by Gene Perret
Archangel Shecky makes an arrogant pronouncement that he can teach infallible, irrefutable, unassailable, one-size-fits-all formula for success. “Who is this blowhard who makes such an astounding claim?” you ask. I’m glad you did. He’s the lead character in my most recent book, and instructional novel called Breakfasts with Archangel Shecky.
He claims to be an angel, but if he is, he’s different than most angels you and I have ever known (not that we’ve known that many). He likes his scotch and since the story takes place in Philadelphia, he likes all the foods that Philly is famous for – hoagies, cheese steaks, scrapple, soft pretzels, and lots more. What he doesn’t like is picking up the bar tabs or the restaurant checks, so he doesn’t. His claim to being a guardian angel may be suspect.
But the question should not be whether Shecky is real or fictional, angel or a fraud. The question should be whether his “infallible, irrefutable, unassailable, one-size-fits-all secrets of success” are indeed irrefutable and unassailable. If his ideas do hold water, they can offer a tremendous lift to our writing careers. Let’s investigate.
The linchpin of his theory is that to be a success (as a writer or anything else) you should be good at what you do and keep getting better. That makes sense. Regardless which profession you pursue, if you keep getting better and better at it, (then get even better than that) eventually you’ll become excellent. Excellence in any arena can never be either hidden or denied.
To illustrate, imagine that you know someone who plays golf as well as Tiger Woods. Imagine further that this person grew up in a remote country and knows nothing about golf. He just happens to be a golf savant. (I realize this is stretching logic and credulity, but bear with me a bit longer.) This person will not remain anonymous in the golfing community for very long.
He’ll visit a driving range and because he’s as talented as Tiger Woods, he’ll begin blasting the ball 300 yards right along his target line. (Remember that we’re stipulating that he’s as good as Tiger for the purposes of this illustration.) He’ll attract a crowd around his practice mat. Someone will suggest that he play a round. Of course, he’ll score in the 60’s. Soon he’ll be entering and winning tournaments. He’ll turn pro and be as successful on tour as Tiger Woods has been.
What does all this nonsense about some unknown who’s as skilled as Tiger Woods have to do with writing well? Well, if you’re a writer and you dedicate yourself to getting better and better, you’ll have to arrive at “excellent” some time. When you do, that excellence cannot be denied, hidden, or left unrewarded.
Now the question is: How does a writer go about getting better and better? Following are a few suggestions.
First, write regularly and consistently. I’m sure you’ve heard it said many times that the only three ways to learn to write are to write, to write, and to write. Each time you write, you not only learn a little bit more about writing, but you learn a little bit more about you and your voice as a writer. A colleague of mine once wrote a spec script for a producer that he idolized. He boldly sent it to that producer, but even as it was making its way through the mails, the writer felt dissatisfied with it. He felt he could do better, so he began another spec script.
The producer didn’t care for the first submission, either. However, he was gracious enough to send a long, devastating critique. He mercilessly pointed out the many flaws in the storyline and the dialogue.
When the second script arrived, though, the producer was so enthralled by the writing that he had his agent contact the person who sent it to offer him a position on the sitcom’s writing staff. Within one year, this writer was co-producing the show along with his idol.
This writer learned enough from his first poorly written script, to create a second one that sparkled. The producer’s comments on the first script had no influence on the second one because the two documents crossed in the mail. And the producer who hated the first script and loved the second, never realized that they were both from the same author.
The writer had learned enough from writing script one, that it dramatically improved his writing on script two. So the first step to getting better and better and better is to write, to write, and to write.
Second, read and observe. Most established writers will confess that they were drawn to writing by the books they read. You should discover what the really good writers are doing and how they’re doing it. You’ll learn solid technique almost through osmosis.
I used to play tennis with a group of outstandingly mediocre players. The only time our play ever improved was during the weeks when the Wimbledon Tournament was being televised. We’d all watch the best in the world and somehow absorb a little bit of their enthusiasm, know-how, and skill. When you read quality writers, some of their technique will influence your own work.
Third, study writing. My five-year old grandson took a few beginning tennis lessons at the club where I belonged. He took two lessons a week for about four or five weeks. When I picked him up after his last session I asked him if he wanted to sign up for the next set of classes. He said, “No, I know all there is know about tennis now.” Some of us writers feel the same way – that we’ve graduated beyond studying. We haven’t. As good as we might be, we can still improve by learning. Again, that’s part of getting better and better.
There are several ways of continuing to study. You can take college courses if you have the time and the money. There are also specialized courses in adult education schools. It might be worth 7 or 8 of your Wednesday evenings to learn “How to Promote and Market Your Book” or “How to Sell Your First Children’s Book.”
You can also learn an immense amount from a devoted mentor. Many of the people I worked with in television comedy admit that they owe their success to one person who introduced them to the business, coached them for many years, helped them get employment, and in a few cases, even went to work for their protégé after he or she rose to a position of prominence. If you have an experienced pro who is willing to guide you and educate you, pay attention. It’s a priceless education.
You can learn from books. There are hundreds and hundreds of books on hundreds and hundreds of different facets of the writing profession. There are volumes on finding agents, writing proposals and query letters, how to do research, how to market, how to edit your own writing, and so much more. Even if you take only an idea or two from each writing book you read, that is helping to make you a better and better writer.
Your friends can also be your instructors and your mentors. Writers clubs in which your colleagues read your writing or listen to your presentations and then offer their own suggestions can be invaluable. Even a good, trusted friend who will read a manuscript and offer suggestions is a precious source of writing education. Be cautious here, though. Only confide in those whose opinion you trust. Aunt Mabel may be a beloved relative, but her writing critiques may be just awful. Don’t let her read anything you write until it’s published.
Fourth, expanding your writing horizons can be educational, too. Try a different genre once in awhile. Athletes call this “cross-training.” They work out in various sports all with the purpose of improving their skills in their chosen sport. For a writer it’s valuable because, as we discovered earlier, all writing makes you a better writer. Also, you might discover a new writing arena that your thoroughly enjoy and have a unique talent for. I was once asked to write an original song for a variety show. I objected. I said, “I don’t write music.” The star of the show jokingly said, “Yes, you do. Read the small print in your contract.” I did write the song. It went into the show and I received an Emmy nomination for “Original Music.” I didn’t win, but I didn’t complain about being forced to write an Emmy-nominated song. Working in different writing areas can often present you with ideas and techniques that you can apply to your primary writing area.
Fifth, do writing exercises. In other words, work out. Again, be like the professional athletes who may lift weights to improve their strength, jog periodically to improve their stamina, jump rope to perfect their footwork. Working out and practicing sharpens your performance. I find it ironic when I watch professional golfers on television. They’ll play at a level that you and I can only dream about, but then when their day of fabulous golf is over, what do they do? They head to the driving range to smack a few balls, or to the putting green to hone their short game skills.
These exercises can be fun and bizarre, too. You might try some routines that are well known, for instance, try writing a few answers and questions like Johnny Carson used to do as the Great Carnac. The answer might be “A hole in one.” The question you create could be, “When Frank Ford met the James Brothers, what did he leave?” Or you might come up with your own Letterman “Top Ten List.” One year at a comedy writers conference, we had the attendees try to come up with opening lines for the shortest mystery books in the world. One of the best was, “The last man in the world was sitting in his room, when a knock came to the door.”
I included a chapter on writing exercises in my book entitled Comedy Writing Step by Step. One exercise is called “101 Tom Swifties.” The idea is to create 101 funny lines that always end with an –ly adverb. Here are a few examples:
“We can’t win the World Series without a strong power hitter,” the baseball manager said ruthlessly.
“Hey, bartender, this beer has no foam,” the patron complained light-headedly.
“This chicken has no beak,” the man pronounced impeccably.
The catch on this exercise was that you have to write 101 of them. It’s a daunting task; nevertheless, it is the most popular exercise in the book.
Make up your own writing exercises. You can even do them with a group of fellow writers. Make it a competition, if you like. You’ll have fun. The infallible, irrefutable, unassailable, one-size-fits all secret to writing success is that you must write and then continue to get better and better at it, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having fun while you’re doing it.
Gene Perret has written and produced many of TV’s top-rated shows, winning three Emmy Awards as part of “The Carol Burnett Show” staff. He wrote for Phyllis Diller and was on Bob Hope’s writing staff for almost 30 years, the last 12 of those as Hope’s head-writer. He has published over 40 books, including one of the top selling books on comedy writing, “Comedy Writing Step by Step.” His most recent is an instruction novel on comedy writing called, “Breakfasts with Archangel Shecky.” Contact him at [email protected]