Screenwriting in the Time of COVID-19

A client emailed me last week: Despite the apocalypse, I did just type THE END on my new pilot… not that there’s anything I can do with it. In one sentence, she succinctly put what so many of my writers have been feeling in recent days, whether they are working professionals or just starting out: The world has been turned upside down, and launched us into the great unknown, where some of our most important, meaningful efforts up until this moment suddenly feel… pointless and without hope. 

But are they?

Or is there still much that writers can do these days to move their screenwriting careers forward?

This got me wondering…

In a world reshaped by the onset of COVID-19 and consequent social-distancing, what should screenwriters be focusing their attention and time on?

As I write this, it’s important to note a couple of things:

1) No matter how dramatic this may feel or how real the panic (or the grab for toilet paper), this is a temporary situation. How temporary is too early for anyone to tell, but in all likelihood we will be returning to some semblance of normalcy – or a new, new normal – at some point, though no one is not quite sure when just yet.

2) Content is now, potentially, more important than ever. As everyone is isolating, quarantining or sheltering-in, Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime and Disney+ and Facebook and… who am I forgetting? You get the point: all of these streamers are working overtime. While movie and TV productions has halted for the time being in order to minimize the spread of the virus, content is also being heavily relied on to get through these times. Never before have I been asked so consistently what I’m watching at the end of each client session, which I’ve been conducting this past week over Skype.

So movies and TV shows are not going away. They may take longer to make, or be made in ways that we don’t yet anticipate, but the product itself (if we are to reduce it to that) is going to remain a sought-after offering, especially if social distancing becomes an acceptable norm long after COVID-19 has been eradicated.

Which brings me back to the original question around which I wanted to write all of this: What is there for writers to do for their screenwriting careers NOW in the face of all that’s happening?

In a word: PLENTY.

Working writers, whose rooms just went remote, or whose productions have been shut down or postponed, are going to feel this most directly (as it relates to their writing), as their writing-related day-to-day is taking an immediate hit. But, in my experience, working writers are often lacking in one major resource: Time. And time is the one thing that they should now have more of. Which makes this a perfect opportunity to take a look at the current samples in the writer’s body of work, and consider: What’s the new feature spec you’ve been wanting to write? The new TV sample that can keep you moving up the ladder as you staff? If your most recent sample is 2-3-years old, then a new sample may be warranted. Or it may be time to put that pitch you’ve been thinking about together, so that when meetings are once again being scheduled, over video or in person, you are ready to go. I hear from my writers that meetings are, indeed, continuing to be scheduled, albeit via video platforms, so the wait to get back out there might not be quite as long as you expect!

Emerging writers still fighting for that first industry job or for the attention of their rep may have a harder time defining next steps. For those writers, I suggest to keep in mind the following:

Keep Deadlines in Your Sights
Just because we have a virus running rampant doesn’t mean that submission deadlines for competitions, labs and fellowships have gone away. Therefore, identify which of those opportunities you are planning to submit to, and build a roadmap that will get you to those deadlines with all the required materials in hand.

To make things easy, here’s a list of upcoming competitions, labs and programs whose deadlines are just around the bend:

If you haven’t yet, dig in, choose your destinations, and put together a list of specific deadlines and requirements; most competitions require a screenplay or TV pilot only, but labs, fellowships and programs can be a bit more complicated, so be sure to identify all of the required materials so that you may have them ready.

Solidify Your Writing Routine
The more distracting things are, the more critical it is that you have your routine down. Your routine doesn’t have to be overly ambitious; for you to be successful, it has to be productive and consistent. So take a step back and consider: If you’re now working from home for your day job, what does your writing routine look like now? And if you have a lighter load because of a working-from-home situation, what does writing during this period amount to? Most importantly, one things go back to the way they were, how do you want to have used the time that you had?

Define Your Goals
In order to have a successful writing routine, you have to have clarity about what you’re trying to accomplish during this writing time. Create clear goals, that are both aggressive and achievable, in order to keep focus on what you’re working towards. And remember: Keep your goals granular. The more specific your goal, the easier it is to achieve, check a box, and move onto the next task. Not sure how to do that? Check out my new Monthly Online Career Coaching which is all about helping you set effectives deadlines and goals in order to move your screenwriting career forward. Note that this new coaching offering does not include any one-on-one-coaching, and instead is goal and deadline based. 

Don’t Give Up On Your Group!
Just because you’re not able to meet in person doesn’t mean that your writers’ group should go on hiatus. In times like these, your group can be more important than ever! Consider shifting to meetings on an online meeting platform such as Google Hangouts or Zoom.

Don’t have a group? This might be the perfect time to put one together with other writers who are looking for that added layer of accountability and community in this brave new world. And now that everyone is meeting online, location is no longer a factor! If you don’t already have a working group, consider putting one together yourself, or else finding other writers who can become accountability partners as you seek to keep your writing on track.

And you can create temporary groups too, ones that are there for pure accountability purposes. A few of my writers started doing daily writing sprints together every day for one hour (with everyone writing while on camera) and I hear those sessions have been very productive!

Check in With Your Community
While meeting up for coffee or drinks is out of the question, there’s no reason not to check in with writer and industry friends and see how things are going on their end. Since all of this happened, a number of writers, clients and friends reached out to me just to check how I was doing in this new normal – I can’t tell you how much that meant to me! Remember, building a community is all about genuine, meaningful relationships. This is a great time to check in with other writers and industry folks that you care about. 

Don’t stop there! In lieu of our regular dinners, myself and two of my dearest friends who also happen to be working writers and clients, got together for a Zoom wine date the other night. We talked and laughed and kvetched and complained for a two hour stretch, restoring some semblance of normal, and remembering just how important those relationships are. 

Writing Classes!
Writing classes can be a great help when trying to keep your deadlines and stay on course as far as the writing is concerned. And, just as importantly, writing classes can provide that structure that, in times like these, can be so sorely lacking. Whether you go with pre-canned classes such as Shonda Rhimes’ Masterclass, choose to invest in Jen Grisanti’s fantastic pilot writing videos or seek online classes to keep you writing and turning in material week in and week out, here are some of my class recommendations, all of which do offer classes and content online:

Catch Up on Your Reading & Viewing
When time is hard to find, the first thing that goes, usually, is reading scripts. Therefore, if all of a sudden you’re finding yourself with some extra hours to fill, consider bringing regular reading of screenplays and TV pilots into your writerly diet. Not sure where to get such scripts? Reach out to me through my Contact Form and I will be happy to share with you my dropbox housing 2019’s The Black List scripts, as well as dropboxes housing pilots from the past two pilot season.

In my experience, not all writers are as caught up on content as they should be, so this is also a great time to make a list of all the comps – shows or movies that are in the same space as the pilot you just wrote or the feature you are thinking about – and really study up on the material, including those obscure titles you’ve been meaning to, but never quite got the time, to check out.

And if you’re still not sure how to do any of these things, or need a little extra help to get you going? Check out my new Monthly Online Career Coaching subscription that helps you set deadlines and create accountability as you seek to effectively and consistently move your screenwriting career forward.

Wherever you are in your career, whether just starting out or already a working professional, you’ve worked hard to get to where you are, to build momentum and process, to study and perfect your craft. It’s beyond important that, despite all the challenges of this unprecedented time, you don’t let it get away from you. Therefore, it’s important that you make the most of what these current unique circumstances have to offer in order to keep any and all forward motion. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel, and once you see it, you better be ready. After all, luck favors the prepared!