Life-Changing Advice For Writers From Famous People I Have Not Met

What’s in the drink special? Writing advice from famous folks in different mediums that has served me well.

Get a mentor, no one ever said to me. I didn’t realize in writing Fiction/Stage & Screen that this was a critical component. I always wanted to work in movies, but I was born in a state with no film industry and no foreseeable film future. I didn’t know anyone. I had no connections.

But I could read.

And I found advice that saved me time, encouraged me, and informed my biggest career decisions as a playwright, author, screenwriter, and director.

You might find the same advice resonates with you as well. If you’re serious about your craft you know anything that might let you level up is worth a look. This isn’t how to write a better story advice but global advice that might inform your next career move, or your creative philosophy moving forward.

If all this is too heavy for ya, (I mean, this blog could be life-changing for ya. It was for me.), check out next week’s blog where I talk about an encounter (after I’d taken their advice) with one of the famous people I quote. But if you’re an intrepid artist, pour yourself a beverage and let’s parse life-changing advice. Salud!

 I was young and hungry and I did the next best thing (debatable), I started reading the biographies and Q&A of writers/artists that fed my soul, that triggered my pleasure centers, that made an impact with a style to which I felt connected. I wanted to see what their journey looked like and if it could be replicated.

Spoiler Alert: It can’t be.

Spoiler Alert II: It can inform your journey.

This isn’t a blueprint, but wisdom or, as I like to call it, Guiding Principles that can be applied to many a discipline. Music, art, literature, cinema, theatre. Any creative endeavor. As for me I turned to prose, that led to an unexpected opportunity to write and produce theatre. That led to film. And now I’m back to prose.

But the creative drive is the same.

To create.

So, if you’re tired of reading books on marketing and formatting, let’s look at macro level advice about the artistic life. This is BIG picture guidance. It may not apply to you now, but write it down, you never know when it might come in handy and inform your decision at a future crossroads.

  • Got your pen and pad? CHECK
  • Open mind? CHECK
  • Beverage? CHECK

If you’ve scanned ahead and thought: that’s a lot of words. Then bookmark this page and come back. Or jump to the Factoid / TL;DR for this post HERE.

THE FAMOUS:

Tony Kushner (playwright): Don’t wait for someone to champion you. Get out there and create art.

Tony told me to start my own theatre company and I did. I funded my first play with a $1,500 insurance settlement. A drunk college student backed into my ’67 Cadillac. Instead of fixing the door, I decided to put on a show.

(This advice from an undergrad professor that I have met and has served me well: INVEST IN YOURSELF).

The show received good reviews and got me hooked on theatre. And let me tell you, the audience and the critics don’t care who funded the show. They only want to know if it delivers.

My next show won Best Original Script and Best Actor at the city theatre awards.  This show ran only two weekends. That’s it. TWO. But it was life-changing. 

But I took that award and that review and the feedback and decided this was something I wanted to pursue. I took a recon trip to Chicago and watched several off-loop shows. I was encouraged with the passion and opportunity, but also saw that the quality varied enough from wow to huh that I knew we could compete. You see, a lot of these theatres were also young and figuring it out. We decided to see just how far we could take our endeavor. So, we packed up the troupe and moved to Chicago.

But before that trip, I decided to go to grad school.

David Mamet (playwright/screenwriter): Stay out of grad school. Get your material in front of a live audience.

Grad school is a natural option when things are going well. When you’re flush and heady with a bit of success. And when you’re not. When you’ve hit dead end after dead end. But grad school early on may focus more on academic rigors and hoop jumping among internal politics. I say may.

What Mamet really meant was the quickest way to improve your craft was to get your work in front of a live audience. You can’t bribe them; you can’t cajole them. They will tell you what is funny, what is dramatic, and what is a surprise. You can academic a script with structure (as you should) and beats –

(Parenthetical Aside: I once saw two very differently premised plays by the same playwright in a week and they both followed the same basic emotional sausage. Open with a laugh (enroll the audience), banter, inject the real issue, argue, get dark, add savage violence, recovery and end on a joke or a quiet fade to black.

Both plays were effective and entertaining, but seeing them on back-to-back days, I saw the big form(ula) that he used. And it was successful. He had the CRAFT down. I jotted that formula in a now lost to time/space journal.)

But I digress.

So, I read that and, well, I also read the first question in the GRE study book and thought, nope, not going to jump through this hoop and Mamet seems to have some experience in this matter.

Despite overnighting an application packet and scripts to UC DAVIS, I decided that Chicago was going to be my grad school.

That’s when we packed up the truck and moved to Chicago. Shortly thereafter those two scripts I send to UC DAVIS, I sent to Chicago Dramatists where I was accepted as a Resident Playwright.

I did reading after reading. Staged, Table. Q & A’s afterwards.  Learned more about what worked and what didn’t and then would spend time puzzling out how to make it better.

When Hard Scrambled, my play was adapted (by me) into a screenplay, I would get notes on certain lines or scenes. Suggestions to change things. And I would resist.

Why?

Not out of a power struggle, but because I had seen those lines and scenes in front of a paying audience (several times, different productions) and I knew what worked. The camera is just a substitute for an audience’s POV. The decision was made on the set to cut what is essentially the first act (of the play) curtain line and the theme wrapped up in a tart one-liner. They wanted to cut this scene and I argued – eventually slamming a door with a very theatrical exit.

The producers rethought it and we shot it and it ends up being a great scene that dramatically propelled the story into the next section. I didn’t throw a dart at the scene. I KNEW it worked because I had gotten it in front of a live audience. Hell, I even won a shiny thing with that play.

You can see the award-winning, indie low-budget Hard Scrambled for free on Amazon Prime. It’s a fun watch with great actors.

Experience. That is your teacher.

And sadly, the thing you love will get dissected not only by the audience, but by yourself. You have to get used to not being mad at how the sausage is made. It ain’t with magic.

So, because of Mamet, I stayed out of grad school, got my work in front of a live audience. And learned my craft. It served me very well. (Life-changing.)

Until it didn’t.

But that’s another rabbit hole of a post. And I don’t want you to go tharn.

BONUS CONTENT:

ADDITIONAL MAMET ADVICE (general wisdom): Given a 20 to 40-year career and a dollop of talent everyone gets the same number of breaks. TL;DR: Don’t quit.

They may come earlier in the career or they may come later. All you have to do is not quit. Of course, this makes sense, you’re more likely to find success as a writer with more years of life experience and words under your belt. Your first screenplay or book written at 21 is competing against writers with a lifetime of knowledge and craft and experience.

When I started out, the average book sold was actually your 5-6 written. Not including my self-published books (one an Amazon best seller) my 6th book, The Fountain, was my first to actually sell to a publisher.

Yeah, DSH, but is it any good?

Yes. Check out this trade review in Kirkus Reviews.

Hmmm. Sounds good, but I’m dubious.

Gotcha. Here’s the book trailer.

Not bad, kinda cool. Where do I order the book?

Right here: The Fountain.

And now she is buying my follow-up [NSFW]. Shhh… it hasn’t been announced.

Glad I didn’t quit when the first 5 books didn’t sell. I know others who did and wonder what if…?

Patti Smith (musician): Don’t be a slave to your own concepts.

This one came at me later in life at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. Ms. Smith performed an evening of readings and songs remembering her departed partners and colleagues. But she ended the night with “and because I’m not a slave to my own concepts…” and then launched into a beautiful rendition of Because the Night. 

I’ve been known to start a new project and give myself challenging parameters. Set a style, structure, word count, etc. But as we all know, once the wheels start turning projects can grow organically and take unexpected twists and turns. Don’t fight it. If a story is taking you to unexpected places, then as a storyteller, screenwriter, playwright, hell, even a TV writer, don’t you want to embrace that?

I love to be surprised as a reader. (As long as you play fair and everything is set up.) Why would you fight to keep the story from turning towards the unexpected? Don’t force it. Don’t asshole your way from Point A to Point B. A reader or audience can tell.

And if you story ends up in a truly original unique place, then during the rewrite make sure everything is set up. That’s the genius of the rewrite. That’s where you can connect dots, trim twigs, and as Neil Gaiman says on an endless FB loop: “Make it look like you knew what you were doing the whole time.”

Art meets craft.

So, for me, I’ve become flexible in a premise if I stumble across something better. My follow-up [NSFW] made it 30K words with a thin shaky premise (I just needed to get material on the page) when I hit upon an idea that transformed the initial premise, setting, and theme. I cut 15K words and started over. The other 15K were basically bar stories that found their way intertwined in the new material.

Was it a waste of time?

Nope. It’s more punk and transgressive than I thought I had in me. I’m thrilled with it. And even more thrilled it sold.

Remember: editing is like a good haircut, it’s not what you take away, it’s what you have left.

 

Guy Magar (film director): Go to film school where you want to live and work.

OOPS, but I got this info too late, because…

They say your first job on a movie set is either as a PA or as director. I was fortunate enough (after investing in myself and craft over several years) to get an opportunity to direct a movie I had written. Yeah, it was a low-budget affair, but I didn’t care. I had always wanted to get into filmmaking and my investment was paying off. I took a crash course on filmmaking before actually getting in the driver’s seat – a wise investment from my producers.

He mentioned that you want to go to film school where you want to live and work. He didn’t. He went to school in London and then moved to LA, where he knew no one, had not worked with anyone and all his connections and relationships were based in London. He had a harder time getting started.

This made sense to me and I pass it along to anyone looking to go to film school. Honestly, with the lower cost of production equipment and editing software and consumer cameras (iPhone) the only benefit I can see of going to a film school is to get industry connections. Which is huge.

But is it worth it?

I don’t know.

(Okay, Guy isn’t famous. But he’s been around the block and the advice resonated.)

Wayne Coyne (Lead singer of the Flaming Lips): Not everything has to challenge an audience. What’s wrong with making beautiful music that people find enjoyable?

When you’re young, you want to challenge the status quo. Punk.
When you’re older, you chill out a bit, but still want to be a free thinker. Melodic punk.

Or a spoonful of sugar as I like to think of when writing literary satire.

Coyne talked about how their beautiful music (and they have certainly written music that was much more sonically challenging, especially early in their career) still carried their subversive lyrics and ideas.

That got me thinking. What would we call something like that…?

How about a Trojan Horse?

Now it felt extra dangerous (and mischievous) to use structure to go after that biggest of compliments: your script reads like a movie.

So, for my thriller screenplay Straight Razor Jazz I embraced structure. I marked out the beats. I wrote witty film noir banter exchanges as they came to me in a separate document and went about crafting a thriller.  Art meets craft. I was a finalist (Top Ten, Top 50) in two HUGE international screenwriting contests. Got read, got meetings, and the project is now lined up to become a graphic novel. Which in true Hollywood style now has a very real chance of being optioned as a, get this, movie.

Oh, Hollywood. (If you want to work in Hollywood, write a book, play, or graphic novel. Hollywood loves IP.)

Some folks seek out reading material that is way off-beat, that makes you think in an entirely new way. That way lies art. But all art needs craft. Too off-beat and it’s harder for a business person to invest in your story. Movies are expensive and draining. Books are easier and require less capital.

But you still have to entertain and tell a story.

Look, 99% of houses have walls and a roof and a door. That’s called structure. No one looks at a house and goes: walls, again?!?!

It’s how you design it to function, how you design the inside, how much light you let in. How claustrophobic you make it. Or if you decide to go the cookie cutter route, then you might drive down a block and comment how it all looks the same and nothing is interesting.

Pass.

(I like crazy books and music as an occasional palate cleanser, but not as an everyday read. I’ll take a well-executed genre book with original ideas over amateurish avant-garde content.)

For a fun short read about how I finally connected to Wayne Coyne. Check out this post.

Walter Murch (film editor): Don’t cut yourself off from other influences even in the middle of a project. Embrace spark points and ideas around you.

Walter Murch is a film editor whose credits include: Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Trilogy, and the 1998 re-edit of Touch of Evil. Yeah, he’s seen some shit and his advice demolishes the “I can’t read your work as I’m writing and I don’t want to be influenced.” What they are really saying is, I’m behind on reading my friends’ work and don’t want to be burdened with another obligation (unless you have a military zombie book).

Walter Murch’s father was a painter and he laid out canvas in their New York apartment hallway and let people walk on it and then he framed the canvass and painted on it. It now contained their ghosts…

When driving in a car, Walter, a film editor, would hear a song and wonder if he could cut to that rhythm. He called them “spark points” and embraced them throughout his process. A good creative idea was a good creative idea and he had faith it would be filtered through his own sensibilities and become part of his art.

So yeah, I don’t shut myself off in the creative process from other influences. I’m just probably just too backlogged with my reading to promise anyone a quick turnaround.

In my creative process I’ve opened myself up to spark points, to the unexpected influence. It’s been a productive way to add nuance to characters.

Now if we were at a bar, and you asked me what my macro advice would be, I’d tick off these items:

  •   Invest in yourself (I’ll expand on this in a future post).
  •   Build a network (plant seeds).
  •   Shake things up.
  •   Break out of your loop.
  •   Put yourself out there.
  •   Stay humble and hungry.
  •   Follow your opportunities.
  •   Prepare for the long haul.
  •   Treat it like a craft, the art will follow.
  •   Don’t quit.

Think about what each one of the things means to you. Is it something you’ve done? Is it something you need to do? Is it something a colleague might need to hear?

As you can see my biggest author influences were not novelists. I wasn’t seeking how to hook a reader, I was looking for big picture advice.  Since experience is the best teacher, learn from those with experience. This is a handful of advice from successful professionals that have been around that I’ve utilized and/or have stuck with me lo all these many years. I’ve read plenty that didn’t.

When you walk into a store, you don’t buy everything. You buy things that you need, that you can add to your toolbox and to be implemented later. Maybe you buy something that you think might come in handy one day. And maybe you’ll change your mind about everything on the next visit. Use what makes sense to you, Dear Reader.

Damn, that was a long blog. Felt like I could have built a class around it. Pat yourself on the back for making it this far. Pour another drink. Day dream. Doodle.

For more #AuthorLife #AmWriting #MSWL #WritingTips, sign up for my newsletter and updates. I’ll only email when there’s cool news to report.

If you want to experience DSH for yourself – see my EVENTS CALENDAR. Plenty of events and interviews coming this fall.

Cheers!
DSH