Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Busy, Busy, Busy - Quantity vs Quality


A writer dreams of being busy. They say if you want something done, ask a busy person because they're in the zone. The devil has work for idle hands.

David Newell's busy, busy Mr. Roger's Neighbourhood mailman was always making speedy deliveries. The other mailman at his station probably hated the dude for doing three routes in the time it took them to do one. Then again, he only had one man and a few puppets who all lived in the same yard to deliver to.

I could give it to you now but the dialogue
needs polishing. What if you said -- and this
is just off the top of my head -- "Why not be
my neighbour?" instead of "Wont'cha?

So then, busy is good in writing, isn't it? You're writing faster, keeping your mind tick-ticking as you start to develop your innate sense of building stories. You're constantly delivering a whole whack of material and the cash is coming, even if you don't have time to spend it (or sleep for that matter). Busy means you're wanted. Affirmed. People love you and your work. Busy is good, right?

Sure. More or less.

But busy comes with it's own curse; if you're working on so many things, how can you give your all to any of them? A story editor or producer likes to hear you're busy. It means you're adaptable and employable. But they also need to know they have your all your skill and attention on their gig when you sit down to write for them.

At one point, a writer I respect found himself writing scripts for seven series at one time. He was proud of that fact. Even bragged about it. He was a viking writer flush with constant victory. "Handed that outline in Tuesday, two days early and finished a draft for this show by Thursday!" It was never quite that compacted but in sheer quantity of televised writing delivered, he was certainly racking up the credits. He never said "No."

I'd like to pillage that third act -- if you know what I mean!

Trust me, the words "no" or "we're just too busy" can be your best friend. You need breathing space to create and deliver your best stuff. You need time to edit and sweeten. You need time for craft to enter the picture.

After a year or two of writing for literally everything he could get his hands on, our dear writer found himself treading water. He was exactly where he was two years before. Sure, he could stay "busy" writing but there was no plan and no direction to it all. Bouncing from show to show had taken him no further along in his career and he had no idea why.

A little bit of ear to the ground questioning around led him to discover that he was universally liked and respected as being on the cusp of something. So far so good. But a single word came to the surface.


A broad term. What the heck does it mean?

In some cases it can mean that while the people signing your check always know they'll get a pretty good script from you, they long to see more of the great scripts you sometimes toss their way. Good scripts may be fine but they always flash to that one time you really showed them what you were capable of and they feel ripped off when they don't get it.

Fair? Perhaps not entirely. But the reaction is a natural and human one in this business. Heck, it's the way it works in any business.

Once someone tastes of your greatness, they want it all the time. And well they should. They're paying real money with expectations that you're going to give them your very best work.

But more importantly they want to know you're there for them. They want your finest work and need you to turn around their notes fast. The schedule is king and those who deliver the best quality on time always rise to the top of the speed-dial. If you're working on too many other things, they watch extra-carefully for signs you're not giving them your full attention. And they remember when you don't deliver on that promise.

Story editors have very long memories.

The good news is they also remember when you do deliver for them. Clever, on time scripts are the engine of production and if you're there, keeping them on track with a healthy attitude and all your focus, you're golden. There many, many aspects of production that follow your words on the page and a script that's on time and good makes every job that follows yours easier.

After thinking on it, my writer friend realized he hadn't taken that extra time to edit and really think about the scripts before firing them off and diving into the next one. How can you when you're juggling three at once? Does he think every script he handed in was solid? You bet he does. Sometimes they may even have been great. But he doesn't know for sure. He never took the time to find out.

As a writer I know that keeping a script for an extra day or two to reread it fresh in the morning creates work that sings. I can roll the dialogue around on the tip of my tongue (Out loud! It's very important to know a mouth can actually form the sentences you write). I can change that transition and tinker with the voices of the characters and the plot in my head. And now my friend knows this fact too.

The best writers hit very close to the show and somehow make the characters leap off the page by bringing something unexpected out of them. I've heard it described by one development exec as an "added sparkle" And polishing to bring that out takes time and care. Every time.

Writer John August had many, many brilliant things to say in his recent address to film school graduation. Read it here. It's so so good and simple that I may refer to it later on. Upon leaving film school, he says, you will be many things...

"The one thing you won’t be is an amateur. I want you to banish that word, because you need to treat everything you do from the moment you walk out the door as a professional. This is now your job.

That means doing your best work at all times, even when it doesn’t seem to matter. You may feel like you’re not getting graded. You are. It’s just that no one is telling you what score you got."

John also talks about being as adaptable a MacGyver. Do that, but leave out the last-minute solutions and saves. Avoid the all night writing sessions to make a deadline. You never ever want to send a first draft or a half-assed piece of work. In short, save the drama for the page.

People remember.

You'll be tempted to say "yes" to everything; to write for everyone to fill that resume and build your career. The trouble is having to scroll for ten minutes down your internet movie database page is only satisfying if people are still calling you with new jobs. Saying "yes" to all means one of them will get your crap work.

If you take the time and care to make each script special, that's what people will remember about you. And they'll hire you again.

That's how you fast track a career.

Live the adventure.