A Screenwriters Guide to Lasting Productivity – Part 1

For many runners, sprints are easy. Marathons are hard. With sprints, you’re in, you’re out. You give it your all for thirty or sixty or ninety seconds and you’re done. Marathons? You have no choice but to pace yourself if you have any hope of making it to the finish line. If building a screenwriting career and becoming a working screenwriter takes an average of three to ten years to get there (and we’re talking three to ten years from the time your first industry-ready script goes out, NOT from the time your education has begun) how do you train to stay consistently motivated and productive three years into your marathon run? Remember, you’re not a writer if you do not write with some consistency. The important thing for every writer is to figure out how to stay productive regardless of all of the other demands of their life.

First, it’s important to agree that it’s not going to be easy. Most emerging writers, unless independently wealthy, have to juggle their day-to-day responsibilities, which usually include some sort of a job, friends, other hobbies and potentially a family. This causes many writers who have yet to find their path to consistent productivity to fall under one of the following categories:

  • The Weekend writer
    A writer who writes only on weekends, if no other family/friend/work obligations have been put on the calendar. And assuming they’re not totally beat up from the past week.
  • The Spurt writer
    This can also be seen as a sprinter. A writer who waits for inspiration to strike, and when it does, binge writes through the weekend and into the night. While getting 4-6 hours in front of the computer on the weekends rather than carving out time to write during the week is great, but it only matters when you can do it with some consistency. Spurt writers are NOT writers who write consistently on the weekend. They are writers who bing write only on the rare occasion when inspiration strikes, but in reality spend most of their weekend not being consistently productive. Writers who engage in this methodology often find that more and more time tends to pass between spurts, making them overall less productive over time.
  • The Perfect Scenario Writer
    In lieu of being independently wealthy and therefore being able to write any day any time, many writers wait for the perfect scenario to sit down and write. But the perfect scenario rarely shows up. Between work and life, getting three undisturbed straight hours behind closed doors doesn’t happen quite as often as anyone would like. And the muse? That one works on her own schedule. You never know when she’s gonna show up.

Often, writers will sit with me and express frustration about not being able to consistently produce new content. This can happen for many reasons. The most important thing to remember is that momentum – the training partner to productivity – doesn’t just show up. You have to fake it ’til you make it. Force yourself into the writing whether or not the muse, or the time, or the motivation, shows up. If you get in the routine of doing so, the fun and the creativity will eventually join the party.

A year ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (Big Eyes, The People vs. Larry Flynt), who spoke about getting up every day of the week and heading to the office to write, whether or not the mood or the muse strikes. This is their job, so whether they feel like it or not, they make a point to sit down and write. For those of us who don’t have the luxury of a writing office or a writing partner, how do you create an environment in which you remain consistently productive?

  • Set realistic writing goals
    • Think of your writing journey as a road trip from Los Angeles to New York. Sure, you have a general sense of where you want to arrive in the end and when you would like to get there, but you have to know what freeways you’re going to take and when. If you don’t know what landmarks you have to hit along the way and when you are supposed to hit them in order to arrive at your destination in a timely fashion, you will never be able to assess how long it will take or whether you will actually get there. To simplify: If you just get on the road and drive without a map or a plan, you may one day end up in New York (though who knows when), you may end up in Canada or Mexico, or you just may end up in jail. So in order to avoid that in screenwriting land…
      • Set small, digestible goals that will lead to the achievement of a bigger goal
      • Each bigger goal (completing a screenplay, for example) should have at least 4 milestones to help arrive at it.
        • Suggested milestone breakdown: If you’re aiming to complete a new script by August 1st, set dates for the milestones you have to complete along the way: Outline, Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, 3rd Act.
  • Set output expectations
    • Look at your life REALISTICALLY and consider how much you should be able to write on a regular basis. Remember, it’s not about how much you write in one sitting; it’s all about writing enough to get to that finished, industry ready content, while leaving enough gas in the tank to then get up and do it all over again.
    • Ask yourself: Are you better off aiming for a page count each time you write, or hours completed?
      • My longtime client Bob came up with a great way to utilize this: He figured that if he writes 3 pages a day every day for a month, at the end of the month he will have a first draft for a feature film. He figured that if he is really desperate and short on time, if he plans ahead to the writing, he can execute 3 script pages in less than an hour. Since he’s taken on this practice I told many of my others writers about it. Many have taken it on and now refer to it as “The Bob Rule.”
  • Explore writing in non-traditional environments
    • In today’s business driven environment, not to mention the intrusive manner of cell phones and social media, it’s tough to carve out a few hours to write uninterrupted behind closed doors on a regular basis. Therefore, you have to find a way to squeeze in your writing anywhere you can.
      • A great book to help you with this is Pilar Alessandra’s “Coffee Break Screenwriter”
      • Try writing to and from work if you commute via train, ferry or bus.
      • Over time, many of my writers who are limited on productive writing time have taken to dictating scenes and thoughts on their smart phones, then emailing those to themselves, and pasting them into their script doc. This way, by the time they start writing they feel like part of the work is already done and they are not starting from scratch.

This concludes it for the 1st part of our Screenwriter’s Guide to Lasting Productivity. Check out Part 2 of this article on ScriptMag.com, where I  discuss how to set effective milestones and deadlines, create accountability and jump start momentum, among many other topics!