It's easy to give yourself a hard time for failing in your creative endeavours. When you write something mediocre, or peers criticise your stuff, the temptation is to throw it all away and beat yourself up for being such a loser.
But successful creatives understand that failure is just another part of the process. That NOBODY gets it 100% right the first time, and that what really matters is taking stock of what you've got and hunkering down to fix it.
"Writing is rewriting."
"A first draft is just something to fix."
The above quotes are all circling around the same idea. That is, you have to be prepared to fail to get anywhere worthwhile. Your first attempts will be rubbish. Accept that, and move on to your second, third, seventh, fourteenth draft in the knowledge that the best people in the world write lousy first drafts too.
Pixar make great films, right? Well here's one more quote from the guy responsible for their summer 2010 smash hit:
“It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.”
(via Wired Magazine: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/process_pixar/all/1)
Next time you read your work and start lapsing into self-hatred because of its weaknesses, step back. Take a deep breath, tell yourself that failure is AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE PROCESS, and begin to rewrite.
Assuming you have already read some books about the craft of screenwriting and understand the basic formatting rules, this is a classic way into understanding how to write a screenplay:
Sit with a DVD player and watch a scene then "write it". Then find the script online and see how the original screenwriter laid it down on the page.
What did they do to bring the scene to life in prose? What bits of the scene did you think were important? Did they use fewer words to describe actions? Were their choice of words more evocative than your own? More precise?
Some writers do this for an entire film, watching it and "writing" it, before comparing their efforts to the real deal at the end. Hard work, but it's a great way to learn.
Are you worrying and getting frustrated and letting your concerns get on top of you all day? Do you find that your writing time gets broken up by negative thoughts?
Instead, try picking a ten minute slot that is reliably "yours" each day. Like the walk to work or something similar. Then make it "your time to worry". Spend that specific time being as angry, anxious, negative and doom-laden as you like. Let rip!
Then - and this is important - call your worries done with for the day.
If other stuff comes up during the rest of the day that makes you angry, instead of letting it ruin your day / job / relationship / hopes... just make a mental note (or write it down, if that's easier) to deal with it during the next day's designated worry-zone.
This sounds weird, but it can really help. You don't want to suppress your anxious thoughts, but nor do you want to let them consume you. By assigning a specific regular time to worry about things you know that you'll have a chance to fret, but you won't let fretting dominate your day, leaving you mental space to apply yourself to other tasks.
Here's a great screenwriter talking about dealing with fears:
Most writers feel fraudulent at least some of the time. Even on your best award-winning, world-cheering-you days you can be overwhelmed by the fear that you don't have a clue what you're doing, and that you'll shortly be found out and humiliated.
What Shane Black expresses so nicely in the above link is that what counts is DOING IT ANYWAY. Don't let the fear stop you writing. Be afraid, but write anyway.
Because you never lose the fear. Honestly, if you care about what you do you'll always have a kernel of unease when approaching a project. And that's no bad thing, for a few reasons. Imagine if you felt 100% that you knew what you were doing. There would be nothing left to discover and chances are you wouldn't be testing yourself -- instead you'd be following a cliched template for your work, and boring by-the-numbers work would result.
So a little fear can be a good thing. I feel it, at some point, with every project I embark on. Sometimes it's at the start, when I think I can't handle the challenges of a new type of story. Sometimes it's midway, when my confidence in my prep work goes and I begin to think the draft is really bad. Sometimes it's midway through the second draft, when I'm thinking "can I save this? Will this ever be any good?"
But a major part of becoming professional is getting on with the task in hand regardless of the fears you are feeling. Once you're taking cheques from someone, it's rarely acceptable to say "I'm going to miss my deadline by a month because I'm worried about everything". Deadlines, as you know, are helpful; a paycheck and contract is really just a gold-plated deadline.
A final tip:
If you find it hard to get started again after a break, try stopping work in the middle of a bit that's going really well. This way you'll be excited to get back to work the next morning to finish the scene.
When I was starting out I used to get home full of good intentions, but then I was tired and craving time to just wind down, or go out. I would bounce between intentions and guilt at slacking off. And in truth I didn't get enough done.
My solution? The hours before work.
Now, I'm a lazy guy. It makes me feel ill to wake up knackered. BUT --
When I was holding down a day-job, I found that 7am-9am was the ONLY time, Mon-Fri, that I was never doing anything else (other than sleep). It was reliable time.
So eventually I bit the bullet and started getting up to write for two hours before I left for work, every single weekday.
It was amazing what I started to get done. My head felt rested (even if I was yawning) and the world was quiet. There were no distractions. There was nowhere else I should be.
This isn't easy advice to hear.
Life is busy. You want to go out and have fun. You need your sleep. Your job is demanding. Perhaps you have kids, on top of everything.
But you have to ask yourself: what truly matters to you?
In the end my (tetchy and graceless) answer to that question was unavoidable. I wanted to write, and waking up early was the only way to get pages written on a regular basis. And only regular work was going to see me finish a 110 page script.
1. YOU HAVE TO HAVE A GREAT SCRIPT, NOT JUST A GREAT IDEA
Look, it's ferociously competitive out there. You don't get much sympathy for being a "new writer" -- producers don't care that you're trying really hard, they just want results. So you need to be ready to impress from day one, and that means putting the hours in to learn your craft inside out.
But if you're good, you'll be in demand. Everyone is hungry for a great script. They read so many bad ones. If you give them an amazing story, told with flair and style, they'll want to meet you and work with you.
But the bottom line is: you have to write the script first.
Major productions companies, channel commissioners and agents won't be interested in just hearing about a good idea. They know that lots of people have good ideas, but very few have the skill to turn them into truly compelling, professional screenplays.
2. GETTING AN AGENT
Let's say that you have worked hard on your writing. You have an intimate knowledge of how screenplays work. Your knowledge of genre is finely honed. You can be given a basic premise and quickly work up a three act structure for it. Your drawer scripts have gone from "terrible" to "barely sucks" to "hope it's good" to "my writing group wept with envy at the all-round awesomeness of my writing".
In short, you're pretty sure you're ready to break in to the industry.
It's actually kinda straightforward at this point. If you have got at least one amazing script in your pocket, and ideas for the next two or three things you WILL write (regardless of whether you're paid or not) then there are concrete steps you can take to get your work into the right hands.
The realistic first step to getting your film made is to convince an agent to take you on as a client. They have the experience to know where to take a script and the contacts to make those approaches. If the script is enthusiastically received, they will negotiate a deal for you. Honestly, it is VERY hard to be taken seriously by a reputable producer unless you have an agent. Because having a good agent is like a badge of quality for a writer: it says that someone experienced says you're worth reading. Without a good agent you'll struggle to get noticed.
A good agent will then put your work in front of producers, who'll invite you in to meet. Then you can discuss your next two killer ideas with them and hope they like you as a writer. Maybe they'll hire you to adapt a novel. Maybe they'll get you to write a treatment of one of your ideas. But you'll have a toe through the door.
That's how it's done. Agent + great script + more great ideas = the sound of opening doors.
Firstly, you need to be sure that your script really is perfect. By that I mean it has to be:
(i) an original story
(ii) professionally executed in terms of craft skills such as structure
(iii) showing clear understanding of intended audience and budget and
(iv) presented in standard screenplay format.
This means making sure that your script can stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the marketplace. The way to tell is by reading lots of produced screenplays via sites like http://www.mypdfscripts.com/category/screenplays
Only when your script is perfect, it's time to search out that "someone who could take on my script and get it produced". That person is an agent.
Some of the big agencies in the UK are:
It helps, but isn't essential, to know what kind of writing you might like to specialise in. Are you a comedy writer? A sci-fi guy? A classic drama person? Etc.
Most agencies list the main agents plus their clients. So if you've written a horror movie you should, with some research, be able to target agents who you know represent horror writers. Agents will appreciate that you're not a time-waster when you write "I'm approaching you because you represent Joe Bloggs, whose work I admire, and I feel my script FACE CHEWER shares his sensibility".
You'll benefit from getting frequent critical feedback on your work from a variety of people. Reading and critiquing other people's work will also sharpen your own instincts and improve your stuff.
Remember, nobody writes a perfect first draft the first time they sit down to write. Don't beat yourself up if you think your first attempts are sub-standard. It takes time to become a good writer, and if you have the guts to do some of your learning in public, you'll get there faster.
Speaking personally, there is no way my early scripts would have improved without the feedback and support I received from great readers. These people worked with me to improve the work, giving me detailed notes and helping to identify how new drafts could make a weak script good, a good script better, a better script impressive, an impressive script into something that people would be willing to buy.
Their notes were often bruising. I was often paralysed by the challenge of rewriting. But it was important to grow a thick skin and not take the knocks personally. I think if we can get you hooked up with people who'll give you detailed critical notes, rather than encouragement, you'll be in a position to polish your script up from "we like it but can't take it on" to "you HAVE to sell us this script, please".
I have a writers' group comprised of a dozen professional screenwriters and playwrights. We read each others' ideas, treatments and scripts. We give brutal but useful notes to each other. It's the most helpful thing in the world. I sometimes feel I'd be lost without it.
Most people I know (not all, but the overwhelming majority) who have found success as pro screenwriters have had a lot of peer support, good mentors and guiding hands. Not handed to them on a plate, but sought out.
JOIN/CREATE A WRITERS' GROUP
Google to find out if there are supportive groups for would-be writers in your area. Save up and buy a ticket for a screenwriters' festival (there's one in Chelmsford and another in London that are both annual events). Go and network and find like-minded spirits.
There are online screenwriting communities that read and respond to each other's work. This one's the famous one: http://www.triggerstreet.com/gyrobase/index
ADULT EDUCATION / EVENING CLASSES
So if a formal Writers' Group seems too daunting right now, consider signing up for an evening class at your local adult eduction place.
Lots of places offer ten week Creative Writing evening classes (or similar) where you'll be exposed to new ideas, and where you'll experience the terrors and wonders of showing your stories to other people. Have a google around... Find something that sounds right, and dive on in.
PAY FOR PROFESSIONAL FEEDBACK
The alternative to the above is to pay someone to read your work and give you notes. There are lots of "pro readers" out there, of wildly varying quality and price. A really good professional script editor will give great value for money. I've paid one £400 per day, for several weeks, in the past -- and her notes were worth it. If this is what you really want to do with your life, it's worth investing in, right?
Professional advice is more valuable than that of friends. Friends' opinions are going to be little more use than keeping you feeling positive. You need feedback from people who read scripts professionally -- script readers, consultants, producers, or other screenwriters.
Please note: I do not read scripts from people I mentor - not for love nor money!
In terms of where to look for feedback, people I have mentored have used:
Can't vouch for him, but his experience looks solid. Maybe think about running your work past someone like him. That'll tell you whether you're ready to take your work out to the market.
I believe this guy, an American, provides a v good service: http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/
Here are my top tips for getting started as a screenwriter. This article is a summary - see my other articles for more detail on specific areas.
READ ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCREENWRITING
The eventual purpose of a screenplay is to provide a blueprint for the production of a feature film (or TV show or whatnot). A producer will use it to assess production costs (that space battle won't come cheap etc.); an agent reads it to assess whether the star she represents might be interested in playing the lead role; a director builds all the film's elements around it.
But for our purposes, it's easier to think of a screenplay in simpler terms: a screenplay is a document that makes the an experienced reader "see" the entire film in their head as they turn the pages.
To achieve this, you need to pick up some technical skills. You need to learn screenwriting conventions, so that your work is professional and meets industry standards. This includes knowing how best to introduce characters, always writing in the present tense etc. There are lots of books about this stuff. Read 'em!
I'd recommed Gulino on "The Sequence Approach", the Syd Field classic "Screenplay" and possibly Blake Snyder's "Save the cat!" book.
You'll note that these books all focus heavily on structure. That's because writing films is incredibly focused on structure. If you want a career, you HAVE to know how to talk about, think about, and implement film structure in stories. People often talk about film being an art and science, and I think that's true.
You need to read lots of them. I'm a professional screenwriter and I make sure to read at least one screenplay a week, usually taking 30 minutes afterwards to write-up an analysis of its structure.
If you're serious about screenwriting you need to be intimately familiar with the form. The WGA published a list of "100 greatest screenplays". You should read them all, breaking each one down into a short report afterwards (who was the protagonist? What was their goal? What was their emotional missing piece? What were the act breaks? Etc.) Also, you should keep an eye on what the market is doing, using sites like Script Shadow to orient you.
I'd honestly say this is more important than watching the movies themselves. Try http://www.mypdfscripts.com/category/screenplays for downloads.
Reading craft books and studying screenplays will take you a long way. But you should also keep writing throughout. After all, you'll probably write hundreds of pages of crap before you start improving. And not because you're in any way a poor writer -- you could be very gifted -- but simply because you only improve by writing. A lot. In my bottom drawer I have three half-baked screenplays that never need to see the light of day, but the writing of which taught me huge amounts.
Do the very best work you can, but know that your first two or three feature scripts are unlikely to be good enough to send to agents (let alone producers). Everyone has draw scripts -- write them, get feedback, rewrite, and when you can take them no further, pop them in a dark drawer, with valuable lessons learned.
I think that's important: you have to be prepared to fail (I say this in retrospect; at the time I wanted to pull my hair out with frustration). Don't be too hard on yourself, but do persevere.
WRITE A FULL SCREENPLAY - A SHORT FILM IS NOT ENOUGH
While a well-written short can do a writer some favours, they're much more of a director's calling card. I'd be surprised if a producer paid you to write a feature off the back of a short, because writing a short doesn't necessarily mean you have the skills to structure a story across 110 pages.
Also, you'd be lucky -- like, unholy lucky -- to persuade someone to pay you to write off a pitch. Only well-established writers get paid good money to write off pitches, because their track record merits it. No, the truth is, if you want to break into screenwriting you'll have to write your first feature (at least) on spec.
FIND A PEER GROUP TO GIVE YOU FEEDBACK
seek out a peer group. It'll give you those all important deadlines and an opportunity to have your work critiqued. Find and cultivate the people who can help you grow as a writer.
You need fresh eyes on your work, and friends and family just don't cut it. You need to put your drafts in front of people who write screenplays, or read them for a living. And you need to be reading their work, too. Meet up once a month and review each other's stuff. Grow a thick hide for criticism and don't defend your work, just listen and learn.
See my "story" on the subject of getting feedback for more advice on this topic.
REWRITE, REWRITE, THEN TRY TO GET AN AGENT
Write something amazing. Then rewrite it until it sparkles. Then try to get an agent. A well-connected agent can then take it to market using their credibility as a passport. And from there? Well, if you're very lucky (a lot of luck required, huh?) it might sell. More likely, you'll be considered for writing jobs. Any which way, you'll be on your way.
Rewriting! This is the single most important step towards becoming a professional. If you get paid to adapt a novel, say, you'll be given (perhaps) 12 weeks to do it. That's three months to write a couple of drafts of the treatment and deliver a strong first draft (which will be your third or fourth pass). To be able to achieve this you MUST be able to:
1. Write fast.
2. Rewrite competently.
Most of my scripts change at least 50% between the first draft and the fourth draft. You *really* have to work at making sure that your idea has achieved its most-perfect possible expression in your script, before you declare it ready to be read by producers.
Everyone's process varies, but for me the essentials are:
1. Break the story into its basic components (the same ones you're analysing in those WGA screenplays)
2. Write a quick, messy first draft. Keep a separate document open as you write, in which you list notes for the next draft. Do not go backwards. Forward momentum is crucial. Aim for ten pages a day. They will be shit. Don't worry about that.
3. When you type FADE TO BLACK, go back and implement the changes you noted in your document. Congrats -- you have a terrible first draft!
4. Pop it in a drawer. Go and celebrate. Leave it for at least four days if you're on a deadline; two weeks if you're writing it on spec without producers waiting.
5. Open drawer. Deep breath. Read it through. Ask yourself the big questions. Not "could my third scene be 1/8th page shorter?" but stuff like "is it clear what my protagonist's goal is, and is s/he pursuing it at all times?" or "do my act breaks have real punch? Is the story serving my theme? What IS my theme?"
6. Return to index cards (or however you structure your work) and revise the screenplay at a deep, structural level. Then, with a new plan, implement those changes. Sometimes that means tossing out 90% of the first draft.
Rewriting is a must. I used to hate it and for a long time I'd be in denial about my scripts. I'd start justifying the reasons why what I already had was "actually cool" and should be kept, instead of being tough on myself.
It's hard to step back and commit to doing something other than shuffle the furniture around a bit. That's why I emphasise writing a quick and dirty first draft instead of sweating over getting it right first time. That way you know you'll be writing lots of drafts, and getting a first draft done just gives you something to work with. Be prepared to work hard!
Writing is hard.
It's really hard to start, it's hard to keep going, and it's brutally hard to re-write once you've "finished" something.
Good writing takes time and dogged persistence. That's why it's really important to celebrate mini-milestones, not just the big ones like completed drafts.
A screenplay is usually 110pages that have damn near killed you to complete. You'll have slaved over the structure. Writing scenes will have been tough. You'll have rewritten three of four times just to find what it's REALLY about. So the road to "script that's ready to be read by professionals" is a long one.
If you set your sights purely on that as a goal, you'll get depressed and burnt out. Instead you need to break the task into little bits, and celebrate when you complete each small step. Write up your idea onto a single sheet of A4 - and recognise that achievement by going out for dinner (or whatever floats your boat). Tell yourself that you're going to figure out your Inciting Incident, Act Breaks and Plot points... then do something you really love. And so on.
If you have friends and family to celebrate with, all the better. If one of them is particularly supportive, tell them what your self-set deadline for each step is, and ask them to hold you to account with a phone call. Thank them by buying the drinks when you're out with them celebrating finishing 30 pages (for example).
Write this on a card and glue it to the wall!
1. Break big tasks into little tasks.
2. Celebrate completing each little task.
Different writers, different strokes. Some writers LOVE finding the story as they go and think outlines are horrible. Others find outlines a huge antidote to the fear a blank page. The challenge for you is to find what works best for you, then hone your working pattern to optimal productivity.
I tend to organise my thoughts using big cork boards and index cards. I write ideas for scenes, my primary structures, my character intros etc. onto 5x3" cards and pin them up into sequences. If I spend 4 months on a project, I'm often only typing in the last months. Because screenplays ARE structure. Get the structure right and you'll be golden.
It's a good way of making steady progress when your writing time is measured in minutes rather than hours.
Here's the awesome John August with some tips for card users (a good blog to read if you don't already -- some great tips in his archives):
If you've been trying to write your One Big Idea for ages, you can begin to feel like a failure just because you haven't yet drafted it.
Here are some tips for moving on.
1. Put "The Big Idea" aside for a while. Ten years thinking about one story might not be healthy. It can become a burden. Tell yourself that you will write this particular story one day -- but not today. Tell yourself that you'll write many stories across the course of your life, and that this first idea can wait. Start work on something different. It'll take the pressure off. You can always return to your Big Idea when you've gained more experience.
2. Decide that you'll never be paid for this, and do it for the love of it. You can lose hours, days even, dreaming of the day you leave your job off the back of a best-selling novel. The canapes you'll devour as the literary world celebrates your talents! But that has little to do with the business of writing. So commit to writing instead of committing to a vision of alternative-you. Make writing an end to itself.
3. Write every day. This is a cliche, but it's true -- writing every day turns it into a habit. If you put your pen down for long periods it becomes mentally tougher to return with confidence. So even if it's just half an hour a day, do it every day. Weekends and holidays included!
4. Read novels. Read widely. Get inspired. Let your brain soak up a hundred different voices. Try things that would never ordinarily appeal. If you love crime writing, pick up a chick-lit novel.
5. And read about writing. There are some great books about storytelling craft. Read them. Enjoy developing your craft -- because a writer is a craftsman as much as he's an artist. You can't afford to hang around waiting for the muse when you're on a deadline.
6. Seek out like-minded people. Join a book group and develop your critical faculties. Join a writer's group and learn to give and receive feedback on your work. Take an adult-education writing class. Writing a novel is tough and lonesome. Finding a mini-audience for your work can help take the edge off that.
I explore more about finding peer groups in other stories I have posted.
A quote from Harold Ramis, director of "Groundhog Day" amongst other films:
“Say yes to everything—whether it’s an audition or a small writing job. In our industry, people spend a lot of time dreaming and wishing. The usual dream is to be discovered—but being discovered is passive. A dream is different from a goal because a dream involves magic, while a goal involves a series of practical steps taken in a certain direction. Take the practical steps that achieve a goal and a dream can happen.”
I had that quote pinned to my wall for years!
The idea I came back to time and again was that it was easy for me to get lost in dreams - dreams of success, nightmares of failure.
But what I actually needed to do was to take "practical steps taken in a certain direction". If I wanted to complete a novel, first I had to type a word. Then maybe a few more, until I had a sentence. Paragraphs, chapters, drafts, third drafts, a completed novel, a seventh novel, the Booker prize... all those things belonged to an unknown future. What mattered, here in the moment, was typing one word after another.