At the beginning of 2012, I made a New Year's resolution. Mind you, I never make New Year's resolutions, but last year I did because I was so annoyed at my lack of progress with my screenwriting. I decided I was going to wake up at 5:30 am every morning to write my best screenplay ever and that screenplay would get noticed. With the exception of some weekends and family trips, I managed to drag myself out of bed and focus on my screenwriting every day. The result? I rewrote a screenplay that made it to the semifinal round of the 2012 Nicholl Fellowships and got the interest of a few producers and managers, I finally hammered out a long-gestating comedy spec that I posted online when it suddenly became DOA during the rewrite process because the exact same movie came out this fall, and I outlined my next screenplay similar in tone and style to my Nicholl script. Am I happy with the results? Yes. Am I satisfied? Not even close. So, since I'm not keen on giving out my own advice on screenwriting since I'm not a professional screenwriter, I'll share with you how I plan to write my best screenplay ever this year, and maybe you can too.
1. Schedule Writing Time Every Day
Writers write. I would argue that all filmmakers should write, too. If you want to make your own movies, you should write. Don't think you're a good writer? You should write. Do you know what my best subject was in school growing up? Math. You know what my second best subject was growing up? Science. You know what I liked more than anything else in the world growing up? Movies. Then I decided I wanted to make movies. You know what I realized I had to learn how to do to make movies? Write.
Writers write, but writers are also excellent procrastinators. So, last year, I decided to find time every day to write. With young children, I discovered the best time for me to write was early in the morning, before the kids are awake, before I check email, before I waste countless minutes on the Internet and social media (2013 resolution: more social, less media). It's hard, it sucks when the alarm goes off, but do I want to be a screenwriter or not? If not, I can hit the snooze button, but I can tell you that did not happen in 2012, much to my own amazement. From 5:30 to 7 am every (weekday) morning, I worked on my screenplays. I tried to add weekend mornings to the mix, then only Saturday mornings, but I found myself burning out, so I stuck to weekdays only. If I had extra time to write during the day, great, but at least I knew that every (week)day I had accomplished some writing related to my screenplays. I'm rededicating myself to this routine in 2013.
2. Set Deadlines
I'm not a professional screenwriter, but you already knew that, so I have to set my own deadlines. I don't enter a bunch of contests because I don't think many of them are worth the entry fee, but for the select few on my list, they serve as good deadlines. At this point, if I have a script worth submitting, I only submit to the Nicholl Fellowships, the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Lab, the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition, and the BlueCat Screenwriting Competition. I submit to the first three because of their reputation in the industry and because I believe they can help my career aspirations. I have submitted to BlueCat because I find their notes on my screenplays helpful and the entry fee quite reasonable for the service. Other than those, I save my money because in reality, contests rarely launch careers. This year, I'll consider submitting to the Black List paid service if I think I have the right screenplay.
Nicholl and Sundance have early May deadlines, but I believe in having material ready well before the deadline, if possible. I submitted my Nicholl semifinal script in March last year. Austin has a June 1 deadline, so that can piggyback with Nicholl and Sundance. BlueCat has several deadlines through mid-November, so a rewrite by the fall is always good.
This year, I want to write a screenplay from concept to first complete draft in 12 weeks because that's what I would need to do if I was hired to write a project.
3. Write in My Head
Okay, this may sound stupid, but writing in my head, away from the screen or pen and paper, is probably where I do most of my writing. I tend to circle around and around an idea, shooting down unoriginal stories or scenes when I'm walking my dog or taking a shower. If I'm truly inspired, I'm not worried about losing an idea I write in my head because if it's good, it will stick. If I'm not sure if the idea is good or not and I'm afraid I might lose it, I've always got Notes on my iPhone in my pocket. When I sit down to write an outline or note cards, the writing flows much faster based on how much writing I've done in my head.
4. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
Before I open up Final Draft to write the first draft of a screenplay, I have already written in my head, created detailed character bios, made note cards for scene ideas, arranged the note cards by story beats, inserted or condensed note cards, fleshed out the note cards as outlines, and usually written a long-form treatment without dialogue. I've toyed with eliminating the long-form treatment altogether, but I've found that writing out the story in treatment form illuminates gaps in the connective tissue of my story that note cards and outlines by their very nature disguise. All that said, my first screenplay draft sometimes feels like my third or fourth draft of the story with the exception of the dialogue.
After that first draft of the screenplay is complete, I need to walk away from it for at least a week, usually more, because when I type "The End", I think the draft is great, but I know deep down that it really sucks. Time and distance put the screenplay's faults in clearer focus. Then the real work can begin: rewriting. My Nicholl semifinal script was officially labeled draft number seven on my hard drive, but I imagine it may have been somewhere closer to revision ten or higher. I just kept reworking version seven for so long without bothering to update the version number. And it still needs work.
5. The Script is Never Finished, So I Need to Know When to Move On
One of my weaknesses is I tend to work linearly on projects. I'd like to think I can multitask, but in reality, I find myself working on one project until it is done. This year, I plan to get better about this by scheduling my time more rigorously so I give myself enough time to accomplish stages of each project. With screenwriting, however, knowing when a script is finished can seem impossible because of the fact that a script is never finished. The script will always change, right into production and even post-production. So, instead of knowing when a script is finished, I'm working on knowing when it is time to move on. By this, I don't mean abandoning a screenplay, but rather knowing when to move to the next stage - looking for feedback, sending out to producers and managers, submitting to fellowships, looking for financing, etc., etc.
6. I Need to Set the Bar High Because the Competition is Fierce and the Odds Are Against Me
To get my screenwriting noticed last year, I set the goal of becoming a Nicholl Fellowship finalist. I believed anything less than that meant that my script wouldn't get noticed. Obviously, I missed that goal. So, what does being a Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist mean? It means I received inquiries about my script, either for the logline or the complete screenplay, from approximately a dozen production companies and management firms. About half of those inquiries came from companies whose films or clients I knew well, and the other half came from smaller producers and managers looking for the next big thing. I think virtually all of the requests came from companies who contacted all 127 semifinalists, so while I was flattered by the queries (usually I'm making the query, so it's nice to be on the receiving end), I was realistic. What has happened as a result of these requests? I've sent my screenplay to some of these companies, and that's been the end of it. Maybe someone will surprise me with a call later this year, but I doubt it. My screenplay tells a good story (in my opinion), but I'll admit it's not the stuff commercial studio movies are made of. That's okay because I want to make it myself, and approaching potential investors with a Nicholl Fellowship semfinalist screenplay is better than just a regular ol' screenplay.
Anybody can write 100 pages in screenplay format. If I want my screenwriting to get noticed, I have to write better than the current working and award-winning professionals. Otherwise, why should anyone want to read my script?
These are the things I'm going to do this year to write my best screenplay ever. What are you going to do? Share with us in the Comments.
Thanks for this Christopher. Really inspirational to know that even with kids you managed to wake up so early and write virtually everyday last year. I've been toying with doing something similar for a few months now but I always seem to hit that damn snooze button. However, I'm determined to write my first screenplay ever in 2013 so the snooze button is no longer an option.
January 8, 2013 at 12:13PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Great list Christopher although I would add #7 Get my script into the hands of people whose opinion I respect and seek out critical and honest feedback then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite some more!
January 8, 2013 at 12:47PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
This is great Christopher, thank you!
January 8, 2013 at 2:30PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
I really liked everything you said. My addition is to read a screenplay a week. Thanks for posting/sharing. Best of luck with your writing.
January 8, 2013 at 2:53PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Great article. I recently finished writing a feature length New York noir script and planning to shoot it in Mid Feb. I am hoping we could see more of these kind of articles in NFS. Having said that I wanted write a piece on my writing process a couple of weeks back but its a total disaster as I realized that I never had any process or schedule. But it worked for me for the following reason.
My script is a case study of a femme fatale from film noirs and the inspiration for it came from getting heavily obsessed with a girl. She has a very intense presence and lethargic elegance in her every move. I wanted to take her character and put it in a dramatic situation but retain the integrity of all the aspects of her personality at the same time, so that it would to be a testimony of my love/lust/obsession for her and show it off. I consciously decided not to write about “That nice girl who works in the corner bakery waiting for love of her life” because it would neither justify my burning desire for her and no to her unique personality. It has to be something intense set in New York. Not the happy, busy New York in daytime. The dark, deserted, haunted New York, that comes alive in the night. Well I already have two interesting characters. The girl and New York. So I took a deep dive into writing without knowing where to go with these two. After producing 250+ pages (I always write the first draft in a book) of garbage for 3 months, I realized there was no way I am going to conclude. So I threw it aside. I happened to pick up this material few months back and it started making sense. The material is super pulpy and it lends itself into a nice pulpy, noir piece. Good for me. Its just a matter of being objective and picking up the good stuff that moves the plot forward and polish it. It took 1 month for the first draft and another 2 months to get the final draft. I have nt shared the script to the girl who inspired it. Its difficult to resist but it would be interesting to see if she would actually figure out the fact that she inspired it. If she does it would be more interesting to see her reaction when she sees it on the screen. I am hoping she would nt figure out. I am not planning to tell her the inspiration part either, because some genius once said that “A true artist tries real hard to cover his naked soul in his art”.
January 8, 2013 at 3:02PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
best post of the year (yet) hands down, thanks Christopher, we have exactly the same new year resolution.
January 8, 2013 at 3:28PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
It's also incredibly helpful to have a weekly (or regular) meeting with someone who cares about your progress and will hold you accountable. Could be a writing partner, screenwriting friend, in person or over the phone, doesn't matter.
A single deadline to finish 120 pages is fine but a big project requires smaller milestones too. Act 1 submitted by so and so meeting. Act 2, etc. The accountabilibuddy and the deadline with a meeting attached is the most important thing I've found to finishing a project.
January 8, 2013 at 6:25PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
January 8, 2013 at 7:13PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
I agree that having someone to talk to on a regular basis, not to get any specific feedback but more as a way of pushing yourself forward by knowing someone is going to listen to you as you advance in your lonely road, can be helpful. Great post, I wish you lots of fruitful mornings and good luck!
And that snooze button should be loaded with an electric shock so we think twice every morning before clicking it!
January 8, 2013 at 9:41PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Great article! I wish I had your motivation.
January 8, 2013 at 10:01PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Great piece, Christopher.
January 9, 2013 at 2:56AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
To me, this is conventional wisdom. Congrats on the success of your script and I applaud you for having the tenacity to keep at it.
One thing I want to add based on the last paragraph: If you write three pages a day for a month, you can churn out the 100-page script Christopher is talking about. Well, a rough draft, anyway. And I think that's totally attainable given his other tips and advice.
January 9, 2013 at 8:43AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
I was reading a little about The Mighty Atom, (http://www.beezone.com/MightyAtom/the_mighty_atom.html) and this phrase made me remember you, Christopher, saying you are not a professional yet. "When a Hollywood screenwriter has had his heart and cinematic vision vandalized a dozen times but is still resolute, he is called a professional."
For me, if you care about the craft you are playing with, if you put your spirit in it, and if it is an important part of your life and days and weeks, you are a professional, recieving money or not (because, if i don't take this as a standart, I would have to say Kafka, for example, was not a 'professional' writer).
Good Luck with your story!
January 9, 2013 at 8:56AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Thanks for the positive feedback on the article, and I hope it helps everyone to keep writing.
January 9, 2013 at 11:51AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
My biggest problem is I do a lot of (3) - writing in my head. But I don't actually put stuff to paper. I need to feel committed to writing, and I think setting aside a certain amount of time per day is best.
January 9, 2013 at 1:45PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Loved this. I would add that you also need to ask yourself what your ultimate goal is. To win contests and respect/renown for your writing? Or to make a film?
Those two things are not the same. The percentage of Nicholl fellows whose scripts are actually made is very small. If your aim is to become a working filmmaker, alternate strategies might be better (eg. move to Los Angeles - difficult if you have a family, I know - find work in a production office; attend film school and learn a related practical skill such as editing or directing, in order to learn about the subsequent stages of filmmaking and what good writing means to those people who actually USE IT to make a movie... not the same as what it means to those who simply read and venerate scripts, as you'll know, I'm sure)
January 10, 2013 at 1:00PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
I'm saving this for when I work on my music productions :]
January 11, 2013 at 4:44AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Thank you for the motivation Christopher! Reading your post and the many replies confirms my beleif that fim making is tough.
January 11, 2013 at 12:31PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Great list. #7 – Read a screenplay every week. They're very easy to find for free, and reading A LOT elevates your taste and writing. It's also super helpful to read with friends and discuss.
January 12, 2013 at 9:00AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Very helpful for me I am new in this department
January 17, 2013 at 1:15PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Nice post. Getting intentional about your writing is the only way to make it happen. I love the early morning regimen you've adopted. And I think it's true that filmmakers must cultivate their writing ability. I have wasted some time looking for writing partners to make films with, and I think it's time to get more intentional about writing screenplays myself. Good stuff!
March 2, 2013 at 11:36AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Today, I went to the beach front with my children.
I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter
and said "You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear." She
put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!
April 5, 2013 at 11:33AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Great read thanks mate. It's inspired me to get off my arse and do what I should be doing. Cheers
July 30, 2013 at 4:50AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM