5 Things the Screenwriting Business Taught Me About Writing

Publish date:

A confession: I bristled at being called a “screenwriter” while jacket copy for Magicians Impossible, my debut novel, was being finalized. Everyone else wanted that facet of my biography in; I wanted it out. I didn’t want to be “screenwriter with debut novel,” which to most reading pegs said debut novel as “movie idea he turned into a novel in order to sell as a movie.” No I wanted to be a writer, full stop, and my novel to be just that—a novel. That sounds strange, I know; to be a screenwriter by trade is the dream of so many people, from Ottawa to Omaha and all points in between. It’s The Hollywood Dream, and for writers, landing that Hollywood Dream is the final rung in the ladder. Why wouldn’t I want to celebrate the fact I’ve defied the odds and managed to make a living of it?

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Brad Abraham is a screenwriter, former journalist, comic book creator. and author, whose novel Magicians Impossible (Thomas Dunne Books) debuts this month. He spent nearly two decades in the showbiz trenches as a screenwriter-for-hire. But it took writing his first novel to make him realize how much the movie business taught him about writing, relationships, and life.

The hard truth of it is by the time Magicians came around I was tired. Tired of movies and TV, tired of having your words read only by producers and development executives. Tired of having things produced that had been through so many hands I barely recognized it as my own. Yet the writing of MagiciansImpossible challenged everything I thought I knew about writing, and in its own way helped me to remember what I loved about writing in the first place. And in the end it was my years in screen trade that taught me five incredibly valuable lessons about writing, relationships, and about finding the joy.

1. How to tell a story. At its most basic level a screenplay is basically a set of instructions to production departments. It's telling the production designer what the villain’s lair looks like. It's telling the producers how much things will cost. It's telling the actors what they'll say. All these directions are affixed to a story's structure. What happens to whom and when. Act One is your setup. Act Two, the complication. Act Three is your payoff. Much like a magic trick, the goal is to surprise the audience with the outcome. You may think you know how it all plays out; a good writer will satisfy that need, but find an unusual, unexpected way to reach that ending. A screenplay lives and dies by its structure. A solid one allows you to take flights of fancy, to divert, to experience the world; a weak one will leave you as lost as your audience. A novel has a structure too, and how much structure you want that novel to have depends on you. There are reams upon reams of books written about writing, but for most of us it comes down to this: Who is the hero, and what is their journey? What is the point of this story if not to follow a character or group of them, to see them face obstacles great and small, and emerge on the other side transformed into something else? Magicians Impossible is all about that transformation; about becoming the person you always wanted to be if only you hadn’t been afraid to take that first step. Everything that happens to every character in the novel springs off that theme, it may be Jason Bishop’s (Magicians’ central character) journey, but it’s the collective’s story.

2. How to solve a problem. I'm not talking “Conan contemplating on the Tree of Woe” problems. I'm not even talking “how can I get this character from A to B and then C” problems. No, I’m talking “the producer and development exec are sitting across from the table and staring at you and expecting you to come up with a fix to this story problem right now because if you can't they'll find someone who can” problems. It’s a uniquely film-TV experience, being on the spot like that; there’s no luxury of time to sip your mug of tea and stare thoughtfully at your work-in-progress. They want it now. So, you do. It might not be the solution, but it is a solution good enough to reassure them (and you) that you can come up with a fix. They want to see that you're capable and willing to try different approaches and aren’t married to the words already on the page. In what we knowingly call “the biz,” it’s not so much about your first great idea as it is your tenth or twentieth. In writing this book, I was blessed with something I never had in the film world: the luxury of time—a full year from signing the contract to delivering the draft. Time to figure out where I was going. Time to figure out a course correction when I realized I was getting lost. Time to sip that mug of tea and stare thoughtfully at the work-in-progress. I had the time, but I was also used to writing from the trenches, to the point I was knocking down problems almost as soon as they popped up, finding solutions and implementing them before delivering the draft and saving my editor a pile of work.

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3. How to take criticism. This is the big one. I'm not talking about audience or reader or critic reviews (though you will face those at some point). No, I'm talking about development people ripping your work to shreds in front of you, in front of other writers, in front of their interns. Screenwriters are basically big walking pieces of scar tissue, and how well you absorb this abuse will determine whether or not you have any kind of future in this business. Ever wonder why so many writers talk or joke about being drunk? This is why. This is actually a good thing, as it gives you this tough elephant hide to weather said criticism. Contrasting that with book publishing, it’s the difference between a sandpaper massage and an actual massage. This extends even to when I received my first, then second, then third rounds of edits. Years of screenwriting had conditioned me to taking my editor’s notes (and copy editor’s and line editor’s), reading them, and implementing them. It was actually my agent who pointed out to me that I didn’t need to make those changes—they were just suggestions. But they were good suggestions and if there’s anything writing in the showbiz trenches taught me is that a good idea is a good idea; all that matters is it ends up in the finished work. The biz also taught me that the biggest obstacle to your work is your own ego, and that if you can separate that ego from the work you can look at it more critically, and make those hard decisions, which in the case of Magicians Impossible meant tossing the entire third act of the book (and a good chunk of the second) and going at it again. Did it work? Well, that’s where reviews enter the picture (and that’s where your scar tissue comes in handy).

4. How to keep your friends close. If there’s any common DNA between movie and TV writing and book writing it’s the value of a good agent. Because as terrifying as a producer can be, they are all terrified of your agent. Nothing will chill a producer’s blood more than you saying “I’m not sure; let me check with my agent about that.” Agents are worth more than their weight in gold and the fact I’m still standing on this battlefield of entertainment is because of the agents and managers who, over the years, stood by me when it wasn’t convenient to do so. When I wasn’t commanding top dollar (or any dollar for that matter). When, to use the term, I “couldn’t get arrested in this town.” The ones who see the long game when you’re so focused on the immediate because that’s their job. The ones who never fail to tell you that despite your struggles and hardship you are good at what you do. My late manager was one of those people, and the aunt of the lead in Magicians Impossible is named after her. My current agent is one of those people too. In books, as in film, and in life, you’re only as good as the people who support you, and I’m fortunate to have the best standing by me.

5. How to find the joy. A producer I’ve worked for many times always asks when I’m delivering a script whether or not I “found the joy.” Meaning: “Was this fun? Did you enjoy the process? Despite all the notes and drafts and arguments and, did you hit that sweet spot where you felt some degree of happiness while working?” If the answer is “yes,” he pretty much accepts what I’ve given him before reading it. If not, or I obfuscate, there’s going to be more work ahead. Finding the joy has been my own personal way of gauging how I’m doing on anything I write. This is especially useful in screenwriting or “work-for-hire” jobs, because there inevitably comes a point when you feel you’ve delivered your best work, and they still want more changes, and it feels like every subsequent revision takes you further and further away from the one that (in your mind anyway) worked the best. That’s usually the time you start looking for an exit strategy, because you can only fake it for so long before they catch on. Finding the joy is crucial in writing because without it, what are you writing for? There’s much better ways to earn a living than this. I found the joy on Magicians not when I was at my best, but when I was at my very worst. When I’d finished that first draft and all I saw were problems. Plot problems. Character problems. Pacing and story problems. I had a lot of work ahead of me and had less than six months to fix it. So I did the only thing I could: take a break, walk away, read, relax, clear my head. Then, about a week after, a solution appeared to me, in a dream of all places. I saw the characters, I saw the story, I saw what needed to happen, and when I awoke, I had it—the excitement, the anticipation … the joy. If you’ve truly found the joy in writing, it’ll get you through your worst by showing you how you are at your very best.

When I began the very long journey into the world of Magicians Impossible, I wasn’t sure I would ever return to the film and TV worlds. I wasn’t sure I could go back to the high-pressure deadlines, the conflicts of personality, the on-the-fly problem solving; I wasn’t sure I could go back to studio and network notes. But what becoming a novelist taught me was that no matter the area of creative art, you’re at your best when you’re surrounded by like-minded creative types. Nothing will get your creative spark lit like another person who’s trod the same road as you, and like you just wants to find the joy.

If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

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