Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Warner Bros., Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant, and Walt Disney Pictures. Corey teaches screenwriting at UCLA and offers private online classes using real-time video conferencing. For more information, please visit Coreymandell.net. Follow Corey on Twitter @CoreyMandell.
Many writers are plagued by an anxious inner voice wondering, “Do I have the writing talent to make it, or am I just wasting my time?”
How you deal with this voice will determine how much of a shot you have (or don’t have) at success. The key lies in exactly how you define talent.
Google “talent” and you get natural aptitude or skill. My Merriam Webster dictionary basically agrees, describing talent as the natural endowments of a person. By these definitions, writers basically have three choices:
1. Hope like hell you have the talent to make it;
2. Worry like hell that you don’t;
3. Some fluid combination of the two, leading to a rollercoaster, bi-polar, relationship with writing.
But none of these options are particularly helpful, which is why most working writers hold a completely different understanding of talent. They tend to see it in the way that it’s described in The Talent Code, which defines talent as the possession of repeatable skills, where these repeatable skills are learned, not naturally imbued.
Writing without technique isn’t really writing
One way The Talent Code illustrates the importance of learned skills is with a look at the modestly appointed Moscow Spartak Tennis Club, which has produced an unprecedented number of champions, including Anna Kournikova, Marat Safin, Anatasia Myskina, Dmitry Tursunov and others.
The Club makes all students agree to not play in any tournaments for the first three years of their study because, according to the Club’s coach, Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, it takes that amount of dedicated practice to learn and master the techniques and skills required to compete at the highest levels.
Preobrazhenskaya is adamant about this approach, admonishing that, “Technique is everything. If you begin playing without technique, it is a big mistake. Big, big mistake.”
The Meadowmount School of Music employs the same methodology, preventing students from performing until they successfully study and master the skill-sets required for success. The school’s alumni includes Yo-Yo Ma, Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman to name just a few.
Improv is taught in the same way. When I studied at Second City, it took almost two years of instruction and dedicated practice before we were allowed to take the stage in front of a paying audience.
Writing is no different.
Most writers can no more effortlessly write an amazing first script than they can simply pick up a racket and be good enough to compete at Wimbledon, or just jump up onto stage and immediately kill at improv. So why do many writers think that they can?
In the film and TV industry, many executives and producers believe in the romantic notion of natural talent. Managers often advise their writer clients to play along and pretend that all the years they spent learning their craft never existed. As Jeff Potts, a long time literary manager, recently told my UCLA class, “This an industry where most writers take eight years to become overnight successes. Don’t buy the PR bullshit we create for our clients when they hit. Nobody’s great right out of the gate. You’re going to go through a developmental process, and it’s probably going to take a long time. Expect that.”
Which means most writers are simply asking themselves the wrong question.
Instead of asking if they have the talent to make it, they should be asking what are the repeatable skills required to write to a professional level, and what’s the process for learning and mastering these necessary techniques.
There is obviously a long list of such skills. But I have found the following to be the most important:
- Writing in compelling conflict, the kind that hooks a reader and makes them want to keep reading.
- Integrating the conceptual and intuitive writing processes, allowing for both great stories and characters.
- Being able to organically structure a script in a professionally satisfying, non-formulaic way.
- Creating dimensional characters that readers want to spend time with.
- Constructing and shaping a premise that can fully support the script’s page count.
- Strategically rewriting in a way that truly identifies, and fixes, the story’s underlying issues.
Don't miss Corey's webinar - The Secrets to Writing Compelling Scenes
Screenwriting Webinar via The Writers Store
Wednesday May 18, 2016 - 1:00PM PT
(on sale until May 13th)
Note: You do not have to be present to receive a live recording of the event!
At a Glance:
- Learn what kind of scenes hook a reader and make them want to keep reading
- How to avoid the mistakes that get a reader to pass on your script
- Designed for any TV or feature writer, new or experienced, seeking the best possible chance of success in the current marketplace