
So, I decide to take more of that exec’s advice and step away from screenwriting for a bit. She proposes I write a book, based on some things I’ve already written which she thinks would appeal to a publisher. I feel guilty at first, like a parent leaving her spawn on the opening day of preschool, but after a few days, I start to feel lighter, keener, and thank god, funnier. By the end of week one, I’ve outlined the book, and then the insidious voice returns. But now, I’ve got an answer.
I now know that the insidious voice is just my driving desire to connect with people through my work, and every Next Big Idea will better than the last, as long as the story hums with the beat of my own tell-the-tale heart.
P.S. If you don’t have a Shredder, get one!