WRITING: The Most Important Thing…

A lot of people who want to pursue writing, either as a career or purely for art’s sake, ask what the best thing to do is to become a (better) writer. There’s a lot of skills I’ve had to develop to improve – organisation, focus, thicker skin, openness to ideas – but the most important thing I ever developed was this: ambition.

Ambition, in this sense, I’d equate largely with drive, though there are plenty of shadings that make the two things different. Drive is the desire for forward movement – constantly pushing forward, never allowing oneself to backstrack or stagnate. Ambition is similar, except it”s also the craving for upward movement; the drive not just to continue, but to succeed. Innovate. Become more.

There is intertwining here. If you are constantly pushing forward, it’s very likely you will grow and become better at what you are doing. But you can have drive without having ambition, and vice versa. You can move forward without necessarily craving to improve as rapidly as possible, while there are plenty of people who aim high, crave to grow, yet stagnate or even fall backwards. But both of these things are key to developing as a writer, or as I suspect, in any field.

Drive is something I struggled with for a very long time. In high school, and early on in university, I would constantly complain about my lack of energy, thinking that without that magical push, I couldn’t be expected to create. Heavens no! When drive would come, it would come in brief, powerful spurts. There were a number of times, for example, I recall writing a script in less than a week during this period, though regularly this was impossible. Though not necessarily a speed demon, I can now complete a script within a few days, given the free time, pressure and/or motivation, and I keep busy between bouts of writing with constant development. Even when I am not producing pages, I keep myself plenty busy with projects in other stages of development.

At the moment, for example, I’ve got a number of projects on the go. Five I consider in the ‘active’ stage: a triptych of short film scripts currently in editing, a sequence of webisode scripts undergoing rewrites, two pilots in the midst of outlining, and a spec that I am at the very earliest stages of planning. These are all ‘due date’ projects, with three of them for classes, one for another person’s class (not plagiarism; the class is a directing and production class, not writing), and one slated for a website. At any given time, I am usually working on these, as they all need to see completion in the next two months.

But I often find myself with mental blocks on projects that are ‘active’, so in order to ensure my drive doesn’t fade, I keep a number of in-development projects that can be tinkered with at any time. For example, I am preparing brief proposals of five potential graphic novel ideas for an artist friend, who is looking for a project for us to work together on. I have The Diversionist and The Signal, which require maintenance and regular posts. And I have a handful of other concepts, at various degrees of potentiality, floating around waiting for expansion. And, of course, there is my coursework: in addition to my active projects, eventually I will also have a pair of essays and some commercials to write.

This puts a lot of pressure on my brain, but it also frees it: by having high-pressure active projects, as well as low-pressure projects, I’m able to constantly keep my creative juices flowing without stressing terribly. I am like the proverbial shark. If I ever stop moving forwards, I die.

But drive is not the same as ambition. While drive keeps me constantly moving forward, ambition keeps me focused on improving and expanding. What does that mean? For example, though I don’t fancy myself a comedian, I’ve had a project in development for years that is exactly that: a comedic pilot, one I know I may never get right. Last year, I’d never written a spec script, nor had I tried webisodes. By December 31, I’d written both – I now have a Community spec script and a sequence of webisodes sitting on my shelf. I’ve never written a feature script, nor a video game; I have one of each in development. And I have a history of overstuffing my scripts with dozens of characters, so my two pilots are stripped to the bone: two and three series regulars, respectively.

But its not just trying new things, because you can have all the diversity in the world and merely just be a scatterbrain who never becomes good at anything. I’ve also been pushing myself to be better at what I consider myself good at. Looking at my old scripts and trying to see what I did wrong, for example, and writing new pilots within my ouevre. I have two preferred styles: the lighthearted dramedy and the dark, bleak drama. The two pilots I’m tackling, and the webseries I’m editing, are within the second house style.

The webisode series, I was very fond of upon finishing it, only to realise on second read that one of my leads was completely overlooked, and that the latter half of the sequence was messy and felt like it made little sense overall. The ending, too, lacked a certain kick. I’m not surprised; the first sequence, which I wrote Spring last year, had similar problems.  I ended up rewriting the entire back half and adding an ‘episode’ in the middle, and it improved the whole endeavour greatly. Writing is rewriting, as I’ve long been told, and I’m keeping to that rule.

Both of these things have influenced my behaviour outside of Final Draft, as well. I now have the drive to seek out and keep an eye on strong advice, both in writing and in the industry. I’ve had the ambition to start networking, and I’ve seen strong results just from being friendly and showing the right people that I know how to put the effort in to get what I want. Professionally, I’m in a very strong place, thanks to my developing these two habits.

How did I develop these habits? Pressure. For a long time, the view of the television writer was that the Canadian industry was too small, and that in order to do great work, moving to Los Angeles was the key thing to do. Unfortunately, the atmosphere in the American indsutry is much more competitive, to the point that there are seemingly thousands of writers in contention for jobs and new shows every year. And so, seeing this reality, I had to make a choice: push myself to be better, stronger and faster, or change gears. And I’m not someone easily turned away from a path, even if I seem to be walking down it very slowly.

Of course, the Canadian industry has seen plenty of changes in just the past few years, so I’m not nearly as hesitant to consider a career in television here. That said, I still want to be the best that I can be, and because of the drive and ambition I forced myself to develop, I’m in much better shape than I otherwise would be in.

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