It’s a new year and with it comes a whole new slew of resolutions that many of us will make, and struggle with, to keep as the months wear on. There’s the usual of course that everybody has, like joining a gym and getting back into shape or eating healthier. I’ll raise my hand and own up to that this year. Again.
But I’m gonna crawl out on a limb and suggest that if you’re here then your resolution is to finally start or finish your screenplay. But there’s a problem. You haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe you justify your lack of writing by internally saying you have more “research” to do before you begin. Maybe you’re reading this article at work on your lunch break because it’s the only time you have to even think about screenwriting. Maybe you’ve promised yourself to start fresh next week. On Monday. Because Monday’s are intrinsically better at beginning new undertakings. Maybe today is the Tuesday after and you still haven’t written anything yet. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re afraid.
There’s a million excuses we come up with to avoid doing something as simple as writing. For YEARS I peddled in them. I had little time as I was busy with school and work. Then I had a wife and found myself with even less time. Next came the kids and I had no time. Years went by where I wrote nothing until I finally had enough and threw myself into my screenplay.
I overcame my excuses and had it finished within a few months.
Excuses are deadly for writers because they can quickly become self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling. They become bad habits. Walls that we put up around ourselves for insulation that end up becoming prisons before we know it.
Below are ten of the most common excuses I had or have heard when it comes to writing. Specifically they center around screenwriting but the same can be said of any writing or creative endeavour. Read them, learn from them, and then I want you to smash through your prison walls of excuses and work on your screenplay. Write now.
1. My screenplay will be bad
You’re right. It will.
But all screenplays are awful the first time through. Do you really think classics such as Gone With the Wind or The Godfather were filmed after a first draft? Of course not. What a silly question to even ask. That’s why professional screenwriters will go back and write upwards of 10 drafts of their script before it’s finally somewhat acceptable to be shopped around, sold off, or even shared with friends. Their first stuff is bad too.
And you will write some truly awful, cringe worthy lines of dialogue before you’ve finished. Your action will be confusing. Your second act will fall flat. Your punctuation will look like a 5th grader’s. Your final page count will be overly bloated. (I remember my final page count the first time through was a whopping 164 pages! I had crammed in a 4th and 5th act in there somewhere, lol) But it’s ok. You’ll catch all those mistakes when you go back and revise. It’s a common phrase in the writing community but “real writing is rewriting”. With that mentality, until you’ve actually written something to go back and rewrite in the first place you’ll never be a real writer. So join the club. Get that first draft typed out. It will be a frightening mess of ideas and typos but you’ll find them and fix them. And in so doing your screenplay will get BETTER than it was before.
2. I don’t know how to format a script
Learning to writing a screenplay in the proper format is like learning how to code in HTML. It’s very technical and confusing. Even the pros sometimes get confused as to what proper formatting is or isn’t at times. But you have two advantages in your corner to help you. First, there are many versions of screenwriting software out there like Final Draft that do a lot of the legwork for you. They automatically adjust your margins, put in page numbers, indent for dialogue and help with all the scene headings so all you have to concentrate on is writing the best script you possibly can.
On top of that there is a ton of help out on the internet when it comes to formatting when you get stuck. Like my article here for example. Don’t let formatting become the boogeyman in the closet that keeps you away from writing. There’s a learning curve to be sure, but the basics aren’t too steep and if you make a mistake you just go back and fix it later. No biggie.
3. I don’t have time to write
You probably don’t right now, you’re right. I know you have work or a family to juggle. Probably both. Your friends keep bugging you to go out Friday nights and your favorite football team plays next Sunday so those days won’t work. The only breaks you get are the 10 or 15 minutes here and there to zone out on your smartphone. You can’t write anything of value piecemeal like that.
Life is hard. I hear and I’m there with you. But the truth is if you’re going to write then you have to find the time to. Or make it.
And it needs to be everyday. No questions asked. As much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth in the morning or getting dressed for work. Otherwise you’ll trail off, lose commitment, or let other things keep popping up and derail you. Just like you’ve always been doing before you read this article. And look how far that’s gotten you. It’s the only way to get better. It’s the only way to finish your script.
So get creative. Make sacrifices. Become greedy with your writing time. Fight for it and horde it.
I am a 7th year teacher and one of the perks we get is a class period off every day for our lesson prep. Now most teachers take this much needed time to take a break away from the kids and relax. We grade for sure. But we also spend a lot of time emailing, surfing the internet, and chatting with co-workers too. But not me. When I began my screenplay I busted ass to get all my grading and planning done as fast as I could so I could reserve that time each day to work on churning out pages. Sure there were some days I had projects or essays to grade and I couldn’t write a single slugline, but the time added up and I was making progress. Real headway. I urge you to do the same. At work or at home carve some time out of your day, everyday to just write. Even if you have to cut the Walking Dead out of your life. It’s the only way.
4. No you don’t understand. I honestly have NO time to write
When I was writing at school I soon realized it wasn’t enough time. When I found the time to write everyday the ideas began flowing out of me. I was on a roll but I never had enough time. Eventually the bell would ring and I had to start teaching again. I needed more time.
Then I heard about the 5 am writers club from a friend and I took my productivity to another level.
The #5amwritersclub is a loose group of people on Twitter who wake up every morning at 5am to get their writing in before their busy days at work. At the end of every session they tweet their accomplishments onto Twitter with the #5amwritersclub hashtag and the amount of words they wrote that day. They motivate and inspire each other to keep going and grind out pages while the rest of sane society is still asleep and slumbering. There is no application to fill out to join and everybody is welcome. It sounded crazy but I thought I’d give it a try.
So I set my automatic coffee pot for 5am the following one morning and joined the club. I’ve been a member ever since. It’s simply amazing what you can accomplish in the morning when the house is quiet, the coffee is hot, and it’s just you and your computer. I was never a morning person before joining either. Far from it. I used to be the guy who’d sleep in until 10 or 11 in a half awake daze or squeeze out every minute of “sleep” I could before I had to get up for work.. Now I wake up early on the weekends. It’s a habit I can’t break and I wouldn’t trade in my reclaimed time for anything now. The world may be asleep, but I’m writing and it’s amazing what you can get done without distractions.
I don’t even care if you have to join the #11pmwriterclub (if it exists) but by all means carve out an extra hour or two within your day and you’ll see real progress on your project. I mean what else are you going to do at 5 o’ clock in the morning?
Still don’t believe how powerful a large block of daily uninterrupted time can be? Well here’s the proof that it worked for me.
5:22 am, Dec 19th, 2013. 10 years since I started, my first screenplay is finished! 5:23 am, time to begin rewriting. #5amwritersclub
5. I have nobody to help me
That’s not true. It’s 2015 and people are becoming more connected every day. It’s really how amazing how small the world has become in the last 5 or 10 years if you think about it. Besides the 5 am writer’s club you can post any questions or thoughts you have on Twitter under the #screenwriting hashtag and you’ll get lots of responses. Outside Twitter there’s a whole host of online forums or websites you can join and talk shop about screenwriting with people from all around the globe. Here are some of the ones that I liked to frequent when I got stuck with my writing.
SimplyScripts – Simplyscripts was an immense help to me starting out. There is a large community of amateur writers who gather there to talk about movies and screenwriting. The focus here is on movie scripts as the forum has a large backlog of hosted scripts submitted by users to read, learn from, and comment on, in all genres. Even shorts. Occasionally they will hold small writing contests to give everyone a chance to flex their writing muscles and they are a blast to read. The community is very helpful and knowledgeable. Some members will even give reads of your work once posted. Simplyscripts is a great place to learn the ins and outs of screenwriting.
DoneDealPro – Done Deal Professional is more focused on the business side of screenwriting. The front page keeps a constantly updated list of the latest scripts that have been purchased by the major studios and is a good reminder of the pot of gold waiting for you at the end of the rainbow. As a result the online community is mostly geared towards the business side of things as the forums focus on finding agents, writing for TV, and update on contests or other business related questions. There are also places to ask questions about the writing craft itself here.
Scriptshadow – Scriptshadow is a blog focused solely on reviewing scripts and movies from a screenwriter’s point of view. There is a lot of content as it updates almost daily. It’s amazing what you can learn about screenwriting by reading and analyzing other people’s scripts. (it’s something you should automatically, but it’s nice to have this blog do it for you from time to time.) Scriptshadow does a good job of analyzing what works structurally and doesn’t in each script or film it reviews from a writer’s perspective. Lessons that you can learn from and incorporate into your own work. My favorite is amateur Friday where the blog gives a detailed analysis of a reader submitted screenplay and critiques it in front of the entire internet to see. There is a lot of discussion in the comments from the readers there to provide interaction with as well.
There are also large decentralized communities on bigger websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Reddit devoted to screenwriting that you can join or pop in on to look for assistance.
Besides looking online, you can always ask friends or relatives for input on your work. Even if they aren’t writer’s that’s ok. I would assume they all watch movies which actually makes them even more important as they form your audience. These are the people you’re trying to connect with and get to sit down in a chair for an hour and thirty minutes to watch your film in the first place. What they say matters. Disregard it at your peril.
And if nothing else you always have this website and me. Feel free to leave a question below in comments and another screenwritenower I’m sure will be glad to help. And if you have any questions about screenplays feel free to write me at my personal email at CameronDueker@gmail.com. I’ll read and respond to each and every email that comes my way.
6. I can’t make any money from my screenplay
Let’s be real for a second. I don’t mean to be a downer but the chances of you reaching the promised land and selling your first script are slim. It happens in Hollywood, but rarely. However if you write an amazing screenplay and lucky stars shower down on you, you’re looking at a sweet payday. For example, the script for the recent movie, White House Down by James Vanderbilt, sold for 3 million dollars which is just insane. Not every sale will net you millions of dollars to be sure, but six to seven figures is the average usually. How does that sound?
Let’s say you are able to get some interest in your script. Instead of a straight sale you can always option it off. An option is an agreement between you and the studio in question where they will pay you for exclusive rights to your screenplay for a given length of time. An option does not guarantee your script will get made into a movie, more than likely it will just sit in a file cabinet somewhere, but when the option is over you retain full rights again to go sell it somewhere else or have the same studio option it off you again for another couple years. A number of people make a good living off their scripts just by living off the options without ever having a script be turned into a film.
Besides trying to sell your script to a studio you can always enter it into one of the numerous screenwriting contests out there in hopes of receiving cash prizes. Some of the major contests like the BlueCat competition have up to $43,000 in awards offered to the winners.
Even better, say you enter a contest and end up winning with your awesome script. Now that you’re a certified award winner you could parlay that into a writing job somewhere else. Studios are always hiring writers for projects that have fallen behind, need to be reworked, or polished some more.
The moral of the story is that if you’re persistent and work at it, it’s entirely possible to make writing your day job. Movies are big business and the industry is awash in cash for you to wade in. If you can get your feet wet.
7. I suffer from writer’s block
Everybody has lost a staring contest with their computer screen at some point in their screenplay. It’s a natural part of the writing process. The mind is overloaded from juggling too many mental bowling pins and grinds to a halt. But the trick is not to let it bog you down so badly that you quit and give up on your writing entirely.
Don’t! Keep writing!
No matter what because eventually the block will pass, but not if you let it defeat you. There’ s a lot of tricks and ways to help you overcome writer’s block. If you can’t think of what to write next go back and try reworking something you’ve written earlier. Your first scene, the too long car chase, hell, even your logline. Or take a break from your current project and go write something else. Poetry. A journal. Something. Often if you’ve run into a severe case of writer’s block on your script it’s because your outline isn’t strong enough to carry you through to the other side. Go back and rewrite it. Just keep treading water and eventually you will swim your way back to shore. I promise.
8. I’m afraid of criticism
This is a natural emotion we all face as human beings. Few things in life force you to pour your heart and soul into it like a full length feature screenplay. One of the worst feelings in the world is to share your work with somebody else only to be told that it’s terrible. It’s like a bad dream where you’re fully naked and exposed in front of your criticizer and your once wonderful screenplay is all the sudden to small to hide behind.
When I was in high school art class critiquing each other was something we did daily. My teacher forced all his students to regularly take a step back from our work and analyze it critically with our peers. If something didn’t quite work we figured it out and solved it right away. If something we drew was terrible we let each other know it and would crawl back to our drawing horses with our pencil between our legs determined to do better. It was nerve racking at first. I was a decent drawer but nowhere near the level of the other kids in the class. Their stuff was awesome. Mine was weak and full of mistakes. But by the end of the class I became stronger, everybody did, as a result of the constructive criticism. I learned not only to overcome my fear of criticism but to embrace it. I only had one pair of eyes. I couldn’t see everything. But with help from others I was able to overcome my limitations and take my work to another level. Screenwriting is the same way. If you want to get better you’re going to have to seek out input from others, to be told the good as well as the bad.
But be aware there is a huge difference between criticism and a critique. A criticizer is just a negative person who wanders through life seeing only problems with no solutions or understanding.. You don’t invite, need, or want, that person’s input in the first place so stay far away from them. Let them go find another punching bag to wail on and save yourself the pain.They will only bring you down into a despair from which you may never get out of.
But a person who can give you honest and thoughtful feedback, a true critique, is worth their weight in gold.
Not just a friend who is going to like everything you write or sugar coat what is terrible to safeguard your feelings. You want somebody who can point out specifically what the strengths of your story are and what falls flat and why. If you find that person, keep them close. Buy them lunch. Anything you have to do to keep them in your corner. Because those people are few and far between but the value they provide is incalculable.
9. I still have research to do
You may not feel ready to write your screenplay yet because you still think you’re unprepared. You may feel unsure about formatting or shaky on plot structure. You might feel your characters aren’t developed enough. You never figured out an ending or you still don’t have a good title yet. Be careful because you are treading into excuse territory when you start throwing up defenses like these to explain your procrastination. My own big pitfall was to constantly keep reading books on the art of screenwriting and foolishly keep thinking that if I just read enough I could become an expert at it through osmosis. I wasn’t a writer. I was a reader.
Wise words from Confucius. Experience is the best teacher and it’s so true. Because of that you’ll never truly understand the ins and outs of your story until you actually start writing it. Scene by scene. Conversely you won’t know your story’s weaknesses until you type it out and expose them on the page. That’s not to say research isn’t important. You wouldn’t be here reading this if it wasn’t. But there comes a time when you just have to jump into the deep end and start writing. Which leads to the last point……
10. Get started on your screenplay. Write now!
No more excuses anymore. Start your script.
Not tomorrow, which will lead into the day after and eventually next week. Boot up your screenwriting software, open a new file, type in that initial FADE IN: and get to work.
You will never know how good your story is until it’s written down and can be shared with others.
You’ll never know how hard screenwriting is until you start.
You’ll never learn to hone your craft until you begin to practice it.
You’ll never fall in love with your screenwriting until you become a screenwriter.
Your script will never get finished until you start.