What was the screenwriting advice that changed the career trajectory of Beetlejuice screenwriter Larry Wilson?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
Here we turn to the Film Courage video Advice That Changed The Career Of Beetlejuice Screenwriter Larry Wilson where Wilson shares advice he was given that changed the trajectory of his professional screenwriting career and how he approached his own work. We pull the best information from the video and elaborate on his points.
Don’t Wait for Inspiration
Wilson tells the story of the time he was working with screenwriter Michael McDowell (Amazing Stories, Tales from the Darkside, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas).
After some time writing together, McDowell approached Wilson and said that they’re writing partnership wasn’t working out.
“He said, ‘You’re just waiting around for inspiration — and I don’t work like that. I’m not going to sit around waiting for you to be inspired.’ Michael was as professional a writer as I had ever met. He had published nineteen or twenty novels, horror novels, great genre novels. He had written for a show called Tales from the Darkside. He was the real deal,” Wilson said.
Waiting for inspiration only works if you’re a hobby-writer. If you want to be a professional, you need to be able to write on a deadline and not need to wait for inspiration. You need to harvest.
Treat Screenwriting Like a 9-5 Job
Wilson goes on to explain the first life-changing piece of advice he got from his Beetlejuice co-writer.
“This changed my life as a writer. He said, ‘If you’re going to work with me. Look at it like we’re working in a bank. We get in at nine, we have a cup of coffee, we say good morning, then we go to work. And we write until lunch. We go have our lunch. We come back. We write again until three o’clock in the afternoon. We fold up the writing. We return whatever phone calls and whatever business of writing we have to do. And we do this five, six days a week. And it’s a job. It’s not you sitting with a metaphorical beret in a metaphorical loft waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s a job.'”
When you’re writing a novel, you can take the time for inspiration to come to you. If you’re a professional author, you still create a writing process that has a disciplined schedule to keep the work flowing. But you have the freedom to take more time to let the story come to you.
The life of a screenwriter is different. The notion that you can take as long as you want to sell a screenplay and then do the same for the next and the next is false. That’s not how a screenwriting career works. A majority of your paydays will come from writing assignments, not the original screenplays that you write. So you need to treat the writing like a job. You need to be able to conjure ideas and problem-solving solutions on the fly. You need to do the work — not just wait for everything to come to you.
Be Your Own Script Reader and Story Analyst
Wilson worked at Paramount for a number of years writing script notes for incoming screenplays as a script reader and story analyst.
“[Michael] said, ‘Larry, you’ve told me you’ve written hundreds of pages of notes for other people’s scripts — why can’t you do it for yourself?'”
Wilson goes on to say, “It changed my perception of who a writer is, what a writer does, and it changed my work habits. And it changed everything. And I did it his way. And he was absolutely right. All of that discipline I put in other people’s work, I started putting into my work, our work, and Beetlejuice came out of that.”
The best education that you can receive as a screenwriter is becoming a script reader. And if you can’t get that job or volunteer to become a reader for contests, try to offer your services to your peers. It will teach you what you shouldn’t be doing, as well as what you should be doing. What works and what doesn’t work.
You have to become your own best script reader and story analyst. The pinnacle part of any screenwriter’s journey is getting to the point when you can be objective of your own writing.
Check out the whole video below!
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