AMA with a Pro: Screenwriting in a Global Pandemic and Beyond

Professional screenwriter Paul Guyot shares advice on not only navigating screenwriting during a global pandemic, but also on creating a mindset and practical support network for your writing journey beyond a lockdown.
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_Don’t worry about getting it right - just focus on getting it written._

Greetings, AP’s. We interrupt your regularly scheduled "AMA with a Pro" for a brief pedagogy from yours truly. This month instead of answering the questions you’ve sent, I’m going to address the question we’re all asking…

How in Holy William Goldman are we supposed to create anything right now???

Here’s the crazy dichotomy. I believe artists (creators) are needed right now more than ever. And yet, I’m not sure there’s been a more difficult time to be creative. To summon the muse, to invent, to build worlds, to write effortless dialogue, to execute stories with hidden yet clearly defined themes, to create.

Sucks, right? During our toughest time, when the muse is quarantined on another continent, inside a saferoom guarded by armed Mossad and a pair of ill-tempered Rottweilers, and this is when we’re needed more than ever? Ugh.

But that’s the landscape. And thus, it’s time to suck it up, Buttercup. As the late, great Samurai warrior Toni Morrison told us:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

So, how do we do it? Well, knowing that we all have our own individual processes, I’m going to give you what I believe are 5 Keys to Being a Productive Screenwriter During This Madness.

1. PJ’s and sweats are the enemy of creation.

It’s so easy to want to be comfy when staying at home day after day. We’re all fighting fear and depression and loneliness, and it seems like whenever there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, they extend the tunnel another few miles. Psychologically, we’re in a state of fight or flight, and it seems the only way to fight is to flight. So, we flight into our beds, under the covers, and when we’re force to get up, we flight into our safewear. The clothes that give us comfort, security. The clothes we love to fold into after a long day at the office, curl up on the couch in, and watch Netflix or read a great book.

DON’T DO IT.

The enemy - the Resistance Steven Pressfield talks of in what (I believe) is the single best book ever written on writing, THE WAR OF ART - will lie to us. The enemy will tell us, “Hey, you’re at home, and it’s nuts right now, so do yourself a favor and be as comfortable as you can. Pull out those jammies, those sweats, your favorite old T-shirt, because comfort is key. It’s a nasty world and you’re locked up in here, so why not be as comfortable as possible?”

Sounds good, right? But I offer this - when we roll into that cocoon mode it becomes exponentially more difficult to be focused and productive. The comfort of soft, lazy clothing puts us in a soft, lazy mode. Those outfits are so associated with lounging and chilling and relaxing that if we choose to try and work in them, we are just making it that much harder on ourselves. We are making it that much easier to knock off early, to be distracted quicker, to not put our full effort in, to not treat the craft with respect.

And that’s the bottom line here - YOU MUST RESPECT THE CRAFT.

You want to be a professional screenwriter? Then act like it. Get up early, and get dressed for work. You don’t need to put on a Cifonelli suit (unless that’s your jam), but I do believe showering, shaving and dressing in whatever you’d wear to your screenwriter’s office on the Paramount lot will provide you with much more productive days during this quarantine than wearing your flannel jammies and your Ton Sur Ton sweatshirt from 1988.

2. Exercise.

One of the viral happenings right now across social media (sic) are all these “challenges.” Dance challenges, cooking challenges, and many, many exercise challenges. You can ignore all those (Resistance!), but I firmly believe - through personal experience and discussing it with a myriad of fellow professionals - that doing your best work as a screenwriter requires you to do in the best shape possible.

Being stuck inside this madness right now severely limits our ability to workout… or does it? One thing these challenges, etc., have shown us is how easy it is to get a good workout at home with no gym equipment at all.

I am NOT saying you need to be pumping iron and doing some soul crushing 3-hour workout to be a screenwriter. I am simply saying that the fitter you are, the more energy you have, the better focus you have, and the better you feel - which all contribute to better (and more) writing. Sitting at the keyboard or legal pad for hours is a strain, physically, mentally and emotionally. So, the more fit we are, the longer we can endure.

Situps and pushups are two of the simplest exercises around. And two of the best. I will bet you a steak dinner at CUT that if you begin each day doing as many situps and pushups as you can (be it only 2 or 5 or 50) that in 21 days you will be feeling a massive difference in your energy level and your overall mental and emotional outlook.

Walking is another extremely underrated exercise, and one of the best writer exercises there is. Walking has solved many an Act 2 problem for me. Countless authors and screenwriters talk about how a good walk has brought the muse out of hiding, and right to their keyboard. And guess what? It’s really good exercise! And it leads me into Number 3 on the list…

3. Go outside.

Thankfully, the medical experts are telling us this is a good thing to do right now. And this is something I’ve been recommending to screenwriters long before COVID-19. Going outside - whether you’re walking, running, cycling, sitting, dancing, somersaulting, or reenacting the battle scene from BRAVEHEART with your community theater group (maintaining 6-foot distances at all times!) - is essential to wellbeing. And again, our wellbeing is tied directly to our ability to produce our best work.

We are spending way more time than normal inside these days. And regardless of how awesome your AC unit might be, there is nothing like fresh air. Even if it’s hot, cold, windy, rainy, snowy, getting outside at least once a day will greatly increase your odds of improving that bedroom scene on page 47.

4. Seek out other screenwriters*.

This one comes with an asterisk. I’ll get to that in a moment. What we do is a lonely, isolated endeavor. When you add to that a global lockdown, that can lead to severe depression and days filled with sweatpants and watching nine hours of HGTV.

Zoom and Skype are going to benefit from this pandemic as well as gym memberships are going to suffer. Probably more so. House Party is another Zoomesque source for connecting virtually with others. I’m not saying spend a bunch of time just hanging out instead of working. I’m saying make sure you talk to other screenwriters. Fellow creators. We’re all in this together, and just touching base with, “How’s it going? Where are you on your script?” type of chat will keep you from feeling completely alone as you fill those blank pages.

I think the single biggest reason I prefer television writing over features (other than the money) is because you get to be with fellow writers every day. Writers rooms (when they are healthy) are one of the very best places on the planet. To be surrounded with others who get your madness, your passion, your quirks, your reason for living, and to be creating with them, all working together toward a shared endgame, is just heaven. So, don’t forget during this time to check in with other scribes. You never know when they may be deep in the elephant grass of page 67, and talking through it with you is like a Huey dropping in to rescue them. And they can do the same for you.

The asterisk… I recently chatted with an aspiring professional who was confused by his writers group. He and several other AP’s had formed a group which meets monthly and reads each other’s work. He was confused because he was getting not just conflicting advice from the group, but advice that was telling him to write in a different direction than his voice was naturally wanting to go.

Writing groups can be a wonderful thing - see my above ramblings about being in this together. But they can also be incredibly dangerous for AP’s. If you are getting “notes” from someone who is below your ability level, that can be lethal to your work.

Most groups have folks who are genuinely good people, who want to help each other. But here’s the thing… very few people have the self-awareness and confidence to say a version of, “I don’t know if this is good or bad. I only know if I like it or not.”

Everyone wants to help. And many want to feel superior, or even just validated that they know what they’re doing. They will read your pages, and (for no other reason than they lack experience) they truly can’t tell if what you have is good or not. So, they default to what they’ve read in books or heard from the gurus and charlatans - the “script analysts,” the “former readers,” the “coaches,” etc. - and they’ll give you garbage like, “Need more white on the page,” or “Don’t use camera movements,” or any other of the endless crap spewed by those who can’t do.

I am not saying don’t join a writers groups - the benefits outweigh the handicaps - I am saying to be aware of WHO it is you are getting notes from. Try (as difficult as it might be) to only take advice from someone better than you, or at the very least just as good as you are. If you don’t know how to tell, read their work and trust your gut.

5. Be kind to yourself and others

It is brutal right now. Things are as bad as they’ve ever been for a lot of folks. They certainly aren’t great for anyone. So, listen… this screenwriting journey is hard. And trying to stay the course when the world seems to be imploding, when jobs are gone, when it seems like Hollywood isn’t buying or producing anything, can feel impossible.

So, give yourself a break. While you should absolutely keep showing up and putting the work in, relax on your quality control, forget your page count.

Don’t worry about getting it right - just focus on getting it written.

Remember, dear AP, the worst, most horrid screenwriting you put to paper will always be lightyears better than the very best stuff you don’t write.

Next month we’ll get back to our coffee and queries, so keep sending them in to: scriptguyot AT gmail DOT com. Until then, stay safe and healthy, stay focused and professional, and DON’T CHANGE.

(cue INXS)

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