Always follow a strict writing schedule and set a deadline for your specs…

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 within a specific due date. The challenge is not allowing yourself to take an unending amount of time on writing your specs. As a screenwriter, time can be your greatest asset or worst enemy, and it’s how you decide to respect the time given to write any 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. You may flounder when only given eight weeks to complete your first draft if you’ve never truly written under a self-imposed deadline.

Consider your specs as training tools to learn the craft of screenwriting, find your unique writer’s “voice,” and to practice writing a screenplay on a schedule and deadline. Don’t look at your specs as million dollar sales. The odds are astronomical of selling a spec. In fact, in 2021 only 34 specs sold 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 and everything I was paid to write would be produced. I was quickly humbled, and it wasn’t until my 5th spec finally sold and it opened the door to 24 more assignment jobs. Specs help you learn and master screenwriting. Yes, a few of them might end up being winners and produced, but the first three or four will be a mess and a chance to learn the craft and all that goes into it. 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.

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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. 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 become 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 the deadline, just to show that I’m at the top of my game. They’ll never know I finished a week prior and was able to complete my own polish before handing it over.

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 become 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.

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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.

Disciplines like…

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.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright © 2022 by Mark Sanderson. All Rights Reserved. My Blank Page blog.

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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

“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

The romanticized idea of “making it” as a screenwriter in Hollywood…

Doesn’t every screenwriter dream of being on the A-list at the top levels of Hollywood? How realistic is that? Who knows? And what is your definition of “making it?” Having huge paydays for your screenplays or creative satisfaction? Good luck. Maybe it’s making a living in a tough business and waking up doing what you love for a living. That’s more realistic, but who knows where you will end up? Even with the best intentions and hard work there is no guarantee of success. Many talented writers toil away for years and never sell anything, while others with less talent and drive end up selling projects. It’s a screwy business for sure.

As working screenwriters, we are all just one project away from looking for our next job. We are like a band of artisan nomads who roam from job to job trying to stay in the screenwriting game and make a living. If you consider screenwriting a job, it will help take much of the romanticized glamor off this business. Your life after you sell a script or land an assignment job will never be what you envisioned. If you are writing on a TV series, the season ends and so does the show if it’s cancelled. Then what? You have to find your next gig. Today many streamers produce a limited season of 6-8 episodes and they also cancel a series after three seasons. This makes writers have fewer long term employment guarantees than in the past.

Years ago I thought when I scored my first professional writing job that I had finally “made it.” I was able to quit my restaurant job as a waiter, and I thought this was my big break. That was until the producers fired me six weeks into the gig. Sadly, it happens. I didn’t “make it” but it was just another step on a very long journey. What it did was get me out of the restaurant job and I never looked back. It’s been a long haul journey to achieve one spec sale that was produced and fifteen other produced films from twenty-three paid script assignments. It happened due to my drive, tenacity, and never giving up. So, “making it” is all relative. Getting your first gig or next gig is “making it” in my opinion.

Hollywood is a tough business to achieve any level of success, so you have to shoot to the moon with your dreams to even reach half way there. Your idea of success cannot always be about making a big sale or climbing to the A-list overnight. You will not survive over the long haul journey if you have an “all or nothing at all” attitude. I have known people who would only consider themselves a success if they became an A-list talent. It wasn’t worth the tremendous effort to them to end up only making a living at their craft and not being on top. They only wanted to be superstars and nothing less. When I was pre-teen kid and making films with my friends, I only ever wanted to get paid to do what I loved to do—make movies. I am blessed and happy waking up in the morning and getting paid to be creative. That is my dream come true.

The longer you are in the film business with its ups and downs and busy and slow periods, you may change your opinion as to what “making it” is in your mind. Few achieve the top levels of any field. Shoot for the moon, but it’s not such a bad thing to get paid to do what you love for a living too. This might require you to adjust your lofty goals of achieving A-list status. It is okay to make a living from your art too. Fame, fortune, and glory are elusive in the screenwriting game.

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Do not take any successful step forward for granted because what might appear to be a tiny step forward can actually be a huge successful step in disguise. If you can get your material to assistants for consideration, it is a new opportunity for you to plant your flag and hold new ground if they like your writing. If they pass on your script but like your writing, it might feel like a failure now, but it is something that will pay off down the road. It is a little success and positive step forward to celebrate. Even a tiny step like meeting an assistant and keeping in touch as a new contact is a successful step.

Back in the day when I was shopping my spec around Hollywood and getting rejected at every turn, I met an assistant through a mutual contact. This assistant got his boss interested enough in my spec to option it and later buy it and produce it into a movie. The assistant went on to become the president of the production company and hired me to write many movies for them. Later he became an independent producer and hired me again for more assignment work. You never know where the tiny successes will lead, but they do add up and help you establish your experience and eventually a career.

Many years ago when I was just starting out in my attempt to be a working screenwriter, I entered my fifth spec script in various screenwriting contests. Much to my surprise it ended up being a semi-finalist in the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship that year. It placed in the top 1% of all entries worldwide and was in the top twenty scripts overall, but did not end up as one of the eight finalists. I could have looked upon this as a complete failure, but I used my script’s advanced placement as a successful step forward and convinced agents and producers to read it because of my achievement. I eventually found a producer who saw my script’s potential and his new production company bought my project and later produced it into a movie.

This screenwriting journey is full of ups and downs and Hollywood can serve up a constant dose of criticism, rejection, and failure. Be aware of your negative thoughts about your self-worth as it relates to your screenwriting success or failure. The more negative thoughts you have, the more it becomes an emotion, and then it’s hard to separate your thoughts from your emotions. You can actually start to believe a reality that isn’t true. Many times, it is not always about the sale or the final results of a project. A rejection or “pass” now can actually be an open door later and another project because they like your writing and want to see more of your material. What seemed like a failure at first might really be a successful step because you started a new relationship with a producer or executive and now their door is open to you. This is why you must work on your next project because the key to a successful career is building these relationships with a solid body of material.

It will take at least three or four scripts to get used to the craft and find your voice and style. Screenwriting well takes time and experience — so be patient and do the necessary work. Don’t be depressed when your script does not sell the first time out. Most beginning screenwriters rarely sell their first screenplays. Remain humble or Hollywood will humble you fast. This is a long haul marathon and not a sprint. Completing your latest screenplay is “making it.” Keep making it and hopefully you will land a real screenwriting job that will be the first step of a long journey to stay in the game.

Keep writing and keep the faith.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright ⓒ 2022 All rights reserved by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.

Did you just complete your latest screenplay and need affordable, in-depth consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for more information and the link to my website.

Need help navigating Hollywood’s trenches as you pursue a screenwriting career? Check out my new book available now on Amazon. It chronicles my past twenty years of professionally working as a screenwriter in Hollywood and I share my tips, tricks and tactics that have helped me to stay in the game over the long haul. Click on the book cover for the link to Amazon.

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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

I have a theory: not to bore the audience. You make pictures, in a way, for yourself, but you also make them for an audience.”—director William Wyler, Conversations with The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute.

“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling

“The reward of suffering is experience.”—Aeschylus, Ancient Greek Dramatist known as the founder of Greek Tragedy

“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