Monday, November 17, 2008

Professional Screenwriter, Step 2: Writing

You can probably bypass a bit of step 1 by doing a general overview of what’s needed to prepare and write a screenplay. This will usually mean attending a script course of some sort (McKee etc), and reading a few screenwriting books, perhaps even downloading a couple of your favourite scripts from Drew’s Script-O-Rama. But if you really want to get ahead, don’t skimp on step 1. For book writing, it’s widely accepted and encouraged that aspiring writers should have a passion for reading, and so the same should be for film & TV. We all love to WATCH, and this is an important part of the process, too, (to watch & consume a lot of film & TV) but we learn more by READING. After all, this is how your work will be judged, so it makes sense to swot up as much as you can. You quickly discover that your Shane Black-style and killer premise isn’t as clever as you once imagined.

Now, step 2. Writing. Start developing your ‘portfolio’. Shorts, TV episodes, feature specs, whatever floats your boat. The important thing is to write, and keep writing. Finished one script? Great, congratulations! But you need more. Rewrite the script. Start a new one. Improve your work, especially with what you’ve learned from the ongoing process of step 1.

I met a few students the other day to talk about what it’s like being a freelance screenwriter and one of their more pertinent questions was: “do you have a social life or how has that been affected by pursuing a writing career?” It may sound like a trivial matter but it’s not. The thing is, once you decide to give writing a go, a decent and proper go, your social life takes a big hit. You don’t really go out anymore. Friends and family are reduced to emails and phone calls. Not because you’re being rude but because you’re busy writing (and don't have any money, naturally). And here’s the crucial factor, YOU ENJOY IT. You don't mind. You don't really feel it because you're compelled to write or you're determined to succeed.

Janel Maloney, the actress who plays Donna in The West Wing, once asked Aaron Sorkin what he did at the weekend. He just looked at her and gestured ‘typing’ with his hands. To her, it was inconceivable to work so hard, especially at the weekend, but in truth, writers, and busy working writers, work all the time. Morning, noon and night. Seven days a week. Yes, it's difficult to fit in sometimes, and life can get in the way, but there's no avoiding the fact that if you want to be a writer, then you have to write something. Otherwise it’s just talk and bullshit and procrastination. Keep at it. Find the time in your schedule or tell your family/friends that they may not see you for a while. It's not easy, especially at the beginning, but it simply cannot be overlooked. That said, there's more, much more, to building your career than just writing.

Next up, step 3: networking.


potdoll said...

surely it's important to make time for living, as well as writing?

living and socialising give me more experience of life and of people. it also generates more stories and a deeper understanding of character.


Lucy V said...

I think the point Danny's making here is that you're living FOR writing, first and foremost. That doesn't mean you don't do social stuff, but every time you do you have an eye on stuff that will help "make" your script. I don't write every second of the day (it's impossible with young kids), but even when I'm giving the kids tea or a bath I'm thinking about stuff I can nick from them, lol. One day my kids will write their autobiographies and I will portrayed as an evil, thieving witch.

Piers said...

10,000 hours, potdoll...

potdoll said...

yes piers I read that and had to go back to bed!


Okay Lucy so the message is. Work hard and steal hard. I like it.

Danny Stack said...

I'm not saying 'don't have a life', just don't expect to have one occasionally. Certain opportunities, deadlines or obsessive needs to write don't run on a regular clock.

potdoll said...

does that mean I can go out tonight? Wheeeee!

Anonymous said...

That 10,000 hours thing is probably not true. There is such a thing as natural talent, and any musician will tell you that the best musicians in the world, all had natural talent.

Danny Stack said...

I want you home by 9, PD, goddamit!

potdoll said...

Sorry. I did try to get home by 9 but I missed the bus. And then the next one didn't come, and so I decided to walk home. But then I got lost.


Timothy X Atack said...

Anon: I'm a musician as well as a screenwriter. And I don't think the 10,000 hour estimate is true, either.

I think it's probably double that.

True or not, though: why not adopt the attitude that it is? What's to lose? As long as you're honest about the learning process and don't allow it to stifle your creative instincts, any 'natural' talent will only benefit, the harder you work, the more you learn.

Truth be told, I don't believe in natural talent, either as a musician or in any other discipline (and I've been told plenty of times that I "have" talent, so it would be fairly easy for me to cave in to that illusion.) These days I only really believe in 'application'. And that doesn't necessarily mean making like a hermit and shutting out the real world until your craft is pure: but what it does mean is being completely true to your aims... and most of the time that involves a shitload of hard work.

Anonymous said...

so writers have to write then..
that's a bummer

Eleanor said...

As long as writing is both heaven and hell, it's not a bummer - just blinking annoying! ;)

Arran Dutton said...

Hi Danny,

I'm going to apologise in advance as I actually want to ask more than one question and I didn't want to take up a lot of your time.

I was reading about building a strong portfolio and this may seem like a stupid question but I wanted to know what you feel I should add to mine?

At the moment I have three completely different scripts to send out - a drama/comedy, educational programme and a radio comedy as well as a proposal I have written for a documentary about the Championship Manager series of computer games. (I've even had a meeting at CM, got their support and backing of hundreds of fans)

I see that you have mentioned spec scripts and writing treatments for producers in your blog. I have film scripts that I am currently working on - should I add treatments for those? Also with regards to spec scripts do you mean writing scripts for existing television shows?

I read about the comedy writing industry in the United States and I know that this is a common way to get work as a writer - i.e. Writing episodes of 'The Big Bang Theory' in order to show your ability and get a job writing for another U.S. Sitcom but I didn't know that it was common practice over here. Should I start writing them?

I haven't actually done any paid work yet but I am currently trying to pitch all of my scripts (original material) as well as a humour column to magazines/newspapers etc. Should I mention this in a letter to an agency?

I feel the only exposure I may have that will impress would be sports articles that I write as a syndicated writer but obviously it's a completely different field.

You mention that you should outline your ambitions and I want to write for my own television series and film but should I mention that I am willing to do anything to learn more about the industry or does that sound to naive and/or desperate? I feel like I'm not going to get far without the experience that someone like yourself had.



Danny Stack said...

Hi Arran - you might be interested in this post as it's all about building a writing portfolio. When you approach producers/agents/whoever, there's no harm in outlining your passion/objectives, or whatever makes you sound/look good. Feel free to email me with any other Qs if you don't want to leave a comment.