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.

script page

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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“…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

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.

PILE OF SCRIPTS

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.

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Master CoverR2-4-REV2

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