John Buchanan is an award-winning, nationally published journalist and magazine writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and also a reporter for the global news agency Reuters.
Screenwriting is unlike any other professional endeavor. To survive its unique pressures and peculiarities and have a career, you'll have to master a few fundamental disciplines.
It’s one thing to sell a spec script or complete a first paid assignment for a studio. It’s another thing entirely to establish a reputation as a reliable professional and enjoy a long career as an in-demand Hollywood screenwriter. After the glow of initial success fades out, new writers learn—often painfully—that the requisite capabilities for a working scribe reach far beyond the ability to write crackling dialogue or craft a nifty plot twist. Too often, it’s assumed that talent trumps disciplined, hard work.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Work habits are as important as talent,” says Craig Mazin (The Hangover II, Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie 4). “You can’t really make it with just half of the equation. The basis for a long career is to be able to have some modicum of talent, but to have a good work ethic. And that’s because writing is a hard thing to do. It seems as simple as tapping on a keyboard, but it’s not. It’s difficult, both emotionally and physically.”
As a result, says Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon, Music of the Heart, Conviction), working pros concoct all sorts of ways to cope with the unique stresses and challenges of one of the most competitive and isolated trades on Earth. “For me,” says Gray, who began her career in 1992 with an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “it’s a combination of ritual and structure when you approach the writing of an entire screenplay. It’s about how you create a life around that goal. And as a professional, I have deadlines that are set by somebody else.”
Under that pressure, writing on assignment bears no resemblance to writing a spec. “When you’re writing a spec, there’s this sense of infinity,” Gray says. “You can start and stop any time you want.” As a writer-for-hire, she notes, you have to be able to chip away relentlessly at an imposing block of granite every day until a perfect statue of a story emerges— on time.
For Gray, that inherent stressor—somewhat ironically—causes her to stall at first. “At the beginning of a project, for me it’s all about trying to lasso in procrastination,” she says. “Then it’s about when the alarms go off, so I know that if I don’t get started on it, I’m in trouble.”
However, as part of that process, she begins to think through her tale. “Incubating the idea, before I start writing, is an important part of the process for me,” she says. “But there comes a point where you’re no longer incubating. You’re avoiding.”
Beating the System
New writers quickly experience the practical realities of the movie mill. “A lot of people get stuck,” Mazin says. “They want to do good work. Then they are beset by insecurity, by the difficulty of the task, and more often than not, they’re beset by their ‘helpers,’ like studios, producers, directors and actors who are all trying to influence the outcome of the process for their own reasons. And sometimes that makes for an incredibly difficult work process, if not a flat-out noxious work process. It’s very hard to struggle through that and work in a disciplined, focused way, with consistency of production and quality. That’s a whole other level of coping mechanisms you have to have, or quickly attain, just to keep yourself sane and writing.”
For any writer who wants a genuine career, the only coping mechanism that truly matters is the ability and discipline to create high quality work on demand, says Erik Bork, who won Emmy® Awards for his scripts for HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers. “To me,” says Bork, “it’s really about dedication and commitment to the craft and to working at it regularly to become the best you can be. That’s because [professional screenwriting is] an elite job, like playing professional basketball, that very few people ever get to do. And to continue to get paid and have a career is pretty rare. So, you need Kobe Bryant’s level of obsession for basketball to do it and keep doing it.”
That said, veteran pros concur that the job can’t be quantified into a structured work week, as if they were plumbers or secretaries. “[The schedule] doesn’t have to do with days and hours so much as it has to do with attitude and approach,” says Bork, who coaches aspiring writers. “And one key to the approach is to realize what a marathon writing a script is.”
Over the course of his enduring career, veteran scribe Mickey Birnbaum (The Tie That Binds, written as Michael Auerbach) has learned the lesson about the marathon process—so much so, he says, that he nearly burned out on screenwriting a time or two. Only after he and his wife adopted twin nine-year-old girls last year did Birnbaum also learn to cut back on his hours and to enjoy his work more. Until then, he says, he had been the rare proponent of a “full-time” regular work day for screenwriters, or at least for himself. The grind eventually pushed him to near exhaustion.
At the other extreme, as an apparent majority, are writers such as Mazin, who has no real sense of a strictly structured, regimented work day. “Not even close,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t push it. I just wait. And when it feels right, I write. You can’t force it. So, sometimes I take a long walk or a shower as a way of thinking about the story.”
In fact, says Bork, such habits are essential to the process of creativity and effective story development. One characteristic that separates professionals from newcomers, Bork explains, “is the realization that the sitting at the keyboard and writing scenes is not the most important or biggest part of the work. It’s really about story concept and story structure and outlining. Then it’s about all the other things you can do to process your story, like walking around with a tape recorder and talking to yourself as things come to you.”
Because concept is king, Bork says. That view is heralded by top screenwriters from Terry Rossio to Christopher Nolan, not to mention agents and managers. “But too many writers,” Bork states, “tend to breeze through that part and just go to work on concepts that aren’t quite there yet.”
To avoid that weakness, Bork, Mazin, Gray and Birnbaum all create detailed outlines before they ever sit down to write FADE IN. Before he crafts a complete scene-by-scene outline, Bork uses the late Blake Snyder’s famous beat sheet to set the skeleton of his story. Some of Mazin’s outlines submitted as part of an assignment run to 50 pages.
The Passion of Creation
Once the story idea has been incubated and outlined into a three-act structure, Bork and the others throw themselves into the first draft. “The first draft is your opportunity as a writer to play God with the screenplay, regardless of how many meetings you’ve had or how much time you’ve spent being told what people expect,” Gray says. “The first draft is when you get to make your discoveries.” That’s why it’s critical, she says, to avoid distractions, such as meddling producers or studio executives.
But even with relentless focus and a road map from their outline and story notes, even the best professionals are assaulted by the unavoidable vicissitudes of the trade. “You’re going to have moments of a lack of clarity,” says Mazin. “That’s part of the process, too. At that point, you have to go back to your outline and think it through again and work things out.”
But, Mazin adds, forget the notion that at this stage you will “break” your story. “It’s not that simple,” he warns. “You have to strike from your heart any desire for finality. That’s not what you should want. There is no such thing as finality in screenwriting. You should let that part of yourself go, and realize that it is not final until you’re at the premiere of the movie.”
Working steadily on both studio and independent projects for more than two decades, Birnbaum has learned that lesson, too. And he has adjusted his approach to his work accordingly. “The other thing new writers eventually learn is that you need to rewrite extensively and constantly,” he says. “And you need to be at peace with that fact. It was only after learning that [lesson] and developing the ability to be patient with rewriting that I started to become a better writer.”
Consistency and Attitude
Given screenwriting’s built-in difficulties and peculiarities, there are two overarching work habits that take precedence over all others for those few who enjoy long, productive careers.
The first is consistency. “It’s more important for me to write for 15 minutes a day, six days a week, than to write for five hours on Monday and not work again until the following Monday,” says Gray.
Mazin agrees, citing the timeless adage about inspiration versus perspiration in creative enterprises. “Inspiration gets you work,” he says. “Perspiration keeps you working.” In turn, the combination of inspiration and perspiration get you into what Gray and other pros call “the zone.” Gray defines that place as when she is more engrossed in the world of her story than she is in the real world. “It means that I’ve started to feel that I’m in rhythm with the screenplay,” she says, adding that at that point she will often work virtually around the clock, with little sleep, until the fury of the first draft is over and her deadline is met.
“And you just have to keep touching base with your script in order to get to the point where you go into the zone,” she says. “You have to be living in the zone on a consistent basis. You can’t just visit.”
Although he agrees with Gray, Bork— who has two Emmy statuettes as symbols of the rarefied quality of his work —adds a caveat: Attitude is as critical to survival and prosperity as talent or work habits. That’s particularly true for new writers, because so few memberships become available each year in the cherished ranks of established working professionals.
“The single most important thing I can tell new writers who are just starting out is to focus on your craft and make your work better and better—endlessly,” Bork says, noting that the book The Artist’s Way preaches that enthusiasm and commitment are as important as talent. “Do that [constant work toward improvement] instead of focusing on how you can market and sell whatever it is you’ve done. Always have the attitude that you want more feedback, that you want to make your work better. And eventually your work will get to a place where you have a real chance of working as a screenwriter.”
Originally published in Script Magazine March/April 2011
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