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How to Attack Your Screenwriting Goals This Weekend

33 ways to be a better screenwriter.

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting

Sometimes it feels like everything related to screenwriting takes a really long time. (Is it just me?) Writing a screenplay doesn’t happen overnight. Writing a good screenplay definitely doesn’t. Not to mention making inroads to the industry, getting your first paid gig, building a career…

Screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint. #truth

In this game, progress can feel slow, and recognition for your effort can feel too few and far between. It’s the nature of the beast. But that means it’s all too easy to get discouraged along the way, when really — you shouldn’t.

The most important thing to do to achieve your goals, is to keep going.

Proof: I had brunch with a writer friend last weekend and he filled me in on what’s been happening the past few months. A new manager, several projects in development, opportunities to pitch real companies with money to buy and make things.

This is all new since I last saw him just a few short months ago. (I’m sure none of it feels like quick wins or overnight success to him, of course.)

I was thrilled for my friend, and also inspired. This friend is someone I’ve watched pursue his dreams with diligence, humility, and a positive attitude. (Qualities that not everyone understands the benefits of.) And it’s paying off.

So if you’re feeling like, “Jeez, when is it ever going to happen for me???”

Take heart: it does happen. People build screenwriting careers. It’s not an impossible dream.

Don’t give up. Keep working on your material and remember to take time to reconnect with what you love about this work that we do.


Now. If you’re working on your screenwriting while you work a day job, weekends may be your only real opportunity to move the needle on your writing projects, your goals, and your career overall.

And it’s easy to get overwhelmed with everything you want to accomplish, to give in to the decision fatigue, and instead watch Netflix all weekend and call it “research.”

But you know it’s going to take more than that to get where you want to go.

So I wanted to make it easy for you.

HOW TO ATTACK YOUR SCREENWRITING GOALS

Divided up by different stages of the writing process, I’ve put together some action-oriented tasks you can tackle that will move you closer to your goals this weekend.

Pick one, decide when you’re going to tackle it, and commit to taking action.

Honestly, I love weekends – when I don’t have to think about anything else BUT my own screenwriting projects. It feels almost like a Date Night with my writing. I get to set aside some time just for us, and fall back in love with my project, the craft, or my goals. Try it; it’s not as weird as it sounds (I hope).

Get inspired. Get motivated. Make it happen.


33 screenwriting next steps

1. If you’re between screenplays you could…

Generate ideas for your next project:

+ Give yourself an hour or two of uninterrupted time, and get in the brainstorming mindset. All ideas are welcome. No distractions allowed. No pressure, but try to stay focused on the task. Use these three games as a starting point.

+ Take yourself to a good bookstore. Peruse classic literature for timeless stories, the magazine section for what’s current, genre sections for “hook” inspiration, and nonfiction for interesting subject areas.

+ Get physical. For me, a good bike ride is some of the most productive thinking time I can get. Stanford researchers found that “creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter.” So carve out some time to get moving!

Reconnect with your passion (That’s about as woo-woo as I get, I promise):
Writing can be a lonely, long slog and it’s easy to lose your enthusiasm for the pursuit. Being surrounded by likeminded people can help keep you motivated, but what if you don’t have a writing community in your area? What else can you do to rekindle that spark?

+ Remind yourself what you love. This one’s easy: watch your favorite movie! You know — the one that makes you want to make movies.

+ Imagine your future. Listen to people who are doing what you want to do, via DVD commentaries (here’s a list), or podcast interviews.

Don’t know where to start with podcasts? Some of my favorites are: any episode of Scriptnotes, Brian Koppelman’s interviews with Mike Birbiglia and Scott Frank, Pilar Alessandra’s interview with Terry Rossio, and Jeff Goldsmith’s Q&A with Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair, filmmakers of Blue Ruin. There’s also the Nerdist Writers Panel, which has an amazing archive to dig into.

+ Or create your own virtual community of likeminded people. Get inspired by others just like you, who are doing and making and creating every day. Listen to these podcasts, and you’ll feel like you’re in good company: Draft Zero, Let’s Write a Movie, Chicks Who Script, or Off Screen.

+ Immerse yourself in the industry. Okay, so maybe this is easier for my L.A. friends, but there are increasingly more events happening for screenwriters all over the country (and the world). If you’re here in Los Angeles, the Black List or Sundance live screenplay readings are particularly fun. (And if you’re not here, you can still listen to the Black List Table Reads podcast.)

Master the craft:
If you want to break in and build a career, your scripts have to be undeniable. But you knew that. Personally, I don’t find that daunting. Nope. Challenge accepted! I’m all for putting in the work. But I also hate wasted effort. Which brings me to…

+ Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. It’s not a screenwriting book. Instead it looks at the bigger picture of how people can become experts — in anything, even screenwriting.

So of course I adapted his framework into my own “Peak Plan” to make sure I was engaging in activities that would actually help me improve my level of screenwriting expertise. Sound nerdy but interesting? Download my Peak Plan Workbook and create your own customized action plan.

+ I know I said bingeing Netflix isn’t the most productive use of your precious screenwriting time, but if you do it in a deliberate, focused way I believe watching movies is, of course, a great education.

But you do have to make the effort to make it more than passive entertainment. Use your analytical skills. Go deep. Think about what you’re seeing. Ask yourself if it’s working for you, and why. Ask yourself how it could be fixed. Or what other directions that could have been taken.

A good way to take this further is to watch a movie and compare it to the screenplay. Each month I change out the scripts in the library based on the movies that are available on streaming. Now you really have no excuse.

+ Stretch other screenwriting muscles by breaking down a script you haven’t seen the movie of.

Try winners of the Nicholl Fellowship or scripts that make the annual Black List, so you can gauge where the bar is set, and so that you can have the experience of reading screenplays without any bias from the finished movie, casting, marketing, etc.

2. If you’re developing an idea and breaking story…

For me, this is the phase where the procrastination monster rears his ugly head. But one strategy I use for tricking myself into pushing forward is to come up with one clear, manageable next step. One doable task that will beat the inertia and create some momentum. Even if you don’t share my problem, here are some next steps you can take to work out your story:

+ Vet your concept — does it have a hook that entices?

+ Refine your logline with the Work Your Logline Worksheet.

+ Test your logline on an audience. Try The Inside Pitch Facebook group, or you can email me for quick feedback.

+ Listen to other people workshop their ideas, and evaluate yours along the way. The Inside Pitch podcast is great for this. Though it’s discontinued now, the archive is still an invaluable resource.

+ Figure out what type of story you’re telling, and what the general shape of the narrative will be, via Blake Snyder’s ten “genres”.

+ Study other movies in your genre. Again, this is to be approached with the right mindset. You’re analyzing and studying, not just passively being entertained.

+ Use the BS2 to brainstorm possibilities. It’s not that you have to adhere to anyone’s structure paradigm — not at all; you do what works for your story. But I do think the BS2 framework makes brainstorming the kinds of things that COULD happen in different sections of your story really easy.

+ Develop the WHAT and WHY of your story’s stakes to make sure it will engage your readers emotionally.

+ Learn how Pixar sets up their stories, then see if the same structure works for yours, with this video of Michael Arndt explaining elements of the first act.

+ Use this (old but still good) Scriptshadow article as a way to brainstorm the kinds of things you want to achieve in your second act.

+ Figure out how you’ll show a character’s transformation.

+ Use my favorite tool for outlining: Workflowy. (John August uses it too.) Nesting lists make Workflowy an incredibly versatile organizing tool. It allows you to easily drag and re-order list items, making it as flexible as your old notecarding system. Plus you can tag and sort list entries, making it simple to see with one click all the scenes in a romantic subplot, or involving a particular character, for example. (If you’re interested in a quick tutorial, let me know — I’ll record a screenshare and show you exactly how I use it to outline and organize my projects.)

3. If you’re writing pages…

Here’s the fun part, right? Putting your words on the page. Making your vision come to life.

But what if it’s not feeling very fun? You might need to reframe the task at hand. Remember the goal of this draft. And know that writing is rewriting; whatever you put on the page now can and will be improved later. So give yourself permission to write with reckless abandon. All you need to do is get through this draft. Here are some tools to help:

+ John August’s advice on how to plan a scene.

+ There’s a quick hack for differentiating characters in this article.

+ Get serious focus by working in sprints with the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer for 20 minutes, and focus only on completing one small goal during that time, like writing a particular scene, writing a set number of pages, or researching a location (the details of which you’ll use in your next sprint, when you write it into your script). When the 20 minutes are up, take a five minute break, then reset the timer and do it again.

* And if you’re still struggling with getting pages written, or hitting your screenwriting goals of any kind, just hang in there. I have something new coming your way very soon to help you with that.

4. If you’re ready to submit your screenplay…

Okay, the script is done. You know it’s a shining example of your writing that no one in their right mind could turn down. But…

Are you sure?

+ Why not put on your Reader Hat and look at your screenplay one more time. Here’s a cheat sheet of the kinds of questions readers must pay attention to in their evaluations. How does your screenplay stack up? Is it truly irresistible?

+ Having trouble assessing your own work? That’s okay — it’s a really hard thing to do. Why not get feedback from someone else: a screenwriter friend, teacher, or mentor. (I also read for a living, you know; email me if you want me to read your script.)

While you’re waiting…

+ Work on nurturing your industry relationships. Reach out to existing contacts for a friendly check in, congratulate them on any recent success.

+ Create new inroads. Get strategic about your networking. This episode of the On The Page podcast has some good advice on the topic.

Good news: everyone loved it! Your screenplay is ready to submit!

+ If you’re going to try cold querying, get that query letter ready. Here are some tips from Screencraft.

+ Research who to query. You can start with this list, courtesy of Erik Bork.

+ Remember those relationships you nurtured? Consider which of them you might be able to ask to read your screenplay.

However, I strongly encourage you to make absolutely sure your material is really, really ready before you give it to an industry contact whom you hope will help you out. Because handing over a script that’s not ready — and appearing that you don’t know the difference — makes you look kinda amateur, and might make that contact less likely to read your stuff in the future.


Not to be a jerk about it, but I don’t think there’s any way there isn’t something on this list you can do this weekend. That was my whole mission for today: make it as easy as possible for you to take one more step toward your screenwriting goal.

Did I succeed? I hope so.

I’m really looking forward to some quality alone time with my screenwriting. I hope you enjoy the next few days, too.

 

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ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Writing a screenplay? Pitching a project? Start with the Work Your Logline worksheet. Enter your email address below and get it delivered straight to your inbox!

100% privacy guaranteed.