Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Worst writing advice I ever got

Back when David Isaacs and I were trying to break in we discovered a major hurdle was that we didn’t know shit. Neither of us had taken writing courses and we were essentially just floundering. So we decided to take a night class taught by a teacher who claimed he had written for BARNEY MILLER. These were back in the days before IMDB when you blindly just took someone’s word. And to answer your next question – no. He never did. We eventually sold some stories to BARNEY and when we mentioned his name no one on staff knew who he was. We then cornered him. He claimed that he ghostwrote episodes for a writer. No one at BARNEY had ever heard of that writer either.

This “teacher” actually made his money playing poker. Eventually he split town (or was chased out of town -- one of the two). Last I heard he was living in Hawaii as a registered sex offender for exposing himself. This was our writing professor.

The horrible advice he gave was this: He said take the amount you were being paid for a script and divide it by the number of pages in the script. Let’s say for round numbers $500 a page. Then he said after we had written each page we were to ask ourselves, “Is this page really worth $500?”

AAAAAAA!!!

All that accomplishes is putting extra needless pressure on youself. The worst thing you can do is make sure every single line is perfect before going on to the next line. The end result will be a safe stilted script and you’ll have an ulcer.

It’s the absolute opposite of what you should be doing. You should be freeing yourself, allowing your imagination to run free. Follow an outline, but give yourself permission to try things. If they don’t work, delete them. Sometimes a direction won’t work but there will be some jokes along the way that do. Or the wrong direction leads you to the right direction that you never would have found if you were just painstakingly crafting every word of every line.

Think of the big picture. Does the story work? Are there fun moments and scenes? Sometimes it takes a page or two to set up a big laugh or payoff. So is one page worth $100 and the other worth $900? It’s craziness.

Similar idiotic advice is there must be a certain number of jokes per page. If you have instructors who tell you this, run. His future in the industry might be living in a cave in Kona with a police record.

Don’t think of money when you’re writing. Think of having fun and being creative when you’re writing. The money will come.

31 comments:

B A said...

Suggests a darker "Music Man" if Harold Hill had split with his money instead of braving it out with Shirley Partridge.

Peter said...

Last I heard he was living in Hawaii as a registered sex offender for exposing himself.

Ken, I've said it before, you need to write a book about all these kinds of stories. Everything from this creepy ass guy to the film producers who wanted to pay you and David in big screen TVs, one of whom you said ended up in jail, to the producer who brought barbecue takeout to a pitch meeting. Plus all the sorts of juicy stories where you'll have to omit the names of the people involved.

Come on, you know you want to! And you've got fans who'll buy it. I bought Must Kill TV and I'm getting Where The Hell Am I fairly soon.

Jeanne said...

Don’t think of money when you’re writing. Think of having fun and being creative when you’re writing. The money will come.

This is the best advice ever written! Thanks Ken. You are right again!

Mike said...

Off-topic: An article on the new wave of TV romcoms.
"Clearly, TV has always been able to trace the peaks and troughs of a nascent relationship in what feels like real time – and the will-they-won’t-they trope is a stalwart of the medium... Now though, there is a demand for knottier television, and the tone of these new shows seem more inclined to swerve the temptation to cave in to audience wish fulfilment... Freed from the traditional romcom narrative, these shows can be about more than the couples at their centre: they can question the very nature of relationships."

Stephen Marks said...

Sounds like he wrote for Blarney Miller. Since its a writing advice post you and Mr. Issacs wrote a script called "Him" for "Big Wave's Dave" (E6) where one character quoted Ernest Hemingway and another Truman Capote. How do you know if these references are too obscure or erudite for the viewers? Thanks Ken, I'll take my answer off the air and wait for a Friday.

Wayne said...

What advice did you get from great writers?
Larry Gelbart was so naturally funny.
Did any have special joke forms he favored?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Wasn't this similar to an episode of THE ODD COUPLE where Felix took up a writing class with the intention of writing a poetry book and was driving everybody crazy with his non-stop, incessent little poems and haikus that his teacher said were actually good, then Oscar discovered the teacher gets jobs for his students writing things like bumper stickers and such?

Charles H. Bryan said...

"a major hurdle was that we didn't know shit" made me think immediately of this year's presidential campaign, where that major hurdle has been sidestepped by several candidates

blinky said...

Technically there are no caves in Kona only lava tubes. Do your research man!

John Hammes said...

However, writers can always take a cue from Natalie Wood.

( I couldn't help myself. )

Carl said...

When you wrote the worst thing you can do is to try to make a line perfect before going on to the next it reminded me of a quote by Tom Robbins where he said that he writes so slowly because he tries never to leave a sentence until it was as perfect as he could make it. Reading that sent shivers up my spine, I could think of no greater Hell then feeling one had to write that way!

Steve Pepoon said...

Ken, how about the BEST piece of advice you ever got? Mine came from Danny Simon, brother of Neil, who taught in his class that if you set up a comedic premise logically, the audience will follow you as long as you care to play it out (think bathroom scene in "There's Something About Mary"). However, if your comedic premise is contrived, you'll lose them (see "The Sweetest Thing" for a master class in contrived situations). Interesting. Danny only taught the class twice a year, with maybe 20 people in each class. A drop in the bucket in ratio to all the writer wannabes out there at any given time. When I finally broke in and eventually came to know a good deal of writers, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that probably over half of them had taken the Danny Simon writing course. He must've had the best track record of any guru out there. Too bad he's gone.

LouOCNY said...

Love to see those BM spec scripts.....or even parts of them :P

Cap'n Bob said...

The worst writing advice I ever heard was, "Write what you know." If that had been followed there wouldn't have been a Tarzan, or Conan, or Ice 9.

Charles H. Bryan said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: Ken, your thoughts on what should happen in a possible second season of THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON?

Seriously, the producers, cast and staff must thin, just a little, "Damn it. We have no sequel." Although, I personally, would be comfortable with a fictionalized second season where he finds the real killers, or finds someone who's been in a hatch for 18 years, or finds some zombies.

MikeN said...

Ken, do you think there is a difference creatively if you are writing on a computer, typewriter, or by hand?

Joe Blow III said...

Stephen Marks
One way you might know if literary references are too obscure or erudite for viewers is if the show is wildly popular and award winning (i.e. CHEERS, in which such references abound).

Anonymous said...

Cap'n Bob said...
"The worst writing advice I ever heard was, "Write what you know." If that had been followed there wouldn't have been a Tarzan, or Conan, or Ice 9."

Congratulations on dismissing that advice, and going on to write so many iconic scripts.

Rock Golf said...

@john Hamnes: I wouldn't try that. Based on the photo, she's a real ballbreaker.

Stephen Marks said...

Steve Pepoon

You're right Steve, you of course remember the episode where Diane purchases a copy of Ernie's "The Sun Also Rises" I was just thinking if it was possible for someone on Green Acres to say about the weather "This is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the son of York" and get away with it.

Rod said...

Ken--Friday Question--I recently saw the actor Michael O"Keefe pop up in three procedurals filmed in NYC-"Blue Bloods" "Elementary" and "Madam Secretary." Can an actor make a good living just doing guest spots on weekly series? What does something like that pay? What about directing episodes of a TV series? When you did one episode of "Everybody Love Raymond" in a season, does that pay well enough that you only have to do a couple of gigs like that a year?

MikeK.Pa. said...

Curious, before you hit the "send" button, do you scream, "Is this blog worth $500?"
Our reply, would be, "Hell, yeah!"

Cap'n Bob said...

Thank you, Anonymous (Coward). I've been published. Have you?

Joe Blow III said...

Stephen Marks:

And this one:
Diane: "As Thoreau said, "Our lives are filled with detail; simplify, simplify."
Coach: "Why didn't he just say simplify once?"

One of the funniest punch-lines ever!

Stephen Marks said...

I'm so sorry Joe I fucked up calling you Steve, I'm snow blind up here in Canada. Yea Diane was one of the more intellectual characters on TV. I liked when Diane gave Sam "The Sun Also Rises" book and said "Don't touch it, don't scratch it, don't scratch with it"

Wayne said...

The worst writing advice I got
"Write what, you know."

Doktor Frank Doe said...

Isn't that line by line method a trademark of David Milch? lol

Johnny Walker said...

"It’s the absolute opposite of what you should be doing. You should be freeing yourself, allowing your imagination to run free. Follow an outline, but give yourself permission to try things. If they don’t work, delete them. Sometimes a direction won’t work but there will be some jokes along the way that do. Or the wrong direction leads you to the right direction that you never would have found if you were just painstakingly crafting every word of every line. "

Sigh. This is great advice. Having finally seriously dived in, after years of learning theory (read: procrastinating), all I can say is: Damn, writing is HARD. Or at least it can be if you a) stifle yourself by trying to produce something perfect, or b) Lock yourself into a beginning, middle and end without letting yourself organically explore what else might crop up.

Actually, even if you don't do that, writing is still hard.

Ken, I would love to see how you (or a room) break(s) down a spark of an idea into an outline... but I have the feeling the answer is simply, "we work damned hard at it -- letting ourselves explore ideas and seeing what sticks, until eventually we start to hit upon things that feel right, and build on them -- until we realise why they won't work, and we start over -- and repeat this process until we end up, finally, with something we think is good enough".

Johnny Walker said...

Sorry if this is stating the obvious, but Tarzan and Conan are relatable to us, despite their fantasy surroundings. When someone says "write what you know" it could mean the feeling of isolation or anger that the relatable parts of Tarzan or Conan express. It doesn't mean you have to write a story set in your life.

Anonymous said...

Johnny Walker:

"Sorry if this is stating the obvious, but Tarzan and Conan are relatable to us, despite their fantasy surroundings. When someone says "write what you know" it could mean the feeling of isolation or anger that the relatable parts of Tarzan or Conan express. It doesn't mean you have to write a story set in your life."

Thanks, Johnny. I believe that's exactly what "write what you know" means. It's practical advice. I've also found the older you get, the better it works. It's not that age gives you better insight into human nature. Insight is probably what a writer's "talent" is.

It's that, through the repetition of life, you become more confident about the inevitability of human nature, and that's what drives great stories, imo.

Example: A younger writer might say, "I can't write this character doing that. Nobody is that much of a fucking idiot."

When you're older you will say, "I *can* write this character doing that, because many people *are* that much of a fucking idiot."

Cap'n Bob said...

You might imbue your characters with relatable emotions but when you create a new world it isn't something you know. That's what imagination brings to the table.