Scriptcat’s end of the year checklist for screenwriters…

Who can believe the year is almost over? The pandemic has changed everything and working in Hollywood now has even more challenges. 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 about your screenwriting. Hopefully, you’ve learned from your failures 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 been able to gain and hold new ground? Established new relationships and contacts? Created a solid body of material in a genre to show your unique voice?

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.

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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. Only 6,323WGA members reported any income last year and of those, 5,118 were in Television (annual report ending in July 2020) out of nearly 13,000 members. Check out the 2020 ANNUAL REPORT FROM THE WGA. Think about those odds for a moment and then get back to work. And if you add the non-union screenwriters working… it can boggle the mind with more stats and there are no stats for non-union screenwriters working or not working. 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.

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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 2021.  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 seven steps in my checklist to prepare for the new year:

1)  SCREENPLAYS! 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.

2)  ACHIEVEMENTS!  Make a list of your achievements in 2020. 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.

3)  SOLID CONTACTS! 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.

4)  DEADLINES!  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.

5)  NETWORKING! 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. Network on Stage32.com and also Final Draft hosts meetups every month with known screenwriters and offers tips and many free networking events during the year. Get out of your writing cave and meet other screenwriters and network.  Help others and you will find they will help you.

6)  READ, READ, READ! 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.

7)  HOMEWORK! 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.

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 20201 that is a blank slate for you to fill as you wish. Stay healthy, wash your hands, and stay six feet apart.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright © 2020 by Mark Sanderson. All Rights Reserved. My Blank Page blog.

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Scriptcat’s Top 10 daily tips to survive as a sequestered screenwriter…

We are living in rough times. As creative people, we can’t allow this recent turn of events to get in the way of our splendid screenwriting dreams. Sure, it’s easy to become depressed or anxious during this time of self-quarantine, as we don’t know what the future will bring. In addition, so many of us are out of work and trying to figure out how to keep the lights on. I had two films moving toward with green lights and production dates, but they were shut down until further notice. It’s a difficult time for everyone, and our physical and mental health is so important now. The best discipline we can follow during this period is to focus on the things we do have control over — our screenwriting.

EXCUSESExcuses are easy for writers. We have a myriad of things going on in our busy lives that can distract us from the job of filling our blank pages. It’s more evident now during this stressful time with being self-quarantined due to the global pandemic. You may have lost your day job, you now have your children at home all day, and you are finding zero time to fill your blank pages. Do your best to keep your focus and try to stay creative. I’ve learned that many times, too much time isn’t a good thing, as we tend to waste it and only realize later we have squandered precious opportunities.

I’ve found the key to surviving this period is sticking to a regular schedule. Many of you are not used to working from home and the complexities that involves. It’s not all fun and games and sitting in your pajamas all day in front of your computer. I’ve found a specific routine helps me during these rough times. Here are my TOP 10 DAILY TIPS FOR SEQUESTERED SCREENWRITERS:

  1. Stick to a strict sleep schedule. Go to bed and the same time every night and get up at the same time in the morning. Those of you who work day jobs already follow this, but it’s the the part-time workers who also write screenplays that will need the most structure.
  2. In the morning, get up, but take a few moments to consider how you will “own” the day. Realize what you can control, and especially what you cannot. Start your day at peace and realize it’s a blank slate and up to you to write the story of your day. This will allow you to create a proper mindset to proceed.
  3. As many experts suggest… make your bed. You might laugh, but it puts you in the right direction with taking care of your sleep space, being grateful that you have a bed to sleep in at night, and respect for order. A messy bed and house usually indicates a messy life.
  4. Eat breakfast. Be good to yourself and nourish your body and mind. If you meditate, do that after breakfast. If you don’t, you might consider starting. Do NOT jump on the Internet or social media yet. The bad news of the day can wait, and you can’t do anything about it anyway. Maybe during breakfast, write in a journal. Write down what you’re grateful for in your life. This will help to keep you humble and living with grace.
  5. Now get to work! Whatever work you are doing, jump in and do it right away. Protect your precious screenwriting time – even if that means an hour of writing. Any writing or focusing on your project is better than allowing another day to pass without any work.
  6. After you feel the need for a break — exercise. Whatever your choice of exercise is stick to it daily. You will feel better after, energized and ALIVE! Even a brisk walk does wonders. Fresh air and sunshine is vital to your positive mindset.
  7. Reach out to other writers. Our creative community needs support and even the smallest of gestures can help so much in someone’s daily life. You never know how your fellow screenwriter is feeling. Connect on the internet and give your support.
  8. Now is a good time to watch those films you have always wanted to see. It’s the proper research every screenwriter needs to do for their writing journey. You can learn so much from watching a film and then reading the screenplay.
  9. Read screenplays. Good, bad, not so bad. Be careful reading production drafts as they were written in a protected bubble and many times by the director. Those scripts can get away with certain style and format choices that your spec may not be able to do.
  10. Remain hopeful. A positive mindset does wonders to your overall choices and you can serve as an example to others who may need more direction and support.

The overall concept during this time is — if you’re starting to write a new project or rewriting an old one, stick to a tight daily writing schedule and protect it from the forces of distraction and procrastination. Stephen King calls it, “closing your door.” When your door is closed, it means that you are writing. Don’t stress if you do not reach your daily or weekly goal, but keep in mind, one missed day leads to another, and soon you’re losing precious momentum. We don’t want regrets that we didn’t utilize our time to the best of our ability and when this passes, you’re back to the day job with hardly any time to write. Time passes so fast and six months burns before you realize it.

hang onYou must to take your career seriously enough to make the time to write. Hemingway said, “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.” Once you start a writing schedule, it becomes easy and you’ll soon become a master at scheduling your time. If you dabble at your career, time becomes your enemy, and it passes quickly as projects burn out. This is why setting deadlines is so important now when you are writing your spec screenplays. It trains you for the time when you do land a professional writing job and you’ll be able create under a contracted deadline. It’s vital to your professional reputation and ultimate success.

If you start your screenplay without a solid outline or treatment, you may find yourself lost in the barren wasteland of Act 2 and wonder how you’re going to trudge through the next 55-pages to reach Act 3. It’s a nightmare. I’m a huge advocate of starting outlines before you write any pages and it’s probably 50, 60, 70 percent of the work that needs to be done. Your screenwriting should be the easiest part of the process because a solid outline makes the load a lot easier, and you can write a faster screenplay when you know what’s going to happen and why.

fade inI’ve heard writers complain that outlines are too constricting, but there is always room for new ideas or improvising because you still have to write the actual scenes. You’re going to have a bumpy ride if you don’t have a solid roadmap going in. I’m also not an advocate of what people call the vomit draft, or just spilling it out and seeing if something sticks. When you start working on assignment screenplays, you won’t have the luxury of spilling it out and hoping it works. There are producers, executives, investors, studios, and networks all involved in the material who have their own requirements and responsibilities. On my assignments, I have to turn in a screenplay that is a seven or eight out of a ten scale because if it’s anything less, I’m holding up development if my first draft needs a long rewrite process to get it right. Another benefit of doing outlines now before you write your specs is that it actually trains you for the time when you do land an assignment job. You’ll be ready to write a full screenplay in two months or less. That is vital to your professional success.

We’ll get through this, and the best way for writing is to maintain a schedule and realize what we do have control over — our screenwriting. If you are not writing, you only have yourself to blame. If it’s important enough, your passion will force you to make the time and protect your writing schedule. Let’s emerge on the other side of this horror with a new project and a new outlook on the world. Perhaps one of humility and understanding that writing is a lifelong journey of learning, no matter the environment.

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

Copyright © 2020 by Mark Sanderson. All Rights Reserved. My Blank Page blog.

If you just completed a new screenplay and need in-depth consultation, check out my screenplay consultation and mentoring services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website.

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It’s a long haul journey to reach any level of screenwriting success. If your passion drives you to embark on this crazy adventure of a  screenwriting career, you’ll need to prepare for survival in Hollywood’s  trenches. Talent is important, but so is your professionalism and  ability to endure criticism, rejection, and failure over the long haul.  The odds may be stacked against you, but the way to standout in this  very competitive business is to create a solid body of work and build a  reputation as a team player and collaborator. The rest is just luck — a  prepared screenwriter who meets with an opportunity and delivers the  goods. “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” will help you prepare for  your own journey with the necessary, tips, tricks and tactics that I’ve  developed over the past twenty years of working in the film industry.  It’s time to start living your dream as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

 

Check out actor/writer/showrunner John Lehr’s (the original Geico Cavemen!) podcast where he interviews me for the second time, and we chat about the crazy journey working in Hollywood as writers. Click on the icon below for the link to the Sound Cloud podcast.

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“Writers, like most human beings, are adaptable creatures. They can learn to accept subordination without growing fond of it. No writer can forever stand in the wings and watch other people take the curtain calls while his own contributions get lost in the shuffle.”—Rod Serling

“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

 

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