Screenwriters: Not Writing is Not an Option

Full confession: This is not the first time that this topic is showing up in my writing. It’s not the first time it’s showing anywhere. I wrote about it recently in a SAY WHAT??? blog post, and it showed up early in my blogging career with a blogpost titled Screenwriters: Time is Not on Your Side which I’ve been told traumatized many (so sorry!). There are hashtags inspired by it.

And yet…

A few days ago, I found myself on the phone with a writer doing something I loathe. Something I detest. Something I hate: Negotiating. Only not for money, or for the construct of our coaching relationship. I founded myself negotiating with him for the writing.

Before I go any further, let me just clearly state: Yes, I am a proponent of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour principle. The rule asserts that it will require 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in any field. Which, for this blogpost, is going to be screenwriting. Are there deviations from the rule? Do some do in 9,000 hours what others take, say, 12,000 hours to achieve? Sure, I would imagine. But the more important point is: It is going to take practice, lots of it, if you really want to become great at anything. And in an industry that is growing more competitive with every new show that gets on the air and every new movie that is released, great at screenwriting is what you’re going to need to be if you are to get anywhere with it.

Anyway, back to the above chat: the writer was making a solid – though somewhat silly – case for why he couldn’t put that many hours into writing. Sure, he didn’t have a family, and only a part time job, but he had to go to the gym, get quiet time for himself, and hanging out with friends was imperative. So when I pressed him for what he could put into his writing on a weekly basis with any consistency he told me: “I don’t know? If I had to… Maybe… 5, 6 hours a week? I mean, worst case scenario, I guess I could just stay home on Sunday and do all my writing that day. If I had to.”

At which point there was only one thing I could tell him: “If that is seriously all that you can give me as far as writing is concerned, then maybe you shouldn’t bother with it.”

Harsh, I know. As an Israeli with a blunt tongue, I am always hyper aware of the words and intonation with which I say things. On most days, that means that I tend to soft serve it. But this time… I couldn’t help it.

Because there are things, call them writing tendencies, that alarm me. Sure, not all screenplays are going to write themselves. And yes, some of the best screenplays out there took years. And there are for sure scripts that become very, very challenging. And more so the farthest the writer is in to her screenwriting career, when she knows all the pitfalls, aware of the required intricacies to write anything emotionally resonant or interesting. But… what can I say? I get antsy when I see a writer take 6 months to complete a first draft of a script. Or when a writer, whose life is chugging along uninterrupted takes 6 months to get through an outline. It may work in the novel-writing world, but it’s just not the pace this industry works within.

For context, consider the standards often utilized on the professional end of things. On the feature side, when a writing assignment is on the line, deadlines and turnarounds are usually something like this: 4-6 weeks to outline; 6-12 weeks to draft; 4-6 weeks to 2nd draft; 4 weeks to polish. And television? Even more intensive: 1 week to board; 1 week for story area; 1 week for beats (that is, if there is ample generosity). Then 1 week to outline; another week for outline notes; 2 weeks for draft; (1 if deadlines are looming). There is no way anyone is going from 6 years for a draft to a draft in 6-12 weeks. Not a good one, anyway. Not if they didn’t do it when they were writing for the sheer passion of it. When it was their story, that they knew and loved and wrote for the love of it. It’s just not happening. So while I personally prefer not to sacrifice quality for velocity (at least not initially), there is a writing clip that is expected if you want to work professionally in this industry.

But I digress. The point is:

When I work with writers, one of the first things I look to do is nail down a creative routine, set expectations for what the writer’s output on a daily or weekly basis will be. Because getting there will take practice. And generating new work will take time. Time and effort that others are going to be putting into their work as they try to break in. So when this writer, without a full time job or a full time family told me that he could maybe write a little bit here or there, if he really had to, or rather – fine! – give me one day a week, I realized that getting to those 10,000 hours to mastery is probably going to be too much for him.

In order to write effectively, you have to write consistently. Sure, there are the rare writers out there who can sit down once, and on a binge spit out an amazing first script, where plot, character, structure and theme somehow come together magically. But being able to do so again and again? That’s overly optimistic. Therefore, the writer has to figure out what he is doing, so that he can then do it repeatedly, to try – and occasionally fail – at different things. To write scripts that may not ultimately sell or gain him traction, but that will ultimately teach him about the writer that he is, hone his writing skills, and lead him to the seasoned, experienced, confident voice which will eventually pay off for him.

This is why, no matter your pace, you have to always be writing.

To develop one’s craft, there has to be some sense of continuity. Of ongoing learning. Because of this, I never want my writers to be away from the work for whole weeks, that’s why I want to make sure that even for just an hour or two a day, at least five days a week, they are writing and developing, which can then lead to a few more productive hours in a single spurt over the weekend. I am content if a writer can give me 8, 10, 12 hours a week when she is just starting. When she is on a roll or writing professionally, I want to see as many as 20. Simple math will lead us to the calculation: 10 hours a week. 52 weeks a year. 520 hours closer to mastery. That’s 20 years until you’re going to be brilliant at it. Double your hours per week, and you cut your hours to mastery in half. That’s significant.

But do you have to wait 10 or 20 years until you finally make it? Not by any stretch. While they continue to always improve, I’ve seen many a writer break in 2, 3, 4 years into their intensive writer routines. That said, they were always working hard, and always getting better with the writing.

The challenge for the particular writer who told me he could give me, at most, 5 hours of writing per week and not a minute more, was not just that it would then take him soooooo long to achieve any sort of mastery. It was also the fact that he is competing with other writers, with writers who have jobs and families and kids, who opted to stay in on weekends and sacrifice sleep only so they could wake up at 5am, get their hours in, and make sure that they are writing consistently.

You see, the writer was not writing in a bubble of “it will take what it will take, and eventually I will get there.” He is attempting to write in an industry where others, who are younger and already further along, are willing to give the writing a lot more than him.

For the record, this is not the first time I’ve encountered this. But in recent memory, it’s more extreme. Years ago, I met a writer who swore to me that all he wanted to do was become a professional writer, though he could never find time for the actual writing. We tried all we could to find time for it: In the morning before he went to work. In the evening once he left the office, at a nearby coffee shop while traffic died down. During lunch breaks. On weekends, when he was regrouping ahead of another busy week. Heck, at some point I even suggested that he bypass the writing and dictate scenes into his micro recorder while he was driving. But he instantly rebuffed me, saying “the driving time is for me.” As I write this, I think of all the other examples I could give. But I think you get it. I think you hear me.

The point is… If you want to become a professional screenwriter, you have to be generating ideas and pages constantly. Whatever the pace, you just have to do it. Write regularly. Make this thing a real and consistent priority. If you are a slow writer? Keep writing, and your pace will accelerate the more hours you are putting in. Not only are you trying to push yourself to your very best writing, closer and closer to mastery, you are competing with all of the other writers who have opted to sacrifice family and chill time, not to mention sleep. Trust me, I know them: My 5am-ers. Getting up before the sun to get their hours in before they have to tend to the kids. The late-nighters who spend their evenings in the living room punching keys while their friends are out drinking or their spouse is sleeping. They are willing to give all of that up for the craft. To get better at it.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every writer must go to such extreme: find your own path to whatever will become your writing routine. Worry about consistency more than you do the amount hours you spend on it (as long as you’re counting your time in hours, not minutes). Touching the work every day for a little bit is much more meaningful than sitting down once a month for a day-long sprint. Writers who want to write are compelled to write every day. This is a marathon, which means that you have to pace yourself, manage it so that it is sustainable for not a weekend, but rather for weeks, months, years. Chip away at those 10,000 hours, one hour at a time. Make the writing a priority. If you don’t, someone else will. If you do, you stand a real chance of achieving both professional success and inching closer to craft mastery. What else can I say? #AlwaysBeWriting.