As part of research for an essay (forthcoming), I recently interviewed Burn Notice staff writer, Michael Horowitz. After years of developing a career as a feature film writer, Horowitz transitioned into television writing at the start of the second season of Burn Notice. We chatted at length about how much more fulfilling he often found writing for TV to be these days, as opposed to writing for feature films. During the course of our conversation, he also offered some useful advice for those interested in writing for both film and television, which I wanted to pass on here.
AP: Do you have any recommendations for people who want to become writers?
MH: There is some basic advice that I got a long time ago. Everybody who is trying to do any version of this, I think will succeed. If you really want to write anything for film or television, there is no better litmus test: Write ten scripts and throw them away. And just keep powering through. Everybody just gets obsessed with their first script. Stuck on it forever.
MH: And I think nothing gets you better faster than writing a script, giving it to some friends. Have them read it and give you notes. Then go do a revision – actually go through and take it all the way to the end, you know, like two drafts. Then throw it away. Because it’s terrible. And then do it again. I legitimately think I would say do ten [different scripts] if you can. I sort of wish I could go back in a time machine to the college me, when I had endless stamina for writing and all the time in the world and liked to stay up all night. Write ten and throw them away. Five is more reasonable for people, but just keep powering through stuff. If you want to do TV, if you want to do hour-long series, you should be writing one episode of every show.
MH: That’s the easy way to do it. Have an original spec or two and just keep pounding through. If you are doing features, there are plenty of people who come up with ten ideas, but I think the easy approach is “Pick any movie you like,” such as The Hangover, and then switch two things about it. Make it unrecognizable. Do a gender switch so it’s now women. Do a decade switch, so it’s now in the seventies. Or turn it into a drama.
AP: That’s great advice.
MH: I just think it’s all about writing and writing and writing. One of my advantages is that I just wrote tons of stuff when I was a struggling writer. I was just pumping out ten scripts a year for a while, and I don’t think they were that awesome. But a few of them are doing things now, and a few of them I just have in my back pocket. And more importantly, I got the practice.
AP: Those are terrific suggestions. I know that one of the things that frustrates me when I talk to some students – and I’m sure that you probably see this when you talk to young writers – is the idea that their first script is a masterpiece and that it should be enough to get them a job.
MH: Right, totally. And that script is terrible. There is no getting around it, there is no way they are the first person ever to write a great script the first time. [One exception] may be if they are an actor who reads a billion scripts and they have been thinking about scripts forever, or a director who is doing the same thing. But there is no way that a writer is just born overnight. Some people are better with dialogue, and maybe there are great things in it, but they are still better served by powering out other scripts.
If you are looking for additional information on how to develop your film/TV writing skills, I recommend starting with John August's blog (The Nines, Corpse Bride), Ken Levine's blog (Frasier, Cheers), the WGA's website (of course), and the book Big Picture, Small Screen by Chad Gervitch.
Also be sure to check out this video from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) panel on TV showrunners put together by Henry Jenkins and Denise Mann, and featuring Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof (Lost), Tim Kring and Mark Warshaw (Heroes), Javier Grillo-Marxuach (The Middleman), and Kim Moses (Ghost Whisperer).