How do you become a screenwriter?
Write. Write till you actually finish a screenplay. And then do it again.
I know, I don’t like the answer any more than you do. But I came to this conclusion after confronting the harsh reality that talking about writing screenplays doesn’t actually result in a finished screenplay.
Once I came to terms with this, I decided it was time for action. I had the bad habit of wasting 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there, as if time was an endless resource. But in reality, time was everything — my biggest ally, and a really annoying foe. When I’d finally make the time to work on my screenplay – amidst my freelance writing gig, my one-year-old twins, and everything in between – the pressure would be so great to make the most of it, the words refused to flow. Classic writer’s block.
Making the most of minutes
Writer’s block is so pernicious, it once prompted Ernest Hemingway (a war correspondent, mind you) to say that the scariest thing he ever encountered was “a blank piece of paper.”
From Mark Twain to Maya Angelou to Stephen King, writer’s block seems to afflict even our greatest literary minds. In Hollywood, Barry Michels has had an extremely successful career as a therapist for blocked screenwriters. He’s considered an open secret in the industry.
But let’s say you can’t afford to hire a Jungian analyst. What’s a frustrated screenwriter to do?
I realized there was a technique I used to crank through my freelance writing under deadline. Why couldn’t I use the same method for writing my screenplay? The key was understanding that even the smallest chunks of time were valuable.
“The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.” – William Goldman
Undoubtedly, starting is the hardest part when it comes to writing, with finishing coming in a close second. I’ve found that to be painfully true — but I’ve also found a method that helps me stop thinking (What should I write about? What if it isn’t any good?) and start writing when I feel the time crunch.
It’s called the Pomodoro Technique. Despite the commercialized name, the technique is free and it doesn’t require you to read any self-help books. Here’s the premise: You break down your work into 25-minute blocks. During that 25 minutes, you can’t answer your phone, check email, raid the kitchen for a snack, or update your status on Facebook.
“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” — Charles Bukowski
The deal is, you have to use your 25 minutes to write something — anything. Write about having writer’s block, if you have to. I often treat my first 25-minute block like a free-write or brainstorm where I can throw away whatever I write. If I’m starting work on a piece, sometimes I cover my monitor so I can’t edit myself or worry about making it perfect when I’m trying to get momentum.
Set a timer so you know when 25 minutes is up. I use a timer app because seeing the minutes count down spurs me into action. It works for me because it’s “just 25 minutes” — it’s not a whole article, or in this case, a whole screenplay. After 25 minutes, your timer app will ding and then it’s time to take a 5-minute break. Get away from your computer — walk around your apartment or make a cup of tea. Repeat until you’ve done a string of these (take longer breaks as needed), and you’ll be surprised by how much you accomplish. And if you don’t have the luxury of repeating, at least you put in 30 minutes, which is a whole lot better than 0.
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” – William Faulkner
Critics say that this technique prevents us from developing the ability to focus over long periods of time when necessary. Personally, I think this criticism misses the point. The Pomodoro Technique isn’t supposed to apply to all aspects of life. But if you’re having trouble starting a project that you’ve always wanted to do (or HAVE to do), it can help you establish a sustainable routine to get it done. For example, “Today I’ll do 6 pomodoros.”
The sad reality is, doing one task for 25 minutes without any distraction is actually a lot longer than most people are able to focus nowadays. I’ve found that working in a series of 25-minute blocks without interruption has been a great way to train my brain to focus for longer periods— and understand the importance of taking breaks and getting some perspective before you can truly finish major projects, whether they take hours, weeks or years.
Hey, if taking breaks ultimately helped Mark Twain finish “Tom Sawyer,” then it’s good enough for me.
This article is adapted from a post that originally appeared on This Wonderful Word.