Pep Talks for Screenwriters: The First Mile


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

One of my pandemic activities (pandemictivities?) was learning to run 5k.

(This is something a little different than our usual screenwriting memos, but I promise it will come back around to screenwriting and I hope it’s just the right idea at just the right moment for someone.)

“Learning to run” sounds kind of weird, but that’s really what it amounted to since I was starting from zero.

I used an app called Couch to 5k and in the span of a couple of months I went from dedicated non-runner to being able to run three miles at will. To people who are used to running, three miles is nothing. To me, it was huge. I had trained myself to do something that I previously thought impossible.

Why did I think it was impossible? I’m not sure. It’s not like it required a big physical change. (I still weigh and look the same as pre-5k.)

If I had to guess, I think I believed it was impossible mainly because I hadn’t done it yet. And I admit – that makes no sense and is a completely unhelpful way to think.

But setting that aside, learning that I could do it was key. And the only way to learn that lesson was to go through the process – step by step – until I was doing it. (Once you’ve done something, you can’t realistically tell yourself it’s impossible.)

So, as I mentioned, there weren’t any big physical changes required or resulting from this new hobby. But there have been plenty of mental changes and – I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this – I think these lessons or mindset shifts or whatever you want to call them are as applicable to screenwriting as they are to running. Today I want to share a couple of those with you.

Lesson 1: You don’t have to believe it’s possible, but you do have to commit to the process.

As you know, believing it was a thing I could do was a big change. Pre-5k I thought running three miles was impossible. But the Couch to 5k app said otherwise, so I gave it a shot because I knew it was something I wanted to be able to do.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I don’t think I truly believed I could run three miles in a row until I had done it. Checked it off the list. Realized, “Oh, that’s a thing I’ve done.”

And what made it possible to accomplish this goal was having a manageable process laid out for me. I could have faith in the plan, which means I didn’t have to have faith in my abilities. Maybe that sounds bad, but man – it took the pressure off.

I didn’t have to believe I could do the impossible, I just had to commit to doing the plan. And on any given day that was only a commitment to do the very next step. Which, again, made tackling the goal manageable.

(Not for nothing, I like to think this is what the Idea to Outline course does for screenwriters.)

Lesson 2: The first mile feels the worst, but it’s only one mile.

(This may be different for people who run longer distances – I’ll let you know if I get there.)

Now that I run three miles regularly a few times a week, the idea of it doesn’t seem at all daunting. However, there are days when I start the run and it just feels harder than I thought it was going to. My knees feel achy. I’m not dressed well for the weather. The podcast I’m playing is boring.

Some days, if I’m being honest, I kind of feel like going home and trying again another day.

But – and this was a big lightbulb moment – if I just keep going, one foot in front of the other… within the first mile it’s not so hard anymore. My body has warmed up, or I’ve gotten used to the weather, or my mind has settled on something to think about, or all of the above. Whatever it is that was making it feel hard has sort of worked itself out.

And what I realized is that this can be very similar to sitting down to write. Some days, it’s not a big deal. The ideas and words come without too much difficulty. You get it done and it doesn’t feel like a struggle.

Other days, it feels hard. You stare at the blank page. The words don’t flow. Your knees hurt. And it can feel like the better option is to pack it up and go home, try again another day.

But! If you can put one foot in front of the other and get through that first mile, you will hit your stride. (Wait, is that where the saying comes from??) This can look like hacking your way through a scene or two before you start to get into a rhythm. Or maybe choosing a (small!) section to edit in order to warm up before moving on to new pages. Or maybe even just choosing something to brainstorm around for 10 or 15 minutes, to get those brain muscles moving.

Whatever you choose, I think the trick is to do something writing-ish in the direction you want to be going until the kinks work themselves out. Usually, by the time I’ve run my three miles I feel like I could keep going – no matter how hard that first mile was. And I think that’s true of writing too. If you stick with it and get through the rough first mile, you’ll find you can do plenty more.

(Also, why stop when you’re feeling bad about writing or yourself? That’s only going to make it harder to come back to. Why not try stopping while you’re feeling good about what you’ve accomplished?)

Lesson 3: How you feel about your output isn’t as related to the quality of your output as you think.

Some days, as I may have mentioned, the run feels harder. (I swear, I actually do like my running habit even if it doesn’t sound like it.) I’m sure I’m going slower than usual, or that I’m not going to be able to finish at all.

But every time this has happened, I’ve been surprised to learn that my experience of the run didn’t reflect the run itself. One time I felt like I was dragging the entire three miles, only to realize when I finished that I’d had my fastest time ever.

Wow, does this relate to screenwriting. It is very, very difficult to gauge your own writing, especially when you’re still in the middle of it. Sometimes it feels like what you’re slinging onto the page is pure gold, baby. Other times it feels like you can’t string a coherent sentence together.

And you know what? Probably neither of those interpretations is 100% accurate. That pure gold is always going to need rewriting and editing. That stuff that feels like dreck is either better than you think, or at least contains the seeds you can use to move forward to a stronger version.

So the real lesson here is simply to keep going. If there’s no way to know whether what you’re writing is great or terrible, you should probably just write it and worry about that later. I mean, play the odds. At least if you write it, you have a shot at it being good. And – what’s more – you have something to work with and make better.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.