To those who might be reading this:
If you are a screenwriter, produced or not, you will know those moments… those moments when you start to question… WTF am I doing?
Let the moment surface, and KEEP GOING. It took me nearly 18 years of writing, submitting, getting notes, taking classes, seminars, entering competitions, making my own short films (producing, directing, scoring, casting, art department) before someone was willing to take a chance on me. In the last three years I’ve written six commissioned feature screenplays, three produced and airing on various streaming platforms, with one more scheduled to be shot next month and another hopefully early next year. I’m grateful for the work and the opportunities. At the same time, I am also working hard to promote my own original stories. Writing commissioned screenplays, where the essence of the story and the main characters are basically decided for you, means you are helping someone else achieve their vision. But in doing that, you can learn a tremendous amount about things you may not have been thinking about, i.e. locations, budgets, casting restrictions, level of language and violence, and more, which may be helpful when approaching your own work.
Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned is: I can write a feature screenplay in 10 days. I am a slow, methodical writer who thinks very, very carefully about everything (my cowriter would say I think too much… until he later says, “Oh, yeah, you were right.”). But in the case of the last script I was hired to write, I didn’t have the luxury of time. But what I did have were three tools that helped me immensely: 1) A one-page synopsis so I could quickly grasp what the story was about. 2) A simple questionnaire about my characters so I could understand at a glance who they were, what their goals were, what was standing in their way. 3) A fully-fleshed out outline, scene-by-scene (with scene headings), with brief action description (and occasional lines) so I would be able to understand the whole story without having to read 90 pages to get it. #1 was given to me; I created #2 and #3 based on #1.
By having these three tools (especially #3), I was able to sit down on a Saturday morning, say my prayers, and dive in. I did my best (really, really hard for me) NOT to reread what I had written until I got past 50-60 pages. Even then I kept pushing myself to go farther. It’s true, I did have the director of this project on speed-dial (well, the modern equivalent), and if I needed clarification about what we could/couldn’t do, he’d respond ASAP and I’d know how to proceed. But what I discovered by doing this was:
“Oh… wait… You mean… I CAN write a screenplay in 10 days or less and… it doesn’t have to take SIX MONTHS TO A YEAR (or longer)? Huh… I didn’t realize that!”
Because I was writing for someone else, and because there was a time limit (“Write it quickly, but don’t do it sloppily!” — that was my directive!), AND because I am getting paid to do this, I did it.
BUT WHAT IF… I applied those same principles to my own FABULOUS ideas? True, I wouldn’t be getting paid (AT FIRST), BUT if I really believe in the project… I WILL be getting paid. So, next up is my original screenplay that encompasses so many of my personal passions that I simply MUST write it. I will follow my own principals above, and I will PAY MYSELF (a pittance, but still) for each milestone reached. By doing this, I will have a screenplay, once started, in 10 days or less.
The other IMPORTANT ADVICE is: “Give yourself the freedom to write badly!” This advice is from my cherished mentor, Ellen Sandler, who wrote for the TV show EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. By giving yourself this freedom, you stop getting hung up on every single word and just plow forward. I think the thing you will discover is: Do I really have a story or not? If you do, I would say the words will fly off your keyboard (or pen). So, I encourage you to give the above a try. There are many character questionnaires out on the Internet. Find one that suits your purposes; make sure it’s thorough. And… dive in. You might be surprised to find yourself with a solid first draft in a little under two weeks!