Writing Sympathetic Characters, Never Giving Up, & the Fine Line Between Clever and Stupid: Lessons from the 2006 Austin Film Festival
Part 2 of 3

by Jay Robison

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

PART 2 - 'Never Give Up, Never Surrender' — Learning From the Pros' Battle Scars

On the last day of the Austin Film Festival's Screenwriter's Conference, I attended a panel titled "Battle Scars." One of the panelists was a former writing professor of mine, novelist/screenwriter Steve Harrigan, whose books include The Gates of the Alamo and Challenger Park and whose screenplays include the King Lear adaptation The King of Texas. The other reason for going was, well, who could resist a panel called "Battle Scars," even on a Sunday morning?

The other two guests were Christopher McQuarrie, who won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects, and Ann Rapp, who wrote Cookie's Fortune and Dr. T and the Women, both directed by Robert Altman. While the panel was every bit as entertaining as I'd hoped it would be, the lesson I took away from it was to never give up on a project.

If you're reading this blog, odds are you have at least one rejection letter, and quite probably you have many more than that. And, let's face it, often our writing gets rejected for the cold, brutal reason that it's flat out not good enough (yet). On the other hand, there are those times when the stars just seem to align against a perfectly good piece of writing. You may write a story, or a novel, or a screenplay that's gotten excellent feedback from people giving their honest opinions (i.e., not your mother or significant other). And yet, no one wants it.

Steve Harrigan related a story of the first screenplay he ever wrote, back in 1984. He and his writing partner had an established track record writing for Texas Monthly magazine, and they decided to try their hand writing a screenplay. Without ever having read a screenplay themselves, they wrote a script in longhand. And in a bit of magic that only ever happens to other people, this screenplay gets to Sydney Pollack, then arguably at the height of his career. Pollack really liked the script and wanted to direct it.

And, Steve said, he still wants to direct it, 22 years later, and Steve hopes it could still be made. He's never given up on this project.

Christopher McQuarrie, however, struck an important note of caution. He's been a frequent guest at the Austin Film Festival for the past decade, and he pointed out the flip side to Steve's optimism: never get hung up on any one piece of writing. Always move on to your next project. It's perfectly okay to have a script hang on for years, decades, that you hope can see the light of day eventually. But always have something fresh in the pipeline.

Steve Harrigan is a good example. Since 1984, he's had seven novels and 14 screenplays produced. Now, that's success that most writers can only dream of, but the point is, rather than resting on the laurels of "Sydney Pollack likes my screenplay" for year after year, he wrote other things — while continuing to say "Yeah, I hope that one gets made someday."

Continue to hold out hope for that great story, book or screenplay you've written, but always be working on your next project. It's okay to hope that something will get published or produced years after you've completed it. Just make sure it's not the only piece of writing you have.


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