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

So, you just finished your first draft… now what?

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.

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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.

Scriptcat out!

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Did you just complete your latest screenplay? Congrats! Time for in-depth consultation/editing/proofing? Check out my services by clicking the blue icon below for the link to my website.  “You never get a second change to make a first great impression with your screenplay. Make the time to get it right.”

 

“…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