When I was a filmmaker, it was a known path, so obvious it was cliché.
Make your short film. Then your feature.
Short films were film school: camera movement, working with actors, budgeting, scheduling, editing, music, so much more. And they’d let you show the gatekeepers you could make a movie. First your short, then your feature. It’s a charmingly naive statement, of course. As if making a quality short was easy. Especially in my day as a filmmaker, when home computers weren’t really up to video editing, and affordable cameras didn’t shoot more than standard def. Of course, those who came before me had it even rougher; they shot 16mm, or 8mm, and did what it took to get time on flatbeds to cut their movies. (Or, like the Hollywood editors of the very early days, cut it manually by holding the neg up to the nearest window!) No iPhone 4K video and drones for us.
But tough as a short is, the largest gap is between those two sentences. As if “Then your feature” wasn’t a chasm that most would never traverse, fraught with option agreements, development deals, private equity terms and conditions, crooked producers, and just the sheer odds of trying to be seen. It was brutal, and something that writers don’t need to worry about. We’re lucky; for our “feature film”, our novel, we need two things:
- Something to write on
There are no barriers to writing our novel. If I want to shoot The Avengers, I need $200 million, but I can write a book ten times bigger for nothing more than my time. Okay, I shouldn’t, but I can… We don’t even need the calling card that the filmmaker does, the short film that proves we know our stuff. Jump directly to Magnum Opus, do not pass Go, do not spend $7500 on your credit cards.
Remember the part about what shorts taught me? I learned something else. Aside from endurance and money, a great short film is harder to make than a great feature. In a feature, you can have a bit that’s slow. A moment that’s not perfect. You try to avoid them, but you can survive them. Not so in a short; you just don’t have the room. And I find the same applies to short stories. A great short story is a jewel. It’s a dazzling dance routine. A perfect painting. A stunning jazz solo. Its size demands every bit be polished to perfection, that there be no slack, no pointless characters, no wasted words. And while you’d never write a novel the exact way you’d write a short story, I do believe that sort of precision, that desire that every word serve a purpose, can’t help but let you write better novels.
So give it a try. Try a short story. Try a microshort. Can you write a tale in a page? In a paragraph?
Challenge yourself. Work on that jazz solo. It’s a whole lotta fun, and useful too.