Prep for Success

If you’re a relative beginner, like me, it is time to accept  that screenwriting comes with a long and difficult learning curve.

In addition to the daily requirement of  hours at the keyboard, one of the ways you can set yourself up to succeed is through ongoing involvement with screenwriting classes. Mine is with Writers Boot Camp. They have a great set of tools and a serious commitment to creating professional writers. They also have networking opportunities and events, and many other opportunities to stay involved.  If you are starting out, I couldn’t recommend it more. I started back in June of 2009 with Basic Training, the six-week class. I’d been trying to teach myself the craft from books for over a year, and could barely get my script out of Act One. I took the six week class and had a real first draft of the feature I was writing, complete with beginning, middle and end.

Because I loved the class and really wanted to do this, I enrolled that September in Project Group. The first six months was done online with one-on-one sessions by telephone with my instructor. The tools they teach are very difficult to grasp at first, and it was frustrating to me that I had to work so hard at them. Instead of an A+ and a pat on the back I’d get notes on how to make them stronger. The philosophy at WBC is that the focus is not on whether your work is good or bad, but on the goal of making a draft industry-worthy. I could see myself improving and the value of the system, but at the same time I had never worked so hard for so little positive reinforcement.

After the online portion of the course, I attended a class in New York City every two weeks, with weekly phone sessions with my instructor. I was lucky to live where I could take the course live, and even more lucky to have a very dedicated teacher who was willing to go over and above the call of duty. Since I knew TV was where I wanted to be, he suggested I do extra work to break down and study some of my favorite shows. With his help, I learned what made them work and how to bring some of those elements into my own writing.  By the time I finished the two year program, the tools clicked into place and were of great benefit to my writing process. My understanding of them continues to grow and so does their usefulness to me.

Being hard-working and committed to my writing, after the 2-year program I was invited to join Bivouac. It’s an alumni group designed to bridge the gap between Project Group and Professional Writer. In addition to a monthly meeting, I finally got my chance to evaluate scripts, which is nearly as valuable to my education as the tools of WBC. I was carefully trained to assess student scripts according to a strong set of guidelines and focused notes. The process is so effective that it allows me to help every single writer to advance to the next-stepping stone and make their script better. It has been incredibly rewarding and has a profound effect on my own writing.

If you want to be a screenwriter, it can help to surround yourself with people who have similar goals. Find a great teacher  and develop a writing process that works. If you are willing to use the available resources and work hard to master the craft, then it the question of “if,” becomes a question of “when.”

These are some of the ways I have set myself up to succeed, and I’d love to hear about yours. Keep writing…

A Draft per Month for Twelve Months

A year ago in March, I came to the realization that unless I put my writing first, it was never going to get done. My life needed to revolve around my screenwriting, instead of the other way around. That was when I started getting up at 5 and writing for two hours before my kids got up and the day kicked in. It wasn’t perfect, since some of the time was inevitably claimed by dogs, coffee, and a bite to eat, not to mention regular old daydreaming. For the most part, though, it was quite productive. As they say, an ounce of morning is worth a pound of afternoon.

Every once in a while (or more often), I get a notion that if I’d take that morning time to get other things out of the way, I’d have even more time to write during the day. Inevitably, I try it. Sometimes for a week, or two, or even longer. And every single time, I discover that it doesn’t work. When I get up and write first, I may or may not get back to it during the day, but at least I know I got some writing in and the most important thing was taken care of. When I use the time for other things, like this blog, I sometimes get the writing in later and sometimes I don’t. Inevitably, my project stalls, I lose interest, then have to work myself up into a frenzy of motivation, and get back to my morning writing.

The main reason I am sharing this is to come clean and admit that even though I continue to work hard and improve regularly, I am far from perfect. It’s also good for me to have a written account of the struggle to refer back to the next time I start thinking the mornings could be used more constructively. Maybe I’ll save myself the trouble next time.

Another reason I wanted to reiterate the importance of daily, scheduled, uninterrupted writing time, is that I am seriously thinking about setting myself a new goal of a draft per month for twelve months. In that way, I’ll be building up a body of work samples, flexing my screenwriting muscles and getting closer to those 10,000 hours it takes to master a craft, according to Malcolm Gladwell. I know it’s a very lofty and difficult goal, but the outcome can only be positive. What have I got to lose, after all?

I’ve been writing screenplays for a few years now. I took classes and have a great set of tools to take me from inception through final draft. I have a working support alliance, and I’m evaluating scripts for students at my old school. It’s time to sh*t or get off the pot, as my dear departed Mom would have said. I’d like to think she’d be proud of me. Is there anyone out there who would care to join me in a draft per month for twelve months? Happy writing!

Smashing Procrastination

When I started screenwriting, I procrastinated over the usual things. The kids had to be picked up, the reports needed typing, the bills paying, the housework, the dinner, the DVR with my favorite TV show on it. I eventually realized that if I didn’t give screenwriting a central place in my life and its own home on my schedule, I would never finish anything.

Over time, I learned to put my writing first and everything else after it. It took some trial and error, and eventually I settled into a time slot early in the morning, before the interruptions started.  That worked really well for a while.

Until… I got better at disciplining myself to write, and my procrastination got better too.  While I was writing, it was off doing push-ups. It learned to wait for me to let my guard down, and then pounce.

Sometimes, I don’t even know I’m  procrastinating. Blogging, for instance, has become a major source of procrastination for me. The rationale is that it is an important networking tool, and that I am furthering my screenwriting efforts by sharing what I know. And technically, it is writing. It’s good practice for me to put myself “out there.” In some ways, it really helps me. And so do social networking and discussions and forums and email updates and research and books and trades… you get the picture. Even TV-watching helps me prepare to achieve my goals.

And then there are the really beneficial distractions. I am beginning to read and evaluate scripts. I’ve got two writers groups, one of which I am organizing. The other one is made up of members with far more experience than I (translation — I have to prove my worthiness to be there). Those things will take up several hours per week, but will also make my writing better.

So now it’s not only my family, home, hubby’s business, two dogs, and managing everyone’s schedules, but all those writing-related activities as well. And suddenly, there’s too many important things to get done and no time to work on my White Collar Spec! I’ve gotten away from it without even realizing it was happening. That’s how cunning procrastination is.

So I’m back to square one, having to learn the same lesson. Screenwriting first, everything else second.

Okay, it sounds good, but what does it mean? How do I fight this enormously powerful enemy—procrastination in all its forms?

This is where I need all the tools at my command. First of all, I need to be absolutely clear about what is most important and why. I can look back at my statement in Hill’s Key #1, in which I developed a “Major Purpose.” I can remember how much I want to work in TV, and how all the other things in my life can support that if I let them. I can talk to members of my mastermind alliance, and therefore stay accountable. I can admit it in my blog: I’m not getting much writing done. I can make a commitment: I will finish my first draft by Wednesday. It is more important than the script evaluation due tomorrow, the preparation for my groups, or the laundry that needs folding.

Now it gets a little tricky. See, all those other things still have to get done. They are important and if I try to neglect them, they get in the way of my writing by pulling my focus. That’s another thing I’ve had to learn the hard way.  Therefore, my second task is to make a list of priorities. First priority, screenplay. Second priority, evaluation. Third, meeting preparation, fourth housework.  No, that can’t work. I’ve forgotten about personal care and family care. Those things can’t get put on hold indefinitely.  So here’s the revision:

1.  Screenplay—first draft finished Wednesday, about 6 hours per day

2.  Personal Care (shower, meals, sleep, etc.), 11 hours, 7 left

3.  Kids to school, to home, homework done, appointments kept. 2 hours 5 to go, plus all my downtime gets spent with them and hubby, and meals, too.

4.  Bare minimum of housework (just for this week) 1 hour incl. laundry and meal clean-up, 4 left

5.  Evaluation of script due Monday. 3 to 4 hours, but I’ll start it tonight, jut in case it takes longer

6.  Breakdown of 2 – 4 TV Shows or Movies by Wednesday Evening. I’d better make it 2 TV shows, and get it done Tuesday!

7.  Preparation for Writer Action Group Thursday Evening. Mercifully, it’s mostly done.

8.  Now that I know the priorities, I can map out a schedule so everything gets the attention it needs and I get some downtime, too. Like all day Friday, for starters.

9.  Each and every time I catch that devil procrastination in all its cunning disguises sneaking up on me, I will take a gigantic mental sledgehammer, and smash it to smithereens!

How do you fight procrastination?

Great article by David Mamet

In my opinion, what David suggests in this article is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on screenwriting. I couldn’t wait to share the link: http://www.slashfilm.com/a-letter-from-david-mamet-to-the-writers-of-the-unit/ Ican’t wait to read some more of this blog by David Chen. It looks amazing.

The Decision I Make Every Day

When I first took screenwriting classes, I was expected to meet deadlines on outlining tools and drafts. It was impossible for me to schedule the work, because I hadn’t figured out how long things took, and I was constantly getting lost in my own perfectionism/procrastination cycle. So the deadlines would come and go, and I was always asking my teacher for an extension, and then another one.  He was always patient with me, but I was frustrated with myself.

I realized that if I was ever going to finish a screenplay, I needed to change. When I started to turn in what I had, whether it was finished or not, that was a real beginning. I hated turning in drafts before I was ready to let them go, but I learned that it really didn’t matter in the long run. Every milestone reached put me a step closer to a finished product.

Nonetheless, I wanted to do better. The day that really changed my life, I came to the realization that I needed to work my life around my screenwriting. Until then, I had been working screenwriting around my life. The single most important decision I have ever made was to get up each morning and write from 5 to 7 am. In my psyche, with that decision, I stepped over the line and became a real  screenwriter.

That was about a year ago. Suddenly, I not only met deadlines, I started to exceed them. That felt very, very good.

This year, I’m learning to plan my work out on a calendar. I have writing tasks designated for each day, a first draft due date, and subsequent drafts as well.  Any task will expand to fill the time allotted, so I have many safeguards in place against getting lost in the process.

One of my favorite tricks is to use a timer.  If I’m having trouble concentrating, I’ll set it for 15 minutes and stay with a task, then switch tasks when the timer goes off. Most of the time that gets me involved and I no longer want to switch. I also use it to make sure I don’t overdo it with perfectionism. If I’m allowing myself to spend an hour on something, I can spend six if I’m not careful, and end up with something that’s no better than what I had after an hour. So I set the timer, and try hard to stop when it goes off.

The same goes for deadlines. If I spend a year on a first draft, it’s still a mess, because it’s a first draft. At least if I do it in four to six weeks, it’s a mess that I didn’t spend the last year of my life agonizing over. (Agonizing is a topic for another day). Trust me, I’ve done it both ways, and it’s much better to crank it out and let it go. Even a six-week deadline is too long for me to wrap my head around. It might as well be forever. So I give myself shorter milestones for each week. That way I can stay on track, and meet or exceed my deadlines.

I sound perfect, don’t I? I’m a wonder of self-discipline and fortitude. Not lately, I’m not…

Lately I’ve been more concerned with my blog than my screenplay. I’m working on a White Collar Spec, and the project is a lot of fun. But I’m distracted. I wonder if anyone is reading my blog, or there are any new comments. I check my email and face book pages to see if there’s any news. I read other blogs to see what people are writing about.  I’ve been cutting myself slack, because I’m new at this. But it’s time to get back to work.

That is a decision I have to make every day.

Hard Lessons for New Screenwriters

Since I am still early in the process myself, some of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn are very fresh in my mind. I’ve decided to share them in the hope that I can help someone. Sometimes we just need to know we’re not alone.

SCREENWRITING IS A CRAFT AND NO ONE IS BORN KNOWING HOW TO DO IT.

If you’re a new writer and you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “Yeah, but that doesn’t apply to me. I’m smart. I’m talented. I learn quickly.” If that keeps you going through the tough times, you go ahead and hold on to that for as long as you can. But if you are at the stage of your writing where you have started to realize you are not the Mozart of screenwriting, after all, then this may be as much of a comfort to you as it was to me.

SCREENWRITING IS HARD FOR EVERYONE.

Some of us are talented, others not so much. But a craft is learned. No one instinctively knows how to write slug lines or manage act breaks. Occasionally, a genius may seem to know how to play the piano, or paint a picture or write a great book, without being taught. I have never heard of anyone who could write a screenplay without going through an extensive learning curve.

If someone had told me how much work was ahead of me just to learn to write screenplays, I wouldn’t have believed them. Actually, that happened. They told me and I didn’t believe them. It’s a good thing, too, because if I had believed them, I probably wouldn’t have started. By the time I figured it out, I had logged in far too many hours to bail. My stubbornness kicked in and saved me.

The good news is it gets easier. The bad news is you have to finish stuff, from beginning to end, with many drafts in between.  It doesn’t matter how many fantastic ideas you have or how many first drafts you have under your belt. Not even your mother can see the potential in an unfinished screenplay, and it’s certainly not fair to ask a studio exec to look for it. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a bad idea to show my work to anyone before it’s at least nearly done. The only exception is a teacher or an evaluator that you pay to see the potential. It is highly recommended that you do, because they will tell you what it needs to make it better, so you can finish.

It’s a bitter pill, I know. Somehow, it helps to let go of the denial and face reality. It’s all part of becoming a screenwriter. Each hurdle we get over brings us closer to our goals.

It would be awesome to hear about whether this post helped anyone, or some of the other hurdles overcome along the learning curve. See you next time, when I talk about the importance of ending your writing sessions on a positive note. Happy Writing ’till then!