Common beginner problem: A fear of outlining, even at the rewrite stage.

My platonic ideal of developing a screenplay:

This December, I taught an online class about outlining. I broke development into 6 phases.

  1. Express an idea as a logline.
  2. Expand logline as a one page precis that delineates act breaks.
  3. Break the one page in a series of 30-50 distinct beats, 7 words per beat.
  4. Flesh out the beats into 100-300 words per, creating an outline.
  5. Use the outline to write a draft.
  6. Rewrite the script by rereading the draft, breaking it down in the previous steps and repeating the process.

That said, it’s incredibly rare to be able to work this linearly. What happens, is people start on steps 1-3, get bored, write a little, use that to inform a rewrite on steps 1-3, write some of step 4, etc. That’s fine, it happens, the inefficiencies in the process are what creates the art..

That said, the 40 beats are the structure of the story, and you’re going to have to have them eventually. Without them, it’s hard to envision, hard to pitch, hard to rewrite, and you generally end up with a story that lacks a coherent second act that flows logically from your premise . My major argument for the 40 beats is it’s a quick list/view that allows you to see how many of your story beats actually pertain to your concept.

Not everyone can think like that. That’s fine, if you need to write a vomit draft first, do so (though outlining is a skill you’re going to need to build anyway).

My patience for a non-linear approach runs out when people can’t synopsize their own work. This is more common than you’d think.

To rewrite your script, the first thing you should do is inventory everything that’s in there so you know what’s working and what’s not. Write a 1-2 page synopsis, then rewrite that synopsis, use that rewritten synospis to guide the rewrite of the script.

This is common sense, but a lot of writers I work with seem to be afraid of it. It’s as if they don’t want to know what’s there. They’re afraid of seeing the flaws in their work, so they skip this step, and start rewriting individual scenes without a plan until they get fed up and start a new project.

If you don’t kill the fear that prevents you from outlining, you’re unlikely to get better. The fear is the fundamental problem, trouble outlining is the symptom.

I use this analogy:

Once, there was a guy who had a messy room. He refused to clean it because he’d lost his class ring and if it wasn’t in that room he’d have lost it completely. The guy never cleaned it because he’d rather have the possibility of the ring being there rather than clean the room and possibly know for certain that he’d lost it for ever.

Don’t be that guy. The messy room is the script, the “ring” is your original vision. It’s in there, I promise, but you won’t find it unless you clean the room.

Dealing with criticism, sensitivity, and how to grow a thick skin.

NOTE: I was stuck for a blog.  I really, didn’t want to write it.  I asked Reddit for a blog pitch and wrote up the highest rated question.
QUESTION: [Please write a] blog about being sensitive to criticism.  Both positive and negative.  How to grow a thick skin?
 
SHORT ANSWER: Suck it up.  By aspiring to make it as a writer you’re implicitly saying that you’re one of the 1,000 best writers in the Anglosphere.  If you’re not willing to own that, there are hundreds of other writers who will.

That’s true advice, but it’s also unhelpful.  You’ve heard it before.  If “sucking it up” were that easy, people wouldn’t need writing coaches.

Writing is hard.  Writing should be hard.  Sensitivity is a double-edged sword, the same sensitivity that holds you back will enable you to unlock amazing parts of your craft later.  Writing to the absolute top of your ability is hard and it will always be hard, the only thing that makes it a little easier is the discipline that comes from writing daily.  Similarly, paradoxically, rejection only becomes bearable when you see enough of it to become familiar with it.

A LONGER ANSWER:

There’s a certain kind of artist who is immune to criticism. No matter how hard, mean or wrong the note, they take it in stride. These people are rarely great in their field because improving at writing requires insane commitment and the ability to care.

The point of screenwriting is to create something that can be read and enjoyed by many, or at the very least by someone who can offer you a job. A script that doesn’t help your career his failed.  This is a long process.  Notes and feedback are how you learn, how you develop.  If you never let a note affect you, you’ll never improve as a writer.

Caring is hard.  New writers often write with a layer of protective irony.

NEW WRITER: The script didn’t sell, but I only wrote it to explore an aspect of craft.  I’ll be serious about the next one.

It’s psychologically dangerous to strive your hardest at a task and fail.  It opens the door to real pain.  That pain doesn’t go away. You have to learn to endure it.

If you wanted some more actionable advice, here are some exercises you can try:

1) Take an improv class. Learn about playing to the top of your intelligence.  Improv teaches you how to fully commit to material you’re working on.

2) Spend a day being super defensive. Don’t admit to being wrong ever. Come up with pathetic excuses to save your fragile ego.  Tell your friends you’re trying this exercise if they ask why you’re being a jerk.  This will teach you to identify the way defensiveness feels so you can avoid it in real life.

3) Do something really hard.  Run a marathon, sky dive, bungee jump. Often times. we run from pain but it’s the great teacher. No pain no gain.  To quote my old wrestling coach, winners are simply willing to do things losers won’t.

4) Read a publicly available script and write notes. Be nasty.  Do not send these to the author.  Rather, look at the notes and see how they apply to your own writing. Often the things that annoy us most about other writing are the problems we have or recognize in our own. You can’t point a finger at someone without pointing three at yourself.

Coping with Fear (a parable)

A writer had a dream, a dream he knew to be true.  Go to the north hill and kill the white bear.  The bear is your fear, so long as it lives, you will never write a word.

The writer grabbed a rifle and went to the north hill.  The bear was there, so massive it blotted out the sun.  Its pale skin barely contained its sea of rippling muscles.  Its claws were as long as scythes and they dripped blood.

 The gun jammed.  Roaring death rumbled towards the writer as the bear charged.  The writer’s life flashed before his eyes.  He grabbed a sharpened stick and stabbed the bear through the eye.  A million to one shot.  The bear shuddered and died.
A page fell from the sky.
The writer picked up a stick and began to write with the bears rapidly congealing blood.  By eveningfall the page was covered in brilliant words.

The writer prepared to go home, pleased with himself.  I have conquered my fear.  Everything from this day forward will be easy.

A sound caught his ear.  He looked into the valley beyond.  Thousands of bears waited, one for every day of his life, each one bigger than the last.  The writer looked down at his laughably inadequate weapons.  Tomorrow would be harder than he thought.

3 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

It happens to all of us.  We get stuck, and then we can’t move forward.  Here are some tricks you can use when you don’t want to write anything.

1.  Use a timer.

Using a timer focuses the mind.  It’s better to have ten minutes of solid focus than a hazy weekend where you occasionally glance at your notes.

Set your timer for the time available.  If you have fifteen minutes, shut off the internet and spend that fifteen minutes in a pure, focused burst where you work solely on the project at hand.  For super extra-credit, keep track of all the focused bursts you’ve done so far, so you can say, “I’ve spend an hour on my screenplay, 90 minutes on my spec pilot.”

2. Write support material.

When we get stuck, it’s usually because we’re missing a preparatory step.  The brain knows you’re sending over a cliff that hasn’t yet been bridged, and it would prefer to spare itself the indignity of the crash.

So ask yourself questions and write answers.  This connects you to the material and draws new ideas out of you.  Understanding is like a ladder.  You don’t need to know every step, but you need enough steps to be able to climb up to your goal.

Sample Questions (50 words per):
1.  What am I trying to say with this story?
2. How does this character relate to me?
3. What is the theme of this story?  How can I use this script to explore a problem I don’t know the answer to.
4. What are my three favorite movies?  How can I plant subtle allusions to them in the next scene?

Save your answers in a seperate file.  They might come in handy.

3. Rewrite your worst scene

Scenes stack on each other like jenga blocks.  If you have a crappy base, your structure won’t have any success.  To quote two poets, build a sure and steady base or else the centre cannot hold.

If you’re anything like me, there’s at least one scene in your draft that stinks, maybe you got stuck on it, maybe you rushed through it.  It’s often hard to identify the scene you hate the most, but find it (or pick a random one).  Polish it till it shines.  Once the problem scene is fixed, you’ll have more ideas for how to continue the good plotting and storytelling going forward.

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Note: This entry is a rewrite (and hopefully an improvement) from an older post.  Writing is rewriting and all that stuff.

Q: When is the most popular day to start a screenplay? A: Tomorrow?

INT. SIMPSON HOUSE — NIGHT

Homer and Marge have been having marital troubles, a long dry spell.  Marge is unhappy about this for some reason.

MARGE: Homer… We need to talk about the martial difficulties we’ve been having lately.
HOMER: Marge, there’s just too much pressure, with my job, the kids, traffic, political strife at home and abroad but I promise you, the second all those things go away, we’ll have sex.
MARGE: I simply can’t wait that long.

From THE SIMPSONS s6e10 GRAMPA VS. SEXUAL INADEQUACY

Screenshot (70)

When someone says, “I don’t have time to write,” it shows an imperfect understanding of what writing is. To them, it’s long, unbroken hours at a desk with no distractions, a perfect utopian tomorrow. They say, “Whelp, I don’t have three uninterrupted hours with which to commit my acts of genius writing, better stall until tomorrow.”

Trying and failing is incredibly psychologically dangerous. Stalling to tomorrow is even more dangerous. Tomorrow comes, and so on, and even if those three hours do show up, the weight of all the subsequent procrastination makes each subsequent day exponentially much harder, until writing becomes impossible. (I am often guilty of this).

Writing isn’t about reorienting your entire life, it’s about making use of the time you do have. If you get stuck and can’t move forward, make sure you do something, find some way to maximize your time.  The best time to start a script is now.  “Procrastination is the Grave Opportunity is Buried in.”

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Note 1: This entry is a rewrite (and hopefully an improvement) from an older post.  Writing is rewriting and all that stuff.

Note 2: Here’s a Relevant Onion Article.  Giving an Onion link to a procrastinator is like giving a Zippo to a serial arsonist, but this one has an important lesson.

Malcolm Gladwell explains why outlining, writing and rewriting is so hard.

“[It’s]a question I’m obsessed with: Why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so? The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection… Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don’t study for tests. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you’re stupid — and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare.”

Malcolm Gladwell, From an interview with Bill Simmons.

A friend of a friend has a great script. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s fresh, it’s original, and he loves talking about it. His friends, industry kids, say “Write it and send it,” a sentence that is rarely said. Whenever this happens, he disappears for a while. I’ve thought a lot about this, and my read is that that script, that dream project is his lottery ticket, his last and only chance to escape the sad life of normalcy and errands he lives in, the last avenue left that could make him the supermodel-fucking rock star that youth in the 90’s prepared him to be. To write the script, to suffer through it, would be to see the flaws in it. He might get a project, but he would kill the warming dream that gets him through the cold days of endless, ordinary struggle.

It’s a sad thought. But my motto has always been “whatever gets you through the day.” That guy is not a screenwriter. He’s a guy with a screenwriter fantasy, and if it’s anywhere near as awesome as my personal James Bond villain fantasy, I can see why he doesn’t want to leave it. But there comes a time to put childish things away. If you want to be a writer, you must write and write well.

The vast majority of newbie writers are both careless and slow. Their drafts take forever, they refuse to be nailed down by best practices like an outline or a careful plan going in.  When they get notes, they start a new project, continuing on an endless cycle of first drafts.

That’s the hardest and most important work I do with clients. I get them to slow down, get the fundamentals, take a fearless look at themselves, and get them to kill the “brilliant but lazy” self image they have of being a misunderstood boy (or girl) wonder, and get them to see the real person, flawed, imperfectly skilled, and able to improve. It’s the cave that you don’t want to go into that contains the dragon.

I could end the article here with a pithy quote, but I’d like to add my own name to the list of people who’ve let fear for their own stupid, shitty ego slow them down. When I was young, I was praised for being “bright,” but never for hard work. I was facile, but sloppy, always rushing ahead to the next step by cutting corners on the previous. I never learned the fundamentals, a part of me knew it, so I kept going fast to hide my deficiencies. As a result of this sloppiness, I spent most of my 20’s watching people less “gifted” but harder working become more successful than me.

Writing was my saving grace – I might be single, fat and dateless, but I had my spec. And yet, perfection, heck, competence eluded me. A common thought for me was/is, “I’ve spent my entire adult life writing, mortgaged my entire future, missed out on so much fun, how am I this fucking bad at this?”

Eventually, after many false starts, missed opportunities, and incredible failures, I finally took the blow to the ego, saw my flaws, and endeavored to improve every aspect of my writing, bit by bit, slowly and meticulously, so my fundamentals would be deeply ingrained and unconscious. It’s a work in progress, but I feel like I’ve built a base that will allow more interesting development. I’ll leave you with a quote from Cus D’Amato, the man who trained Mike Tyson.

“You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you…“Fear is a friend of exceptional people.

You are fucking exceptional. Go and write something. Slowly and carefully.

Procrastination is the grave opportunity is buried in.

“We shall never have more time. We have, and have always had, all the time there is. No object is served in waiting until next week or even until to-morrow. Keep going day in and out. Concentrate on something useful. Having decided to achieve a task, achieve it at all costs. ~ Arnold Bennett”

I don’t want to write this blog.  I actually never feel like writing.  I am a goddamn Rhodes scholar at not writing.  It’s my particular genius.  ~ Matt Lazarus

Pity the poor aspiring writer. It’s never a good time for them to write. They have a lot going on. They have money but not time, or time but no money. They can’t write because they’re lonely, they can’t write because they have to spend time with their significant other. They can’t write because they have no ideas, or because they have too many ideas. Procrastinators put all their faith in a magical, golden tomorrow where they’ll be adequately sexed, have the perfect amount of time, the perfect amount of money, and a magical talking desk that automatically transcribes and files their brilliant ideas in the exact right places.

That happy hour will never arrive. Neither success nor failure nor perfect love will make the writing any easier.

Procrastinators doom themselves to failure. They stall and stall, and when and if they do make the time to write, there’s so much pressure to use that time to be brilliant, to justify all the time wasted on past procrastination, that the expectation crushes whatever work they might have mustered.

Getting disciplined isn’t easy. There are a million tricks, tips and hacks that you can use, some can be found on this very blog, but on some level it comes down to pure will – your will to put pen to paper, to imagine vividly, to dutifully record.

I write this not to scold, but to offer a benediction. I free you from all old obligations. All false starts, all your abandoned efforts, all the wasted time, all your costly mistakes. You are forgiven. You are free to forgive yourself and move on. So go and write something.