Friday, April 19, 2013

Get to work

What are you writing right now?

I hope you have an answer. If you don't - if you hem and haw and make excuses, or if you mumble some words knowing you haven't touched your screenplay in months, stop it. Quit what you're doing and get to work.

I think the biggest threat to most screenwriters is our own self-doubt. We all have it. You get on this high when things are good. The pages flow, the ideas seem perfect, we're already planning the Oscar speech. But then one person reads our latest work and hates it, and we are riddled with fatalism.

Or maybe you never get that far. Maybe you're so convinced that your writing sucks that you can't finish anything.

It's normal. It's also some shit you have to get over if you want to write a great script.

EVERYBODY sucks. They know they suck. Even the best writers, the people you admire and respect and want to be like some day, the people you think are natural geniuses - they are absolutely certain that they suck. But they do the work anyway.

I suck. But I figure I'll keep writing anyway because I don't know what else to do. When I get notes that tell me I have to start over from scratch because nothing works, I have a routine that keeps me working. I pitch a fit for ten minutes. I rant and rave and shout and slam shit around and kick and pout. And after I get that out of my system, I get back to work.

For me, it comes down to faith. No matter how daunting the work feels in the beginning, or after you get a particularly prickly set of notes, the solution is almost never as difficult as it sounds like it will be in that moment. So I tell myself this sucks and I'm mad and I don't wanna and boohoo, and then I remind myself that I can do this. I know I can do this. I don't know how yet, but I know I'll figure it out.

Once I've decided I'm done feeling sorry for myself, I work on figuring out the solution to my problem. Solving puzzles is way more fun than moping around feeling like suckitude. When you have a big story problem, the best solution is to go after the stuff you thought was absolute. Those scenes I just KNEW had to be in the script? What if I scrap them completely? What else could I put there? Often, the answer appears as soon as I let go of certainty.

But the main thing is, believe that the answer will present itself. Believe that you can do this. And if your script isn't working - if somehow you just feel wrong - go back to start. What's not working, and how can you make it work? Because you can. You have to know you can. If you doubt that, you'll never finish the script.

So I'll ask again, what are you writing right now? Give me an answer.


  1. I'm putting the finishing touches on my entry for the Writer's Store contest (which sucks) and working on the 1st draft of a limited location thriller (pretty awful). Also been meaning to rewrite my western biopic -- which is such a steaming pile of shit that I don't even want to look at it.

  2. Since you ask, I'm just finishing an adaptation of a non-fiction book about a 20 year old 5' 1" female zoology student who worked in the jungle of Belize to help establish a nature preserve to save the jaguars which were being hunted out. To raise money and awareness for the cause, she competed in an insane cycling race through the jungle . No woman had ever finished the race, though many had come from around the world to try. She came in last, but 35 men quit when she passed them. Since then they shortened the race for women, so she is still the only woman to have finished the full course. I hope I'm doing the story justice.

  3. Anonymous1:38 PM

    Working on my first screenplay (eek) I'm on page 12. I haven't touched it in two days. I need to get back to it. So thanks for the kick in the ass.

  4. Seriously...your post just pulled me out of a rut. At the moment I've got some producers trying to package a script of mine with name talent (the kind that gets a film green lit). Suffice to say I've never, EVER been in this position before and I'm overwhelmed. In fact, I've been psychologically unable to work on other projects.

    This post just snapped me out of it, though.

    Thanks for reminding me that writers need to write.

  5. Anonymous10:22 PM

    I'm also a fan of giving myself a limited time to throw an epic tantrum. I usually take a day if I need one at all, mostly so I can fit in a nap and a very large meal.

    Currently awaiting another round of notes on GORTIMER GIBBON'S LIFE ON NORMAL STREET from Amazon. I'm hearing things need to be done and polished by mid-May which will be a relief.

    I'm working on a new TV pilot - a 1-hour drama this time, and it's so much fun it's hard not to talk about. But I must...not...crack...

    I suspended my Choose Your Own Adventure Novel in the outline stage to work on another pilot, so I'll probably get back to that soon.

  6. Anonymous12:08 AM

    thanks! glad I stumbled upon this. - Juliana

  7. Great piece Emily.

    I am rewriting a script for the late, late, late Nicholl deadline. I have recently discovered the meaning of "Writing is rewriting".

    I am also working on my indie sci-fi in the ballpark of "Safety Not Guaranteed" and "Primer".

    Good luck, have fun and keep fucking writing!

  8. SciFi detective novel :)

  9. Just out of curiosity --

    "When I get notes that tell me I have to start over from scratch because nothing works"

    How often are you getting notes to start over and that nothing works?

    I'd look at the people giving you notes tbh. And possibly find new people. People who laugh at the same jokes, beg you to go see similar movies, discuss similar books.

    I find that more often than not the initial scene that sparked you (the writer's interest) to write in the first place, is generally pretty good. I can also find the good in a lot of bad--if the people giving you notes can't...Dunno what to say.

    Here's the thing.

    Most people give terrible notes. Especially on what will and won't work. You have to realize that what most people are actually saying when they give notes is:

    "Here's how I would have done it."

    Or WORSE

    "Spielberg is looking for X. Put more X in your script."

    Tangent -- ever wonder why REAL STEEL was made? Or how it was made?

    What does the title even mean?

    In the original story, it was about a pair of guys trying to win a title fight for their POS robot. When it finally breaks down, one of the guys takes the place of the robot IN THE RING -- hence the title REAL STEEL. (Emphasis on the real).

    So why make a movie that's only similarity is boxing robots and fork over a royalty to Richard Matheson?

    Did you see who produced it? Steven Spielberg.

    Care to take a guess who the author of the short story DUEL was based on was? Yup, Richard Matheson.

    So what do you think looks better to Spielberg? A movie about boxing robots? Or a movie about boxing robots (not really) based on a Richard Matheson short story?

    None of that is in your control as a writer. But it is a concern agents, managers, and producers will constantly pester you with.

    You need to question who is giving these notes in the first place. And WHY?

    It's rarely to improve the story. It's likely the notes are just to attempt to make it an easier sell (often to the detriment of the story).

    And really when you get down to it, who cares how they would have done it? It ain't their script.

    "But then one person reads our latest work and hates it, and we are riddled with fatalism."

    1) Don't give your script to one person.
    2) Don't ever give another one of your scripts to that person ever again.

    There comes a time when notes and other people's opinions don't matter.

    Sadly, you're trying to break into an industry where everybody is concerned about what everyone else thinks. For writers, it shouldn't matter. Just write the best damn story you can and move on to the next one.

    Bleh, long post. Didn't mean to.

    I like the attitude here.

    Keep writing. Best advice I've ever been given (also the most infuriating).

  10. So glad to hear about all this work being done!

    Robert, it's only awful until you figure out how to make it not awful, and you will. I know how hard you work.

    Bruce, that sounds like a badass story. I would totally see that movie.

    Good luck, Beth. The first one is always a huge challenge, but once you've done it once, it gets easier.

    I'm glad I could help, Sean. I think we've all been some form of there, and it's tough to climb out. So good luck.

    David, I can't wait to see your stuff on Amazon. It sounds like you're a big part of their slate now.

    Jim, good luck. Indie stuff always does well in the Nicholl, so hopefully you'll get far.

    Juliana, Lisa: :)

    And James, I can't really talk about my notes process right now, but the notes are not the problem for me these days. I'm lucky to have a small circle of people I trust. That said, your post is excellent advice for many.

  11. I'm finishing up a Big Bang Theory spec (a necessary evil for the aspiring tv writer), working on an idea for a Happy Endings spec and also working on a pilot idea for a half hour single camera sitcom. I have some other ideas percolating upstairs as well that I write notes on when it pops up. I want to have as much as I can so when someone asks "what else do you have?", I can have it. Does that make sense to you?

    When I'm blocked or need to switch gears, I am also slowly plotting out a scifi time travel feature idea.

  12. Inspiring post.

    Just finished the first draft of a script and debating whether to rewrite another or start a new one.

  13. I'm re-writing the charter school thriller. 2nd draft, my mean Asian coach is making me...on the other hand, I do PAY him to be mean, so who is the idiot here?
    Dying to get onto the new historical project, but he thinks this one will sell if I can get it right, so here I go.

  14. Anonymous10:33 AM

    I'm outlining and prosing and prancing around like a f'ing drag queen to get my shit straight for this character-driven piece I've been chewing on for a while. I had my tantrum over fear of sucking (on zee blog) and got over it and now I'm writing. I'M WRITING! And it feels all ooky and good.


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