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?

Hill’s Key #1: Develop Definiteness of Purpose

I’ve always been a sucker for self-help. Many of the books I’ve read have helped me. As long as I was reading them, that is. But there are a few books that I have returned to over the years, gradually building deeper understanding of their principles, and adapting their usage into my own life. The author that has helped me the most is Napoleon Hill.

Hill, may, in fact, be the father of self-help. His book “Think and Grow Rich,” was published in 1937, and was twenty years in the making. In it Hill recorded his observations from the study of many self-made millionaires, and interpreted his findings for anyone to use. It’s a very powerful book, but I prefer the more modern “Keys to Success,” which was published from his later teachings after his death. Since I’m blogging about my goals as a screenwriter, anyway, I thought it would be a great exercise to put the principles into action and report on each of them.

The first principle is that in order to achieve your goal you must have a “Definite Purpose.” This is a sort of road map to your goal. It includes not only exactly what you want, but what steps you are willing to take to get there. This is mine:

Karen’s Major Definite Purpose: I am a staff writer on a well-written, popular TV drama. As a part of the team, I am respected and valued for my contribution to the show, and depended upon for ideas, pages and integrity. I am well-paid, have good health insurance and benefits, and enjoy my life immensely. I am able to support my husband in retirement and put my children through college. Any debts I have accumulated along the way are paid in full, and I am generous with those less fortunate.

In order to achieve this purpose, I get up early and write each day for two to four hours or more. I submit my work to carefully chosen contests and fellowships, and show it to producers, agents, and anyone in a position to further my career. I behave in a professional manner, send thank-you notes and stay in touch with people I meet. I follow-up and follow through appropriately. I am building a body of work, and have several stories ready to pitch at any given time. I am prompt, agreeable, well-groomed and dependable. I maintain good physical health through diet and exercise so that I am able to meet the demands of long hours.

I maintain a presence on the internet through my blog, groups and social networking. I continue to build my Writers Action Group and to attend networking opportunities. I look for opportunities to help others achieve their goals, so I am deserving of the help I ask for. I keep my eyes and ears open for opportunity to further my goals, and act on the opportunities that present themselves.

I will post this statement on my office wall, read it aloud each day, and practice all of the above actions and more, without fail, until I have achieved my “Definite Purpose,” and am writing for TV.

For me, and perhaps for you as well, it takes a lot of courage and commitment to dare to want what I want, and to admit it to the world. My goals may change over time, in which case my “Definite Purpose” will change, too.

Next time, I’ll discuss Key #2, “Establish a Mastermind Alliance.” In the meantime, do you have a definite purpose? I would love to hear about it.

TV Specs and How To Break a Series Down

When discussing TV specs, we are always told how important it is to break the show down, but in my experience, there’s not a lot of guidance about what that means. For the most part, I’ve developed my own procedures, which I am happy to share with you today.

I spend a lot of time breaking down a series before I begin to write the spec. When I was doing the Vampire Diaries last summer, I only gave myself three weeks to break down the show and write the first draft. That basically meant two weeks of breakdown and one week of outlining and drafting. As soon as I finished the first draft, I went back to the breakdown, which continued throughout the writing. I had no way of acquiring Vampire Diaries scripts, except for the pilot. Not having them was a handicap, but I’m so glad I went through the process of writing it anyway. It was the first script I finished, and I learned a lot.

For one thing, VD is serialized, and the episode I wrote picked up where Season Two ended. It was meant to be the beginning of Season Three. In my study of the series, I discovered that each show has three to four story lines. I wrote four.  It’s a bit long for an episode, and I am sure the formatting doesn’t perfectly match the show. That’s where not having scripts was a problem. The other problem was that I put the finishing touches on it at the end of August, and the Season Three premiere was a week or two later. That made it outdated almost immediately.

As an episode, it encompasses much more story than a normal episode would, but it also set up the next few episodes for the season. It was exciting to watch the real episode on TV! I was gratified to find out that several of the things I had written in my script came to pass. Other things were different, of course, but in subsequent episodes my scenes kept popping up. I take that as a sign that I did a good job of getting into the workings of the show. To me, that says I’m hirable as a staff writer.  That’s very good news, since staffed on a TV drama is exactly where I want to be. On the other hand, taking on so much story in one episode would not work in real life. There is several episodes worth of storytelling in that one spec.

Having learned what I learned, I chose an episodic show for my next spec: White Collar. I also made sure I was able to acquire scripts. Ellen Sandler, writer of many TV comedies, suggests you have three. I was able to get my hands on five. I won’t give away my source, but I will say it was a product of a networking opportunity. Using Sandler’s book, the TV Writer’s Workbook, I made a spreadsheet of everything I could think of to count.  That told me a lot about how the show was structured and how the story lines intersect.  Of course I am also studying every show in the series.

After I practically memorize every episode and dissect the scripts I have, I start outlining. If done correctly, this takes quite a bit longer than actually writing the first draft. This is where I get into the protagonist’s goals and relationships, and the other major components. By the time I’ve worked that all out for all the story lines, I have a pretty extensive outline. I also have a list of things that need to be part of the episode, such as traits that show up, or tics a certain character uses, how many jokes are there (even in drama), and what story points are integral to most, if not all, episodes. I have a range of formatting options, as well as non-changing structure, such as number of acts, if there’s a teaser, etc.

Laid out this way, it sounds exhausting, but it’s really fun. It’s doing all things I love! I’m watching TV, reading scripts, writing and defining characters. By the time I start the first draft, it practically writes itself. Then I take a rest while I send it off to a trusted advisor. That’s a lie. I usually start on something else so my good habits aren’t interrupted. It comes from terror that if I let them go I’ll never get them back.

If this article helps anyone, I’d really love to hear about it in a comment below. As a new writer, who has worked very hard to acquire what skills I have, it’s important for me to share what I can and help others. I have gotten a lot of help already and I will continue to need it to get this career off the ground. In a way, I’m paying it forward. Conversely, if you know of any steps for breakdown that I haven’t touched on, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, happy writing!

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.