Excuses don’t finish screenplays. Discipline and a solid outline does…

EXCUSES

I’ve heard every excuse from screenwriters as to why they’re unable to finish a screenplay. A year ago, my close friend was working on a screenplay and he wanted me to read the first thirty pages. I read it and gave him my notes. He thanked me, and I assumed he eagerly continued on his journey. Alas, I recently asked him about his script, and he told me it wasn’t finished yet. A year later? That script should have had multiple drafts and been unleashed upon Hollywood by now. His excuse was that he got “stuck” and couldn’t figure out where the story was going. I know he also got disillusioned by his idea because it wasn’t working and he didn’t spend enough quality time with it. He should have never typed FADE IN without knowing the entire story and characters.

Sadly, I hear this story all too often from screenwriters. Too many times, the writer didn’t respect the outline process and wanted to jump right in and start pages. Many writers believe they can just “wing it” with a simple idea and go where the pages take them. It’s a fool’s endeavor, and the writer will end up either getting bored by their story, or procrastinate so much because they got lost, and end up with their script unfinished. Or it will end up a jumbled mess with so many issues that you will suffer multiple unnecessary rewrites. It becomes the project with no deadline and no ending. Do not fall into this trap.

Excuses are easy. We have a myriad of things going on in our busy lives that can distract us from the job of filling pages. Regardless of what you have going on, if you want a career as a screenwriter you’ll have to manage your screenwriting time and protect it. I learned how to do this early on when I attended film school and working four to five nights a week in a restaurant as a waiter. It trained me to respect the efficient use of my time and I never took it for granted. We have to be careful because the forces of distraction and procrastination are always lurking and will try to derail us from our splendid screenwriting plans.

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 probably 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, and you’ll be ready to write a full screenplay in two months or less.

We’ve all made excuses for the reason we’re not writing. Some writers allow their excuses to affect them to the point where they are helpless to finish any new project.   When the work gets difficult, you have to face it head on and not avoid it. Distractions and procrastination will always lurk and help you to find even better excuses as to why you’re not able to write. Don’t allow your excuses to derail your splendid screenwriting plans. Fully develop your idea in the form of an outline or story treatment before you start any pages and stick to a disciplined writing schedule free from distractions. This is the key to a successful first draft and a solid starting point for your next project.

Keep writing and keep the faith because if you stop you’re guaranteed to never have any chance at success.

Scriptcat out!

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

Follow me on Twitter / Periscope: @scriptcat

Did you just complete your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website and more information.  You never get a second chance to make a first great impression. Make the time to get it right.

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“Don’t think of it as art, think of it as work.”—Paddy Chayefsky

Hemingway said it best, I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”—Pablo Picasso

“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

“Give me a good script, and I’ll be a hundred times better as a director.” – George Cukor

“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye. Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

The romanticized image of a working screenwriter Vol. 2…

script page and keyboard copyI haven’t been on the blog lately writing because I’ve been too damn busy with screenwriting assignments. I know, be careful what you wish for, right? This has been a busy year with three script assignments in a row—and all of them have been produced. So far, one of the three has premiered on LIFETIME to terrific ratings, while the other two have wrapped post and are coming soon.

After those three projects, I secured another job and worked a solid month on a story treatment for that assignment. After getting the green light, I began the first draft with a short, three-week writing schedule. It’s a fast-tracked movie that will shoot in early December of 2017, so being able to deliver the goods is vital to its success—and mine.  I just completed the second production polish and it’s on its way. It’s not impossible and I’ve even done it in less time. The key is having a solid story treatment before you type FADE IN. This always helps you write a faster first draft. I will tell you, being holed up for three weeks, working 8-10 hour days, really is the test to see if you can meet any challenge offered. Fortunately, I’ve met the challenge before, but I never take it for granted. Every time up to the plate with a new script is a completely different adventure.

PILE OF SCRIPTSThis is why you have to start training yourself now with your specs to build your writing endurance. Set up deadlines and meet them. It’s good practice. Are you able to focus and write for 8-10 hours a day—every day uninterrupted? That’s what it takes sometimes when you start working professionally. You lost the luxury of working on your spec when you feel inspired. It’s now your job and you clock in and out with an eye on doing great work under the deadline.

Sure, it can be torture at times—a hellish rewrite on a screenplay can make you question your decision to become a screenwriter when you curse the day you typed “FADE IN.”  Other times it’s easy breezy and brings you great creative satisfaction, a credit and the bonus of getting paid as a professional screenwriter. As with life, you deal with the good and the bad, and learn how to survive the storms to stay in the game as a working screenwriter.

handshake cartoonSometimes you get lucky and the alchemy just works and you produce a great script and build new working relationships. I joke about the cliché of the ideal “romanticized life” of a working Hollywood screenwriter, but many times I find aspirants who work with total freedom on their specs, believe it will be the same breezy experience when they get hired to write a screenplay assignment. It’s not all about premieres, parties and huge paydays. Once you land the gig, it becomes your job with the same expectations, responsibilities, pressures and deadlines of many jobs—all while working with a contract.

If you’re blessed enough to secure the gig, you must be the ultimate team player and collaborator. Sure, you scored the job, but never fool yourself into believing you’re the only screenwriter who could do the job. There is always someone out there equally or more talented and maybe hundreds of eager aspirants who would even write it for free just for the break. The important thing is that you landed the job. It’s yours to screw up or succeed. Show them why you were the right pick on that short list of other writers. I’m blessed to finally be offered jobs now that are mine to take or pass. You’ll learn that you take opportunities when they come your way and they will lead to more work as shown by my example.

So, after completing the first draft for one project and turning it in, I was offered a new project from another producer, took that gig, and had to immediately start on that outline.  While working on the story for three weeks, I received my notes for the second draft of the first project, and had to jump on that as well. The process is called “stacking” where you work on multiple projects at the same time. That’s why you see writers with four or five credits in one year because they are working on multiple projects. This takes experience, but also a knowledge and confidence in your abilities so you can deliver quality work within the deadlines. Trust me, it’s not easy and takes a keen sense of time and your screenwriting abilities. Mostly, you don’t get weekends off because those two precious days can be used to possibly write or rewrite 12-15 pages. You’ll of course suck it up because you’re under a deadline and want to deliver a production ready script as promised.

Always remember, meeting your deadlines is vital to your reputation and your career.  I’ve worked for these producers before on successful collaborations and it’s nice when they call me with job offers and ask, “Are you available?” I’ve worked hard to get to this place and continue to solidify my professional reputation.

So, what’s all this I continually hear about the romanticized and exciting image of working screenwriters? It’s a false image and not reality. Most of the time it’s the hard work of getting the job done.  You’re writing at the top of your game and it’s weeks or months of rewrites, polishes, and the pressure of deadlines. You’ll feel the pressure when you hit a creative wall and begin to stare at the calendar or spend more time calculating your daily page count than doing the actual writing. It will always be about the work. If you’re a true screenwriter, you thrive on process and getting the job done no matter what it takes. You’ll go above and beyond every time to show your producers and executives that you are the right person for the job. Screenwriters are craftspeople, the ones up at 3:30 A.M., chipping away, fixing the scenes, working on the structure, putting the puzzle together, chasing after your characters.

Sure, you might come up short on praise and validation but even when you do receive praise, it might be a let down from what you’d expect. The longer you’re in the screenwriting game, you’ll learn that screenwriting can be a thankless and lonely job as you slog away sometimes in the wee small hours of the morning. But don’t lose heart, realize that it’s a job and it’s hard work at all levels of the business. It was your choice to pursue the journey of a master crafts person, working away in your workshop, crafting a new story to unleash upon the world. It’s a lonely process with no parties, no champagne, no red carpets, no fame and rarely fortune, but your praise and validation comes from the satisfaction knowing that you’re working at the top of your game. How do you know? You’ve just moved your last draft from the development process into the important pre-production stage—that’s a major step to success.

Today I received that phone call that every screenwriter wants to get—the producer loved my second draft and has minimal changes for the polish. Not bad, two drafts and a polish, and then on to production.  It’s truly satisfying, but there is no fame, no fortune, no glory… just a master craftsman in his workshop, who finished his thirty-third screenplay and eighteenth paid assignment, blowing out the candle to return another day on that other project.

I never take any of it for granted and know the long slog and decades of experience that it’s taken me to get here. It’s work—hard work and I’m happy and humbled to have had another chance up to the plate and made sure to knock it out of the park. On to the next one!

You just have to be the writer that doesn’t give up. Keep writing because if you stop you are guaranteed never to have ANY shot at success. You create new opportunities with every screenplay you create and hopefully it best represents your talent and ability.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on his blog My Blank Page.

Did you just finish your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation?  Check out my services by clicking on the icon below for the link to my website and more information.  You never get a second change to make a first great impression with your screenplay. Make the time to get it right.

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Do you need help navigating Hollywood’s trenches as you pursue a screenwriting career? Check out my new book “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” now available on Amazon. It chronicles my past twenty years working as a professional screenwriter in Hollywood and shares my tips, tricks and tactics that have helped me stay in the game. Click on the book cover for the link to Amazon.

 

 

 

“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

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”—Pablo Picasso

“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”—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

“If there ever was one analogy for what a screenwriter must accomplish, it’s this: To create a source of life, to find the bedrock of a given idea, to prevent most of the work from evaporating.”—FX Feeney

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.” —Leigh Brackett