As we look ahead to this new year, now's a good time to ask, what are your screenwriting goals? What are you going to do differently? What did you learn from the past year? Here are seven New Year's resolutions for aspiring screenwriters:
1. Don't Write More, Write Smarter
A common New Year's resolution for writers is to write more, as far as finding more time to write. The problem is that this is often an unattainable goal due to the regular life schedule that returns in January after the long holiday season. Full-time jobs. Full-time school. Full-time parenting. It's a reality that can't be escaped, which is why this New Year's resolution often fails before it even has a chance.
So the key is to not write more. It's to write smarter. When you do have the time to sit down and write, you need to utilize that time in a more productive manner. You need to have better preparation. This notion of just writing more frequently doesn't matter if you're not writing quality work. And to write quality work, you need to be ready when you do get that time.
The trick is to see the film through your mind's eye as clearly as possible before you type one single word. Writing on the fly might lead to some unexpected treasures, but a majority of the time, it goes nowhere. Know what you plan on writing in any given writing session. Before you take advantage of those precious moments of writing, think about what you're going to write. Daydream. Pick a scene or sequence of scenes and visualize it over and over and over as you drive to work, cook dinner, head to school, fold laundry, workout, etc. Then by the time you sit down to actually write with your pen to paper or fingers to keys, you're actually writing some quality work that you've technically already written in your head dozens or hundreds or thousands of times already.
How many eight hour sessions of "writing" actually equate to eight hours worth of written material? If you're not kidding yourself, it's more like six hours of staring at the screen, reading books, people-watching in the coffee shop, listening to music, "breaking" for lunch, etc. And then there's maybe an hour of rewriting, reading your previous pages, and editing. But then, there's that magical hour (give or take) where everything falls into place and the inspiration finally comes to.
When you properly prepare yourself for that writing session, you can make every single minute and hour count — and then you won't be asking yourself the impossible as far as adding more time in your schedule that you probably don't have.
Don't write more. Write smarter.
2. Write Faster
Let's just be real here. It shouldn't take a year to finish a script. In fact, it shouldn't even take six months. While it's okay to take some time to learn while you're writing your first script, the truth is that if you can't finish a script within 2-4 months, you're not cut out for the business.
The general assignment contract in Hollywood allows a hired writer 10 weeks to finish the first draft of a script. If they're not replaced after that draft is handed in, they get an additional couple of weeks (give or take) for the next draft and then a couple more for the eventual polished draft. While contracts may differ, this is the general breakdown that screenwriters should be expecting.
So this year, start to train yourself to be able to finish the first draft of that next script in just 10 weeks. Different writers will have different schedules and different processes, however, whatever is utilized needs to fall in line with the expectations of the powers that be. So writers need to adapt. Whatever it takes, get that first draft done in 10 weeks. Plain and simple. Then step away for a week or so, come back to it, and start your second draft for a couple of weeks. After that, it's a polished draft and you should be done.
Sure, since you're not under contract (yet), you have some breathing room, so this could allow for anywhere between 2-4 months for a final draft, but the major point is that you want to train yourself to be able to write and write fast. And as long as you're doing well with Resolution #1 (write smarter), it's honestly not that difficult to finish that script fast and have a solid page-turner that every studio reader and powers that be are hoping for. And this will also allow you to...
3. Stack Your Deck
Maybe you finished that first screenplay last year. Congratulations. Or maybe it's your second and you're excited about it. In either case, your first instinct is to want to get it out there and make that dream come true. So you think that your New Year's resolution should be to market it and get it sold.
Stop. Breathe. Step back. That's often the first major mistake that most screenwriters make — jumping into the mix too soon.
You need to stack your deck. You need to have a solid 3-5 quality spec scripts before you take anything out. The truth is, your first script, no matter how much potential it has, will be your worst. Guaranteed. You need to hone your skills, make those mistakes, learn from them, and apply them to the next script. But stacking your deck even goes beyond that.
Let's say the stars align and you've been lucky enough to see your first script get you some meetings. The first question the powers that be will ask you after you've small talked about you and that script is, "What else do you have?" If you don't have a selection of solid options, the meeting is likely over. The script got you in but what they want to see is that you're a seasoned writer with some additional proven material. Otherwise, you're either a one-hit wonder in their eyes or just aren't as experienced as the other writer they're meeting with that does have a stack of solid scripts.
So this year, since you've hopefully embraced Resolutions #1 and #2, work on getting at least 3-5 scripts done. You can still enter some contests and test the Hollywood waters along the way, but before you go on a huge marketing push, be smart and take the year to really build a stack of scripts that the powers that be will really want or need to consider.
We know, it sounds like a long time. But how fast did last year go? And imagine what you could have accomplished this year had you stacked your deck already last year. Do your future self a favor.
4. Cut 10 Pages From Every Script You Have
If you have a script that's 120 pages, cut it down to 110. If you have 110 pages, cut it down to 100 — and certainly, if you have 130-140 pages, get it down to at least 120 pages and then try to cut some more.
The immediate novice screenwriter's defense to this is, "Well, it shouldn't matter what the page count is as long as the story, concept, and characters are great."
It does matter. It does. Most screenplays that go into the market from unknown screenwriters are drastically overwritten. What most screenwriters can't comprehend is that their main goal should be to offer a script that is an excellent read for the powers that be. The main goal is to have their script read like a movie is playing in the mind's eye of whoever is reading it, with no interruptions (long scene descriptions, too much dialogue, unnecessary scenes, etc.).
Revisit each and every one of your scripts and try to cut out 10 pages. Do whatever it takes but have that be your goal and don't quit until you've accomplished it. This will force you to consider each and every line of your script. It will force you to consider each and every scene, line of dialogue, line of scene description, etc. Embrace the Less is More Mantra and make your script a streamlined dream for any script reader out there.
5. Don't Market More, Market Smarter
Like writing more, a common New Year's resolution for screenwriters is to market more. They'll come up with a list of big-name production companies, agencies, management companies, and talent and they will then bombard them with a blanket marketing push of query emails.
It's a waste of time.
You need to market smarter. Answer these following questions by studying the trades (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, The Tracking Board, etc.) and utilizing IMDBPro.
Who is making movies like your script?
Who is representing the writers that are writing those movies?
Who do you have personal connections with, no matter how many times removed (friends of friends, alumni of your schools, those who share the same home city or state, etc.)?
Sending an endless barrage of blind queries to names you recognize won't get you anywhere. You need to be very smart as to who you approach and you need to learn who the many, many players are beyond those you recognize, because there are so many managers, producers, and development executives that are making film after film after film, and many of them are those whose names you don't recognize.
So pay attention to the trades. Pay attention to the movers and the shakers. Do your research through IMDBPro. And then finally, create a smart plan of approach and write some smart and streamlined query emails to connect with them.
6. Change Your Perspective on Rejection
Writers are a funny bunch. They can be both overly confident and highly lacking in the self-esteem department. Screenwriters take it to a different level. With the constant rejection in Hollywood, it's easy to become disgruntled and disillusioned. Screenwriters often have a problem with feedback, becoming overly defensive of their work when a peer or mentor attempts to point out what they felt was lacking in the script. Then when that initial reaction has been acted out, they melt into a soft pile of self-consciousness and despair, thinking that they're no good.
When they finally pick themselves up and start entering contests and marketing their scripts to the powers that be, they're met with constant rejection, or worse yet, utter silence, which is even worse than a no. Then they start to glare back at Hollywood in anger and frustration. They spew words in forums and social media about how "Hollywood doesn't want anything original" and that "Screenwriters should just go make their own films" (easier said than done).
As we said in Screenwriting Wisdom from a Galaxy Far, Far Away, those types of thoughts and reactions only lead to the dark side.
Instead, as the New Year goes on, try to understand that rejection is just part of the game. Every movie star, acclaimed director, and esteemed screenwriter has received more rejection then they've ever received acceptance. Screenwriters read the reports of "overnight successes" and don't understand that there is no such thing. Every "overnight success" story was likely a decade or more in the making, with few exceptions.
Change your perspective on rejection. Use it. Figure out why so many of your peers or mentors are saying X thing about your script. Figure out why you've sent out query letters only to "hear" nothing but silence in return. Use rejection to fuel your fire within and if all goes well, in the end, when you're up at the podium accepting a screenwriting award, be sure not to just thank the people that helped you along the way — thank those hundreds that said "no" because it pissed you off enough to want it even more.
Rejection is not special to you and your situation. Everyone goes through it. It's a rite of passage and perhaps a cosmic way to filter out those that don't want it enough. So why let it ruin your day, week, month, or year? Use it. Bask in it. Prove it wrong.
7. Stop Relying On Others
It's good to feed your brain. It really is. Whether it's from gurus, pundits, story seminars, writing groups, screenwriting books, podcasts, and yes, even blogs. In the end, you have to rely on you. There are no secret formulas or easy pathways to success — there are only general guidelines, expectations, and practices that can perhaps better your odds. It's time you stop looking to others and spend that valuable time on developing your own process and writing those scripts that you need to stack your deck.
And yes, this also means that you need to stop relying on the input of others as well, whether it be from friends, writing groups, or services. By all means, it's required to get some solid feedback. But in the end, you have to just consider it, take what you can from it, and then decide for yourself because the only person that can make this happen is you. When you do strike gold and get that coveted assignment, you can't bring anyone with you. The powers that be will be hiring you — not you and your friends, writing group, and consultants you've hired. And legally speaking, you can't take what you write on assignment and have others even look at it anyway.
If you want to be a writer, you need to take ownership and make your own path. Mentors and feedback can only take you so far. In the end, you need to stop relying on others, take what you've learned, leave behind what you've discarded, and venture forward.
These are just a few of the things you can change this year to better yourself and the writer within you. As with any New Year's resolution, the degree of difficulty and the statistics of success lie square on your shoulders. It's up to you to make a change. Nobody else but you.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies