Regaining confidence when nothing is working

What do you do to regain confidence when your ideas don’t seem to be working or you can’t find an approach?

–Matthew Paul

A very smart writer colleague — and I can’t remember exactly which one, so she’ll remain nameless — takes the time to write a letter to herself when she starts a screenplay, describing how excited she feels to be working on it. Then, when the darkest day hits and she can’t go on, she opens the letter and reads it. That gives her the oomph to finish.

I think that’s remarkable. And completely insane. I mean, who writes letters to themselves? I could never do it. But if that would help you, be my guest.

As I’ve mentioned in countless other columns, I write out-of-sequence. So if I get to a scene that I just can’t crack, I move on to something else.

The greater problem is when I don’t want to be working on a specific project at all. Since I don’t have a magic letter-to-my-future-self, my fallback is to change my work patterns. I’ll write all night, or at a hotel, or longhand on the beach. I’ll write scenes that could never possibly be in the movie, just to break the characters out of the plot shackles I’ve set for them. (I find loud, shouting arguments — which I never normally write — are great for this purpose.)

A lot of it is just facing down your own self-doubt and attacking it. Easier said than done.

Setting up a project without having the underlying book rights

I was reading the insert page to the Stand By Me DVD and it mentioned that the writers were unable to afford the price of obtaining the rights to Stephen King’s novella “The Body” and so they set about pitching it to various studios.

I understand that the point would be to have the studio purchase the rights and then have the writer(s) work on it. But what guarantees that the studio will let them?

–Josh Caldwell

There’s no guarantee. The studio could say, “Thanks for bringing this great book to our attention,” option it, then turn around and hand it to another screenwriter. I’m sure it’s happened.

In the case of Big Fish, I took the book to the studio and asked them to get the option. They certainly could have hired a bigger writer — at that point, I had only written Go, which is certainly not a great writing sample for it. But they were gracious enough to say yes, because they liked my writing and were willing to take a chance.

Standard advice applies: doing anything puts you at risk. But doing nothing will get you nothing. If there’s a book you can’t afford to option yourself, it’s worth trying to get someone to option it for you.

Two scripts for “The Circle” now up

alaska highwayAt some point when I have a few free days, I’ll go through and update the Projects section like I keep threatening to. In the meantime, I’ve added two additional television scripts for download.

Backstory: For the 2003 television pilot season, I created a show called “The Circle” for Touchstone/ABC. It was a one-hour drama about law enforcement in Alaska. Unlike the movie Insomnia, which focused on a “small town” police department, the real Alaska doesn’t even have that level of law enforcement. It’s much more provincial, with state troopers and magistrates. Pretty much any murder in the state is investigated by a single team based out of Anchorage.

We shot a pilot in British Columbia, directed by the hugely talented Kim Manners of X-Files fame. The regular cast included Brad Johnson, Dahlia Salem, Michael Ironside and Gary Farmer.

The pilot turned out well, and the studio asked for two additional scripts — one of which I wrote, the other written by Matt Pyken and Michael Berns, writers I’d worked with on my first TV show. The whole thing was a good experience. Alas, we didn’t get picked up. But on the whole, I’d rather have made a pilot I’m proud of than a series I’m not.

There are two scripts here to read. The first is the pilot, titled “My Three Sons.” The second is “Gravedigger,” which would would have been the second or third episode. (The show wasn’t very serialized.)



During production, ABC kept referring to the show as “Alaska,” so that’s ultimately what we ended up calling it. I still prefer “The Circle,” however.

The fine line between talented and bonkers

questionmarkMy question is kind of a personal question for me to ask and possibly for you to answer. I’ve been a writer, well you could say my entire life, because it’s more than a profession it’s an identity, isn’t it? I find that I spend a lot of time “in my head” so to speak. That is to say, I spend probably 80% of my day day dreaming and fantasizing and exploring my imagination. Something that I know could be easily misinterpreted as a mental illness but nobody’s perfect.

Do you find yourself in similar shoes? And if so, do you find that your writing in a way sort of hinders your life? How do you cope? I sometimes talk myself, well quite often I can be found talking to myself. It’s like all the characters of the story I’m currently working on just start having dialogue and I’m able to just listen and try to decide if this dialogue has the right rhythm, whether this dialogue sounds like real people talking. I’m comfortable with all this and when it comes to writing I don’t think I’m all that bad. I was just curious to see if I have something in common with a successful writer.


answer iconWhen it comes to writers, there’s a fine line between talented and bonkers. Yes, I talk to myself. Yes, I zone out at times, and if you were to ask me where I was, the honest answer would be, “on a bridge in Mongolia.” But I think that’s fairly normal. I don’t worry about it much.

The closest I came to the far side of sane was during my tenure on “D.C.”, a television show I created for the WB in 2000. The wonder of TV, of course, was that I was writing for the same characters and the same sets week after week. But once exhaustion set in, any bit of external stimulation — a conversation with a friend, a song on the radio — went through this filter in my head to ask the Big Question: Could I use this on the show?

It’s like there were two worlds existing simultaneously, and the imaginary one was much more important. My job was to stoke its fires, and keep alive.

I got fired from the show before I could reach complete mental breakdown, but I’m sure it would have happened. The experience made me much more appreciative of normal life. Sometimes a conversation is just a conversation, and a song is just a song.

For those readers wondering if they might be Actually Crazy, rather than just artistic, I’d recommend taking an objective look at your daily life. Do you shower and go to work? Do you have meaningful conversations with friends and acquaintances? Is your living space reasonably tidy, and free of year-old newspapers? If so, keep on talking to yourself. If not, talk to a doctor or another mental health professional and get their considered opinion.

I don’t think you have to be nuts to be a good writer. Nor do I you should use writing as an excuse for not getting help when you need it.

History of Confederated Products

Congratulations on Big Fish. I have a silly question concerning the “Confederated Products” throwaway about halfway through that movie. Since that’s a reference to your previous work, rather than Tim Burton’s, how did it get there? That is, did you include it in the script, or did someone else suggest it?

–Patrick Bowman

For those who don’t know the reference, “Confederated Products” is the Amway-like company that serves as a major punchline in the third part of Go. Originally, the company was supposed to be American Products, but the legal department couldn’t get clearance on the name. I had to submit a list of alternatives, and Confederated Products was the best one that checked out okay.

Since then, I’ve tried to use Confederated Products in every project. (Likewise, I also try to use Melissa McCarthy, who is similarly terrific and versatile.) I just write “Confederated Products” into the script and hope no one tries to change it. Generally, they don’t. After Go, Big Fish is the biggest use of the brand name, but it was also used in the first Charlie’s Angels — though I’m not sure you can see it.

I’ve always been a big fan of giant, insidius imaginary corporations such as Acme or Weyland-Yutani. I registered just so I could be sure to have the name for future projects.