Sunday, January 27, 2013

Same Old Song

A couple of days ago my friend Harry wrote a blog entry on why he would not be using crowdfunding to continue his 20 PALACES series of novels. I am a huge fan of the series, and have run banners here on the blog for the books when I probably should have been running banners for my own books. Harry is a great guy, hard working, and eventually wrote a book that Random House thought was going to be the next big thing in the Urban Fantasy genre. They gave Harry a three book deal and deadlines for the next two in the series, and also a big fat check. Awesome! Though the books sold okay, they were not the NEXT BIG THING and Random House opted not to continue the series. Harry had a prequel novel written, so he ended up self-publishing that... and it sold okay to his loyal fans. Traditional publishing has kind of become like the motion picture business - the middle has dropped out. Everyone is looking for the big tentpole hit, not the book that sells okay.

Well, Harry’s 20 PALACES series has a very loyal fan base (I’m part of that) and many of his fans have suggested that Harry could easily continue the series through crowdfunding and make okay money selling the 20 PALACES novels to the loyal fans. That what sells “okay” for Random House is actually pretty good for just a writer. That’s an interesting idea - and I’m sure many writers with mid-range series who have been dropped by their publishers because their books aren’t tentpoles are doing just that (or some variation). But Harry decided not to, and explains it in his blog entry. Though 20 PALACES may not be the next big thing, *Harry* can still be the next big thing. Harry’s goal is to be Stephen King - a traditionally published writer with a growing fan base. *Lots* of people who can’t wait for his next book. Hey, that might make Harry sound vain, so let me say that is the opposite of Harry. Read his blog - he’s the most down to Earth person in the world. Harry believes in himself and believes he can write the Next Big Thing... but that thing seems not to be 20 PALACES... so he’s trying new things.

And that is awesome.

Even though 20 PALACES is a success - how many of us would kill for a three book deal with Random House? - and Harry could continue to write books in that series and make a living, he sees something better on the horizon... and is going for it.

He's taking the next step up.


One of the problems with the Hollywood culture of sequels and reboots is that it’s all about the sure thing instead of the next big thing. They have taken the gamble out of the process - so they can not win. A hit film spawns a hit sequel - and people who loved the first film will buy a ticket for the second film just to relive the experience of the first film. But if that sequel is a lesser experience? The *third* film suffers. We’ve had a lot of third film flops of late, because the thing that usually makes the first film a hit is that it is *different* and new... and the studio often decides not to change the formula and the sequel ends up a search-and-replace version of the first film. Problem there is: a major part of what made the first film successful is that it was different. The better plan is to look at what makes the first film successful and copy that - which includes that it was different. When we look at second films that were successful and *continue* to be successful, like ALIENS, they have taken elements of the first film and added new and different elements to make the second film. It’s all of the great stuff from ALIEN *plus*.  Just doing a cut-and-paste job without adding something fresh and different is all of the great stuff from the first film *minus*, and that’s no way to run a successful business.

As screenwriters we can easily get stuck in a rut. That might even be a successful rut - we may be making a living writing screenplays but seem to hit a brick wall. (Um, this may apply to me.) What we need to do is continue experimenting. Continue learning and expanding and trying new things. We don’t want to become complacent. We don’t want to *not* write the Next Big Thing because we have this current thing working. In fact, when things are working is the exact time to experiment - there’s a certain degree of safety. One of the main complaints I hear from friends who have managers is that they often strike down their experiments - focusing on the sure thing instead of the Next Big Thing. *Mistake!* Since a writer can just write another screenplay, why not let the client take some interesting chances every once in a while? I’m not talking about some wild-ass weird script (though, nothing wrong with writing one if it’s burning inside of you and needs to get out), I’m talking about searching for the Next Big Thing. Something that fits a market, but is different than anything in the market now. Something, you know, *creative*.  If everyone is writing DIE HARD IN A — , maybe it would be fun to write an epic adventure quest? That may not be what is selling this minute, but might be exactly what everyone wants one minute from now?

One of my stupid little jokes is that the world is revolving even when I sleep, so sometimes I wake up and don’t know where I am. We have to run to catch up with our spinning world. We need to be creative and innovative to survive. If we do the same thing all of the time, the world still spins and we become old fashioned.

We need to step up.


Imagine you are a rock star.

Groupies. Limos. Trashing hotels. Millions of fans.

You are the hottest name in music in the world today.

But what about tomorrow?

Music is one of the fastest evolving art forms on the planet. The music I loved as a teenager sounds silly today... but at the time was too radical for my parent’s generation. And the music my parents listen to as teenagers was too radical for *their* parent’s generation. This has probably been going on since the beginning of time. What is interesting is how each generation’s music *builds* on the last generation’s music. This year’s sound isn’t something out of the blue, it’s based on what was popular last year - just changed. No one is inventing a new type of music, but music is *evolving*. Every “new” type of music has its roots in some earlier type of music which had its roots in some even earlier type of music. As the world spins, music keeps moving to keep up with it. When you watch BACK TO THE FUTURE and hear the music that Marty’s parents first danced to... that’s completely different than the music we listen to now. But if you were to listen to music one year at a time (do they still have those Top 10 Hits of 1976 compilations where you can hear the Top 10 from every single year? Or have those gone the way of CDs?), you can see how gradual changes add up to what seems like radical changes. Why an old fart hears today’s music and thinks it’s just noise. The innovative steps are small, but they add up over a couple of decades. That search to find the Next Big Thing in music just keeps moving along... even while we sleep!

Music is not complacent. It is not satisfied with being okay. It is always trying to be better - to explore - to find that new sound that is the breakthrough (for this year or generation... but the world is still spinning!). As creators, we can become trapped in what sounds good today... or what sounded good when we were at that dance in High School, and stop being creative. We can stick with what works *now* and forget that the world spins even while we sleep. Tomorrow really is another day!


If you’re read the IDEAS BLUE BOOK or been on some message board where I went on a rant after reading your script idea, you know that my biggest issue is *creativity*. Often writers want to write the exact same idea that has been done before. They want to copy instead of create. They want to find the easy way instead of the best way. The IDEAS BLUE BOOK has assignments - kind of like games - to get your creativity rolling. To help you see that there are other routes to the same destination - routes we haven’t seen before on film. It’s a new year which is always a good excuse to hit the “reset button” on our lives and careers and dreams.

Success in screenwriting or any kind of creative endeavor isn’t some door that will open for you or some wall that you climb over - it’s more like a series of steps... going up. Not those easy steps that go down where gravity *helps* you, the ones going up where gravity fights you every single step. One of the first blog entries I did was on my trip to Honk Kong to teach at the Hong Kong Film Academy - and after a day of sight seeing I walked up the steps that go from “ground level” city central up the side of the danged mountain to the condo I was staying at that overlooked the city. It almost killed me! One step up after another! At some point, you just want to stop on one of the landings and take a nap - maybe just spend the night there. But there is a bed in that condo - way up there - so you keep climbing. That is screenwriting. A bunch of steps going up a damned mountain. You may get to one level and stop to rest - but if you rest too long you will lose some momentum. You have to keep climbing. There is no magic point where you have broken in and can stop climbing... because there is always more mountain. When you get to that level where you are higher than everyone else - remember that they are still climbing and if you rest too long they will pass you! Plus, just like with music, screenwriting is evolving and changing - and you may find yourself playing 1940s ballads at a rave. Old fashioned. Out of touch.

So, what is your next step?

What are you reaching for this year... that is just slightly out of your grasp?

What is your challenge?

What are you learning how to do?

How are you working to become better than you are now?

We’re all climbing those stairs - even the people ahead of you are climbing (or should be). Take it one step at a time - but keep climbing. You’ll get there... and then have to keep climbing to get to the next “there”!

I can't wait to read what Harry comes up with next!

- Bill

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