Friday, November 15, 2013

The successful script writer's secret weapon

So now it's the middle of November.  All last summer you mulled over this promising new idea for a play or screenplay and since the week after Labor Day you've been working on turning that idea into an actual draft.

How you doing?  Got that draft in hand?  Are you excited by the progress you've made?  As Woody Allen has been known to say, "the hardest thing about writing is getting from nothing to a first draft" and I can't think of a writer I know who would disagree with that statement.  But it's the getting there that often proves the killer.  After all the preliminary story structure and exploratory character work is done, it's the sitting down and actually writing the damn thing that so often remains elusive and can seem forever out of reach.

In the end, the secret to arriving at that completed draft is simple.  It's called discipline.

This sometimes scary concept comes naturally to some and is a constant struggle for others.  But it's worth stating the obvious:  one way or another all successful playwrights and screenwriters have found a way to sit themselves down on a regular basis and turn out pages day after day, week after week, and year after year.

It may be painful, even agonizing, to order your body into your writing room and force your mind and fingers to crank up yet again, but this is the only way scripts get written.  You've got to produce actual pages.  Lots of them.  One at a time.  Steadily.  Stubbornly.  With determination.  Sometimes with gritted teeth.  Sometimes with great pleasure.  Page after page after after day after day....  There's no other way.

This takes a serious commitment to the task at hand--setting up a regular, consistent work schedule and sticking to it; writing every day of the work week if possible, even if you can only snatch an hour or two per session.  You already know what your limits are per day.  I can go about four hours tops.  Usually after three I start to fade.  Some writers I know can go for six or more.  Some even eight or ten.  I don't know how they do it, but more power to them.  So whatever works for you, fit it into your life and keep plugging away on a daily basis.

The late and very successful playwright Wendy Wasserstein, once admitted to me that she has a struggle with discipline.  She put it this way: "I think I'm innately a very undisciplined writer.  I'll be distracted by anything, basically.  I take phone calls, I speak too many places.  But finally when I think this is too much, I can't do this any more, I must write, I'll then set aside time and say, "Wendy, every day for X amount of hours you'll be in a room writing, no telephone, you must do this or otherwise you're going to go mad."  So that's what happens.... it really takes discipline."
And playwright Terrence McNally explained: "I have to sit at my desk to work.  I'd love to pretend that while I'm driving or while I'm shopping I'm working.  I'm not.  I'm shopping, I'm driving.  I have to sit there and look at that screen.  And not talk on the phone.  You have to be really grown up and put the answering machine on monitor and turn the volume down.  And when friends say 'I have tickets for...' say 'No.' ....Once you start a play it's an enormous emotional, physical, spiritual commitment.  It's a big thing to write a play."

And playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley:  "At a certain point I had a job, so I had to get up at five o'clock every morning and write for three hours, and then I would go to work.  That went on for a year, and during that year I learned the discipline of being a writer.  Because there's nothing else going on at five o'clock in the morning...My only rule was that I had to be sitting at that typewriter.  I didn't care if I wrote anything or, if I did, what it was.  Just so long as I was sitting at the typewriter, then I was writing.  So I created a space and habit in my life with that."

One of my biggest ongoing disappointments as a teacher of playwriting and screenwriting is recognizing genuine talent in someone and then discovering that the commitment isn't there.  Without that writer discipline, even a towering gift lies dormant.

So soldier up and finish that draft.  

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art  (applications currently being accepted for our January 2014 residency).                   

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