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

Disciplines for your screenwriting journey to success…

We are living though rough times. As creative people, we cannot allow these recent turn of events to get in the way of our splendid screenwriting dreams. Sure, it is easy to become depressed or anxious during this time when we don’t know what the future will bring. So many of us are trying to figure out the next steps in our lives. Your physical and mental health is so important now more than ever. Now is a good time to take stock of both and take care of yourself. The best discipline we can follow is to focus on the things we do have control over — our screenwriting.

Excuses come 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. You may find it difficult to carve out a writing schedule when your distractions give you almost zero time to do the necessary writing. Keep your focus and try to stay creative. I have learned that many times, too much time is not a good thing as we tend to waste it and only realize later we have squandered precious opportunities.

I have 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 is not all fun and games, sitting in your pajamas all day in front of your computer. This is a specific routine that helps me.

Here are six daily disciplines to help with your screenwriting journey.

1.  Stick to a strict sleep schedule. Go to bed and the same time each night and get up at the same time in the morning. Those of you who work a 9-5 job already follow this, but it’s the part-time workers and those who now work from home who also write screenplays that will need the most structure.

2. In the morning, get up, but take time to consider how you will “own” the day. Realize what you can control, and especially what you cannot. This will allow you to create a proper mindset to attack the day on your terms.

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 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 mediate, 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. Over breakfast, maybe write in a journal. Write down every day what you are grateful for in your life. This will help to keep you humble and living with grace.

5. Get to work! Whatever work you are doing, jump in and do it right away. Protect your precious screenwriting time – even if that means for fifteen minutes or an hour. Any writing or focusing on your project is better than allowing another day to pass without any completed pages. That momentum is vital to the process.

6.  Do not sit at your computer without taking breaks every half hour at least. New studies have found that sitting is the new smoking and can shave years off your life. If feel you need a longer break — exercise. Whatever your choice of exercise is, do it and stick to a daily schedule. After you will feel better, energized, and alive. Even a brisk walk does wonders. I just completed a 30 day Tai Chi challenge from my sifu, and it kept me on point every day (even when I had to force myself to wake up and meet the sunrise).

If you are 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. Do not 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 do not want to regret that we didn’t utilize our time to the best of our ability. Once the time is wasted, you are back to your day job with hardly any time to write. Time passes so fast and six months burns before you realize it.

It’s vital you take your career pursuit 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 soon become a master at scheduling your time. If you dabble at your career, time becomes your enemy, and it passes quickly as projects (and you) burn out. This is why setting self-imposed deadlines is so important now when writing your spec screenplays. It trains you for the time when you do land a professional assignment job and you can create under a contracted deadline. It’s also vital to your professional reputation and ultimate success.

The long haul screenwriting journey is filled with ups and downs, both emotional and financial, but you can weather the storms if you maintain a schedule and realize what you do have control over — your screenwriting. You cannot control if Hollywood wants to buy your script or make any of your scripts into movies. If you are not writing, you only have yourself to blame. If it is important enough, your passion will force you to make the time. Remember, time is all we have. It is our greatest asset or worst enemy — it depends on how you respect and use it. During this process, my hope is your journey brings you humility and a deeper understanding that writing is a lifelong process. 

Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages.

Scriptcat out!

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

Did you just complete your latest screenplay or draft and need in-depth consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the icon below for the link to my website and more information to schedule your consultation.

Need help navigating Hollywood’s trenches? Check out my book
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“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

“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

“One of the things that young writers falsely hope exists is inspiration. A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.”—William Goldman

“Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: We are merely born with the capacity to do it. The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.”—Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

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