The rule of three, and other advice I would give my young writer self – Heidi Mastrogiovanni

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By Heidi Mastrogiovanni

Oh, how I wish for a time machine, a magical device that would take me back a few decades so I could talk to my younger self…

I would treat the self that had recently graduated from college to a nice lunch, and I would advise her to take notes. I guess she would have to handwrite them, since laptops weren’t around back then.

“If your, I’m sorry, our future is any indication, what I’m about to tell you will, I hope, save you hours and hours and hours and hours and hours–”

“Yeah, I get the point,” my younger self would huff. “Can we just get on with it? I’m kind of in a hurry.”

“… and hours of stress and angst and there’s no need to look quite so smug, young lady. Especially not with those ridiculous shoulder pads and that poufy perm. I know for a fact that you are going to look at photos from these early years and you are going to be appalled by your outfits and your hair.”

At any rate, herewith and with all due speed, my list of things I would tell my younger self.

1. The Rule of Three

This especially applies to comedy. In your prose and in your dialogue, a list of two things isn’t funny. A list with four items on it isn’t funny. A list of three is funny. It just is. If you’re setting up a joke, write two things that lead to the third thing, which is the punchline. It will be funnier that way. Trust me on this.

2. Do the Very Best You Can, ALWAYS

And make sure you’re having fun while you’re doing your very best. ALWAYS. Because your product tends to turn out better when you’re having fun.

Learn as much as you can. Don’t do what my younger self did, which is just start writing a novel willy-nilly because she thought she knew how to write because she had written a few things in college that had earned her some praise. Take a class on writing. Read a book on writing. Never stop learning.

Be positive and be gracious. Hopefully, you will have a long and fruitful career and you will work with many people in many capacities. At every stage of your work, be enthusiastic. Be the person in the room and on the phone call and in the e-mail who makes it clear that she will do whatever it takes to make the project a success. Believe me, you want to get the reputation for being pleasant to work with.

Find out what works best to maximize your writing output. I don’t know why, but for me it’s sitting on the couch with my laptop. I’ve got the television on at a low volume in the background and my three rescued senior dogs are asleep on the couch next to me. After a lot of trial and error, I discovered that I do my best and most productive work after 7:00 p.m. This is the set-up that works for me, and I honor it.

Oh, and read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Writing From The Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. If you’ve already read them, read them again. They are the best books I have ever found on the art and soul of writing.

In fact, read all the time, and pay attention while you’re reading to what makes the experience the most pleasurable and satisfying for you. And then do that kind of stuff in your writing. But make it in your voice. I don’t know who first said this, but it has been oft repeated ever since because it is great advice: “Keep giving them you, until you is what they want.”

Elevate your work all the time. Take anything that’s cliched or hackneyed and turn it on its ear so that you come up with something new and fresh and compelling and entertaining. And don’t stop until you do. Don’t ever settle for less than your best. Don’t be lazy about that. Ever. Please. You won’t be sorry. You’ll only be sorry when you send out something that’s not your very best.

3. Rejection Sucks Beyond Belief

Several years ago, a producer rejected a screenplay of mine via e-mail and in a rather brutal fashion. I was absolutely devastated. My husband came into my office and found me with my head buried in my arms on my desk, sobbing. It took me what felt like forever to get past what she had said about my work and to get back to writing again.

And that’s where I made my biggest mistake. I let her opinion of my work stop me. I won’t ever do that again. And here’s one thing I remember that helps me stay on track…

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is my favorite contemporary novel. I envy people who haven’t read it, because they have that exquisite experience to look forward to. To me, that novel is perfection.

And a lot of my friends agree with me about that. But there are also those who, when I mention the book, say, “You liked that book? I hated it!”

There is no piece of creative work, however great it is, that will appeal to everyone. It’s never going to happen. There will be people who hate your work, no matter how brilliant it is. I consider this an immutable law of nature, just like gravity and the fact that I am far too short-waisted to ever wear skirts.

Now, this is not by way of an excuse to rest on what you perceive as your laurels. I’m going to repeat this, because it bears repeating: Make absolutely sure that your work is the very best it can be. Get a group of fellow writers whose work you admire and whom you respect as people. Give them your drafts after you’ve made your drafts as good as you possibly can on your own. Assure them that you want to hear their completely honest reactions. And listen when they give those reactions. Use their advice to elevate your work. Don’t send your work out to publishers or agents or producers until you’re sure that there is not one more ounce of improvement to be made.

P.S. A week later, another producer told me she absolutely loved that same screenplay. Which, I hope, underlines my final point: Write because you love to write. And don’t ever give up … because it’s never too late to find your audience.

Heidi Mastrogiovanni is a dedicated animal welfare advocate who lives in Los Angeles with her musician husband and their three rescued senior dogs. Heidi was chosen as one of ScreenwritingU’s 15 Most Recommended Screenwriters of 2013. The comedy web series she writes and produces, Verdene and Gleneda, was awarded the Hotspot on the Writers Guild of America’s Hotlist. Lala Pettibone’s Act Two, her first published novel, explores the themes present in all her work… It’s never too late to begin again, and it must be cocktail hour somewhere.

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