Question: How can I pick up on a project I’ve been away from?

QUESTION: I started on a short script yesterday with a idea I was really excited about, I did a quick treatment first to plan things out and then I started into the first page or two before heading to bed. I came back to it today and just didn’t have the same rhythm of thought I previously had for it if that makes sense.

The thing is it happens to me often enough, in that I find myself writing a script I started a week or two earlier and struggle getting back into the swing of the story sometimes.

ANSWER:  Use a voice recorder and leave yourself a note:

“Hey future me! Knowing you as I do, you’re going to be burned out when you get back to this. Just remember to…”

Spend 5 minutes talking about everything that excites you or bedevils you about the project. That way you’ll have something to react off of when you return to it.


* Note: When I started my coaching practice, I thought I was going to focus on productivity tips like this, figuring I could forestall a lot of arguments by not talking about approach or theory. How wrong I was. I’m still a big fan of productivity tips for screenwriters. Read my early posts for more like this – the 2012 stuff has some good ideas, but they were written early in my blogging career and it shows.

WriterDuet makes sharing and collaborating a breeze (and why that’s awesome)

WriterDuet is a free online screenwriting tool that allows you to write scripts on the cloud. It’s no-frills but functional. In terms of ease of use, it’s easily my favorite free tool out there, it’s like CeltX minus the bloat. That’s enough to recommend it right there, but it’s got one killer feature.

WriterDuet was built to do one thing: effortlessly collaborate in real time. Final Draft technically has the ability to do the same thing, but Final Draft is a) clunky and bloated, and b) doesn’t easily connect to the internet. I have dozens of writer friends, and only one has actually used Collaborwrite. He says, “You have to fuck with your network settings, which basically means it doesn’t work.”

This is a feature that’s so brilliant that people will miss the point of it. So let me evangelize. This is a killer feature for three reasons.

When I was 8, I had a girlfriend named Emily, an artist, with black hair and blue eyes, and she was 9, which made her the exotic older woman. We would create storybooks together, and I vividly remember the thrill of drawing on the same piece of paper at the same time. The connection was electric, immediate, it was like sharing an imagined world with another person.

No collaboration in my adult life has ever come close. Until now. I’ve written with other writers in Google documents, but it just didn’t feel real. It didn’t look like a screenplay, so my primitive reptile brain didn’t treat it like screenwriting.  It was a barrier to letting my imagination free.

Then WriterDuet came along.  By removing the barriers to collaboration, it’s that much easier to slip into that hypnotic state, to feel like you’re sharing a universe with another person.  I can only imagine what that’s like high.

This is me dating myself, but does anyone remember AOL chat rooms? Back in those early days, imaginative nerds used it for freeform roleplaying.

DRJim132: I am a barbarian.
DRJim132: :::Takes beer from table.
ANNEDAX: Hey that’s my beer!
ANNEDAX: :::: Attacks DrJim with sword.
DRJim132: ::::dies

People instinctively wanted a way to separate dialogue from action, hence the colons. WriterDuet makes that effortless, which makes play that much easier.  You can collaborate and pitch lines as easily as you IM, and you get useable script pages as a byproduct.

WriterDuet is a  tool that makes collaboration easier, and makes my job as a story coach both more fun and more useful, as it allows me to show people script fixes in real time. By standardizing the WAY we collaborate, we begin to standardize the language we use to collaborate, and that is how communities are formed.  Just as swing dancers use steps to dance together, and improv artists use techniques to play together, WriterDuet allows for the creation of new language and new communities that will make it easier for people to write together.


Just try the damn software. It’s free. You’ll be glad you did.

From idea to rewrite in seven (not so) easy steps!!!

People love breaking life’s challenges into “X Number of Easy Steps.”  Life loves to make these people look like fools.  Anything worth doing is more complicated than it looks, anything that promises easy competence is setting you up for failure.

Beginner's Guides - the promise vs the reality.
Beginner’s Guides – the promise vs the reality.

That being said, I’m sure this easy seven step guide will be totally different!  So let’s dive in.

How to take your screenplay from outline to rewrite in 7 easy steps!

Step 1 – Idea

Ideas come from the brain (duh).  The brain is always flipping through memories like a million monkeys on typewriters.  Every experience, memory, dream and idea you have floats around in there.  Every so often two ideas come together, something sparks, and a new idea is born.  Carry a recording device to capture these ideas when they happen, the trick isn’t having ideas, it’s knowing which ideas to write down and having a place to put them when you do.

Step 2 – Premise test

Does your story fit into this form? If it doesn’t, you may have a problem.

An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

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Step 3 – The one page synopsis/three act handle.

Are there other ways to write a script beyond the three act structure?  Of course.  Does writing the script along the lines of the only pattern you can count on an executive to recognize actually hurt?  No.  Remember, screenwriting is less about reinventing the formulas, and more about using the formulas to tell a unique and beautiful story that means something to you while still playing in the wheelhouse of the familiar.

Step 4 – 40 Beats
The next step between the handle and the outline is a list of 40 beats. A beat is major event in the story that makes fundamental changes to the world of the story. “Bob and Joe fight and end their partnership” is a beat.  “Bob gets off the plane” is not, unless Bob is Mr. Bean. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if your beat could plausibly take up 1/40th of a script (three pages). If it can’t, it’s not a beat.

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* This is the hardest step.  Everyone fails here and says fuck it, I’ll figure it out in the writing post.  Don’t do that.  By being disciplined here, you’ll save yourself time and pain down the road.  If you have any questions, email me at mattjlazarus at gmail dot com.  I’ll help you, promise.

Step 5 – Outline.

Your 40 beats are 40 containers into which story is poured.  They’re currently empty vessels with seven word labels on them, here’s where you want to write down everything you have.  It’s all got to fit into one of these 40 ideas.

If you start coming up with scene after scene that isn’t in your 40 beats, create new beats, but go back and reevaluate your structure.  If you’re finding tons of content that you didn’t see at the high level view, that’s fine, but it suggests that you’re not writing the story you initially though you were, and you should go back and re-logline and re-do the handle.  Try to make each beat at least 200 words with minimal dialogue and lots of ideas for cool images and moments.  This will yield you an 8,000 word outline.

If you’re having trouble here, you don’t have enough movie moments to flesh out your idea.  Try tweaking the means of the script.

Step 6 – Draft

If you’ve done the above steps right (you probably haven’t, I don’t, most writers can’t work this robotically), writing the draft will be a breeze.  You’re not really thinking, you’re just rendering ideas you’ve already had in screenplay form.  It should feel pretty easy.  If you get stuck, you’re probably feeling problems with scene craft, which is a completely different subject to work on.   But still, you’re only writing 20-25,000 words.  You already know what order they go in, and you’ve written one third of the words you need in the heavy lifting stage of the outline.

Step 7 – Rewrite

Once you finish, let your draft sit for a few weeks, so you get perspective.  Then go through and reread it, making notes on every page.  Then you’re going to want to break your script down into a handle again, and make a list of all your beats, and then re-outline before you write the next draft.  And so on and so forth until you sell the damn thing or your brain breaks from nihilistic despair.

It’s just that easy!

Except it’s not.  If it were easy, everyone would do it.  But by using a firm and rigorous set of steps to develop your craft, you save yourself a lot of pain and heartache in the long run.

The path from logline to outline to draft is not a straight line.

The treatment is a necessary step in the process, but very few people can solve a story on the beat outline level.  To combat that problem, think of the process as a continuum, and if you’re stuck on one phase of the continuum, the best way to do it is jump to a different perspective (see video game example, bel0w).


People often want to check these items off, one at a time.  This leads to incomplete outlines.

If you’re stuck in an outline jump back to a treatment.

If you want to see if a beat works, you can write it as a screenplay draft, but don’t be seduced into thinking it’s time to skip the outline.

Changing perspectives allows you to solve problems in different ways with different tools.


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.


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

Best practices for getting started, organized, and through your first draft.

1. Always have a pen and paper (or a voice recorder, or a smartphone with a good battery).  A pen and paper is best, as it’s living testament to your desire to capture ideas as opposed to just having a cell phone.  Productivity nerds call this ubiquitous capture.  The thinking is that your brain won’t give up the really good ideas if it thinks they’ll be wasted, so having a pen and paper is like a catalyst for creativity.  If nothing else, it’ll maximize your productivity.

2. Pick a project and work on it until it’s done.  The more projects you have, the less like you are to finish any one (there are other reasons to focus on one project)).  Make sure your project has a coherent logline, a castable protagonist, and has an actual genre.

File:Copyright Card Catalog Files.jpg

3. Have a trusted system in which to put your ideas.  Remember, this is simplified because you’re writing one project at a time (see above).  You’ll want to keep track of scenes, characters, dialogue, and other material that will feed your draft.  Also set aside another set of folders for any idea you have that doesn’t pertain to your main project.  Record it, file it, and don’t worry about it till your main project is done.  I recommend Evernote or Workflowy.

Ergonomic Workstation - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

4. Have a place to work.  Most people have a desk, but for most people that desk is under piles and piles of bills, old magazines, and office supplies.  A desk is a focusing tool for your mental energies.  It is the physical representation of your control over your environment.  If you’re feeling blocked, clean off your desk, there’s ideas under that clutter.

5. Write every day. It’s tempting to think that you can populate an entire screenplay by careful use of random ideas jotted down at stoplights, but the real work of writing is done while sitting at a desk, sweating out a dozen bad paragraphs for every usable sentence.  Writing discipline is like a muscle, you have to work it every day.  Set a daily goal and keep to it every day.  If you can’t keep that appointment with yourself, this might not be the line of work for you.  Make sure that you harvest the best ideas from your writing and put it in the trusted system.  You don’t need to save everything, just the absolute best ideas generated by the writing.

These are the best practices that keep the writing machine organized and efficient.  You’re working towards a beat sheet, and later a treatment, and finally a script.  Sadly real writing will never be quite as easy as a simple “how to” guide makes it sound, but if you follow these best practices, you’ll be well ahead of the game.