Screenwriting: Do You Have To Love It?

Every once in a while, one of my writers will sit me down for what I’ve come to know and love through my many years in coaching as “the talk.” Whether in person or over Skype, it always looks the same. The writer doesn’t know how to launch into it. Shifts in his seat. Tries a couple of times to find his words, and usually fails, believing that once those words are said I will never look at him in quite the same way. And then he blurts it out, reluctantly, like admitting to a scar or a wound I am going to find out about sooner or later, one that he won’t be able to hide for much longer if we’re going to keep working together, so might as well. And this is roughly what it sounds like – with some variation – when the words finally do emerge:

“The thing is… How do I put it??? I don’t actually love the writing – the process itself – on most days. In fact, sometimes even just thinking about it brings on total dread.”

That’s the gist of it. When put nicely, anyway. When put not-so-nicely, it comes out more like some variation of this:

“You want to know the truth? There is nothing enjoyable for me about the writing itself! It’s hard, and it drives me crazy, and it makes me lose sleep because I obsess about story and plotting and the mountain doesn’t get any easier to climb every time you do it! Most of the time, I almost hate it! The only thing I love is when it’s over and I have an entire script on the page. I do it because of the movie or television show it can become someday. Not because I love writing itself in any way.”

One of the things I’ve come to understand a long time ago as a career coach for screenwriters is that very few writers actually love every second of the writing process. Never was this more apparent than an evening a few months ago when I spent time with a few of my professional writers who were venting about their professional frustrations. One was lamenting very confusing, counter-productive producer notes he received on a writing assignment; another was complaining about the lack of strategy she was receiving from her representation team. A third writer chimed in and said something to the tune of: “Well, at least when you wake up in the morning you can put all of that out of your mind, get back in front of the computer, open a blank document and just write.”

That’s when the writer complaining about development notes shot back: “Are you kidding??? I hate waking up and sitting in front of the computer. I hate the blank page! I do all this because I just want to see it go somewhere!”

Quite a few heads nodded. After working with writers who keep at it year in and year out, I realized that this particular writer wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Which made for a timely reminder of one simple thing I learned over the years: Most writers don’t sit down to write because they love the writerly experience. Most writers sit down to write because that is the way they are compelled to express themselves. Because they are compelled to tell stories on the page, so much so that not writing is just not an option.

Having worked with many writers through the development cycle, there are a few truths that I’ve learned (with some exceptions, of course) about the experience of writing:

  • The closer you are to the beginning of a project, the more cumbersome the writing. This is due to the fact that you don’t yet know your characters inside and out, that you are still very much in the “discovery” phase of the project, which can make you feel both restricted and uncertain. What comfort can you find with characters, world, and story when critical elements are still shifting and changing all the time? So once you get past the initial enthusiasm for an idea and start getting your hands dirty, you are likely to find the process clunky, challenging, and far from inspiring confidence.
  • Starting a new project is never easy. In fact, the more you write, the harder it just might become. With another project just behind you, you know how hard the journey was, how much work and effort and occasional brilliance it took to get there. Producing yet another screenplay or television pilot that will be as good as the last if not better can often feel insurmountable.
  • Discovery is ugly but necessary. Don’t try to bypass and head straight to an outline, in the hopes of going to pages in a short span of time. You need to develop a deep and thoughtful understanding of all your screenplay’s or TV pilot’s moving parts before you can start cementing them with architecture and structure. However you go about discovery, be it via completing worksheets or following a particular methodology, this is what many writers refer to as “pre-work” or the heavy lifting, and it is the core of getting to know your characters, world and core storylines in order to make the writing – once you finally get to it – a more effortless and rewarding an experience.
  • Even if you are a professional writer, don’t expect to be able to put in 8-hour workdays with non-stop creativity right at the start of a new project. Creativity does have its limits and does accelerate as the project gains momentum. Start slowly, writing 3-4 hours even on the best day, and build up from there.
  • Accept the cruel irony that the deeper you are in on a project, the more you will understand it. The furthest you are from its end, the more foreign it will feel. So it’s inevitable that you will end a project on a high, and often find yourself starting a new project on a low. It doesn’t have to happen every time, but when it does, accept it as part of the natural cycle of writing.

Having sat through “the talk” more times than I dare count, I’ve learned that the question is not, and should not be: do you love writing? That is a loaded question on the best days. People who get the luxury of writing only when the muse strikes are the ones who get to purely love the writing. Working and emerging writers, writers who write day in and day out, writers who find themselves stubbornly back at the computer even when the muse is nowhere in sight, have to ask themselves: Are you compelled to write? Are you driven to it? Is this the thing you have to do? If the answer is YES, even if it’s through gritted teeth, then you are on the right track.