Writing can be a world of fun. Crafting worlds, inventing characters, preplanning the most epic moments. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t enjoy stretching their creative muscles to some extent. But how many of those people, how many of those ideas, are published? It’s not for a lack of people wanting to see their work published, but a different missing quality. Our guest writer for today, animation writer Dan Salgarolo, tells the story of his ‘wake-up slap’ and how his journey from someone who wanted to be a writer to a professional.
Until next time,
Okay fellow nerds… especially you there with pens to paper… you aspiring writers and artists – here’s the rub:
If you want to get good, if you want to “be great” by any standard measure of the word, what you’re doing can’t (and shouldn’t) be all fun and games.
I know you’re back there, penning the entire history of your made-up land, right down to the myth of Varnost the Frost Giant King who brings winter every year because his wife was taken by his brother Gloriel, the God of sunshine and plenty. And that’s all well and good, but I have news for you – pretty much anyone can write backstory. Anyone can draw a map of “Kalandrienne” with little triangular mountains, broccoli forests, and a fancy compass in the corner. We’ve all consumed enough culture in this day and age to have entire worlds floating around in our heads.
What everyone doesn’t have is the persistence and the tenacity to practice as much as it takes to put compelling characters and interesting stories into those worlds. Here’s how yours truly came to that terrifying realization (in two parts):
Part One involves Patrick Rothfuss (level 99 Fantasy Author, King Of Words, Master Of Nerds, long be his beard and long may he reign), a man whom I admire greatly, even when he’s slapping me in the face in front of about four hundred people. Mr. Rothfuss came to my town for a book signing and Q&A which I avidly attended, armed with a burning question about a certain eloquent and poignant quote. It was a quote from his teenage wizard main character in The Wise Man’s Fear that I held most dear. I waited, hand raised in a blisteringly hot independent bookstore, until Mr. Rothfuss finally pointed at me. I asked him about the motivation behind this passage that touched my soul; what inspired him to write it? What could have fueled such moving words? Mr. Rothfuss blinked, chuckled, and said, “I just made it up.” He took it one step further – no doubt seeing how invested I was – to explain that teenage wizard main characters often say really stupid things, they are teenagers, after all, and their dialogue shouldn’t really be taken to heart. Ouch. (Alright. It was a metaphorical slap. To be fair to Mr. Rothfuss, he had asked at the beginning of the Q&A that we please refrain from asking “what was your inspiration for ___” style questions and I asked anyway.) Embarrassed as I was, I almost missed what he said next. In answer to a question about fantasy writing, he had sobering words: he loved the magic and the world-building, but it was the hard work re-writing and practicing the craft that actually got results. It was sitting down and writing every day (and pulling his hair out in the process) that helped him get good at it.
Part Two involves writing my first episode of an animated television series. This had been my overarching career goal for about three years. All of a sudden, after repeatedly poking and prodding my superiors so they wouldn’t forget, I was ready, and they were gracious enough to give me the opportunity. But before I even started it hit me, reaching this goal wasn’t enough. Yes, I was ready (so ready) to get paid to write… but making a career out of it would require a second… a third… even a thirtieth script. And the vast majority of these teleplays would have most of the “fun stuff”: the world-building, the magic systems, the myths, previously accounted for. As the process began my Story Editor (aka boss) – a really patient and thoughtful man without whom I would’ve been totally lost – gave me notes that for the first time in my life I couldn’t just take with a grain of salt. Not only did whole sections of my story need to be ripped out, they had to be replaced effectively and cohesively in a timely manner. I was going to have to get used to this becoming work, because the daunting reality for TV writers (and many writers in general) is a lifetime of working on other people’s stories until one day maybe, just maybe, getting lucky enough to run their own creation for a few years.
This isn’t to say that there’s no fun to be had in the day-to-day. In my book, choosing words for cartoon characters to say still ranks as one of the best gigs out there. Beyond that, there’s also the paradoxical, liberating feeling that comes with writing for someone else’s world. Not worrying about setting up any rules or figuring out a character’s past and present motivations frees you to focus your energies into plot. It’s like a coloring book; whereas before you may have gotten hung up on the lines, now you’re focused on choosing the palate and how the colors work together in the space. Then there’s the unexpected, delightful interplay of your ideas with those of your collaborators when they take the time to help your work reach it’s potential. Where before I had been plagued by jealousy of other writer’s ideas, chagrined that I hadn’t “thought of that” myself, instead I found a grateful feeling, and the inspiring satisfaction of learning something new.
(Of course, I managed to squeeze in a few of my own ideas to add to the “world” I was writing for. Old habits…)
After finishing my episode, I found myself thinking back on Rothfuss’s advice – which I had dismissed, partly because I thought I was already “doing it right” (but mostly because he had slapped me). And I understood what he said from a different perspective. I would have to reframe my thought process – conditioned by schooling and society to simply achieve goals, then forget about them – into a “journey-not-destination” way of thinking.
So, as naturally talented as you are (and you are), you’re going to need to practice your craft. You can’t be selective in what you practice: be rounded, open your horizons with other ideas and opinions, work on the stuff that you hate doing, because that’s what’s going to help you when the deadline is coming, or when you’re stuck in a rut. Re-think how you view your writing goals. Are you putting all the emphasis on the wrong part of the process? Are you, like me, pinning all your happiness and feelings of accomplishment on finishing that script? Instead, try finding little moments of satisfaction in the process (they are there, believe me), and you’ll find it much easier to actually reach your goal. Not to mention, you’ll gain the stamina necessary to continue on to the next one, and the one after, and the 28 after that. Do all this and you may find yourself with characters who really speak to an audience – and a plot that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats – to go along with that rich, beautiful, fantastical world… which probably wasn’t your creation anyway.
About the Author
Dan Salgarolo is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, like everyone else he knows. He has broad personal interests ranging from many different writing styles, to food and cooking, to e-sports and Steeler football, to travel and even politics (but he might clam up if you ask him about that last one). Professionally, Dan helps make cartoons for Hasbro Animation Studios, working in production and as a freelance screenwriter. You can check out Dan’s work at www.salgatron.com or find him on Twitter @Salgatron.