There is no better creative high than when you finish your screenplay. The moment you type “FADE OUT—THE END” starts a new journey of notes, criticism and rewrites. Embrace it all because it’s part of the long haul screenwriting journey.
I always walk away and leave the script alone for a few days so my impressions can settle. I print a hard copy and prepare for my first, uninterrupted read. But only after I go out and celebrate another project brought into the world. We must always celebrate the big and little successes along the way as it helps us get through the difficult times in the trenches. If you committed and completed a screenplay, then you are farther along on the journey than most writers because you’ve actually completed a screenplay.
I find far too many “screenwriters” talk about their writing, and how great their latest magnum opus is coming along, and the excruciating minutia of the process—all as they procrastinate from the actual craft of writing. When you come into contact with these types, it certainly sounds like they are writing, but when you check in a few months later, they’ll still boast to you, “I’m on page 30.” You pause for a beat and quickly remember they mentioned the same thing to you three months ago. Talking about writing certainly doesn’t get the job done. It’s not magic that fills those blank pages—it’s a passion for the craft, a solid idea and outline, followed by an ass in a seat, staring at a screen, and using your discipline and techniques to churn out pages. It’s not a romantic ideal of a writer’s life but actual work. I have recently completed my 41st feature screenplay on my journey, and I continue to learn with every new project and working with every producer and director. Do not ever believe that you are bigger than the craft.
My suggestion? Before you’ve had a chance for a first read — under no circumstances do you give your first draft to anyone—even if they beg you— and certainly not to any producer or Hollywood industry type. You and the material are too fragile and you need to digest what you’ve written without any outside criticism. This is the precious time needed between a screenwriter and his or her script to form an opinion. You don’t need outside opinions at this time. Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of those soon enough. What you thought was genius will be crap, and what you thought was crap will be genius.
After a week, take the hard copy of your script out from the drawer and go read it alone somewhere using my “20 Steps to use after you type FADE OUT—THE END.” I prefer my local coffee-house with a nice large cup of java. Read it through once just to see if the entire script flows. You will find that it’s different from you might have remembered while you were actually writing it. Time away from a script allows you to redefine the story in your head and upon your first read, you will immediately notice things that work or do not work.
Next, take a pen and read through again making your notes. I always find a million small changes to the wording of a scene and the dialogue. Once you’re done, go back to your computer and make the chances into your second draft. Now, if you feel confident about it, take this draft and give it to those people you trust to give a read. I am lucky to have a small circle of fellow writers whom I trust, and we always send our latest scripts back and forth to each other for notes. I trust them to give me constructive criticism that will help in my next draft. We’re lucky to share a special esprit de corps in our ranks, each member rooting for the other and striving to make each other better writers.
Writers are known for trying to get away with easy or lazy writing, and fellow writers will always bust you if you’ve tried the easy way out in your script. These notes are invaluable as they are coming from a story point of view and not from a producer’s point of view. My fellow writers let me know if my project is effective for what I was trying to do, not give me notes on the way “they would have written it.” There’s a big difference. I only want notes at this stage to tell me if I was successful in my attempt at telling my particular story. I don’t want notes to tell me how to change it to be another story or how they would have done it differently. Those type of notes will surely come from a producer in due time.
Once I have my writer’s circle notes, I head back to do yet another pass and hopefully the script is pretty solid at this point so it’s just a true polish and not a complete rewrite. Now, I’m talking about my spec (speculation) scripts with regards to my choice to receive my writer’s circle notes. If I am working on my script assignments for producers, the only notes I care about during that process are the ones the producer (my boss) has to give me. On an assignment job, I’m hired to write the script the producer wants, and the producer’s notes are the only ones that matter because he or she is dealing with the investors or the network who have their requirements too. As writers, we definitely want to please our bosses the producers who have hired us and believe that we are the right person for the job.
If you do not have a circle or writers or a writer’s group that you can utilize, consider hiring a screenplay consultant. I offer a variety of consultation services to screenwriters after they complete a new script or a new draft. It can help with your rewrites to get another set of eyes on your project when it’s still in a protected bubble. But realize that screenwriting is all about rewriting. Even when a film is in production there will be changes, so a script must be solid but remain fluid for production reasons.
If your script is at a stage where you feel confident in giving it to a professional to read, do not call them a week later and say you have a “new draft” and that you hope they didn’t read the copy you gave them. If a professional gives you their time, respect it by giving them the best possible version of the script that you have. If your script is not ready, that’s okay. Take the time to get it to a place where you are completely confident with your writing and choices, and then set it free and let the chips fall as they may. Never send out a script that isn’t the best possible draft for it will harm your ability to get others to read your next script if you cut corners on this one due to lack of patience.
You’ll always need to make sure the script you send out is the best possible draft, as you only get one chance to make the right impression with your writing. Only send out your best work because you and your script live or die by what’s on the page.
Keep filling your blank pages because if you stop writing, you’ll never have any shot at success.
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“…Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing and desire—desire to do it. If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I an artist?” Chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“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
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”—Ray Bradbury
“People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich.”—William Faulkner