There’s a blogging trend in the screenwriting community tackling what screenwriter John Gary has coined as “The Hope Machine.” In a nutshell, “The Hope Machine” starts the day you graduate college — or move to LA — or decide to buy a copy of Final Draft. It’s the thought process behind any life-changing action during that initial decision to pursue screenwriting.
The Hope Machine says that life as a successful screenwriter is possible.
“The Hope Machine wants to devour you, to consume you, to make you believe that your happiness is just one script, one sale away.”
I’m defining life by referring to financial stability. Namely, success enough to live in Los Angeles, have a family (with kids!), pay your bills and save money — all off the compounding sales of your screenplays. It’s an image in your head that plays out sorta like this…
“There is a room in your house (not apartment). A modest desk sits center. Bookcases. The glow of an aluminum LED backlights a simmering cup of morning joe. Perhaps it’s raining outside (though probably not). Your husband or wife is asleep in the other room and you’ve crept up to crank out a few lush pages before the day wakes your newborn baby. The possibilities are endless. You have nothing but open hours and empty pages. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month — this is your life.”
For the .01%.
For the remaining 99.9% here’s what you get:
“There is a Windows 7 laptop under your bed shoved between plastic storage bins of old clothes. You have to be at work at 8:00 am. The alarm rings on your Ikea nightstand, it’s 5:30 am. You promised you’d write a scene every day before work. You hit the snooze button, swearing to write the scene after work — it’s a short establishing set-up, easy. Work is done. It’s 7:30 pm, it took you an hour and a half to drive home. Shit! Dinner. Fuck! You swore off drive-thrus for a month, so you’re stuck rummaging through the fridge. Maybe you know how to cook, maybe not. Either way there is another hour gone. It’s around 9:00 pm and you finally crack open the laptop– the cursor blinks. You’re working on the same screenplay that you’ve been querying out for months, with minimal response and absolutely no constructive, actionable feedback.”
Welcome to the reality of screenwriting.
The business side of your career goals suggest to write what sells. Chase the trends. Be marketable. Align your material with what’s hot, low-budget and contained. Give your readers no reason to pass on your script by making it everything that those young, hip producers are looking for.
Do that and you lose your soul.
Sure, in some form of reality you might make a sale. Maybe $10,000 from a low budget horror spec. But it’s not your swan song, and it’ll get reworked and rewritten. More importantly, that $10,000 is reduced to about $6,000 after taxes and fees, so you’re left with about three or four months of real-life Los Angeles living expenses. All off a script you really didn’t care much about in the first place — you were chasing trends…
But dammit if that doesn’t get your foot in the door. It can and it might. But it’s still a longshot. Still a dream of The Hope Machine. But all these screenwriting websites make it sound so attainable, so possible, if only…if only…if only…
Drop it all.
You don’t write to make a living. You can’t write to make a living. Your life cannot depend on your writing. (Rex Pickett will unfollow me for this.) It’s not the end all, be all. Selling a script cannot define you. Your writing cannot define you. It’s not a legacy. It’s not fame. It’s not happiness.
It’s simply not.
So what is it? Why do it?
You have an incredibly wild imagination and you want to share it through your favorite visual medium.
That’s all it can ever be.
Anything more than that is a distraction.
Don’t go bankrupt for that. Don’t risk the lives and security of your family. Don’t spoil that purity with real world problems. Cause then it’s lost. All that magic and mystery, the illusion of a good story is lost in freaking out about your bills or about returning that phone call or wearing the right pair of shoes to that meeting.
NONE OF THAT IS WRITING. IT’S BULLSHIT.
Writing is wonderment. It’s what you thought it was when you were in school and you didn’t have to worry about being an adult.
You have to let your work be your work. It cannot be your business. Not now, not ever. Depend on a sale and you lose what made you start down this path to begin with. You love it. You have to keep loving it. Worry, stress and anxiety will make you hate it. If you hate it, you will stop. If you stop, you will fail.
I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to realize this.
Write only the stories you want to tell. Focus on nothing but what makes you smile. Write that dialogue — only the words you want your characters to say. Be as specific as you want to be. Go all artsy. Be dramatic. Be funny. Be daring. Be bold.
Then share the work.
Share it because you love it.
Send it because you love it.
Upload it because you think it’s the greatest fucking story you’ve ever written.
Enter it into competitions.
Set up public readings.
Shoot a mock trailer.
Whatever. Just make sure you love it.
And if it goes nowhere. And no one other than you loves it. Who cares — that wasn’t the goal! You have something you love and that means something. You’re not dead. You’re not dying. It didn’t kill you. That makes it one hell of a positive.
Love your day job. Love your family. Love your friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Love your writing.
Don’t spoil it.
It’s the why. Never, ever lose sight of the why.
(See The Bitter Script Reader’s post here on “The Hope Machine”)
Here are the other posts in the series “Everything They Didn’t Teach You:”
Follow Chris Goss on Twitter here: @cdgoss