Sylvester Stallone's sneaky good writing advice

I believe everyone has, at least, one story in their head that is begging to be put down on paper. Could be a novel, screenplay, non-fiction, memoir, a book of poems, doesn’t matter. We tell stories all the time, over dinner, over the phone, a good ol Facebook rant but when it comes time to open up a blank Word document, take a deep breath, something changes. The story ends at Once upon a time… 

Because standing in our way is a club bouncer. A big guy with arms the size of our legs. And he’s got a whole list of reasons why we are not on the list. Not funny enough. Not smart enough. You can’t even spell memmoire. No English degree. Never done it before. You don’t own enough scarves. 

And then there are plenty of legitimate reasons. Life is busy. Work. Family. Friends. Balance is hard enough to find. When would the writing actually take place? 

There is a lot of great writing advice out there. I always point people to Stephen King’s On Writing or Heather Sellers’ book, Page After Page. A newcomer to the list, and a surprising source of great advice comes from, well, think about that bouncer example above, but instead of a list of reasons why you shouldn’t write, this big guy hands you a crumpled sheet of paper with some sneaky good advice. 

The bouncer is Sylvester Stallone. He doesn’t really look like a writer. If he wrote an article on working out in Men’s Fitness, now that makes sense. But, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway, I don’t think of writers being able to kick my ass.

So what does Sly Stallone have to say?

Here he is talking about first drafts:

“I write it from beginning to end… I know, in my heart, 80 percent of it will be no good. But you’re getting through the screenplay, you’re getting it done. Because the rewrite is always more fun, much more enjoyable. I don’t believe people should look for perfection, or even 50 percent perfection in the first draft, it’s always gonna be kind of this, like a child scribbling, but you did it. And the main thing, for me, is once you have that accomplishment… again, maybe 10 percent will be good, but you now have this sense of accomplishment and the rewriting process starts and that’s where the fun begins.”

It’s easy to go into a first draft with way too much pressure. Too high of standards. Ira Glass talks about this too, how our tastes develop before our talent so every time we read a sentence it’s easy to think, that’s no Steinbeck, that’s no Flannery O’Connor, this just sucks.

My advice would be to set the bar at Sly’s standard. The first goal is to get the story out of the head and onto the page. Accept that only 10-20 percent will be any good. And that’s ok. There’s something to build from. Bring in friends to read it over, listen and implement their feedback.

I have an editing group I call my “Supreme Court” and I’m amazed what they were able to find and how much they helped rebuild a book that I thought was inches away from the finish line. Turned out it was still a mile away. And that was after three or four drafts. I found the rough draft of this story from six years ago and Sly is right, I think only 10-15 percent of that story still exists in the final cut.

Extending this beyond writing, I think Sly’s idea applies to any project. Individual or group. There is a great quote in Creativity Inc. which is a book about Pixar that says, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

The first draft isn’t what goes to market. Like Stallone says, the rewriting starts, now the fun begins.

Now, Sly doesn’t sugar coat how hard the process is to finish the project. He talks about waking up at 4:30 a.m. and writing for three straight hours every day. If he doesn’t have anything to write, he still sits there for the full amount of time. He describes it as working out, like being in the military and, honestly, this approach is not out of the norm compared to the literary greats. For something that seems like a very creative, free-spirited activity, the great writing seems to come from pretty regimented schedules.

Which is actually kind of freeing. Writing gets better the more time we invest. We have a control in the outcome. So much of the battle is just getting words on paper and reshaping the clay in place.

Next time you sit down to write or start whatever big project you have always wanted to do, just remember it’s the least intimidating test you’ve ever taken. Ten percent is a passing grade.

Next Monday is the emotional moment when we say farewell to Sylvester Stallone until February, 2017. If all goes right, it’ll be a party, big celebration of an Academy Award win at Sunday night’s Oscars. After that just two more Medium Rare posts before I take a three week Spring Break. See you next week!

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