Friday, October 31, 2014

Daily Habits of Successful Screenwriters

A couple months ago, I asked for suggestions for blog topics. Since then, I’ve been working my way through them (in between writing about other topics that come up.) If you have something you’d like me to discuss, feel free to let me know in the comments of this post or via Twitter.

Today I’m going to address a suggestion from Michelle Hall (hopefully she's still reading my blog): “As a newbie wanting to pursue screenwriting full time, what tasks to pursue on daily basis?”

One of the problems, of course, for most “newbies” is that they often can’t really pursue screenwriting full time because they have to hold down a full time job to support themselves while they write. But they are also in competition with established pros whose only job is screenwriting, with way more experience and resources. It’s a challenge. The next challenge comes when you actually are able to pursue screenwriting full time. I’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s start with what you do when you have a limited amount of time.

The first thing that you have to do on a daily basis, naturally, is write. You can’t become a professional screenwriter if you don’t write! You need to learn your craft and generate a body of work to demonstrate your skill and potential employability. And I highly recommend writing on a daily basis – as in writing every day – to achieve this body of work. At some point you may be able to take weekends off – though the movie business is pretty 24-7 – but when you are stealing time around a job and other commitments, you can’t really afford to give up any possible writing time.

I think the best approach is to set a goal of daily writing time, as opposed to a certain number of pages or something. So you might say that you are going to write for an hour a day. It doesn’t matter if you write one line of dialogue or six pages, sit in front of your computer (or legal pad or whatever) and do nothing but write or think about your story. No email, no texting, no surfing the web. It may not seem like you’re accomplishing much in each session, but you’ll be surprised how much you get done in a month. Those hours add up.

You also gain momentum from writing on a daily basis. Your mind stays in your story. You’ll be working out problems as you commute or do laundry or take a shower. Take too many days off and your mind moves on. You’ll find it hard to get started when you sit back down to work on your screenplay.

Probably the next most important thing is to make time to watch movies and read screenplays. This serves several purposes. First, you learn by observing what works and doesn’t work. As you read screenplays, the style and form will become instinctive. And you will gain an understanding of the market. If you want to succeed in the movie business, you need to have seen the latest hit movies – and at least a few of the latest flops – particularly in your genre. You won’t necessarily watch a movie or read a screenplay every day, but each should be at least a weekly habit.

There is a third thing that you should be incorporating into your daily schedule, but what that thing is depends on where you are in your career preparation.

If you’re just starting to write (i.e. you’ve completed fewer than four screenplays), you should be learning writing techniques. Read screenwriting books and/or take classes. Not every book or class is equally good – and some are actually quite bad. Also, not every writer responds to the same approach. But there is valuable insight to be had. Try to get a variety of perspectives and use what seems to work best for you.

If you feel you’re starting to get the hang of screenwriting and you’ve built up a body of work, you’ll want to start plotting the move to “full time screenwriter.” This is going to mean earning a living from writing. And if writing is going to be a source of income (as opposed to a hobby), then you have to treat it like a business. That means market research becomes a part of your day. You’ll move from reading books on screenwriting to checking industry news daily. Deadline.com is a good source of free info, but if you want to be a pro, it’s probably worth subscribing to The Hollywood Reporter or Variety and getting their daily email editions.

(Learning how to pitch will also be a useful skill – might I humbly recommend The Hollywood Pitching Bible as a source of good information?)

And at some point you have to translate that market research into action. You need to get your screenplay read by people in the business. At the most basic level, the way to break in is to write great screenplays and show them to anyone who will read them. Get involved in industry organizations, go to film festivals, participate in online message boards – whatever you can do to meet and befriend people who are connected to the business. Once they like you, ask them to read your work. Entering the top contests or taking classes or going to pitch fests are other ways to get your work in front of industry connected people. You won’t necessarily reach agents, managers or buyers right off the bat, but if your work is great – and I mean really great – people will be happy to recommend it to the agents, managers or buyers they know. (See this post on “How to Get an Agent.”)

Now, what happens when you find yourself in the position of having all day to dedicate to your screenwriting career? The danger here is that it’s easy to fill up your day with non-job activities. The gym is less crowded in the middle of the day, as is the grocery store… Flexibility is one of the advantages of the profession, but you have to maintain self-discipline. Most of the time you’re the only one who will be making sure you’re doing what you need to do to keep earning.

Your daily screenwriting-oriented activity when you’re full time is much the same as when you weren’t, except you do everything for longer periods of time. You have to keep writing. Hopefully, sometimes you’ll be working on assignments – rewrites, adaptations, turning your sold pitch into a screenplay. But if you don’t have an assignment, you should be generating spec work. Writing is your job and really should be the focus of your day.

Writers have different work habits. I personally write in short, intense bursts. I will sit down and write for an hour or two, then go do something else for a while, then come back for another session. If I try to write more than five or six hours in a day, for more than a few days in a row, I will eventually burn out. But I get a lot done in those short bursts – often I can do 3-5 pages in an hour. I think this is because I’m focused and because my mind noodles with the story between writing sessions. I also find it helpful if I work on one project in the morning and a different project in the afternoon. Somehow it keeps my creativity level higher.

This works for me, but other writers find other work habits are more successful for them. And of course I don’t always have the luxury of this system. Sometimes I’m under deadline and have to work ten hours straight on one project. Sometimes I have meetings, or have to teach my class and I can only get in a single writing session in a day (though I always try to get in at least one.)

The other daily activities are often business related: Reading Deadline.com or The Hollywood Reporter or Done Deal. Talking to my manager or attorney about a project or contract or upcoming meeting. Returning emails and phone calls from producers or development execs. Rehearsing pitches. I also practice saying my log lines for all of my current projects that I might want to mention should I run into a potential contact in a social situation.

Other things will come into your calendar on a non-daily basis, of course. As your career progresses, you’ll be doing general meetings and pitch meetings, and perhaps reading books or screenplays to prep for assignment pitches. If you should be so fortunate to have a movie coming out, you’ll have press and promotional obligations. You’ll go to networking events whenever you can.

But not matter what, write every day.

Make no mistake, it’s hard to become a full time professional screenwriter. Most people who attempt it fail. Those that succeed often struggle for years before they support themselves from writing. You have to be committed to it. You have to carve out that time every day. But if you take a strategic, disciplined approach, you will have a much better chance of success.

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3 comments:

Mark Jones said...

Great advice for all writers. Write daily is tried and true. But, I especially appreciate the glimpses into the industry you present. Thank you!

Gail said...

I can't hear that advice enough. Thanks for providing the information.

Doug Eboch said...

You're both welcome!