Sometimes the Most Powerful Writing Wisdom is the Simplest

You’ve heard of William Goldman, right? If not, you really should have by now (being a writer working in the real world, and all)…

… two Best Screenplay Oscars (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All The President’s Men), a little novel with a pretty good film (which he also wrote) called The Princess Bride… another (same double home run writing credit) called Marathon Man…

… and one of the best writing books ever written, Adventures in the Screen Trade, which should be mandatory reading for novelists, as well. Even if you haven’t heard of him.

While his salad days began in the late 60s, he’s still ranked in the 100 authors in five Amazon categories (Classics, Historical Fiction, Teens, Action Adventure, and Genre Fiction Historical; that last one isn’t a typo, either, he’s #51 in Historical Fiction, and #76 in Genre Fiction Historical… go figure).

And he’s still writing, too. Better than most.

Despite the fact that two of his novels become two of the most iconic films of the past 50 years (never mind he wrote those screenplays, as well), his accomplishments as a novelist go under-appreciated. Maybe because he’s still busy in Hollywood as the #1 script rewrite guy, billing out at—this one isn’t a typo, either—one million dollars per week.

Yeah, that guy.

It’s a lesser known fact that he wrote a 1984 novel entitled, The Color of Light.

Out of 17 Amazon reviews— face it, most of the people reviewing novels were in rest homes by the time Amazon came along—16 gave it 5-stars, several stating it is one of their favorite novels, ever. One guy gave it 1-star… this, too, falling into the category writing wisdom… for every great book written, there’s a schlub or two who just didn’t get it, or gets off slinging mud at the stuff everyone else does.

The Color of Light is about a once successful writer who loses his stuff and disappears into anonymity. There may or may not be some truth to the rumor he is now blogging for The Kill Zone, but that has not been confirmed.

He has a little brother who, like all little brothers, wants to impress and gain the respect of his big brother. And so, when the little brother finishes a novel, he nervously shows it to big brother, who responds—each and every time—with the words… “on to the next.”

And that’s the great advice for us today, to hold close for all our days as writers.

May they be as plentiful as Goldman’s.

There is very little we can completely control in this business, even with the advent of self-publishing. Which, while handing back control over such things as lead times, titles and the look of our covers (none of which we had a lick of input to in the past), remains a fact when it comes to what happens to our books once we kick them out of the crib and onto the street.

We control our stories. And for the most part, that’s about it.

And so, we need to find our bliss accordingly. Sanity may reside in that understanding.

On to the next is the surest bet on reaching our goals as anything out there. And on that proposition, I’m sure William Goldman would agree.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

9 thoughts on “Sometimes the Most Powerful Writing Wisdom is the Simplest

  1. Indeed, Goldman’s book is a “gold mine” of anecdotes and hard-won wisdom. Such as:

    “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.”

    And the very simple:

    “Screenplays are structure.”

    When I moved to NY in the late 70s, one person I wanted to talk to was William Goldman. He was listed in the white pages. So I called him. And talked to him.

    • Meeting a guy like that has to be one of the best, most treasured memories. I met Ted Williams once, at spring training, as he went down the line of cherry-cheeked minor leaguers shaking hands. Also met James Patterson once… it was at a bookstore signing, about 200 people jammed in waiting for him to appear. I was in the back, someone tapped me on the shoulder, wanting to get through the crowd. It was Patterson, extending his hand to introduce himself, saying, “Hi, I’m John Grisham.” Big smile. Will never forget that. All of the greats have a self-deprecating style in front of an audience. Except McKee.

  2. Another good post, but which one of you wrote it? I’m reading on my phone and don’t see an author’s name.

  3. Love Goldman and his screenwriting book! Reading it helped clarify alot about novels when I was starting out. And how can you not love a guy who gave us one of the scariest scenes and most memorable lines in all of moviedom:

    “Is it safe?”

  4. Mr. Goldman is one of my favorite authors, screenwriters, and I have devoured his Adventures in the Screen Trade a number of times.

    Because, this was my experience. After I graduated from college in 1970, I took a couple of different professional positions until I could move my family to Norman, Oklahoma, to do some work as a special student at the then-called H.H. Herbert School of Journalism. (Special student, meaning I was not working toward degree, not because I was unique or extraordinary.) I got to meet and interact with three fabulous teachers of fiction at OU–Foster-Harris, one of the all-time great writers of serial westerns, Jack Bickham, author of The Dumpling Gang, and Dwight Swain, another great serial writer.

    I also met and had classes under another instructor. My experience with him was not so great. He had been born and reared in Oklahoma, had gone to Hollywood in his young years to write screenplays and novels, and had worked in Tinsel Town in what we now call the Golden Years of television. He had tons of stories–writing for television series we in my class all knew. The westerns, the detectives, the crimes, and what have you. Then time came for him to return home so that he could work somewhere that gave him benefits and a pension plan. He found employment at OU. About 30 students enrolled in his introduction to screenwriting class.

    Now, he even told us a story about how, the summer before, he had received a call from a well-known director–we all in the class, verily, the entire American movie-going American public knew the director’s name–who lived on the beach up the coast, and had abiding with him, an equally well-known star. Not a starlet. An actual star. Anyway, the director paid for his round trip, picked him up at LAX, and took him out to the house up the coast. Lunch was prepared by the star. Then, the director got down to business. He offered our instructor $10,000 (this being 1974) for a first draft of a script based on a novel he had purchased the rights to. We all gasped, howled, and beat on our desks, some jumping up to do so, when he told us he had turned down the director. Our instructor returned home, received a number–all right, a plethora–of calls from the director, often when he was sober, begging and pleading for the script, but not offering much more squeeze. Finally, negotiations completely broke down, the star apparently moved out, and our instructor met with us for our first class meeting.

    Alas. The instructor did not teach us one thing about screen writing. The entire consensus of my classmates is that we knew nothing more about screen writing than when we first reported for the class. Nada.

    So I returned to my home state. One day, I found and read Mr. Goldman’s book on screenwriting. Then I ran across Mr. Field’s book on the three-act structure. Those two books started me down the road to learning about story structure and storytelling.

    So I join with you in your salute to Mr. Goldman–my salute having much less weight than yours, of course.

    One question that people have asked me: was the instructor merely a blow hard who had stories but nothing else? No, not at all. I have read some of his novels and enjoyed them. I have seen his name on the re-runs of the olde tyme TV westerns and crime stories. He was a man who knew what he was doing.

    But it was Mr. Goldman who first really taught me about novel writing.

  5. Great lost, Larry. I’ve often said (learned from hard experience) that the only thing I can control is my writing. Some might view that notion as limiting, but I take comfort in that knowledge. My writing time is cherished. It’s where I cultivate and sustain my passion. It’s about deriving joy in the process as the big payoff. Thanks for the reinforcement.

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