If triple digits is how many it takes…

math lesson
“So you see, Billy, if you edited out 5 pages from the previous draft, that would put your new midpoint around page 54.”

I recently read in an interview with screenwriter Eric Heisserer that included him being asked how many drafts he wrote for ARRIVAL.

“Over one hundred.”

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Keep in mind that this was also spread out over time, not all concentrated in one specific period. And that a new draft doesn’t necessarily mean a complete rewrite. It could be anything from that to a few words changed on pages 33, 52, and 88 through 89.

And ARRIVAL was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, so looks like all those drafts Eric went through were worth it.

About two years ago, I had lunch with a writer friend. He was familiar with my western, and liked it very much. When I mentioned I was considering returning to it to work on it some more, he said “I think it’s fine how it is. If you keep messing with it, you run the risk of making it worse.”

At the time, I really took that to heart. I didn’t want to mess up the script, but deep down I also knew it could still be better.

As you probably already guessed, I eventually ignored his advice and dove back in. I got a few more rounds of feedback from trusted colleagues and professional consultants, always tweaking and fine-tuning with every draft.

There’s no way I could say exactly how many drafts I went through to get to where it is now, but it’s probably safe to say it’s at least over one hundred. That is definitely a lot, but reading the script now, the results of all that work are evident on the page.

Plus, all the notes and all the rewriting have combined to make a really positive impact on my writing. While the overall challenge of putting a script together is still pretty daunting, the whole process seems to move forward in a much smoother manner. And, to be honest, maybe a little faster too.

Even though someone may tell you your script is “good enough as it is”, the final product is all on you. Keep working on it as long as you think you need to, with as many drafts as it takes.

You might not get an Oscar nomination, but getting your script to where you want it to be will definitely make you feel like a winner. Yes, that’s a sappy and corny thing to say, but it’s still true.

The drive. The motivation.

feather quill
This would probably be easier with a typewriter or a computer

I’ve been on quite a bit of a tear the past few weeks, with a lot of rewriting, revising and polishing going on for a few scripts. Definitely couldn’t have gotten to this point without some extremely helpful and insightful notes for each one.

Since a few of them involve working with other people, I like to do the polite thing and keep each person updated regarding the progress on the respective script. Where I am in the story, how it went with scenes or sequences that needed work, that sort of thing.

I tend to include my enthusiasm for latest developments and optimism for continuing success in those updates, which seems to garner responses along the lines of:

“I can see it in your energy.”

“I love your work ethic!”

Making headway on a script, no matter how big or small, is addicting. You’re able to make something better, and you want to keep doing it.

To me, it’s really just loving doing this. And the more I do it, I like to think I get a little bit better each time. Probably also safe to say that seeing as how this is what I want to do for a living, enjoying it is a bit of necessity.

It’s always great to see or hear another writer really get into talking about their script because you can see their excitement about it shine through. It’s infectious. But there are also those, myself included, who get frustrated or depressed about their lack of progress. That’s understandable. We’ve all been there. Even the most successful pros.

But at the heart of it all we keep pushing forward, doing our best to not only make the material better, but to also improve how we go about making it better. It’s a challenge, to be certain. One that requires constant effort. Even when you don’t want to, or think it’s all for nothing.

Nobody ever achieved success by giving up.

And I’ve no intention of giving up.

One curtain falls, another rises

stage
Don’t go far, folks. Next show is on the way!

Among the sizable slew of ongoing projects of which I’m currently undertaking, finishing the edit/polish/rewrite of the pulp sci-fi spec was pretty high up near the top of the list.

Mostly because it was something I felt I absolutely had to do; sort of a “get it out of my system” thing.

And for now, it is. Finished. At least until the next sets of notes come in and the whole process starts all over again. No big deal. Par for the course.

Overall, I like how it turned out. As has been the case before, it was also simply just fun to write. That helped. And some of my readers from the previous draft were quite enthusiastic about what a fun read it is. That also helped.

Even though the story’s pretty much set in place, every once in a while inspiration would strike, or a suggestion would be made, and I’d come up with a way to potentially improve a particular moment, scene or sequence.

So off it goes to some very savvy readers, and my attention redirects to the much-interrupted overhaul of one of my low-budget comedies, which has been a sizable challenge on its own.

Creating amazing tales of thrills, excitement, and heart-pounding fantastic-ness? No problem. Trying to craft a smart, funny story? A challenge, to say the least.

Then again, I do loves me a good challenge.

Things that get in the way

david silverman

Today’s guest post comes courtesy of psychotherapist and script doctor/coach David Silverman.

As a writer-producer in film and tv, David Silverman worked on shows like Mork and Mindy, One Day at a Time, ALF, Newhart, Dilbert, Duckman and South Park. He learned firsthand that “staring into a computer screen day after day could make you feel isolated, frustrated, anxious and even depressed.” Today, he works as a script doctor/coach and as a psychotherapist where he “tries to help writers cope with creative blocks, mountains of rejection, job insecurities, stress, couples problems and the occasional knife in the back.”

A while back, I gave a talk to a group for writers trying to get back into the workforce after a hiatus. It was titled “Things That Get In The Way of Writing”. A quick bit of backstory about this organization: it’s made up of television writers; WGA members who won a class action suit against the studios based on ageism. 

They were able to show that they’d lost income and jobs because they were labeled as “old.” The studios paid out some settlements and included was membership in this group. So there were a lot of older disgruntled writers; some who’d created TV shows, some who’d won Emmys.

They were all so used to getting paid lots of money to write when they were last working, the prospect of writing on speculation didn’t motivate them much. Yet they all wanted to reinvent themselves and restart their writing careers. Some were writing screenplays, others were writing half-hour and hour TV writing samples.

Everything seemed to get in the way of writing for them. So we talked about how writers get motivated to write  – without being paid. They’d done it before, but times were different now.

Having done so much research into the subject of productivity and motivation for screenwriters and TV writers, I didn’t know where to begin. I ended up talking about the methods that make the most sense to me, that I actually use myself, or that I find most interesting.

Most ideas about how people can change themselves involve changing the way they think about things. Psychologists call this “reframing.” Look at things differently. For example, too many writers believe they’ll write one screenplay that will sell and make them rich and famous. Not likely. Sorry.

Instead, it helps to think of this whole selling scripts thing as a long-term process. Tell yourself you’re going to write dozens of spec screenplays over your career. It’s possible that none of them will sell. However, they may get you an agent or a pitch session with a producer.

The producer will hopefully say, “I love the writing in your script! Tell me about some of your other ideas.” They may also say, “Your writing is great and we think you’d be perfect to write this feature idea.” Either way you get paid to write.

So don’t get hung up about having to sell each screenplay you write. Hopefully you will sell one or two. However, writing spec screenplays can have many positive outcomes besides selling. Some writers get locked into this wrong-headed way of thinking. If that first script doesn’t sell, they give up. Or they keep trying to sell that same script for the rest of their lives.

Thinking about the long view also helps you handle rejection better. A rejection (such as when the studio says they’re not going to buy your script) isn’t a soul-crushing experience when you realize there are other positive outcomes that come from writing a spec script.

Another favorite reframe comes from the Woody Allen quote “80% of success is showing up.” It simplifies the writing process. It’s always overwhelming to think of sitting down and immediately writing this great Nicholl-winning script.

Break down the process. The simplest piece is “show up at the keyboard.” A screenplay is not going to pop out fully-formed. Everybody should think about writing as a process. You show up. You have some ideas. You figure it out.

You break the script down into an outline, a treatment, a first draft. Don’t expect perfection in a first draft. In fact, don’t think about writing a perfect script. Write a great script, or a script that will sell.

I remember trying to be a perfectionist about writing a screenplay. I got all detail-oriented, and polished each scene and every piece of dialogue. However, the more I focused on polishing up the little stuff, I seemed to lose track of the big picture. Be careful – the big picture is the one that counts. Tell a great story.

So I brought up these ways to think about writing differently in my talk. Some of the writers thought they could put these ideas to work. I noticed, however, that some of these writers were truly stuck and needed real psychotherapy.

There’s another thing that gets in the way of writing – overthinking. How can you write when your mind is telling you you’re not good enough? Because that’s what your parents told you your whole life? How can you write when you have doubts? Will this sell? Am I wasting my time with this genre?

You have to center yourself and stop dwelling on all these thought while you write. You have to be able to clear your mind. And that’s not easy, because we have all these expectations. Our brains are more than happy to supply us with reasons we’ll never succeed. Learn to let go of those thoughts.

It’s basically Darwinism at play – the survival of the species. A gazillion years ago when sabertooth tigers were lurking around every corner, our brains needed to keep us hyper-vigilant. We doubted all our moves. We lived in a state of “fight, flight or freeze.”

We got civilized, but our brains didn’t catch up. We still overthink everything and have doubts. You can’t write with all those thoughts getting in the way. You have to center. Different writers have done it in different ways. Some hole up in a beach house, or a cabin in the woods. Some go to Starbucks.

Some, like Stephen King, wrote through a haze of beer and cocaine. Phillip K Dick wrote everything – the stories that spawned Minority Report, Blade Runner, and The Man in the High Castle – on amphetamines.

The key is not to let all the noise and overthinking interfere with your writing. Some people have simple rituals that help them center. They make a cup of tea and listen to their favorite music. They go to the same hotel lobby everyday to write.     

Rituals calm us down because of their familiarity. So get that latte at Starbucks, drive to the art gallery where you like to write, open your laptop, plug in your earbuds and listen to U2. Whatever works for you. Then stick to it.

Perseverance pays off.

Remember that bunch of “old” writers? I found out they sold a pilot – no doubt from putting all of my advice to work. But in all seriousness, it was more likely they were doing what I advised them to do – not because I gave that talk, but because that’s why they were successful in the first place.

A lot of writers have learned these lessons, these ways of thinking about their craft and their careers, through experience. Some might have known about them instinctively. Hopefully some of this advice can help you skip years of learning the hard way.

The (much) tougher part

ali hit
99% of the time, you’re George Foreman

In this week’s previous post, I wrote about the necessity of how a writer needs to enjoy the actual writing part of being a writer.

A few colleagues piped in, saying while that part of it holds true, they also find the business aspect (i.e. the marketing of YOU) to be significantly harder and much more challenging. Taking it one step further, lack of progress on that front adds to their frustration.

I can’t argue with any of that. I’ve experienced it firsthand many times.

Friend of the blog Phil Hardy had this to say:

“…this should resonate with most of us that are doing the same thing as you are. However, one of the keys in trying to be a successful writer is spending a fair amount of time crafting query letters, answering ads or attempting to make contact with industry people anyway you can. Many writers fall flat in this area. One should definitely spend as much time as they can trying to promote and sell their work, as well as taking joy in the act of writing it.”

Simply put, marketing and promoting oneself is a necessary evil that a writer has to be willing to undergo and endure as many times as it takes if they want to succeed. Sucks, but it’s the truth.

After working on a couple of scripts and building up my arsenal of materal, I’ve decided to take the plunge again.

I’ve put together what I consider to be a pretty effective new draft of the query letter. Gone through the list of managers, agents and production companies, researching who might a good match for each script.

A few queries have been sent, so the waiting and hoping for a positive response begins yet again. All the while, working on more scripts. It’s all I can do.

My efforts to improve my networking skills have also paid off. Every once in a while, a colleague will send me a listing that seems tailor-made for one of my scripts. Even though none of them have worked out, it’s made me aware of more opportunities than I would have been able to find on my own.

We all know this is not an easy path. It’s extremely tough and really puts your endurance to the test. The question you have to continually ask yourself is “Am I willing to keep working at this until I get the results I want, no matter how long it takes, how frustrated I get, or how impossible it seems?”

I can only speak for myself.

Yep.

-You might find these older posts somewhat relevant and worth a read.

The me businsess – a 24/7 operation

A support staff of one