Screenwriting on a Schedule: A Wake-Up Call for More Efficient Writing

Screenwriting on a Schedule: A Wake-Up Call for More Efficient Writing

Screenwriting

Have you ever wondered if the characters in your unfinished screenplay will finally get so tired of waiting for you to wrap up their story that they just write the rest of it themselves?

Real life, alas, has a pesky way of encroaching on the time you need for your “reel” life. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying, “But there aren’t enough hours,” consider this article your wake-up call. You actually have all the hours you need to keep your screenwriting on a schedule; you simply need to allocate them more efficiently.

By the Numbers

If the boss at your day job gives you a task, there’s probably a due date attached to it. In contrast, writing is a solitary craft that often embraces a “get-to-it-when-I-get-to-it” mindset. Unless there’s a specific deadline looming, it’s too easy to let a project languish by falling back on the excuse that your muse just isn’t cooperating. Well, it’s time to readjust that attitude, put on a “boss” hat, and become more accountable for product delivery.

Let’s say you’re writing a 100-page script and you’re set on a 4-week deadline. (I hate word/math problems as much as the next person, but it actually works for this example.) At a glance, you can see that in order to meet this goal you need to produce 25 pages a week (5 pages per day if you take weekends off). It’s really not that much, but where most writers err is in editing as they go. Do not do this. Just write. Edit when you’re finished. If you edit as you compose, you’re going to spend way too much time agonizing over the perfect first line and never get to the second one.

Another approach is to commit to writing one page a day for 3-1/2 months. Even if you have a wild spurt of creativity and write 10 pages in a single afternoon, it doesn’t let you off the hook for the next 10 days; it just means you’re that much farther ahead. We’ll still expect the mandatory one page from you tomorrow. Psychologists say it takes 21 days to incorporate a new habit into your behavior. If you steadfastly apply this to a daily writing schedule, you couldn’t not write on Day 22.

The Cliffhangers

Back when I was penning romantic suspense novels for HarperCollins, I worked with several women who were voracious readers. Rather than join a local critique group of writers, I found it more valuable to give test-drives of my material to people who actually represented my target demographic. Every Friday afternoon, I’d distribute copies of my latest chapters. Since it was my style to end each one with a cliffhanger, they’d usually accost me first thing Monday morning and demand to know what happened next. I dared not show up empty-handed.

Whether you recruit your own readers or work with writing partner(s), engaging others in your writing process is a powerful motivator to impose stick-to-itiveness. If you don’t have access to supporters to push and prod you along, the next best thing is to never end your writing day at a point where it’s too hard to restart. Finishing a scene, for instance, makes you feel less inclined to begin a new one than if you end in the middle of a line: “Oh, Jeffrey, I know it’s bad timing but there’s a—” There’s a what???? Yes, you know what “it” is and it’ll drive you crazy to have to wait a day to type it. Use that “crazy” to energize yourself. Treat your writing sessions like a timed test; when the buzzer goes off, take your hands off the keyboard. Expand your mental margins by registering at oneword.com, a fun site that gives you 60 seconds to submit the first thing that pops into your head.

The Competitive Edge

Contest deadlines wait for no one. Some of them, in fact, even offer early-bird discounts. In an uncertain economy, who wouldn’t want to save some money? Contests not only push you to meet/beat a deadline – and sometimes even receive feedback—but placement in the most prestigious ones’ top tier can also open doors to production. In addition to the plethora of contest listings at moviebytes.com, check out BlueCat Screenwriting, PAGE International, NaNoWriMo (for novels), NaScWriMo (for screenplays), Writer’s Digest (with categories for film and TV), and fellowship opportunities such as Nicholl, Walt Disney/ABC, American Zoetrope and Nickelodeon.

Finding the 25th Hour

Could your writing schedule use an extra hour? Of course it could, but to paraphrase Captain Jack Sparrow, “The Isla de More Time cannot be found except by those who already know where it is.” If you want to keep to a code of high productivity, it starts with aggressive decluttering. For a single day, record exactly how much time you spend checking email, surfing the Internet, reading TMZ gossip, looking for lost notes, playing computer games. Yikes! Who’d have imagined how it all adds up!

  • If you live with others, how often do they interrupt and derail your train of thought? Writing is your job. Insist on respect.
  • Learn keyboard shortcuts to save typing time.
  • Consolidate or delegate your errand-running.
  • Identify your most productive writing zone and consistently stick to it.
  • Remove distractions from your workspace.
  • Get up earlier; go to bed later.
  • Read Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write, and Pilar Alessandra’s The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time.
  • Invest in electronic programs such as NewNovelist, StoryCraft, Writer’s Café and Writer’s Blocks as well as voice recognition software.
  • Use rewards—a spa day, chocolate, new shoes—to stay motivated. (Didn’t you always do your homework faster when you knew you could go play afterwards?)

Inspired? Great! Now go get back to your characters. They’ve missed you. MM

Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is an award-winning author, professional ghostwriter and script consultant whose credits to date include 30 books, 149 stage plays, five optioned feature films, and squillions of articles and interviews. Learn more at www.authorhamlett.com.

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