Communiqué from the trenches… your outline is the guide to a successful first draft.

This week, I turned in my screenplay three days before my contracted deadline. It was a pitch that I sold in December, and the first draft took me twenty-seven days to finish. Maybe you’d say, “I could never write a screenplay in four weeks!” Sure, maybe when you’re first starting out, but I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and the script I turned in was number forty-two on my journey. I could have never achieved the fast writing pace of five pages a day unless I had my solid outline to follow. The producer sent the script to the network, we received their minimal notes, and I’m on to writing the second draft. I give full credit to my deep work on the outline before I started any pages. A solid outline allows you to write a faster first draft.

When working on your specs, you want your first draft to be the best possible draft you can write at the time… and why not? Don’t stress if it’s not perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But why would anyone want to write a first draft using it as an exploration exercise? Or be rewriting while they write. It wastes precious time. Even if you rewrite your script to the point of being “written out” where you are totally confident with it… it will be looked upon as a first draft in the eyes of any new reader. And you should never tell anyone how many drafts it took to get to the one they are reading. It’s none of their business. Let them think it’s a “first draft.”

Don’t subscribe to the hype about the “vomit” draft where you just write off the top of your head from a few loose ideas. I recently consulted on a screenplay where the writer followed this method. His script suffered from overwriting with too many issues and came in about thirty pages too long. If you enjoy rewriting yourself and wasting time on a first draft, by all means go ahead. You will never get that chance when working under a contract and a deadline.

This is why I strongly believe that beginning writers should train now with their specs and try to nail the first draft. It does not have to be “crap.” Trust me, you will not have the luxury of turning in crap when you start working as a professional screenwriter on assignment work. Most of the writing in the feature arena in Hollywood is on assignment, as fewer than a hundred spec screenplays sell in any given year at the studio level. In fact, only thirty-four specs sold in 2021. A stat like that will open your eyes to the reality of the business. When an opportunity comes your way, you want to be ready to perform at the level of writing and speed necessary to complete an assignment under a contracted deadline. You’ll sign a contract, receive a payment, and it’s “go” time. Every assignment job requires an outline. The outlines also go through rewrites until the producers, investors, executives, studio, or network is comfortable the story they want is the one that you will write. No surprises!

Once the outline is accepted, you will be given your marching orders to start pages and the clock starts to tick. It’s not stressful because you have lived with the characters and story for a few weeks as you have created the outline from the concept. It gives you that precious time to envision the movie and now you have seen the entire movie played out in your head. Your pages should be a breeze and pleasure not a struggle. Creating and using an outline makes the screenwriting process a fun experience. You won’t get stuck in the barren wasteland of ACT TWO trying to figure out what happens next. It also still gives you creative freedom while working with a story safety net.

Outlines can be long and detailed and can range from ten to fifty pages in length. My latest outline that I turned in for this current assignment was twenty-three pages. I’ve also done extensive outlines up to thirty pages. My good friend who directed a studio film last year turned in a fifty page outline before he wrote the first draft. The outline length varies to how in-depth your story requires or how deep you want to go with details. The more details you work out ahead of time before you start pages, the better your first draft will be.

A fellow screenwriter friend always tells me he doesn’t like to work from a detailed treatment because he feels it stifles his spontaneity as he writes pages. His method is using a loosely structured beat sheet and he fills in the blanks as he writes. Different writers use different methods, but I’ve never gone astray writing the script from a detailed outline. Many times, a producer or executive only gives you a logline and it’s your job to return with a full story outline before they allow you start the script.

Screenwriting is all about structure. I always find plenty of creative breathing room and spontaneity even when working from a detailed outline. I still have to write the scene and let the characters interact, but I’ve already created the story world, the structure, and character’s motivations, so it allows me to play within the story’s parameters and create ideas not listed in the outline. I’ve always found that so many good ideas spring from a solid foundation because it’s a creative framework and suddenly one good idea begets another, and so on.

Outlines can be a powerful tool to help you prepare to write the script. If you’re getting paid for a script assignment, it’s standard practice the producer or executive will ask you to create an outline before they allow you to start any screenplay pages. Writing an extensive outline is similar to doing a pre-draft of your script. If you embrace the outlining process and craft a solid framework for your story, it will help serve as your guide to a successful first draft with fewer rewrites in your future.

Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages on your road to success.

Scriptcat out!

© 2023 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE. All rights reserved.

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“In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.”—Kurt Vonnegut

“You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.”—Ernest Hemingway

“Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp.”—Jerry Lewis

“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

“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

“I never feel the need to discuss my work with anyone. No, I am too busy writing it. It has got to please me and if it does I don’t need to talk about it. If it doesn’t please me, talking about it won’t improve it, since the only thing to improve it is to work on it some more. I am not a literary man but only a writer. I don’t get any pleasure from talking shop.”—William Faulkner

Scriptcat’s end of the year checklist…

Who can believe the year is almost over? It will be 2023 in a blink of an eye. It’s always a powerful tool to look back over the previous year and critically analyze the good, the bad, and the ugly choices you’ve made.

Hopefully, you’ve learned from your failures, from any criticism, and enjoyed your successes. Excuses abound, but what really matters is how productive have you been? Room for improvement? Have you become a better screenwriter and have you been able to move yourself and your projects down the field? Have you opened doors and gained new “fans” of your writing? Have you continued to build those vital relationships that matter over the long haul? Did you gain and hold new ground? Create a solid body of material in a genre to show your unique voice? All of these are important to any screenwriting journey to success.

The responsibility for a screenwriter’s career begins and ends with the screenwriter. The hard fact:  Your screenwriting career is probably the most important struggle to you and not to anyone else. Only you know the hard work and sacrifices you’ve endured to go after your dream, so you need to protect your career path by taking responsibility for chartering the course of your career. Your time is precious and you need to constantly be moving forward and avoid the pitfalls of poor choices and negative experiences.

Too many times, I’ve heard screenwriters blame others for their own missteps or lack of success in Hollywood. Some writers look for the quick and easy way to success, but end up frustrated when their one script doesn’t sell, they have no other plans and they are not working on new material. Sure, it’s easier to soften the blow to blame the agent, manager, producer, or Hollywood itself for not getting your film made, but screenwriters need to step up and take more control over their choices.

Every time you write a new project on spec, you must consider how it fits into the bigger picture of your screenwriting goals. It’s a risk when you write a spec and you are rolling the dice with your precious time. Did you just have a “fun idea” for a movie and thought it would sell, so you decided to spend months writing it? This is not an effective use of your time. If it’s your passion project and you must write it—do it and hopefully you’ve executed it properly and your passion will be there on the page.

Boulder Flat

Always have a purpose in choosing your material. REMEMBER: What you write about is as important as how you execute it — and just because you write it doesn’t mean they have to buy it or will “love it.” You’ll only figure this out after you meander through four or five scripts that don’t achieve the plateaus you had expected or do not sell. You’ll be forced to take a step back and examine your reasoning for embarking on the journey with each project. If you’ve been successfully making noise with a particular genre, continue to establish yourself as an expert in that genre. When you secure a writing gig, you’ll have steady work because you’ll be known for a genre. There is nothing wrong with being pigeonholed as a screenwriter. It means you’ll work and build up your résumé in a genre that you hopefully enjoy writing.

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Trust me, bouncing around for years with different scripts in different genres hoping that something sticks is a fool’s endeavor. I’ve been there.  When something eventually hits and is a success, the producers will want more of the same from you in the way of screenwriting assignments—the bread and butter or working screenwriters. There is no shame in steady work in a particular genre. I find sometimes aspirants believe they’ll hold out and will only go with a script that is “their vision” and somehow it’s “selling out” to take a job offered writing something that maybe isn’t their favorite choice of material—but it’s a foot in the door. A writer with zero credits is still a writer without any produced films.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the odds are already stacked against you and time marches on so quickly. The main issue is that you must stay busy creating projects, networking, building your unique voice, and casting your best scripts wide to the right players. Your first job may be non-union and for little money, but it’s important to build upon any success and get that important produced credit. No career starts out on top. And it’s difficult to weather the storms of the long haul journey.

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If you haven’t yet, check out my book, “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” with 53 FIVE STAR REVIEWS on Amazon or if you need in-depth screenplay consultation check out my services at my website.


So, it’s never too late, even though the year is nearly over, to grab a piece of paper and if you haven’t yet, set up a game plan for 2023. Hollywood continues to deal with Covid and all the protocols to produce films and production continues. Hit the ground running and achieve your goals every day of the week. Treat your screenwriting like a business—because it’s YOU, INC. and every decision you make affects your pathway to success. Ask yourself the hard questions: “Why are you writing this particular spec and will it serve you in the best way possible to create opportunities and open doors?”

Here are eight tips on my checklist to prepare for the new year:


Make a list of all viable projects. Completed scripts and what condition they are in: ready to be read, needs a rewrite, needs a polish, only a first draft, etc. Add to the list any fleshed out pitches, log lines, one sheets, beat sheets or treatments. This is important if you cross paths with an agent or manager. They want to see you busy and prolific on your own. What do you have to offer? Do you have script only and nothing as a follow-up? You’ll need a solid body of work to standout and it will take time to craft these projects. It’s dangerous to be impatient and go out with a screenplay without having another solid project to back it up.


Make a list of your achievements in the past year. Scrutinize the successes and failures so you can see where you need to pick up the slack in areas where you need to focus in the new year. List any accolades—did you win or place in a significant screenwriting competition? Did you option or sell a screenplay? Did you graduate from film school?  Did you make any films, short movies, or a webseries on your own?  Did you work on a production or take an internship? List anything that shows you are working toward to your goals.


Make a list of any new contacts that you met by networking during the year. In January, make sure to send them a “First of the year—hope this finds you well—this is what I’m doing” e-mail. It will put you back on their radar and if you list a few interesting projects, they might bite and ask for a read. Also, instead of always asking for help, BE a good contact too. It’s not all one-sided. You are building “relationships” and not just contacts. These are vital to your continued success on your journey.


Make a list of potential deadlines for any rewrites or new ideas. Keep true to these self-imposed deadline as if they were real screenwriting jobs. Do not deviate from the commitment for anyone or any external forces. Trust me, either on purpose or by mistake, people will try to derail your schedule and will think it’s not that important because you’re writing on spec. It is that important. It’s vital training for the time when you finally do get a job on assignment and you’ll know how to keep a deadline under any conditions. Find respected screenwriting contests that you may want to enter and use their entry dates as a goal and deadlines to finish your new material.


If you haven’t yet, start attending networking events in the new year. Become a member of the International Screenwriter’s Association ( ISA ) for workshops, webinars and in person events in your area. Join Scriptwriter’s Network and they have seminars and meetups every month in Los Angeles. It’s hard with Covid affecting in person events, but you can use Zoom and other apps to continue to stay connected. And don’t be afraid, get out of your writing cave and meet other screenwriters and network.  Help others and you will find they will help you.


If you don’t already, read scripts on a regular basis. Good scripts, bad scripts, classics—read! You’ll be surprised how much you learn from reading screenplays. Be careful of the screenplays that are posted during award season. Do not try to emulate their style as most were written in a protected bubble of development and were not specs, so they can get away with many things regarding format that you cannot with a spec from an unknown writer.  “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” —Stephen King.


If you don’t already, read screenwriting blogs, books, articles and film websites with news about the film industry. You must do your homework on a daily basis and not expect your representation (if you’re lucky to have an agent or manager) to do it for you. A lot of vital information slips through the cracks and information is priceless currency in Hollywood. It can mean the difference between getting in a door with a meeting that could land you the next job that launches your career.


I don’t care if it’s on your cell phone. You learn so much if you film a scene that you’ve written. If you have larger ambitions to produce your own feature — by all means go for it! Don’t wait around for Hollywood to call because they will not unless you give them a solid reason to care about what you are doing. Produce a project. There has never been a time before in our history when it’s been easier as a filmmaker to produce a project. It’s also empowering to make something of your own. Regardless if it’s seen by the masses or twenty people who appreciate it. You will have gained the precious experience of making a project on your own. This will also show potential agents, managers, executives and producers that you are not waiting around to be discovered. You have made a solid body of work that reflects your unique voice. Go for it!

A game plan helps you allocate your precious time wisely. It shows that you’re your serious about your career and treating your screenwriting as a professional—not just willy-nilly writing a script and hoping it will sell on its own merits. It’s rare that one script makes a career. It’s always one script that opens the door, but you’ll probably have to write five or six to get to that “ONE.” The overnight success is usually a series of little successes along the way that lead up to continued success.  You have to consider how everything you do regarding your career fits into your bigger overall goals.

Your career aspirations can’t live or die by one project and you can’t focus on “the one” and hope it unlocks the gates of Hollywood. It’s always going to be a numbers game with horrible odds of success. Even if you sell a screenplay, there are no guarantees and still so many hurdles to jump. The good news is—the more quality material you create, the better chance you have of garnering interest and that may lead to a sale or assignment work. It’s always about the right project to the right producer at the right time. That’s why you stay in the game by continuing to write and get better. Keep your eye on the big picture.  It’s like what Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon, “It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!”

All my best wishes for a glorious and successful new year that is a blank slate for you to fill as you wish.

Scriptcat out!

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

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“It is no small feat to get a movie made, on any subject, on any screen.” — JJ Abrams

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald

“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 Falukner

“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

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

“Your screenwriting career is not a Dali-esque delusion, but the result of work, talent, focus, sacrifice, patience and luck. And we know that luck is a prepared screenwriter who meets an opportunity.”—Scriptcat