Writing mentors and communities


Check out this link: Box Office Mojo’s Highest Grossing Screenwriters. Number one really isn’t a surprise, but it’s the guys in the second and third spot I want to talk about.

When learning to write, everyone takes their own path. Some people do it all on their own, some learn from family, some have a small group of friends they stick close to.

For more and more of us, online communities have been where we go. My first online space was the WritersBBS. This was probably 1996, and things were pretty primitive. Still, I met other struggling writers, real pros, and picked up a wealth of information.

But this was also the time that everyone was going nuts for screenplays. Everyone was writing them, and I was no different. I loved movies and TV (the latter was finally shaking off the terrible rep it had earned through the sixties and seventies) and the idea of writing for THE X-FILES or BUFFY thrilled me.

Of course I was living in Seattle, then, just as I am now. I planned to move to L.A. at some point, but my work wasn’t ready yet. Not yet.

Then I read an article in Writers Digest (DON’T JUDGE ME!) listing the best online writing sites, and I started checking them out. The one I stuck with was Wordplay.

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wrote (and write) as a team, and they ran the site as a team, too, although Terry always seemed to be most active. At the time I signed on they were professional screenwriters just coming off the release of ALADDIN–successful, but not the top-dollar writers they’d become. The site had columns and guest articles (I recommend all writers read them, even the ones on the film business which have nothing to do with the novel you’re writing). And it had message boards.

I was a clueless dope on those boards for much longer than I should have been. But I found advice there, and camaraderie, and even more importantly, I found debate.

See, at the time, the fiction-writing advice I was finding on the internet was maddeningly vague. “Don’t bore people.” “Do what you want, but make it interesting.” Now, many years later, I have realized that this is the only truly useful advice, but at the time it was not what I wanted to hear at all. I wanted technique. I wanted story arcs and show-don’t-tell and all that.

Now, of course, you can find that sort of writing advice all over the web, but at the time it I was deeply frustrated. But on the forums of Wordplay? We argued about the best ways to introduce characters, to set up and pay off, to write a flashback, etc etc.

Man, did we argue and argue and argue. I grew to despise a small number of people I “met” there, but many more became good friends that I keep in touch with to this day. Does it matter that all the techniques we debated eventually brought me full circle to the “Being interesting. That’s all that matters.” lesson once again, but this time in a way I could appreciate? Not really, no.

Anyway, during the summer of 2004 I realized I was increasingly unlikely to move to L.A. What’s more, I’d lost my love (obsession) with film and TV. I stopped watching everything I could. I stopped reading every review. That year, on my birthday, my wife kindly arranged for me to slip away for a few hours to see a movie.

But there was nothing I wanted to see. It was the height of the summer movie season, and all I wanted was to stay home and read my book (the second Lymond novel, if you’re curious).

So I rededicated myself to novels and stepped away from the boards (amazing how much free time I recaptured!). I wrote Child of Fire and, when it was time for ask for blurbs, I turned to Terry Rossio and he kindly consented.

Honest confession: While I was thrilled to get a blurb from Jim Butcher, I was also sad that it bumped Terry’s quote to the back cover. I learned a lot from him and I would have been proud to see his name next to mine.

Anyway, I don’t know what use this list will be to him–one of the many lessons we learned was the essential powerlessness of the screenwriter in Hollywood–but I hope it’s a sign that he’s earned himself some creative control.