Truth is hard in a special-snowflake world

Film screenwriter, director and producer Christopher McQuarrie sent a string of tweets a few days ago that encapsulate how he sees the industry, and how to achieve success in it.  He’s blunt (almost brutally so) about how nobody’s going to do the work if you don’t, and how you can’t expect the Success Fairy to alight on your shoulders and sprinkle you with magic dust, or something like that.  Here’s an excerpt.

1.  I‘m receiving a lot of questions from writers asking where to submit scripts or how to sell them. Others ask how to sign an agent, attach directors or producers, etc.

You won’t like the answer, but here it is:

You’re asking the wrong questions.

2. I spent seven years – AFTER winning an academy award – asking the same questions. My career stalled (and I still have scripts that no one will make despite subsequent commercial successes).

. . .

5. “How do I sell my screenplay” is a question at the heart of the screenwriter’s mindset and is the essence of why writers are treated the way they are. We are trained to think that way. The system depends on our dependancy.

6. The subtext of that question is “where do I go for permission to sign away my dream?” It also asks “what is the shortest route to my career?”

7. After twenty five years in the craft, I’ve learned the secret to making movies is making movies – starting with little movies no one will ever see.

The secret to knowledge is doing and failing – often and painfully – and letting everyone see.

8. The secret to success is doing what you love, whether or not you’re being paid. The secret to a rewarding career in film (and many other fields) is focusing entirely on execution and not on result.

9. There are countless valid arguments against everything I have just said. They don’t change the fact that the lottery is a lottery.

There’s more at the link.  Blunt and to the point, and very useful for deflating special-snowflake egos.

I find this sort of honesty very refreshing, and very useful when dealing with those who want to “make it” overnight in the creative world (or any other, for that matter), and be the Next Big Thing without putting in years of effort or improving their skills and abilities.  There’s a surprisingly large number of them.  They don’t like it (or me) when I point out that for every standout success in a field like that (or like writing, or any creative field) there are hundreds, perhaps thousands who never make it, who aren’t sufficiently gifted or skilled or hard-working, or who perhaps just don’t get the break that might have catapulted them to success.  However, those who do make it tend to be those who work very, very hard and earn their success over time.  (As my late father used to tell me, “In my life, the harder I worked, the more luck I had!”)

Today, when anyone can publish a book, I get questions from wannabe authors almost daily, asking how they can achieve success.  I don’t know why they’re asking me that, because I’m hardly a Stephen King or a Tom Clancy, but they do.  Most are not very happy when I tell them that the only “secret” I know is hard work and dedication.  Write a book.  Get it critiqued by friends and family, and tell them to be brutally honest.  (Don’t, please don’t, ask more successful authors to critique it.  We have to write our own books, and if I agreed to every such request, I’d never have a moment’s time to do so!)  Learn from your mistakes.  Write another book.  Wash, rinse, repeat . . . until maybe one day you have something worth publishing, to see what the market thinks about you.  (And don’t throw away the “mistakes”.  I have more than 30 manuscripts in my archives that will never be published, because they’re not good enough.  That doesn’t mean I can’t mine them for ideas and scenes that I can re-use.)

Note that I haven’t said a single word about creativity or quality of story-telling.  Those have their place, sure;  but if you don’t lay the foundation to support them, they won’t get you anywhere.  Einstein reportedly said that “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work”.  The older I get, the more I realize he was spot on.

Also, writing a book is only half the battle;  maybe less than half.  There’s editing, marketing, cover design, blurb, promotion, and a host of other elements that you have to do yourself, because no-one’s going to do them for you (unless you pay them, in which case you’re richer than I am!).  You’ll have to work your backside off for success in today’s independent publishing marketplace.  If you’re not prepared to do that, don’t even start.

The same, of course, applies in every profession.  In general, the harder you work, the better you’ll do.  From janitor to boardroom, anything else is puffery.

Peter

6 comments

  1. Awhile back, one of the YouTube ad previews for a MasterClass online course was one done by Steve Martin, on Comedy, and one of his lines lifted into the teaser was illustrative of the brilliance he possesses:

    “A lot of people ask me, ‘How can I get an agent?’ or ‘How can I get my screenplay published?’

    What they should be asking, is ‘How can I be good???’ ”

    But what does he know: only forty years of funny and smart combined, and at the top of his game from the mid-1970s to whenever he finally knocks off.

  2. You wrote:

    (And don’t throw away the “mistakes”. I have more than 30 manuscripts in my archives that will never be published, because they’re not good enough. That doesn’t mean I can’t mine them for ideas and scenes that I can re-use.)

    That is probably the most important part of this article. It shows that even for a successful author, there was a lot of junk written as practice before getting good enough to start earning money from it. Unless one is the talent equivalent of a Mozart, it takes a lot of practice to get good enough to go pro, and seeing an author give direct evidence of that is a good wake-up call.

    Thanks.

  3. There is no such thing as an ‘0vernight’ success… Years of work under the radar to get there, hundreds, if not thousands of hours of practice… THAT is the key.

  4. That seems to be the thing I see most misunderstood among my kids and their friends, that is takes BOTH talent/skill/gifts AND hard work to be a success. That is true on anything from sports to art to the boardroom. A little luck may or may not be around to help, but just look at the record of lottery winners if you think luck alone will guarantee success.

  5. “I don’t know why they’re asking me that, because I’m hardly a Stephen King or a Tom Clancy, but they do.” Steve and Tom are guys on the pinnacle. YOU are on a foothill, and more likely to respond to the askers. (My guess. Not valid in other states. As is, no refunds.)

  6. The late Dr Jerry Pournelle, in a post titled “How to Get My Job” basically said, “Write a minimum of one million words.”

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