Fill the blank page — one page at a time…
June 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
Like anything in life, it’s one “thing” at a time… one minute, one day, one step? Screenwriting is much the same way. If you stop and think about the entire 95-100 pages it can overwhelm you. You have to stay in the present, write the scene on the page, but also be aware of how it relates to the bigger story and the journey of the protagonist. Step by step you will finish your script if you just keep writing. Nice and easy does it every time.
Every time up to the blank page is a different experience. Sometimes it’s very easy, other times it’s the worst thing ever. When the writing becomes difficult, a long time friend of mine who is a writer/director says, “it’s crap!” Yes, the worst thing ever is to know that you’re writing “crap” and you’re just slogging through it, hoping to fix it in the next draft. You may have heard the moronic phrase sometimes used on a production, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post.“ The reality is—you can’t fix it in post. The same goes for your first draft. The first imprint on those virgin blank pages will forge the DNA of the screenplay—or at least it should. If you are following a tightly structured treatment your first draft should be a breeze. Nail it and avoid the pitfalls of stumbling into a horrible trap of development hell. It’s hard to go another direction once you’ve crafted a finished script.
Screenwriting is rewriting and don’t forget it. Make the first draft fantastic and get to know the story and characters. Trust me, you might have seven more drafts to follow as the producer or executive may suddenly have a genius thought on a different story direction. I’ve had producers zero their radar on particular words in dialogue and ask, “do we really like using _____?“ (Fill in a popular slang word). It’s their kind way of telling a writer they hate the word and you need to change it. I could have argued that it was how the character speaks, but I just let them win that battle.
If you write every day, you’re in the zone and will not to lose momentum. If you take a day off you’ll think, “why not two days? Maybe three?” And suddenly, you’re stumbling to get back to your screenplay. If you have other commitments, make sure to carve out your precious writing time and protect your schedule from distraction or interruption. Keep a tight schedule and do not stray from it.
In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed, “even if I didn’t write anything, I made sure I sat down at my desk every single day and concentrated.“ Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him. A writer needs to write something every day. The more you write—the better you will become.
Five pages a day is a finished script in twenty days — actually my fastest record of completing a first draft for an assignment. You can do it and meet your deadlines. I consider myself a fast writer once I’m up to speed and have a solid treatment to work from during my journey. If you have a detailed treatment, you’ve already done much of the hard work figuring out the story and the structure. The fun part is fleshing out the story and letting the characters come to life, breathe and interact with each other.
Once you sign on for a script assignment, you lose the leisure time you may have had with your spec to craft every word perfectly. The clock is ticking and the producer expects a draft by the scheduled delivery date. You now must create under a deadline. It’s a very different experience from working on your spec only when you get inspired. You’re in work mode and the producer is paying you to deliver the goods. I once had to write 26 pages in 24 hours to complete a script so the producer could show it to the German investors who just flew into town—it was a screenwriting nightmare.
I never want to deal with a nightmare scenario like that again, but at least I know if my back is against the wall, I can deliver the goods even under a ridiculous deadline. We know writing is hard work and difficult to do well. Don’t stress about the bigger picture, just keep your focus on the scene you are writing at this moment.
Okay, back to the mantra, “Just take it one page at a time. Ain’t nuthin’ to it— but to do it.“
“Writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that. Not to write, for many of us, is to die. We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout.”—Ray Bradbury
“The professional understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare… the professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality. He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep the huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull in to Nome.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“What I’m saying is that is it frustrating. If a painter paints a picture, he can scrape it off and do it again, if he doesn’t like it. In a film, it will cost you forty thousand dollars to do that again, just for that once scene that didn’t come out the way you wanted. All the time I hear young filmmakers say, “But I’ll never make a compromise.” Baloney! All of life is a compromise. It’s one succession of compromises after another.”—Stanley Kramer
“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can assume great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
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