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.