If you’re going to shoot, shoot.

I recently read a post from Mike Cane’s xBlog that re-posted an essay from 1922 titled “Why I Quit Being So Accomodating.” The essay included the following section:

“Surely, if life means anything at all, it means that each of us is entrusted with a certain irreplaceable fund of hours and weeks and years. To let anybody and everybody fritter that fund away is as if the trustee of an estate were to deposit the estate’s funds in a bank and issue check books to whoever applied.”

The tl;dr version of the article: Your time is precious and you should be selective to whom you offer it to, as you will never get this time back. Those who freely give away their time at the expense of their work do not respect their time and thus do not have their time respected by others.

There’s some generally solid, applicable advice in this column from almost a century ago, but there’s a specific aspect of this that is worth looking at for anybody who wants to call themself a writer, and what it means to make that distinction.

At the basic level, a writer is not about the external validation of their work (sold screenplays, published novels, paycheck, awards, etc.), but about the consistent effort to produce work. Do you sit down and put words together regularly? Are you working toward improving the quality of what you write? Great! That’s being a writer.

Cultivating the practice of writing requires effort and intention. Like the line from The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, “If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Writers make the time to write, they don’t just talk about it. They do the work.

And sometimes it’s frustrating. A factor that keeps people who work hard at their writing from willingly identifying as a writer is thinking that all they write is crap. There’s a quote from Brian Eno I keep up in my workspace: “The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can.”

Take your time seriously. Put the words on the page, even if they suck. Keep doing it, and they’ll suck less. They might even become good. But you can’t make it better until you’ve made it, and you can’t make it until you make the time.

A matter of perspective

This is a corollary to the previous post on the dangers of the writing what you know mentality. If you do choose to write a story based on something from your own personal experience, the closer you are to that moment, the less sense of perspective you have on it.

Think about perspective as being the range of magnification that you can see an event with. When dealing with something that happened five minutes ago, you can only see the situation in close up. You’re able to see the details of that moment, but not the larger context. Compare that experience to something memorable that happened seven years ago. You can still see the close up details of the event, but you can also pull further back to see the chain of cause and effect that lead to and from that moment for you. You can pull further back to see how that moment relates to other, similar moments you may have experienced. You can even see how others involved in that moment have been affected by it, and you may even be able to make assumptions about their motivations and actions while in the moment you’re remembering.

There’s also a process of natural selection that happens to choosing ideas to work with. Every idea seems fantastic when you first have it. Ideas that still seem great months or even years later are ones with staying power. Writing something based on an event that hasn’t had that time to fight it out with competing ideas does a disservice not only to your writing, but the idea. Without giving the idea time to prove its strength and fully ripen, you’re cutting the thought off at the root and freezing it in a state of immature development.

This isn’t to say that an idea based on something that has happened to you recently can’t become a great story, but by giving the inspiring event time to move into the past tense, you allow yourself to detach the idea from the facts of the moment so that you can focus more on its truth. “That’s how it actually happened!” is a weak justification for plotting, but weaving something that did happen into a fictionalized version of events can be a way to make the fictionalized aspects of a story feel more honest and real.

Your duty is to your story, not to your past.

Off to the side

I keep a mini legal notepad next to my keyboard when I’m writing scenes. It’s there for when I need a push on figuring out what to type next. For example, sometimes I’ll look at the wording of a line of dialogue and it feels wrong. I dash off 10 or so different versions of the line on the notepad, then keep moving.

You could spend hours on a single line of dialogue, character introduction, or action line. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. The computer lets you get stuck in this cycle as long as you let it.

That’s why I have the notepad. It has a physical limit, so I can see when I hit a point where I’m just spinning my wheels. It’s outside of the main document I’m working in, so I don’t feel pressured to hit the target all at once. Sometimes combining parts of different attempts into a Frankenline does the trick.

There’s a pressure that can come from looking at things in context, especially when the document’s page count gets larger. The notepad is a pressure release valve. Over there, away from the screen, it’s a place to play and discover.

Because writing should be fun.

Productive Things

I have a task list. I have goals, large and small. But even though I know there are things that I want to do, and results I want from my effort, with some goals there’s no clear Final Action.

With writing as a career, the goal isn’t just based on your effort. No matter what, you have to do The Work, but it’s not just up to you. You can only control your effort, and a problem can develop when trying to decide how to focus that effort.

You can’t divide your time into Productive Things and Unproductive Things, because as soon as you start seeing the world that way, you devalue the Unproductive Things. Your definition of Productive Things narrows. Your ability to see the value in the Unproductive diminishes.

If you’re worried about if what you’re doing now is going to help you with something in the future, you’re not focused on what you’re doing now. If you beat yourself up over how you didn’t spend time doing something to get you closer to your goals in the past, you’re not focused on what you’re doing now.

The thing is, you can never be completely certain of what’s going to be helpful down the line. Case in point: In middle school and high school, I was required to take Computer Skills classes that were mostly about how to type using the home row. In these classes, I would finish my assignments with most of the hour to spare and spent that time playing games and talking with my fellow students about how useless the class was.

Guess what? Now I can type accurately and quickly without looking at the keyboard, which is a helpful skill to have if you want to spend your time writing.

Does everything help you along the way? No. Some things really are dead ends. But by assuming that something is Unproductive you’ve eliminated any chance of learning something you can apply elsewhere, or having an experience that gains meaning upon reflection.

Stay calm. Do something. Don’t worry too much about what it is.

Running

I made my fourth attempt at the Couch to 5K program recently. This time, I finished.

Then I started to feel a weird numbness. A tingling. I was completing the runs, getting the distance, keeping up with the amount of time I was supposed to be running, but it hurt. I went to the internet, consulted some websites, and talked with a friend who has more running experience.

I didn’t want to stop running, but I didn’t want to injure myself. I looked at the suggestions my friend gave me, tried some new exercises, stretches, etc. and went out for another run.

This time was different. This time, I paid more attention to how I was running and confronted the fact that I hadn’t been conditioning myself to be a better runner. I had conditioned myself to endure the pain of running poorly.

But what does that have to do with writing?

If you don’t do the work, you will hurt yourself.

With running, I was just lacing up my shoes and throwing my body out into the world, hoping to hit some metric that would mean I’d succeeded at getting more in shape. I wasn’t being mindful of how best to accomplish this.

You can have written as many drafts as you want, every time hitting between 90 to 110 pages, and it won’t matter if you’re not mindful of what’s on those pages. You can make a deadline and not have it matter because what’s there isn’t the best work you could do.

Look at the ScriptShadow Twit-Pitch Results, and how the recurring theme is that people sent in work that was unpolished and unready. Each and every person who raced to finish a draft full of spelling errors and flawed plotting now has a review of their work up for all to see that calls them out on being unprofessional.

Another example: A producer told me that after reading a disappointing script, they met with the person who had sent it to them to discuss it. The sender was defensive and said something to the effect of, “I know it’s not a good script, but it could sell.” The producer stopped considering scripts sent by that person from that moment forward.

If you don’t do the work, you will hurt yourself.

You won’t feel it with writing the same way with running. Missed opportunities don’t have the immediate and acute sting of a pulled muscle, but they are every bit as real a consequence of a lack of mindful focus on your efforts.