Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Film Courage Plus: How To Be Productive

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. As they have been releasing the interview segments from 2015 every week or so, I have dug back into their archives and tweeted some of the segments from 2014... so they won't be forgotten. There were something like 12 segments from 2014, and probably around 24 segments for 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

So here is the first one. I'm still not sure whether the article should come before or after the clip, so this time around it's *before* the clip - you can tell me which way you think would work best in the comments section.

HOW TO BE PRODUCTIVE
Writers write.

Sounds simple, right?

The problem is that it’s not about writing that one great screenplay that changes everything, it’s about writing for a living. Writing screenplay after screenplay after screenplay. Being a professional writer means writing every day (like any other job), writing on a deadline, writing screenplay after screenplay after screenplay. If you are looking for a Manager or Agent, they represent *writers* not screenplays. Once they send your screenplay out into the world and nobody buys it, it is a “busted spec” - a dead script. And that means you need to have another script to send out into the world, then another, then another, then another... until you sell a screenplay or land an assignment. Heck, to get that Agent or Manager you need to keep sending out query after query (each for a new screenplay) to Managers and Agents on your target list until they read one that makes them sign you. This probably sounds like a lot of work... and it is.

So, how do you do that? How do you keep writing screenplays until you land an Agent or Manager and then keep writing screenplays for them until you land a paying gig, and then keep landing paying gigs for the rest of your life?

That’s a very good question.

Complicated by, you know, life. You have a mortgage or rent to pay. You have a family. You have a job that eats up a minimum of 40 hours or your week (add in commute time and those extra hours you worked and all of the other parts of real life). How do you find any time at all to write all of those screenplays, and how do you find the will to stick with it? You barely have time to relax after work, let alone crank out screenplays. Well, here’s a ten point plan to help you get something done...

1) Don't depend on inspiration - it's a trap! At the end of the day, it's always going to be you and the blank page. So you have to figure out how to get yourself motivated. It's always going to be from the inside instead of the outside. You can’t depend on anyone else - motivation is *your* job. This is a business where, when they love your work and buy your work, the first thing they do is tell you everything they hate about it and want changed right away... instead of how much they like what you've written. So looking for or depending on external motivations aren't going to help you in the long run - you have to figure out how to keep writing through the crap that life hands out.

2) Set aside a specific time every day to write - can be as little as 15 minutes, but that is the time that anyone who bothers you gets punched in the face as hard as you can. There are plenty of success stories about people who wrote on their lunch hours or wrote on their commute to work (though most of those involve people who take a train or subway - if you drive to work, probably best not to have the laptop open). Find a half hour or an hour every day that is just for writing - and make sure everyone who might bother you understands that it’s your writing time and you *will* punch them in the face as hard as you can if they bother you.

3) If all you do in that 15 minutes (or half hour or hour) is just stare at the blank screen, it's a win...

4) But you'd rather write, right?

5) So be prepared to write! Outline your screenplay. A step outline is easiest - just bullet point scene-by-scene. The great part about an outline is that you can play around with it and solve all your story problems while it's just a page or two of outline... instead of 110 pages of screenplay. Less writing for the garbage can.

I think of screenwriting as “creative steps”, because that’s how things are done professionally. When you land an assignment, they don’t just cut you a check and send you off to write the screenplay, there are “steps”. In fact, it’s called a “Step Deal”. You do one step at a time, and are paid for each step. There are “reading periods” where the producer (or their intern) reads each step and then gives you notes and tells you what they want you to do in the next step. One of those steps is always a *Treatment* - a scene-by-scene version of the screenplay. Since you are going to have to work that way as a professional screenwriter anyway, might as well train yourself now. Work in creative steps. My first creative step is to get the overall story under control. I write an outline, and then rework the outline until the story part of the script works. That gives me a roadmap that gets me from the beginning to the end by the very best possible route. Now to the next creative step which is writing each of those scenes in my bullet point outline - and I know that Mary and John break up... but *how* do they break up? The outline may give me the basics of what happens, but not *how* it happens or any of the hundreds of possible details about how that scene plays out. That’s the fun part of the next creative step - once you have the outline, you still have all kinds of fun things to figure out during the “writing step”.

6) The other great thing about an outline is that it breaks your story down into bite sized pieces which are easier to write. You don't have to write a whole screenplay, just this one scene. A scene is about 2 pages, so you can knock that out in a day or two... but if it takes you a week, you are still making progress. Some scenes are easy, some are more difficult. What matters is that you make a little progress every day.

And that is the key to getting things done. You can become overwhelmed at having to write a 110 page screenplay (or a 100,000 word novel), and that may lead to you “choking” and writing nothing at all. But a scene? A couple of pages? Heck, even if you only write half of that scene - *one* page a day - you can handle that, right? And all of those pages add up. Slow and steady wins the race, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and any other cliches you can come up with - all true.

7) If you end up with only 15 minutes a day, it may make sense to outline the scene itself. This also works if you ever get stuck (and you will). Just start by writing down all of the things the scene needs to do for the story. Then figure out the most interesting ways those things can happen. Then figure out the most interesting order for those things to happen. Now you have a scene that is broken down int bite-sized pieces. If you only have 15 minutes, you can write one of those little pieces, right? Or at least part of one of those pieces. The key is to make progress every day, even if it's just a little progress. In the Film Courage clip I talk about how I wrote 3 screenplays a year while working a full time job by just writing one page a day. Hey, there are days when I was on a roll and wrote more than one page a day, but my goal was to write one page on *bad days* (and you will have plenty of those, every writer does).

8) "Nothing succeeds like success!" That may not make much sense, but if you write half a page, a quarter of a page, a sentence - you are making progress, and that will make you feel good and keep you "self-inspired" to write the next day. Momentum is everything, and if you write a page every day it becomes easier to write that page (or half a page or quarter of a page or sentence) as time goes on. You build up momentum. Today’s writing leads to tomorrow’s writing.

But sooner or later something will happen and you will miss a couple of days and all of that momentum will be lost. It will be hard as heck to get it rolling again - but that is what you have to do. If you fall off the horse, the best thing to do is get back on and ride again, and all of those cliches - which are also true. The next thing on our little list will help you to get back on the horse or dust yourself off or whatever cliche you have selected that best illustrates this...

9) Most important thing: Your Doorway Into The Story. Make sure your screenplay is personal. A piece of you. That way you won't want to abandon it. It would be like abandoning your arm or leg or head. "What right does my head have to call itself me?" I write action and thrillers and horror - and even if it is an assignment, my first step is to find that piece of me in the story. Most of my screenplays are just cheap therapy - and I either begin with the personal emotional conflict I want to work though in fiction form or I search for it and find it within whatever story idea I've come up with (or assignment I have accepted). We look at this in the Ideas Blue Book.

There are times when I've been offered paid writing jobs and turned them down because I couldn't find my story within their story. Better to wait until something comes along that I can find a "doorway" into than write something that I don't give a crap about. Here's one of my script tips about finding that doorway on a script of mine that got filmed *twice*: Writing BLACK THUNDER - Sibling rivalry is something I completely understand. I am not the favorite son. I'm the guy who has to work harder just to get noticed, and that's an issue I'm still working through... so I pitched a story dealing with that subject and ended up getting paid to write the screenplay.

Everything I've written has a "personal core" that keeps me from abandoning it, because it may be about fighter pilots and explosions - but it is still really about me. There will come a time when writing your screenplay that you want to abandon it. You hate it. You want to write something else instead. Don’t give in to this! There are people who have a dozen half written screenplays and not a single one that’s *finished*. You can’t do anything with a half written screenplay (okay, you can train puppies and line birdcages). So you want to get all the way to FADE OUT with your script! The best way to do that is have a personal connection to the story so that it’s difficult to let go of. Find your “doorway” into the story - that thing that makes it *part of you*. That not only makes it more difficult to abandon when the going gets rough, it also makes it a better story.

10) Now just write a little bit every day, and the pages add up. I used to write 1 hour a day before work, but really all I required myself to write was one page a day. That's it. One page. And 1 page times 365 days is 3 rough draft screenplays a year. Look, if you write a third of a page a day in 15 minutes, that a screenplay a year - and that puts you ahead of most people who would rather talk about writing than actually write every day and get progressively better and eventually sell something or land an assignment and have a handful of credits on IMDB that represents about a tenth of what they've been paid to do (only about 10% of stuff you sell or are hired to write ever makes it to the screen). (Which is another reason why you have to keep turning out new screenplays - when one project gets shelved you need a new screenplay to keep your *career momentum* going!)

When you are being productive, it helps keep you productive. Momentum. When you lose momentum, you need to push yourself to start moving again. It's not easy at first, but when you start rolling at 5mph it's much easier to roll to 10mph and keep increasing speed than it is from a cold start. Starting's a bitch!

And this may be what you are facing now - so just push yourself a little at first (even force yourself) and it gets easier. Forced writing can be rewritten, smoothed out, improved. But you can’t rewrite what isn’t written. So write! One Writers Block Breaker is to just write nonsense that doesn't matter to get started. That gets things rolling. Then just keep it rolling. Not easy... but possible. All of this is building good habits of regular writing, which comes in handy when you have a career and deadlines and need to write a certain number of pages a day to turn in your assignment on time.

And now the Film Courage clip...



Good luck, and keep writing!

- Bill

NEXT WEEK: THRILLER Thursday Season 2 - an episode directed by the awesome Ida Lupino!

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