The secret of screenwriting

I keep seeing courses offering to teach you the ‘Five Secrets of Screenwriting’ or the ‘Seven Secrets of being a Successful Writer’ or the ‘Ten Secrets They Don’t Want You To Know’.

Why THEY don’t want you to know things, apart from because it’s a secret, and who THEY are is beyond me; maybe I need to take that course?

Now, seeing as I’ve never been on any writing courses what I’m about to say may very well be even more ill-informed, inaccurate and downright useless than usual; but it seems to me there’s only one secret which eludes the majority of people trying to cross the line from ‘writer’ to ‘paid writer’ …

I was going to say ‘wannabe writer’ or ‘aspiring writer’ to ‘real writer’ but I guess those terms are quite offensive and can easily refuted by pointing out anyone who writes words down is a writer – whether they get paid or not. So I didn’t.

Anyway, from talking to other writers and reading blogs and forums about writing I’ve come to conclusion that the one secret every writer should know is:

YOU HAVE TO ACTUALLY WRITE THE WORDS DOWN.

There, I’ve said it. I hope THEY don’t come for me in the middle of the night.

Actually, I don’t mind if THEY do, I’ve got a house full of interesting weapons and I’m always up for a fight. True, I’m more likely to hit myself with the interesting weapons than anyone else and most of them are useless in any space more enclosed than a football pitch; but, you know, I’d have a go.

It seems to me that a lot of writers don’t actually do much writing; which I suppose makes the aspiring or wannabe writer tag a bit more accurate. I mean, think about it, how many scripts have you written this year? Could you have written more? Divide the number of pages you’ve written by the number of days. Could you have written more? What about the number of pages divided by the number of hours in the year so far? See what I’m getting at?

I keep seeing announcements that so and so new writer has a script in production with company x and I get a pang of jealousy. How come they got that production company to make their stuff? Why isn’t that company making my stuff?

Well, possibly because I haven’t got round to writing the idea which is suitable for that company, neither have I re-written it, edited it, got opinions on the draft, re-written it again, spell-checked it to within an inch of its life or actually submitted it to the company for consideration. Faced with odds like that, it’s not surprising the idea rattling around in my head hasn’t been commissioned.

People say writing is in their soul or it’s a burning ambition or they’re compelled to write – yet they don’t actually do very much of it. Okay, so most of people have lives to work around. Jobs, kids, family, friends; but really, are you doing as much writing as you could be?

We all procrastinate, that’s practically part of the job description; but, and here’s where the secret comes into play again, you have to actually write the words down afterwards in order for it to count as procrastination. If you don’t eventually get round to writing something it’s not procrastinating, it’s just not doing.

So what’s a reasonable amount of writing to be doing? My average top speed for producing reasonable quality work seems to be about 5 pages an hour; but that’s far from a constant. That’s when I know exactly what I’m going to write, all the problems are solved and I’m in a flat panic because the deadline’s standing in the doorway with a baseball bat checking his watch. Sometimes one page can take eight hours, sometimes it can take eight minutes – there’s no way to judge it until you try to write it. But let’s pick an average, something we can calculate with. Does a page an hour sound reasonable? Bill Martell reckons five pages a day which I presume is over an eight hour day. Although given all the other stuff he writes on a daily basis, possibly not. Let’s go with a page an hour for now.

So how may hours a day is a reasonable amount to commit to writing? Let’s say you’ve got a full-time job and a family to spend time with too. Writing’s important too though, remember? You have to treat it as a career from the beginning, because until you do you won’t get anywhere. You have to allocate it some proper time. Can you do two hours a night? Are the kids in bed by ten o’clock? Does that sound unreasonable? Could you give yourself ten to midnight to write?

I’m sure some people can’t, their lives might be too hectic. Perhaps they’re a full-time carer for a disabled family member – that would make it harder; but even then I’m sure some people manage to find time from somewhere. Those are the kind of people who have the real burning ambition, inner drive and are compelled to write because ink flows through their veins and words are seared on their hearts.

Personally I think I’d just not bother under those circumstances, but that’s why I’m in awe of people who succeed against all odds. Me, and probably most of you, don’t have those kind of problems to deal with. So two hours a night sounds fine.

Similarly, there are two days in the weekend. Why can’t you put one of those aside for writing? Lots of people have to work six day weeks, so if you’re only working five in your day job, why not allocate the sixth for writing? You can spend one day with family and/or friends and the other with the imaginary people in your head. That’s another eight hours there. Hell, if you’re doing a whole day, why not push right through and do twelve hours, or even fourteen? But fine, let’s leave it at a reasonable eight.

Which makes eighteen hours of writing a week. At a page an hour, that equals eighteen pages. A hundred page script should only take you five or six weeks to write. At that rate, you should be able to write nine features in a year.

Nine.

Okay, so that’s probably unrealistic in this model because it doesn’t take planning and pre-writing into account. Let’s say five features a year. Does that sound unreasonable?

Have you written five feature films this year?

Again, this is slightly flawed because it’s not taking re-writes and edits and whatever else into account; but the point is, successful writers are the ones who write enough reasonable quality material to get noticed. You don’t have to write every hour the universe sends, but you do have to write in at least some of them.

I know life gets in the way, I know you have to work and socialise and whatever; but is that really what’s stopping you from writing? I used to work sixteen hours a day for four days a week and eighteen hours a day for the other two. I had very little time to write and got very little writing done. Then I switched to a job where I only worked two night shifts a week. I had FIVE days off a week!

Well, technically seven, but it gets confusing when you work nights.

All that free time and I STILL got very little writing done.

Why?

Because I wasn’t disciplined enough. I didn’t actually write the words down, I just complained about everyone else’s undeserved good luck. It’s not undeserved, anyone who achieves success as a writer does so by working hard. Luck comes into play a little, but you can’t rely on it. Those who luck into getting their first script produced – I’m now in awe of rather than jealous of. Well done you. For the rest of us, work harder.

All of this is really just a long winded way of admitting I’ve been a bit slack as of late. Sorry.

Right. Lunch and then back to work.

Unless there’s any Stargate on.

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Categories: Random Witterings | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “The secret of screenwriting

  1. I write my stuff whenever I get a chance. Five minutes here, ten there. Once, last year, I wrote solidly for an hour and a half, but it left me feeling queasy and dehydrated.

  2. As long as the gap between here and there is less than a week then I reckon you’re on to a winner. If you can get it down to less than a minute you’re really in with a chance.

    I spent many years telling people I was a writer when the gap between sessions was closer to a year. I think I may have been a little deluded there.

  3. Generally the gap between here and there is measured in hours. Sometimes minutes. Occasionally days.

    You know, I’d love to tell people that I’m a writer. I don’t honestly feel that I can, ‘cos I’ve never had anything published. I know many would argue that the act of writing makes one a writer, but I’d feel a terrible fraud calling myself thus.

    I’ve got a 98000 word novel nearing completion, my first spec script posted off to the RPP and two short stories done and dusted on the blog. I’m working on the step outline of a one-off drama and I’ve got the outline for a sitcom and a 90-minute film.

    But I’m not a writer. Not yet.

  4. You sound like a writer to me. You may be an unpublished writer or an unproduced writer but if you’re writing you’re definitely a writer.

    I know what you mean though. I used to tell people I wrote scripts, but would never have described myself as a scriptwriter. Somehow I felt that was a step too far. Nowadays … well, sometimes I still don’t tell people, I still enjoy making up stupid occupations. I used to tell people that, as a child, I’d been a stunt Ewok because the midgets were too valuable to throw around.

  5. Dammit, you made me wheeze. If I laugh too hard my asthma kicks in and I have to fumble for the ventolin. I’ve definitely got to get me some of those spoof occupations. Possibly also with business cards to add authenticity.

  6. Wow, I’ve got a bollocking off a blog. That’s a first.

    I do spend far too much time planning and not writing, then too much time deciding what to write and unfortunately my ‘bread and butter’ is website development which uses a fair bit of brain power but I’m doing more writing and less web-work as I progress.

    In the current climate I’m quite happy to have the job and I suppose I’ve had success with sketches because they are short-burst kinda things. Hang on, this is a way too serious post from me. Testicles. That’s better.

  7. Actually, this whole post was aimed solely at you. It was going to be an email, but I thought, “No. I’ll shame the bugger in public.”

    Consider yourself publicly shamed.

    Time spent planning isn’t wasted, Time spent deciding what to write … come on! Just pick one, throw a dart if you have to. Get on with it.

  8. Darren

    I just want to know how any of you lot get ANYTHING done at all, when you’re writing in blogs all day…

    Ackk… and now I’m doing it! Arse.

  9. crustynomad

    That post could be inter-changeable with any goal to be honest. We all want to be a lap dancer tester but if we don’t make the effort to start in that career nothing will change.

    We’re all so busy complaining we never do anything about it. As Darren says above…Arse!

  10. You mad fool! You’ve given away the secret!

    Now all those wannabe writers will start working really really hard, and as a result, become really successful!

    …or maybe they’ll just carry on doing it when the muse strikes. I think we’re safe.

  11. Nah, you’re not safe! I’ve cottoned on, and if a procrastinator like me can twig it, you’re all scuppered! 😉 LOL.

    Phil’s right though. Words on paper, word filled paper sent to producers. That’s the ticket.
    But NINE? NINE? Are you nuts? Oh yeah, you’re Phil. Nuff said.
    … I’d be lucky to manage 3 a year if I was firing on all cylinders all the time and had every day to myself.

    I hate you Barron.

    And I love you.

    Grr!

  12. You speak wisely Glasshopper. There’s a wonderful comic strip by Posy Simmonds called Literary Life where a creative writing teacher is doing his job and criticising the group’s writing. The members of this group take umbradge at being told they have rewrite and rewrite and rework. “Don’t UPSET her!” one shrieks when she’s told her work is derivative. “We haven’t got time to do these rewrites. We want tips! We want to know what the short cuts are!” Then the creative writing teacher goes beserk. “Writing is grind. Hard grind. There are no short cuts! I give up!” And he storms out.

    “Tsk” says one student. “Quite uncalled for.”

    It’s amazing – the number of people who would write a novel if only they had the ‘time’. Or are convinced there’s a conspiracy against new writing. (A big favorite that one). Or it’s a feminist conspiracy (really rubbish male ‘poet’ I know)

    Or like me, they’d rather browse lovely blogs than get on with it.

    Jane

  13. Pingback: What Not To Watch « Warning: May Contain Nuts

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