Communiqué from the front lines: Following disciplines to stay on target…
June 8, 2014 § 3 Comments
It’s nice being back in the swing of things—having just completed the first draft of my twenty-seventh feature-length screenplay. It’s a movie for television and my twelfth paid screenwriting assignment of my career. The longer you write you will find that every screenplay has its unique set of issues—pleasant and unpleasant surprises and continued learning experiences so you must remain fluid at all times during the adventure. Also every new working relationship with your producer or executive will be different and bring its own set of unique issues. This time around for me was an enjoyable experience.
The life of a working screenwriter is not the romanticized ideal life you may read about with fame and fortune—it’s a job and nice work when you can get it. Once the producer or executive unleashes you, it can be a bit lonely because it’s just you and the blank page until it’s done. Strict disciplines are vital during this period because the pressure is on to deliver the goods under a specific deadline. When the production company signed off on the treatment after a development process, it was my job to craft a screenplay that went beyond the story treatment and became the movie they wanted to make. As always, my trusty entertainment lawyer negotiated my contract and it was a relatively quick and painless experience followed by signatures and getting the green light to go to work.
The producer required me to craft a solid story treatment before I could go to pages. This is a standard requirement from almost all producers or production companies. It’s understandable as they want to know where you will be going with the script and they do not want any surprises when you turn it in. It also helps you to stay on target with regards to the story and your deadline. I completed the first draft in twenty-five straight days (a few days early from my four-week requirement) and it was only possible because of my solid ten page story treatment. The screenplay should be a relative breeze to write if you’ve crafted a solid story in your treatment to follow. Again, protecting your precious writing time is also vital to the process. The forces of procrastination know when you’re writing and they will do their best to seduce you to clean the house or surf the net.
Once they accepted the treatment and it was locked, I was given the green light to start the script. Even after twenty-seven screenplays, I still get the jitters and that nervous stomach facing the blank page. It’s a blank slate and I always expect it to turn out great, but you never know until you type FADE OUT – THE END and wait for notes. No matter credits or experience, we’re all equal when we sit in front of that blank page and channel the muse. If you think you’re bigger or better than your craft you will be humbled. I guarantee it. That is why I respect the process every time up to the plate because I know too well the pitfalls and roadblocks that can spring up during the adventure. And trust me, you don’t want your back up against the wall when you’re working under a contracted deadline and your reputation that got you the gig is at stake. You must do everything possible to clear the decks and make your process work for you by following your trustworthy disciplines and using your screenwriting tools kept in your toolkit.
This time out, much to my dismay, I discovered that my writing schedule was a bit off. I of course figured out my daily page count to see how much I needed to write every day if I was to make the four-week contracted deadline to turn in my first draft. That averaged out five pages a day—not impossible and my usual clip when I’m up and running. But, this time I stumbled a bit out of the gate and the first few days were not great. I recall the first day only writing two pages. Okay. No worries. I’m settling in, right? Day two was only three pages. Okay, stay on target. Seven days into the adventure, I found myself on page seventeen and now I started calculating how many days I was behind—seven days in my target is page thirty-five and I’m not there…I’m three days behind… okay, deep breaths and focus… and as you can see, this can become a vicious circle if you fall too far behind.
Okay, I didn’t panic, but utilized my experience and disciplines to fall back on and this allowed me to stay on target regardless of page count and catch up in a matter of days. I knew that I had to wake up every day and attack this project because it’s my job. Slowly, three days behind became one day ahead of schedule. This is the necessary training many aspirants are not doing by setting up their own deadlines and sticking to them. Many believe it will be a leisurely breeze once they score an assignment—the same cool breeze it was for years writing their specs. Once in the real working world, that belief will get writers in deep trouble when suddenly they wake up and find themselves twenty pages behind as their deadline looms.
As far as writing schedule, I found the mornings getting away from me and after reading news websites, taking care of my e-mails, Tweets, other social media, the odd phone calls, it was suddenly mid-afternoon and I would start writing. This went on for the first four days and I started to panic. This type of schedule would require me to work until at least midnight and sometimes into the wee small hours of the morning. My usual writing schedule was always starting work at around 10 AM and working until about 6 PM. The usual time required to write a feature-length script in four weeks. So, instead of fighting against it every day, I just accepted the fact that maybe this twenty-seventh time up to the plate, my writing schedule would start in the mid-afternoon and go into the night—so be it. As long as the pages get done, no one cares how or when you write.
As I mentioned before, the more screenplays you write, you’ll discover that each experience is unique and this was no exception. I started hitting my stride about page forty-five and couldn’t wait until the next day to continue channeling my characters. The best comment I’ve received back so far about the script from the producer was that I nailed the characters and really had their voice down. That made me feel good because I was feeling that during the writing. These characters really came alive and the drama and conflict really allowed me to explore their relationships and keep pushing the story forward.
Mission accomplished as I turned in the screenplay this week and await any notes to push it closer to a production date later this year. Again, if you do score an assignment gig, do everything possible to make your process work for you by following your trustworthy disciplines and using your screenwriting tools kept in your toolkit. It’s go time and what every screenwriter has dreamed of—getting paid to write and getting a movie made. It’s still a creative high and feeling of accomplishment when I finish a new screenplay. This one is no different and I look forward to starting my next assignment sometime in the near future.
Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages.
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“Luck is a prepared screenwriter who meets an opportunity and delivers the goods.”—Scriptcat
“It is no small feat to get a movie made, on any subject, on any screen.” — JJ Abrams
“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”—William Falukner
“One of the things that young writers falsely hope exists is inspiration. A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.”—William Goldman
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu
“… a basic “must” for every writer: A simple solitude—physical & mental.”—Rod Serling