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Write, Direct, Repeat: Writing Habits - Facing Down the Repeat

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I attended the Screenwriters World Conference East in NYC last month and had a fabulous time at the event. I met a slew of wonderful writers, attended some truly informative panels and stayed out late every night indulging in too much… well, let’s just call it fun (and let’s just say hangover remedies were involved).

The keynote speaker at the conference was screenwriter Stephen Susco (The Grudge). His speech was funny, down-to-earth and incredibly honest about the trials and challenges that waited ahead for the screenwriters in that room.

Stephen Susco... and me!

Stephen Susco... and me!

There was one moment in his speech that really stuck with me because it hit right at the heart of where I am in my budding career today. He polled the audience about how many feature-length screenplays they’d completed. He asked who had completed one screenplay and almost every hand shot up. He then asked about two screenplays, and almost every hand stayed up. Then five screenplays, and still there was a great showing of hands. And ten, and yet still a dramatic number of hands stayed up. Even Susco seemed impressed.

He then told us that it was his twenty-fifth paid writing job that led to his first produced feature film.

Wait, what? Did he say “twenty-fifth?” And did he say, “paid?” So how many scripts had he written before getting that first paid gig?

Whoa, hearing that will knock the wind out of you, no doubt, but at the same time it was exactly what I needed to hear. We all toss around the idea that screenwriting and filmmaking is a journey, not a sprint, but which of us is really prepared to get to the end of projects that took us years to complete and turn right back around and start all over again?

When I chose the title for this column, “Write, Direct, Repeat,” I knew the readers of Script magazine would be all over the “Write” part. My goal for the column was to introduce the possibility of taking your own work through the “Direct” phase. But I knew full well it would all come down to the “Repeat.” A hobbyist can write and direct once, but a career can only be built if you have the mettle to repeat.

As a writer who is also now directing, I managed to overlap writing and directing projects so that I’ve been in pre-production, production or post-production on a film nonstop for the last two years. I avoided looking Repeat in the eye after my first film by just running over it with the tank of first-timer’s ambition and driving right into my second film without taking a breath.

I just completed my second short film last month, and while I’m elated to be done, there was a part of me that had to fight dragging my feet at the end knowing it was finally time to face down the Repeat. I’d decided that after two years of keeping my head down and pushing blindly forward, I needed to come up for air, take stock of where my efforts have gotten me to today and plot my course for where I want to be tomorrow.

So it’s deep breath time for me now and I need to deal with this issue of Repeat.

When writers don’t know which way to turn next, the first answer is always to write. In the spirit of telling myself to just shut up and write, at the beginning of this year I started a challenge with some writing friends to see how long we could go following the Don’t Break the Chain method. The rules we set for ourselves were simple: Write for a minimum of one-hour a day; you can write for more time (and please do!) but you can’t carry that time over to the next day; keep track of how many consecutive days you don’t break the chain and report your progress back to the group regularly; fess up when you break the chain but then get back up and start again at Day 1.

Not only has this led to more consecutive writing days this year than I’ve had in a long time, this method creates an environment where you will inevitably come up short one day and have to go back to Day 1 the next. Do that for long enough and not only are you getting your pages in, but you’re training yourself to shake off a “bad” writing day and just suck it up and start again.

And with that, look at me just strolling around the bend from Repeat back to Write.

But this isn’t my first go-round and I know it’s not as simple for me anymore to just grab anything and write. With all I’ve invested to this point, I need to tackle specific projects that will up my chances for continuing to write, direct and get my work produced.

Having written and directed two shorts, I’ve learned a lot about my strengths and interests. I found that directing is the yin to my writing yang. Directing, you complete me, and now I have to take you into consideration when lining up my next projects. That is a career-changing realization to have come from these last years and one I need to factor into my goals for the next few years. Any five-year plans I laid out before I started directing now need some major updating.

I’ve begun working on a feature-length script that leans more toward an independently budgeted film with the goal of directing this film myself. This is one script I know for sure I need to complete to start building my way toward writing and directing features.

I also now know my heart is wedded to genre films and it’s where I seem to have the most fun and feel the most natural fit. I have an idea for a big budget Hollywood sci-fi film that I’d love to write on spec and see what roads that will lead me down.

Well look at that, now I’m in a slow jog heading back toward Write.

And since I know for me Direct is just on the horizon after Write, while working on these longer screenplays I’ll need to develop a couple of shorter projects I can get off the ground sooner, such as shorts or a webseries, to continue developing my directing skills. In addition, I’ll pursue director-for-hire work for the chance to work with other writers and producers on their projects.

And just like that, that looming Repeat is showing up in my rearview and I have a plan for coming back around to Write.

There’s something wonderful about the naïve joy of a first script or a first film, when every effort and task comes free of the baggage of knowing the true weight of the full journey ahead. When Stephen Susco asked us to raise our hands, I must admit, I wasn’t one of the ones holding my hand up high at the ten script mark, or even at five.

I spent these last years launching my career in the only way I knew how – propelling myself forward step-by-step and not worrying about the full distance of the journey. I knew the challenge of these first years was to shift my writing life from a state of rest into one of forward, steady motion and that alone is an extraordinary challenge to mount.

Now, finding myself at the end of another project and feeling steady enough to take a deep breath and look around, I realize using this time to plan my next moves is vital. Repeat is the time to gather up your lessons learned and use them to set your new goals. It’s the moment where you get to look back on all you’ve achieved and marvel at the possibilities for the future you’ve created.

My plan is to thoughtfully set goals now that take me beyond where I’ve been and off toward where I want to be. If I create a strong plan, my hope is it will allow me the freedom to go back to Write and just embrace the wonders of writing my stories and bringing them to life. Repeat might just be the answer to how I can eventually raise my hand having five, ten, twenty-five(!) scripts under my belt and have gotten there not by stressfully tallying up the scripts written but by tallying up the wild moments I lived creating every story and every film.

I didn’t see stress on Stephen Susco’s face as he told us about the crazy screenwriting adventure he’s living. Instead I saw a man who figured out how to face down Repeat long ago and today is paid good money to write scary movies. And I can’t imagine a scenario more motivating to push me onto the next project and to just get on with it and Write.

Get more tips on being productive in Jenna Avery's webinar
10 Practical Tips for More Consistent, Productive Writing