Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Writing A Screenplay: A Freaking Doing Stuff Saga

I went to film school. Sort of. I didn't go to artsy fartsy Fellini-loving film school. I was a TV & Film major at a school that was more "This is what you should do if you want to stand a chance of actually making any money. Oh and by the way, you'll probably never get a job as a director, so while we're at it why don't we teach you how to be an executive. I know, you think you're not a suit, but trust me, everyone has a price."

And while I was under the impression that I learned a great deal, and even though I seemed to be spending a lot of time working on enormous projects, I somehow graduated without knowing anything about writing a screenplay. Nothing about 3 act structure or character development or how to construct an outline.

This didn't bother me for a while after graduation because I was happy to take any job where I got my very own cubicle. But about a year into my first job in L.A., I realized I should probably have a goal beyond paying next month's rent. And so I chose the same goal as everyone else who lives here -- to write and sell a screenplay.

When I was younger I used to write out short little movies that I would then have my friends act out, while I taped the whole thing with our camcorder. And in college, whenever we had to work in groups, it was always my script that was chosen for the next project. So maybe, just maybe, I had a knack for it. Perhaps I should give it a try.

That was 5 years ago. Since then, I've finished zero scripts.

My first attempt to write a script was a catastrophe. I sat down at my laptop and just started writing. I had no outline, no idea what plot was. I just started making up scenes as I went along. My roommate at the time, also a writer, read my first 15 pages and said it showed promise. But she wondered what it was about. I told her I wasn't sure. Something about a girl who makes herself go crazy. (What?)

It occurred to me I might need to back the truck up and really learn how to write. Conveniently, this revelation took place a week before a screenwriters conference was to be held downtown in the convention center. So I bought myself a weekend pass and a snazzy new notebook for taking down Very Important Notes.

The event was a lot like any other trade convention. Throughout the weekend there were various classes with titles like Getting to Know You: The Importance of Character Development and THE END: How to Reach Those Two Magic Words. Then there were a few seminars held in the large auditorium with special guest speakers -- in this case, writers of popular movies who tried, unsuccessfully, to relate to an audience full of wannabes.

I wish I could say that attending the convention was immensely helpful, but really it was depressing and discouraging. For one thing, there were thousands of people milling about, which only served as a reminder of how many other schmucks are trying to be the writer of the one screenplay a year that's optioned from an unknown. Also, they all looked like losers. I know, this means that probably I looked like a loser too, and that was precisely the problem. By lunchtime on Sunday I'd become convinced that anyone who had any business trying to make a career of screenwriting would not be at this convention. I went home early and didn't write again for years.

Then a year ago, a friend emailed me about a writing group that was about to start up its new session. Because I'm impulsive, I signed up right away. And, to this day, I'm still in the group. I know, I can't believe it either.

There are 5 of us, and we meet once every 2 weeks to offer notes and ideas to one another on our various projects. And while their notes are certainly helpful, the biggest advantage of working with them is that I'm held accountable to someone. If I don't work on anything for a month, I feel like a bum, and guilty for not contributing to the group.

Here's the point in this post where I should write "And now, I'm nearly done with a script. At last!" But that's far from the case. During the second 6 month session of the group I abandoned the script I'd started in the first session. And then the wedding took over and I got nowhere with it. So here we are in the third session and I'm back to outlining.

I suppose I'd be more motivated if I thought that completing a script meant something would happen. Like I could send it off to a national database that important movie people go to when selecting new projects. And then they'd pick mine and give me $1 million. But I know that finishing it will mean precisely squat. I don't have an agent and nobody knows who I am. Plus, I am lucky enough to love my job, and so I don't have that "I've gotta get outta here" motivator.

Still, in the spirit of doing stuff --all the way-- I've decided this is my year. Time to quit being lazy, quit finding excuses, and just finish it for the sake of finishing.

It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock n roll. You know?


  1. It's hard to finish a script. Years ago, when I decided that I wanted write a script to see if I could do it, I sequestered myself into a friends cabin, and over the course of a week, I banged out the first version of my script.

    It sucked, but it had three acts and it was a complete story - and 140 freakin' pages!! I had a lot of chutzpah; I was, like, 24 and full of piss and vinegar. I've worked on it again and again over the years - even re-writing it from the ground up. I don't think I'll ever do anything with it, but writing it was fun.

    I wrote another full script two years after that, and I still poke at that one too. I haven't written a full length feature since, but I have written several short film scripts and I managed to film them (independently). I suppose it's really just a matter of knuckling down and doing it, but it's a cool feeling when you finish one. I wish you lots of luck!


  2. It always seemed to me that anyone from the Denny's group could do anything. Like bake bread. You should try setting goals you can reach little steps that are getting you to your goal. They all pay off in the end.