So...you want to be a writer?
In honor of Encourage a Young Writer Day, I sat down to think about the advice I wish I could give to a younger me. It was a fun reflection and I hope these tips can help your writing as much as they’ve now helped mine.
“Know what you write”
The one lazy, hackneyed script note I used to hear in Hollywood all the time was “Write what you know.” The idea is: stick to stories you can tell because of personal experiences. That bupkis always made my blood boil. Seriously. When did Ridley Scott ever have an alien take over his ship? Where on Will Ferrell’s resume does it say “San Diego news anchor”? Exactly how many Death Stars did George Lucas blow up before he felt confident enough to pen Star Wars?
What they should have said was: “Know what you write.”
You don’t have to witness a murder to write a story about someone in witness protection, but you should know why your protagonist needs to be protected, from whom, and why the bad guy wants to find your hero. You should also study how real people cope while in the program. Are they lonely? Do they overcompensate for lost hobbies or worry about reintegration once free?
What I’m trying to say is: You get to know your work through deep research and outlining, which often takes more time than the actual writing. Control every detail in the project, it doesn’t matter whether that project is a physics paper, love poem, college admissions essay or detective story. Once you know what you’re writing about and why, then you can start the actual writing.
ABF: Always Be Finishing
In my junior year of college, I finished a screenplay for one screenwriting class in about four weeks. To the best of my memory, no one else in the class finished by the end of the semester. That’s not a brag. Well, maybe a little. But I had a very specific goal in mind from the start of the class: I wanted to spend as much time as I could workshopping the script with my professor. I think younger Todd was really onto something back then.
Make sure you finish that first draft. It’s okay if it’s bad. I generally call this version of a project “the vomit draft” anyway. I purge every idea I have onto the page. I get it all out, so I can start cleaning up, reshaping absurd ideas into acceptable and then finally (hopefully) good writing. The simple truth is, you can’t get to a final draft unless you complete that first draft so don’t stop writing until you do. Then, let it sit for a while before you go in and polish.
Find an editor
A good editor reviews material like it was their own and offers constructive feedback. If they don’t like something, they’ll have solutions. If they like certain themes or motifs, they help you unearth more opportunities to explore them. As a younger writer, I was self-conscious and hated when others read my work. Having an editor is critical. It’s a chance to see your work through the eyes of someone whose creative opinion you respect. Doesn’t get any better than that.
Read and watch everything you can
Since I began copywriting professionally, I started studying fellow writers at the office, on LinkedIn, I even perused a few books and articles and courses on SkillShare. Now I study the subject lines of every email, product descriptions in catalogues, articles in magazines, and copy in ads. If only younger me knew: You can learn as much from writers you dislike as the ones you idolize. Think about how every work you come across makes you feel, and use that to improve your material.
Everyone’s a critic
Ever seen the comments section of, well, anything on the internet? You can't please everyone. I learned that lesson the hard way with my first feature film Avalanche. A lot of people loved it— including me, of course—but some did not and they made damn sure the entire internet knew about it. The old saying “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” does not apply to critics, professional or amateur. As a writer, you have to accept that and be proud of what you accomplished.
Just have fun
I didn’t begin my writing career channeling the existential crises of a Kafka or Dostoevsky character. That only came after my student loans went into repayment. My first real creative writing project came in high school when I produced a 40-minute movie called The Rock from Uranus. The movie, which still exists on VHS, follows a band of misfits who come together to destroy an “ass-teroid” that broke free from Uranus (get it?) and is now hurtling towards Earth.
The takeaway? Don’t let anything cloud your creativity. Write what you love and love what you write, it’s okay if it’s absolutely ridiculous or incredibly serious. Speaking of ridiculous, there’s a scene in The Rock from Uranus, where, well, I’m kinda, sorta, possibly...dancing...which would be unheard of now. You know, having more fun is one lesson that younger Todd just taught me.
Lastly, never stop writing
Seriously. Don’t. Hey, I said “No!” Pick that pen up and keep going.