On Writing: Getting Started

A Traveller, Not a Guru

I'm not a published author. I don't have any professional screenwriting credits. I'm not an authority on writing. I'm just a writer half-way up the mountain, following routes travelled by those greater than myself. If you're at the bottom looking up, I can help pare down your pack list and share some of my experiences before you start the journey.

TLDR: Read a handful of books and start writing. Resist the endless rabbit hole of how-tos.

The Terminator

Though I've always made little stories, either through writing, drawing, or playing music, I never considered making storytelling a big part of my life until I was 15.

As a child, what I was allowed to read or watch was dictated by my parents. I wasn't raised in a completely sheltered environment, but my parents were pretty selective of the content in our household. Growing up, entertainment consisted of Super Mario Bros, Redwall, Lord of the Rings, and Disney movies. Entertainment was just that.

Question marks recursively filled my 15-year-old brain. I was about to watch my first rated R movie.

After an evening of running errands, my mom handed me a VHS copy of The Terminator. On the front cover, the guy from Kindergarten Cop was wearing sunglasses and holding a giant pistol. A teeny rectangle with the letter "R" on the back made me raise an eyebrow.

"You know this is rated 'R', right?" I asked.

My mom shrugged.

Question marks recursively filled my 15-year-old brain. I was about to watch my first rated R movie.

Watching The Terminator changed my life forever. Even though the visuals were a little outdated, this low budget film showed me that stories could be serious. I had to have more.

The next day, I broke the figurative piggy bank and bought one of the first generation DVD players with what little money I had at the time. With it, I purchased my first rated R movie: Terminator 2. From that day onward, I knew I wanted to be a writer/director.

Nearly 15 years later, I'm still chasing that dream. This is what I've learned so far.

The Fast Track

After reading, watching, and listening to as many things on story as possible, I've pared down some key selections that could help anyone jump-start their path to writing. There is plenty of other useful material out there, but it becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns quickly. You're going to learn a lot more from writing than spending another week reading yet another book on writing. I spent years reading and absorbing without writing a single word. Educate yourself, then write.

On Style

Luckily, you can spend two days reading about style and move on. There are two great sources that have been a well spring of information for me, and they've had a huge impact on my writing.

  1. 36 Writing Essays, by Chuck Palahniuk
  2. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

The Elements of Style is probably the most influential book on writing ever published.

Though you don't have to value minimalism to appreciate Chuck's essays, his style is incredibly visual and cut to the bone. His words appeal to my visual sense, and having the permission to write what I see in my mind's eye has freed me as a writer.

The Elements of Style is probably the most influential book on writing ever published. What's great about TEOS is that it not only reminds you of all the things you forgot in high school, it takes on a strong perspective on what writing should be. Depending on your style, you can choose to adopt or ignore the authors' take, but the concerns of writing and readership will remain valuable long after you put the book down.

On Structure

There are a million books on screenwriting, and I've probably read 893,426 of them. (I'm exaggerating on the numbers, but probably not the ratio.) I've narrowed your reading list down to two books, one from an author who knew how to write screenplays and one who didn't.

  1. Screenplay, by Syd Field
  2. Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder

To learn basic story structure, start with Screenplay. You'll learn act breaks, plot points, story arcs, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. If the shape of a story is a mystery, Screenplay could be a great book for you.

If Screenplay gives you all the metaphorical commas and punctuation of story structure, Save the Cat attempts to fill in the blanks. Although STC is polarizing in some circles, I find I get more utility out it by using it as a tool rather than a set of commandments. Snyder takes a deep dive into story structure, making great observations about popular Hollywood films and breaking down story into finer increments. Although Snyder's approach hasn't been gospel for me in every story I work on, I find that his method gives me something to think about for every scene I outline.

Take 1-2 weeks to read them both, then move on. Buying books on screenwriting is a never-ending black hole that will derail you for years if you let it. I did.

On Being a Writer

If you've made it this far in the reading list, you've probably been taken through an emotional cycle. Enlightenment, excitement, and fear was the typical holding pattern for me for years. The prospect of being a writer is scary and fun (the best kind), but it doesn't make you a writer. Not yet.

Words on the page is the only thing that matters.

And there are some great resources on just that, being a writer. One is by one of the most prolific authors of our time, the other is multi-media in nature.

  1. On Writing, by Stephen King
  2. Scriptnotes, hosted by John August and Craig Mazin

As a creative, whether I'm designing apps for my day job, drawing, playing music, or writing, I am constantly full of self doubt and fear. Making stuff is difficult and murky. Most of the time, it's not binary. A simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down isn't typically useful or helpful.

In a creative sphere of intangibles, I've found useful systems of structure, feedback, and critique that help eliminate the nastiness of insecurity. You don't feel as lost when you have something to hang your hat on.

Read a lot and write a lot.

Stephen King talks about his life and experiences with writing that help eliminate some of those creative roadblocks we keep holding ourselves back with. Revealing the man behind the curtain, the keys to his success: read a lot and write a lot. Took me about 4 days of casual reading to get through it.

Scriptnotes is a podcast hosted by screenwriters John August (Big Fish, Go) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover 2, Identity Thief). The show is incredibly useful, informative, and entertaining. They're great guys, and Scriptnotes has a huge backlog you can subscribe to for $1.99 a month. Listen to these in the car on your way to work, out for a run, or procrastinating.

Write a Lot

If you complete this burn down list, you will be in great shape to put that blinking cursor to work. Just telepathically promise me one thing: don't spend years in research mode. Take the 2-4 weeks required to burn through this list and start getting your fingertips dirty. Let me know how it goes, and good luck!

More on writing tools, habits, typography, and my experiences in the craft to come in my series on writing.