Keep filling your blank pages, one page at a time…
January 31, 2015 § 1 Comment
Like any discipline in life, it’s usually one “thing” at a time, one rep of a workout, one-minute, one day, or one step after another for any journey. Follow your screenwriting disciplines the same way. If you stop and think about the entire one-hundred or so pages at once, it can overwhelm you. Focus on the scene in front of you, but also be aware of how it relates to the bigger story and the journey of your protagonist. Do not stray from your writing schedule and step by step, you will finish your script if you stick with it every day.
Nice and easy does it every time. You’ll soon find that every trip up to the blank page is a different experience and every script is an adventure with its own unique set of triumphs and failures. It does get easier with experience, but even as I just completed the first draft of my 30th feature-length screenplay (my fourteenth assignment), it’s the same process as it was on my first script. Anxiety, a little bit of fear of the unknown, and the faith to leap off the cliff and know it’s going to be okay coming down.
You never know how it’s going to go until you type FADE IN and set off on that journey. Never take the process for granted or believe that you know everything—you will always be surprised and humbled by the craft. Sometimes the writing comes easy, other times it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do. When the writing becomes difficult and you’re hitting a creative wall, remember there’s no way around it, you can only break through it by focusing on the project and making a breakthrough happen. If you avoid the writing because it gets difficult, that breeds procrastination and it’s a disaster for any writer.
When the writing becomes hard, a long time friend of mine who is a writer/director exclaims, “It’s crap!” Yes, and the worst thing is to know that you’re writing “crap” and just slogging through putting words on paper, hoping to fix it in the next draft. You may have heard the moronic phrase sometimes used on a film 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.
This is why I’m not a fan of the “vomit” draft where you just spew out whatever comes into your mind and worry about it later. I don’t have that luxury when I work on my screenplay assignment jobs for producers, as they’ve hired me to write a fantastic first draft based upon a super tight story treatment. You should get into the habit of making your first draft as good as possible to train yourself for the time when you do land an assignment job. You certainly don’t want to find out on your first job that the producer wants you to do a “page one” rewrite of your first draft because it was substandard. Make it as amazing as you possibly can. Why not?
I believe 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 is a relative breeze. Nail it the best you can the first time out and avoid the pitfalls of stumbling into a horrible trap of development hell. It’s hard to go another direction with the story in another draft, and you’ll need years of experience being able to execute screenplay notes and successful rewrites—or be fired.
Screenplays live or die by their execution and good screenwriting always includes rewriting. Here is the formula: A good idea + a bad script from that idea = an unsuccessful screenplay and screenwriter. Screenwriting is rewriting and don’t forget it. 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.
One page at a time. If you write every day, you’ll be in the zone and will not to lose momentum. You’re also training for the long haul marathon to reach any level of success. 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 as writers need the uninterrupted time to dream, write and get the job done.
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 if you just keep filling your blank pages, one after another. I completed my latest first draft assignment job in twenty-six days because I worked from a detailed treatment, so I already had done much of the heavy lifting figuring out the story and the structure. The fun part was fleshing out the story and letting the characters come to life, breathe and send them on their journey.
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. You’re now under the gun and the clock is ticking. The producer expects a draft by the scheduled delivery date and you are getting paid under a deadline. It’s a very different experience from working on your spec only when you get inspired or maybe a half hour a day. If you’ve been hired professionally, you are 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, but I did it.
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’re writing at this moment, and fill your blank pages, one page at a time.
Keep the faith and if you stop writing, you’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success.
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“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