May 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
I remember my first feature-length screenplay. I got lost somewhere in the barren wasteland of ACT 2 and felt like I would never reach the end. Now, thirty-five screenplays later with fourteen produced films from nineteen paid assignments and one spec sale, I have a better grasp on the process, but it’s always a new and different experience every time you type FADE IN. I respect this fact. Early on in my journey, I thought it would be screenwriting would be an easy experience, and I was humbled every time by the enormity of the craft.
Do not fool yourself into thinking your first draft has to be shit or you should just, ‘Get it down on paper.” It’s just the opposite—your first draft is extremely important because the DNA of your story and characters lives in this precious first pass. I love this quote from six time Academy Award nominee screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf?):
“Good screenwriting is about carpentry. It’s a juggling of beginnings, middles and endings so they all inevitably seem to be moving correctly together. Your first draft is dangerously important. Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, “It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.” Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve gone in another direction.”—Ernest Lehman
It’s true. I know from experience that it’s difficult to totally rewrite a first draft from page one into something new. Sadly, too many times it ends up becoming a jumbled mess as the foundation of the story is being altered underneath the story. My advice is to make your first draft your best possible work at the time. When writing it, act as if you’ll never get another chance to touch the screenplay.
You should use your specs as training to turn out a superb first draft to prepare you for the day when you’re hired for a screenplay assignment. This pays off in many ways, most importantly when you’re working for a producer and your solid first draft helps reduce the development process and can secure the interest of investors, a director, and actors. A solid, kick-ass first draft will also keep you on the screenplay assignment and not get you replaced by another screenwriter.
Make sure your screenplay suffers the fewest amount of changes during the development process. Trust me, you don’t want your script to get bogged down in development hell. It’s hard to climb out of that pit and too many times projects die a tragic death from too many drafts over a long period of time. The script can end up unrecognizable after the multiple drafts and ultimately the writer can be blamed for the producer’s decisions to change the story.
I’m not suggesting that you agonize over every word, but treat your first draft with the seriousness it deserves. A solid first draft will help with faster rewrites because you’re not reinventing story lines, but you’re doing a “clean up” job. You want to avoid situations where your first draft is shit and you have to do a page one rewrite instead of a clean up. When you start working on paid screenwriting assignments, you will not have the luxury of turning in a crappy first draft. The producer or executive will expect the best possible draft that matches the accepted story treatment. Anything less will endanger your chances of getting a chance at draft two and staying on the project through production.
Avoid a “vomit” draft because you can use that precious time to work it into something excellent. Why not? A sold first draft also helps lessen massive rewrites on the successive drafts.
And continuing of the subject of first drafts the question always arises, “How long should a first draft take?” If you’ve been screenwriting for a while, you’ll be able to estimate how fast you can write a first draft of a screenplay. That’s important because when you start working professionally, you will need to work under a contracted deadline and deliver the goods on time at the top of your game. Time is our greatest asset or worst enemy—it depends on how you respect and use it. This is why I recommend that beginning screenwriters to always set their own realistic writing schedules when writing their specs so they’ll be training for the day when a professional opportunity arrives.
You may labor over your spec for six months or longer because there is no deadline and your life keeps getting in the way. Once screenwriting becomes your job, and it is a job, you’ll need to have the stamina and focus to write six or more hours per day to meet a deadline. If you haven’t already, you need to set up a regular, uninterrupted writing schedule and protect it at all costs. If the forces of interruption get in the way, you’re productivity and success will be severely hampered. An important element in writing is consistency and if you skip one day, and then two, you’ll find yourself losing the vital focus to keep your script on track. As you’ve probably found out already, there is always something else to do then write. It’s important to finish out a day writing, no matter the page count, and get right back to it the next day while it’s fresh in your mind. This builds consistency and a regular schedule.
If you’re working under a WGA union contract, the minimum time for a first draft is usually twelve weeks. You can guarantee the producer or executive will start calling your agent or manager in about four weeks, sniffing around to see how you are progressing. In my contract for my recent screenwriting assignment that I completed a few months ago, I agreed to a four-week schedule to turn in my first draft. I completed the script in 25 days and turned in my 105 page script a few days early after going over it a few times myself. It wasn’t impossible because I was working from a solid story treatment that I crafted and it was authorized by the producer and production company. I’ve also worked under a contract that allowed four weeks for a first draft. When you’re working on assignment jobs, producers will not allow you to start the script until the story treatment or step outline is completely fleshed out. This way your screenwriting will be a breeze as you have a solid road map to follow. It’s such a creative high when you complete a solid day of writing and leave it where you can’t wait to get up the next morning and start again.
My fastest time for writing a first draft was twenty days. That was five pages a day, every day to get the job done. When I finish early, I go over the script again by myself for a polish before I turn it in to the producer. I believe too much time can harm the process because every project has a deadline, otherwise nothing would get into development or be produced. You should work on your spec story treatment for a longer time, because about seventy-five percent of the work should go into the story development of the script. The script itself? I think two months would be a huge amount of time. If you’re working six to eight hours a day, you should be able to write five or more pages on a normal day. You also have to remain fluid because you never know how the experience will develop and every time out it’s different. I once had to write 26 pages in 24 hours because the German investors were coming into town! I never want to experience that frenzy again, but it’s nice to know my abilities under pressure.
If you want to eventually work professionally, as I’m sure is your goal, you will need to work efficiently under a deadline, and at the best of your ability. It’s basically working quickly at the best of your creativity on a schedule and under a deadline. The only way to get to this place is to always set your own deadlines and meet them every time with your spec screenplays. If you’re not practicing this writing schedule now, I’d suggest starting it on your next project. Respect that first draft, protect it, and you’ll end up with a solid foundation that will lessen the rewrites.
Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Sanderson on My Blank Page blog.
And speaking of first drafts… before you go… if you just completed a new screenplay and need in-depth consultation, check out my screenplay consultation services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website.
Need help to navigate Hollywood’s trenches as you pursue a screenwriting career? Check out my new book “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” now available on Amazon. It chronicles my past twenty years of screenwriting professionally in Hollywood using my tips, tricks and tactics that have helped me to stay in the game.
Click on the book cover for the link to Amazon for purchase.
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“Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized.”—Rod Serling.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible adventures.”—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”—Joseph Campbell
“Screenwriting is such a very special branch of literature. In some ways, it’s closer to the poetic form than it is to the dramatic. A lot of writers think that they write down to an audience if they do a motion-picture script.”—John Huston
“When I first meet with the scriptwriter, I ask him what is the story about—what do you see—what was your intention?”—Sidney Lumet
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” — Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.”—Rudyard Kipling, “If
April 28, 2018 § Leave a comment
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, first of all—THANK YOU! I truly hope you’re busy creating new projects and forging ahead on your screenwriting journey. As you may know, I’ve been adding short posts (nothing is EVER short on this blog!) and sharing various survival tips. I do speak about these tips in the over 250 articles on this blog, but this feature will be a quick reference to glance over and consider as you navigate Hollywood’s trenches. Follow me on Twitter (@scriptcat). and on Instagram. I’ll be posting new articles here when my time allows. Thanks for reading and as always: Carry on, keep the faith and keep screenwriting! Okay, here are three more survival tips that will help you on your screenwriting adventure…
Another good way to do your homework with regards to learning is to find a filmmaking mentors and apprentice under them or at least have access to them as they are working. Many busy screenwriters need an assistant and they’re willing to pay an hourly wage for the job. It’s a great way for aspiring screenwriters to learn while getting paid. If you can’t find a paid position, offer your time to a working screenwriter in exchange for access to their knowledge and the whole process they go through daily. A true professional is always willing to give back and share knowledge. When you’re able to observe working professionals, be like a sponge and soak up everything you can and ask questions. I’ve been blessed over the years to work with many top professionals and veterans of the film business and a few have become my mentors. This includes directors and a few have become my mentors and friends. I’m currently working with two directors on various projects that we are developing together and will take out into the marketplace as partners. As I worked with them and collaborated on the films that I wrote, I was able to have inside and unlimited access to help build my screenwriter’s toolkit. Seeking knowledge is an ongoing discipline for every artist. Keep filling your blank pages. If you stop you’ll never have any chance at success.
Work your way to becoming a multi-hyphenate screenwriter.
Eventually to gain more creative control over your projects, you’ll need to become a multi-hyphenate filmmaker and not just a screenwriter who is a “hired gun.” This means along with your talent for creating the script you will move into producing and or directing as a way to keep your total creative vision on the project. This won’t likely happen on your first few screenplays, but eventually you can negotiate your way into being one of the key decision makers or ultimately the director whose vision takes the script to the screen. Your goal is working your way into being a double threat: A writer/producer or writer/director—or a triple threat: a writer/producer/director.
Avoid the temptation to give anyone your screenplay moments after you finish it. Put it away and let it settle for a few days or even a week before giving it your first read. You’ll be coming down from your natural creative high and you don’t want anyone to harsh your buzz. It’s the necessary time a screenwriter needs to spend alone with his/her script. You’re also in a raw and vulnerable place after giving birth to new material, so you don’t want feedback now to taint your clear vision or perspective. This will only lead to chasing notes because everyone has an opinion about your work. Keep your script close. Don’t boast or talk about it. You did the work, now go and do something to celebrate. You need to enjoy the little and big successes on your long journey as a screenwriter. Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages. Nothing is guaranteed on this screenwriting journey except one thing— if you quit writing, you’re guaranteed never have any chance at success.
Copyright 2018 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE.
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Need help to navigate Hollywood’s trenches as you pursue a screenwriting career? Check out my new book “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” now available on Amazon. It chronicles my past twenty years of screenwriting professionally in Hollywood using my tips, tricks and tactics that have helped me to stay in the game. Click on the book cover for the link to Amazon for purchase.
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“The time we have alone; the time we have in walking; the time we have in riding a bicycle; are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.”—Ray Bradbury
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.”—Ernest Hemingway
“No person who is enthusiastic about his work has anything to fear from life.”—Samuel Goldwyn
“I don’t think of it as an art. When it works it’s skill & craft and some unconscious ability”—Ernest Lehman
“When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a ten cent notebook and start the whole thing over again.” — Preston Sturges
April 15, 2018 § 1 Comment
Our body. How often do we as screenwriters think about being in shape? Sure, we spend so much time exercising our fingers on our keyboards in front of our laptops, sitting and creating, while hours and weeks pass. Maybe you exercise regularly already? If so, bravo. You know how even spending a little time exercising can reap huge rewards for the effort. If not, I suggest being some type of program be it yoga, running, biking, lifting weights, or anything that keeps your interest. I returned from the gym today feeling great after a 40 minute session on the elliptical machine and it made me reflect on how it’s vital for screenwriters to maintain a workout routine. We’re continually pushing that boulder up the hill until we’re able to push it onto the other side. When you’re healthy and feeling like a million bucks, it will definitely show in your writing and lift your spirits during the low periods.
We also need to build up our endurance to weather the storms of rejection, criticism, and failure. Setbacks can leave screenwriters depressed and this dangerous mental state can affect the writing and one’s overall positive outlook about a career. It’s so easy for our splendid plans to become derailed by the many forces in life. So, staring down negativity and bracing for setbacks, you will need to be strong to come out on the other side and live to write another day. The mind and body work in tandem and the connection is powerful.
Now let’s focus on the mind. Information is invaluable currency in Hollywood so as part of the ongoing process of working out, screenwriters need to do their homework with regards to staying up on information about the film business and what projects are selling. This is the type of homework you will need to over the course of your entire screenwriter career. It’s one of the top disciplines of a professional screenwriter. If you are lucky enough to have representation, they will help you with this information. If not, you are responsible for finding it yourself.
Like a good exercise routine, your mental workout is an ongoing daily quest for knowledge and doing the work necessary to become an excellent screenwriter. The actual writing of screenplays is the number one training tool to gain the necessary experience with the craft. You’ll also need the ability to write all day, keep focused (possibly on multiple projects), and generate your creativity at the highest levels. This is exhausting mentally and it drains you physically. Also the study of your craft never ends and you should never consider for a moment that you’re bigger or better than your craft—it will always be a larger creative force than you will ever be.
Your homework should include reading screenplays (good and bad), watching and studying movies (good and bad), reading about classic Hollywood and the history of cinema, reading about the film business, and making the quest for filmmaking knowledge your daily regimen. You should take workshops, attend seminars, enroll in screenwriting courses, acting classes, or find a working screenwriter willing to take you under their wing as a mentor to learn first hand knowledge. Doing the work and constantly learning is an ongoing process for all screenwriters on their journey.
Who can help you with this important pursuit of knowledge? Utilize your industry contacts: your writer friends, the assistants, interns, producers, and other talent to glean insider information you may not have. They are the eyes and ears on the ground while you are off sequestered in your office writing your next magnum opus. You can’t always leave it up to your agent or manager to let you know what’s happening or the recent changes in the business. You need to take responsibility for your career and then means staying up on everything about the film business. It’s also your job to point out information and share it with your representatives.
You’ll also need to do your homework about the film industry trends and where technology is going—everything from 3-D production, projection advances, production advances, and even economic changes that will affect a movie’s budget. Read the trade papers Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and regularly visit great websites like Deadline Hollywood, The Wrap, Film News Briefs, Paste Magazine, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, E! News Online, Movie City News, Movieline, Total Film, IFC, Filmmaker Magazine, and Box Office Mojo. Knowledge about the film business will allow you to make important considerations as you decide the genre and story of your next spec screenplay.
Another good way to do your homework is to find a filmmaking mentor and apprentice under them or at least have access to them as they are working. Many busy screenwriters need an assistant and they’re willing to pay an hourly wage for the job. It’s a great way for aspiring screenwriters to learn while getting paid. If you can’t find a paid position, offer your time to a working screenwriter in exchange for access to their knowledge. A true professional is always willing to give back and share knowledge. When you’re able to observe working professionals, be like a sponge and soak up everything you can and ask questions. I’ve been blessed over the years to work with many top professionals and veterans of the film business and a few have become my mentors. As I worked with them and collaborated on the films that I wrote, I was able to have inside and unlimited access to help build my screenwriter’s toolkit. Seeking knowledge and staying on top of the latest news and events in the film business is an ongoing discipline.
Here is a list of great websites where you can do some of your important daily mental homework (click on name for link):
- Stage 32 is another fantastic website for film industry networking from around the world. Sign up, create a profile and start posting and participating in the lounge discussions.
- The Screenwriting Spark: Tips, resources, blogs, videos and more!
- DONE DEAL PRO.com— Agents, lawyers, managers, companies, writing jobs, TV deals, info about contests and articles.
- Sell A Script.com—writers resources including free listing of script sales.
- The Scriptwriter’s Network— events, networking, script sales, news, contests, outreach programs.
- The International Screenwriter’s Association—Membership is free. It’s a reliable resource of information, mutual support networking and members only tips for producers looking for writers, FREE teleconferences, free lists of agencies and management companies.
I was out pitching my TV series idea recently with my pilot idea only to find out shortly after five pilots sold that were the same basic concept. I decided not to pursue my idea and luckily I didn’t spend six months writing and developing it on spec because it would have been time wasted. Ideas are in the ether and Hollywood follows trends. It’s all about knowledge. If you are aware of what is in production or in development, your project won’t suddenly become a writing sample or competing with something that is in production. If you properly do your daily homework and workout your mind, you’ll empower your career as knowledge is the precious currency in Hollywood and staying current will always serve you well as you pursue a screenwriting career.
Keep your body and mind in top shape. You’ll be working at the best of your ability so when an opportunity does come your way you’re ready to do your best.
Copyright 2018 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
Did you just finish your latest screenplay and need professional and in-depth consultation? Check out my website for more information about my consultation services. Click on the icon below for the link to my website and more information.
Check out and subscribe to my YOUTUBE channel for 31 screenwriting advice videos.
Do you need help navigating Hollywood’s trenches as you pursue your screenwriting career? Check out my new book “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” available on Amazon. It’s my personal guide using my past twenty year of screenwriting professionally in Hollywood using my tips, tricks and tactics that have helped me to stay in the game. Click on the book cover for the link to Amazon.
“So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.”—William Faulkner
“There is no point in having sharp images when you’ve fuzzy ideas.” – Jean-Luc Godard
“There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.” — Stephen King
“Unlimited budgets make for a lack of precise decision-making.”—producer Lynda Obst in her new book: Sleepless in Hollywood
“Starting tonight, every night in your life before you go to sleep, read at least one poem by anyone you choose. Poetry and motion pictures are twins.”—Ray Bradbury
“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby
April 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
Ah, spring is in the air. The time for a fresh start when your ideas begin to bloom. I hope you’ve created new opportunities that have pushed your screenplays closer to success. Trust me, I know if can feel like you’re banging your head against a wall hoping for a breakthrough, but finding the same results of rejection and criticism. I truly hope you’re busy creating a solid body of work and forging ahead on your screenwriting journey. I hope that I’ve been able to offer a few nuggets of advice that you’ve found helpful. In addition to my tips on Twitter (@scriptcat) and my Youtube Channel .I’m also broadcasting live on the new app PERISCOPE. Check it out. Thanks for reading and as always: Carry on, keep the faith and keep screenwriting.
Okay, let’s cut to the chase and get right to the action—here are a few more useful survival tips for your journey…
ALWAYS ACT LIKE A PROFESSIONAL IN EVERY ACTION YOU MAKE.
Act like a professional even if you’re an aspirant writing who has yet to sell something. As a screenwriter, you must consider writing a job and this helps you to think of yourself as a professional. As with any job, it comes with deadlines, requirements and expectations, so it’s good practice to follow professional disciplines as you prepare for the time when you do get paid to write. If you train yourself to work under a deadline, it’s not a shock when the producer requires you to complete a script by a certain date. It’s no longer the romanticized dream of spending endless time working on your spec to get it just right—it’s “go time” and you’re now playing in the big leagues—exactly where you belong. The producer or executive expects greatness from you and you generally have six to eight weeks to deliver the first draft and its excellence will decide if they keep you on to write a second draft, or fire you. This is not the time for a “vomit draft.” If you start meeting your own deadlines when writing your specs, it will be easier later when they pay you under contract to meet a deadline.
DO NOT TYPE “FADE IN” IF YOU CAN’T HANDLE CRITICISM.
Don’t take criticism personally and realize that it’s part of the process. If you’re going to play in the majors, you’re competing with the best and you must accept that sometimes you won’t find the validation you need. Many times feedback on your script is disappointing and your high expectations become squashed. Your ego’s bruised, beaten to a pulp and you to doubt your talent and chances for success. Don’t take it personally, because feedback is a rite of passage necessary for the growth of any aspiring screenwriter. If you want to survive over the long haul of a career, you’ll need to toughen up and build your courage to endure disappointment criticism and rejection. Learn how to filter the good notes from the bad and ugly notes. As you embrace this process, you’ll begin to look at constructive feedback as a positive experience that helps make your script better, helps push it closer to something a producer wants to produce, and teaches you how to collaborate as a team player so you can work again.
REALIZE THAT TALK AND INTEREST ARE FREE AND CHEAP IN HOLLYWOOD.
You’ll learn the longer you pursue a screenwriting career that talk is cheap in Hollywood and people want credit for their good intentions—it’s the follow through that is usually missing. Too many times the words are empty promises that end up wasting an eager and hungry writer’s time. Money makes it real. Take everything as face value for talk is the cheapest commodity in Hollywood. Many times interest in you or your script and the endless talk is just that—interest and talk. Many times meetings are just meetings. Many times a producer’s upbeat attitude about your project can become infectious. You want to believe that others see your dream and can realize it. Why not? It’s what keeps us going as screenwriters—belief in our projects and the faith that success is just around the corner. I’m sure when producers and executives tell you that your project is going into production, they just might believe it themselves, but sometimes they tell a writer this to buy more free time. Producers want to keep a writer’s interest in hanging on until they “work out the pesky financing details” and it becomes the bait for more free work. If they can’t raise the money for the budget or they have no money in their development budget, there really is no money to pay the writer. Be understanding to a certain point and look at every situation through a risk/benefit filter. Are you willing to risk your free time with free rewrites on the possible chance a project “might” get produced? Get excited when a producer gives you a contract, you both sign it and you get paid. That’s the professional way—otherwise, you can’t live on the currency of good intentions. Now get back to your blank pages. If you stop writing you’re guaranteed never to have any chance at success.
Keep writing and filling your pages because if you stop—you’re guaranteed to never have any shot at success. This is a business with no guarantees even when you do sell a screenplay.
Until next time… @Scriptcat out!
Copyright 2018 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE blog.
If your passion drives you to embark on this crazy adventure of a screenwriting career, you’ll need to prepare for survival in Hollywood’s trenches. Talent is important, but so is your professionalism and ability to endure criticism, rejection, and failure over the long haul. My new book, “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” will help you prepare for your own journey with the necessary, tips, tricks and tactics that I’ve developed over the past twenty years of working in the film industry. It’s time to start living your dream as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Available now on Amazon. Click on the book cover for the link to purchase.
Visit and subscribe to my YOUTUBE CHANNEL with 31 screenwriting video tips.
Do you lack focus or haven’t set goals for the year with regards to your career? Check out my on-demand webinars…
(click on the icon below for the link to purchase or stream the videos)
Did you just complete your latest magnum opus? Time for in-depth screenplay consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website and more information.
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson
“If you’re worried about failing, you ought to get into a different business, because statistics will tell you that sixty or seventy percent of the time you’re going to fail. By fail I mean that the movie won’t make money. Just do the best you can every time. And if you’re going to stay in the movies, and you like movies—and I love them—you’d better love them a lot, because it’s going to take all of your time. If you want to be in the movies, it’s going to break your heart.“—Richard Brooks, director of Blackboard Jungle, Sweet Bird of Youth, In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar
April 4, 2018 § Leave a comment
Generally speaking, there are three types of research for your screenplay: Experience, imagination, and reality. I believe doing your proper research shows respect for the subject you are writing. It hearkens back to my strong convictions about respect for the craft of screenwriting and living the life of a professional in all manner and action. Every aspect of your writing goes into your writer’s toolkit and you will draw upon these tools as your build and establish a career as a working screenwriter. How many movies have you seen that feel completely inauthentic? How many characters seem fake? Quite a few and it’s hard to mask inauthentic writing. This is why the best films come from a place of authenticity and it starts from the producer and screenwriter’s desire to get it right.
The fun part of being a writer is that your research is an ongoing process of venturing out into the world and living your life in an adventurous way. You constantly need to have new and different experiences to make your writing more truthful and creative. It helps to get out of your “comfort zone.” I don’t believe you can live in an ivory tower and write about life without ever really experiencing it from the gutter to the penthouse. I believe any writer needs to stay open and curious about the world. It’s our duty to experience life and fill our stories with truth and authenticity.
Maybe you’ve done research for a paper or report in college or high school and found the process frustrating and overly time-consuming. The process is the same when crafting your screenplay, so if you haven’t mastered the techniques of research, you need to learn how to use the process as a tool in your ability to craft an authentic project. If you’re hired for a screenplay assignment, you might write about something you don’t know. Many of my screenwriting assignment jobs have been to write a particular genre — military action, family, holiday, science fiction, thriller, natural disaster, even noir crime thriller. You’ll need to watch and study films of a particular genre to become an expert on the story, structure and characters in the types of genre movies you might write. You’ll also need to read other screenplays in the genre to become an expert in that particular world. Not a bad job, eh? Watching movies and reading screenplays as part of your screenwriting research.
So, how do you begin your screenplay research? You’ll need to have your basic story down first and as you compile your research, but make sure you don’t get lost in the process. As you know, us screenwriters tend to procrastinate, so don’t allow your research to keep you from writing your script. Make a list of specific issues or facts you need to research and use it as a guide to save time. The better you know your screen story, the faster you will be able to target the research topics as they will become clearer. Limit the time you spend on research, so set aside a block of time and keep to a schedule, take detailed notes and keep track of everything in a file or notebook. As you compile most of what you need to learn, switch the rest of your day to writing. Don’t waste unnecessary months, you can always go back and find specific items you need, but always get on with the process of screenwriting.
When I developed the basic story for my WWII coming of age spec screenplay, “I’ll Remember April,” I needed to flesh out the lives of the characters during this period in history. I needed historical details to add realism to my story. Authenticity was my mission, as I based my story on a historical military incident: The shelling of an oil refinery just north of Santa Barbara in Goleta, California by a Japanese submarine. It was the first attack on United States soil by a foreign power since the War of 1812.
I already structured my screenplay and spent three months reading every book, historical newspaper article, magazine and watched dozens of films to get into the mindset of the months surrounding February of 1942 when my screenplay took place. I interviewed my parents who remember the war as small children and I incorporated their feelings and experiences into my characters. I interviewed my grandparents, who were the age of my lead characters during the war, for a different point of view. All of this information went into my research notebook.
I needed to know what life was like on the home front of the United States in 1942—what troubled people living on the west coast, what was going on in Washington DC, what was happening in the battles of the South Pacific where our lead character’s son was fighting, how people reacted to rationing and the war, and the facts and events leading up to the Japanese internment? These topics were necessary research to make my story more authentic. Your screenplay may never be a hundred percent authentic, as it’s a movie and not a documentary, but always service the story first and then do your best to make it realistic. If you want to write a historical screenplay, hunt for your story first and don’t let the historical facts to keep you from writing—for the Hero’s Journey dates back to the beginning of storytelling. I believe the little details are important and trust me, someone will always find inaccuracies in your movie and point them out on their blogs, customer reviews, or the Internet Movie Database!
What if you don’t have screenplay credits, how can you get others to take you seriously with your research? You’d be surprised how easy it is to get people excited to help once you tell them you’re working on a project. The more serious and professional you are about your writing, the easier it is to draw others in to help your cause. You’ll find experts are very open to sharing their knowledge and will even do interviews to help you make your screenplay more authentic.
Years ago when I was writing a spec action screenplay that took place on a supertanker, my writing partner at the time and I contacted a shipping company in San Pedro, California and told them we needed to get on board of a ship to ask questions for our research. We showed our serious interest in their world and in return, they were extremely helpful and gave us a complete tour—from the bridge down to the bowls of the rear engine room with its gigantic propeller. It was a unique experience and I would have never set foot on a supertanker if it hadn’t been for our need to do research. You would be surprised how many times people want to help you if you just ask.
As I mentioned earlier, you must use the three types of research for your screenplay: Experience, imagination, and reality. Like the actor, I believe a screenwriter should go out of his or her way to log as many life experiences as possible to expand their writer’s arsenal. How can you possibly write about something and make it authentic without ever having experienced it? Sure, you can imagine what it would be like, but many times you get writing that isn’t authentic and is just a rehash of what you’ve either seen in movies or television. If you always write your stories from your unique perspective and experience, they won’t read or feel fake.
The ability to research is another important tool in your screenwriter’s arsenal. When you can’t write from experience, you need to do research and become a mini expert on a particular subject or film genre. Don’t get distracted by the process, set aside a block of time, target your topics of research, take detailed notes and move on with the job of writing. As you live an authentic writer’s life, everything you do and observe is research for your writing. Make it your goal to pursue as many different experiences in life as possible—it will enrich your writing and your life. Learn as much as you can about every subject and always strive to make your screenplays authentic. Again, it’s all part having respect for the craft of screenwriting.
Keep writing and keep the faith.
Copyright 2018 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“I could be just a writer very easily. I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker. … But it is not an art form, because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art.”—Paul Schrader
“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”—Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in his 1878 letter to his benefactress.
“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.” —Leigh Brackett
“Then our writers when they have made some money increase their standard of living and they are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishments, their wives, and so on, and they write slop. It is slop not on purpose but because it is hurried. Because they write when there is nothing to say or no water in the well. Because they are ambitious. Then, once they have betrayed themselves, they justify it and you get more slop.”—Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, page 23.
“Time stays long enough for those who use it.”—Leonardo da Vinci
March 16, 2018 § Leave a comment
Ah, validation. All writers have a need for some type of recognition of their work in a positive manner. We all need a pat on the back or just a “job well done” comment every once in a while. Many times you won’t find the validation you seek on the outside, but inside yourself for walking the talk and completing a screenplay. In fact, many times the only validation will come from when they stamp your parking ticket after the meeting. I’m always suspicious of the production companies that don’t pay for a writer’s parking. You pull into the parking lot and read the rates are $2.50 (£1.63 / €2.24) every fifteen minutes—ten bucks (€ 8.96 / £6.52 ) per hour! It could be foreshadowing of a terrible ending. Sure enough, after the meeting is over they pass on your project and it’s like rubbing lemon into your paper cut as you race down the stairwell because the quarter-hour is approaching and you don’t want to blow another $2.50 unless you have to do it.
After you finish a new screenplay it’s a vulnerable period because you’re exposing your work to criticism and possibly rejection. You’re coming off a major creative high and you don’t want anyone to spoil your euphoria. And then you discover it’s difficult to find someone else who shares your level of excitement about your script. It’s a feeling of lonely disappointment as if you’re the only person who is championing your cause. Stay strong and trust in your daily disciplines to get you through.
Writing the screenplay is the first big hurdle, but waiting for the validation from feedback is another. It’s easy to take notes personally because your script is your baby and your writing exposes yourself and your talents to the world. If you can’t handle critical opinions, work on detaching from your work, as it will make the process easier for survival. Notes and changes are standard procedure with any screenplay at every level of the film business because the script is an ever-changing blueprint for a movie.
Once the producers, the director, and actors become involved there will be changes and you should welcome the creative input from your co-collaborators. These fellow artisans will bring the script to an entirely new level of creativity. The problem comes when so many changes drag down the process and you become frustrated and feel like throwing in the towel. Stay positive and focus on turning in a script that is closer to what everyone needs to produce the film. That’s your ultimate goal—production. Find the passion you had for the first draft and put that energy into shaping the new draft. You’ll please not only yourself, but also the producer and other talent your script needs to attract to get produced.
I remember when one of my films screened for the cast and crew. I attended, sat next to the stars of the film, and even shared their popcorn. The producer addressed the audience from the screen where he introduced the key players who made the film and thanked them. He mentioned the stars, director, various crew members, even the craft service guy who “made fantastic sushi.” I assumed he would mention my name, but somehow, it slipped his memory. I sat there mortified and the stars of the film gave me a supportive look. The lights dimmed and the movie started—a movie that I wrote!
CUT TO: The production company’s offices and after screening party. It was a crowded affair with many industry types and crew members. After a few martinis, I was chatting with a character actor who starred in many Cohen Brothers films. The producer found me, marched over, and apologized profusely. He said that he didn’t know that I was at the screening. Talk about validation…
If you’re going to play in the majors, you’re competing with the best and you must accept that sometimes you won’t find the validation you need. Many times you will be disappointed from your feedback and your high expectations may be squashed. Your ego’s bruised, beaten to a pulp and you to doubt your talent and chances for success. Don’t take it personally, because feedback is a rite of passage necessary for the growth of any aspiring screenwriter. You’ll need to survive over the long haul of a career to endure disappointment criticism and rejection. As you embrace this process, you’ll begin to look at constructive feedback as a positive experience that helps make your script better and teaches you collaboration as a team player.
You’re certain to experience many disappointments as you pursue a career, but do not perceive any of them as failures or setbacks. These experiences are part of a screenwriter’s journey and you’ll always succeed if you keep a positive outlook and never stop writing.
Copyright 2018 by Mark Sanderson on blog My Blank Page.
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“The reward of suffering is experience.”—Aeschylus, Ancient Greek Dramatist known as the founder of Greek Tragedy
“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then.”—William Faulkner
“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win,
by fearing to attempt.”—
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act 1 Scene 4
“Don’t focus on where you’re not (famous or A-list writer)—focus on where you’re at—hopefully screenwriting. Regardless of success or experience, we’re all equals in front of that blank page channeling the muse.”—Scriptcat
“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye. Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
February 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Ah, the march of time and the dreaded specter of deadlines. It can be the downfall of writers because they haven’t yet trained themselves to achieve their best results with a specific due date. As a screenwriter, time can be your greatest asset or worst enemy, it’s how you decide to respect the time given to write a project. You’ll face deadlines your entire life and more importantly as you’re screenwriting. Sure, you can spend copious amounts of time on your specs with an open-ended schedule that doesn’t include a specific finish date, but you’re not training yourself for the time when you do finally land a screenplay assignment job with a payday and a concrete deadline.
Use your specs as training tools to learn the craft of screenwriting, find your unique writer’s “voice,” and to practice writing a screenplay under a self-imposed deadline. Don’t look at your specs as million dollar sales. The odds are astronomical of selling a spec. In fact, most years only around 100 specs or less sell at the studio level in Hollywood out of an estimated 50,000 registered yearly with the Writers Guild. When I first started writing screenplays, I mistakenly believed that everything that I wrote would sell. I was quickly humbled and it wasn’t until my 5th spec that finally sold. Yes, I’ve sold one spec in my career, but that opened the door to highly coveted assignment work and has blossomed into 19 paid assignments that have produced 13 films so far and 2 paid TV pilot assignments. Specs are the training tools for you to learn and master screenwriting. Yes, a few of them might end up being winners, but the first four or five will be a mess. After that, you hope that your best work will make some noise and get you hired to write a screenplay for a producer or executive.
This is why meeting deadlines are vital to your success as a working screenwriter. When you land an assignment job, you’ll sign a contract and agree to complete the screenplay within a specific time frame. Producers don’t want to be stuck in development hell for years and they too have deadlines to meet. Once you sign the contract, you’re off to the keyboard and will have to produce a kick ass (no vomit drafts allowed here) screenplay in usually four to eight weeks, depending on your contract. I’ve done it as fast as two weeks for a first draft but mostly four weeks.
You’ll be surprised at what you can achieve if you write every day following a solid story treatment. You have to learn how to be your most creative under the pressure of a deadline, while still writing as if you’re unaware of it. Professional screenwriters are professionals because a producer or executive pays them to get the job done—on time—every time. I always try to turn in my assignments a day or two before they are due, just to show that I’m at the top of my game.
If you’re blessed to work regularly and forge a screenwriting career, the reality is that it’s your job and how you make your living—and deadlines are now a fact of life. It’s not some romantic ideal of writing when you feel like it, but the reality that paid work comes from you filling blank pages—either of your own creation or from ideas that producers pay you to write. That’s what is known as a “working screenwriter.” That’s always been my goal since I started making films as a wide-eyed eleven year old kid—to work as a filmmaker in Hollywood. I’ve now been able to live my dream many times over during the past twenty years of my career.
Playwright, novelist and screenwriter Patty Chayefsky once said, “Artists don’t talk about art. Artists talk about work. If I have anything to say to young writers, it’s stop thinking of writing as art. Think of it as work.” If you start treating it as your job and meeting self-imposed deadlines, even if you do have a day job, you will begin to act in a professional way. This includes disciplines you must practice and master to prepare you for when it finally does become your job. If you dabble in screenwriting, it’s like sticking your pinkie into the Pacific Ocean. You’ll need to jump off the cliff without fear and plunge into the abyss with all of your might. Screenwriting professionals follow strict disciplines used to help guide them on their journey to success.
1. Set up self-imposed deadlines when writing your specs. Meet your writing page count every day and every week—even if it means working on weekends. Can you write a kick ass first draft in four weeks? Eight weeks? You’ll have to train yourself to be a fast writer who can deliver quality under the pressure of a deadline. If you stick to a regular schedule with self-imposed deadlines, maybe with a day job you can even write one or two feature specs a year. Once it’s your job, you will create under the pressure of a contracted deadline, so train now to get used to this reality.
2. Do the writing necessary to create a solid body of material that will represent you and compete in a competitive marketplace. One script will not do it and it might take five scripts over ten years to see any level of success in the film business. Remember, time is a writer’s greatest asset or worst enemy—it depends on how it’s used.
3. Look at the big picture of your screenwriting career goals and set up a yearly master plan. Make a project list of ideas, pitches, treatments, finished scripts and set deadlines and stick to them. Make a list of your contacts and where you submitted your scripts in the past. When you complete a new script and it’s completely ready for a read, follow-up with your network and offer them your latest creation. Lather, rinse and repeat. That’s how you will eventually sell something or get hired for an assignment.
4. Be humble and know that it’s a long climb to reach the top of the mountain you’re climbing. It’s your dream and no one forced you to choose this path, so take responsibility daily and hone your writing skills to reach the next plateau. Professionals respect the craft and climb the mountain every day. Sure it’s fraught with the pitfalls of rejection, criticism and failure, but a professional soldiers on in the face of adversity and for every two steps back, takes four steps forward.
Treat your screenwriting like a job and you’ll be acting as a professional and preparing yourself for the time when you do finally score the gig that opens the door to a career.
It’s a business with no guarantees—even if you do sell your screenplay. So keep writing, meeting your deadlines, and keep the faith because if you stop, you’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success.
Copyright 2018 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE blog.
Join me on Twitter/Periscope @scriptcat
Subscribe to my YOUTUBE CHANNEL for weekly screenwriting videos.
Did you just complete your latest magnum opus? Time for in-depth screenplay consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website for more information.
Need help navigating Hollywood’s trenches as you pursue your screenwriting career? Check out my book “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” that charts my past twenty years of professional screenwriting in Hollywood and I share my tips, tricks and tactics that I’ve used to stay in the game. It’s now available on Amazon. Click on the book cover for the link for more information.
“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
“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it… creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” — Joseph Campbell
“My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.”—Ray Bradbury