Man Upset at Computer

4 Mistakes Made by Beginning Screenwriters That are Totally Avoidable

UCLA Screenwriting Teacher Gives Advice From the Trenches

I’ve been writing for 30 years and been a screenwriting teacher at UCLA for 20 – and I’m constantly astounded by the infinite spectrum of talents, experiences and work ethics of the writers I’ve met. But – in the paradoxical way of Hollywood – many have struggled with the same basic problems, especially when starting out. Perhaps not surprisingly, these three challenges are all about how a writer is “supposed to” function.

  1. They go it alone.

The mystique of the writer has long reinforced the perception of the solitary artist toiling in the isolation of his/her particular genius.

Sure, there will be times when you need to shut out the world and burn every calorie of energy for your work. But long-term – even medium-term – isolation is terrible for your writing, and it’s terrible for your health – mental, physical, spiritual. Support and encouragement are crucial to being productive.

  1. They judge their own work too harshly.

A stunning number of writers will attack their own work with scathing criticism that they would never unleash on another person. This tendency to self-loathing is so persuasive I suspect it must be an aspect (a defect?) of the human imagination.

Self-excoriation is death to the creative process, but worse – it’s contagious. Once you start telling people your work sucks, soon enough they’ll start believing you.

The good news here is that confidence is also contagious. If you exude faith in your work – even if you don’t have all the answers – other creatives are more likely to trust your ability to solve their problems.

  1. They stick with an unproductive process.

We’ve all heard the definition of “insanity” – Taking the same actions over and over but expecting a different result. And while solid work habits are vital, the creative process is not immune to the downsides of routine.

Writers might also have a lot of rules regarding their process – we can’t work at night; we can only work at night. We can’t work in coffee shops; we can only work in coffee shops, etc.

We might cling to these inner rules because they seem to provide stability to an esoteric process. Soon we are serving our routines rather than our routines serving our work.

Even though the source of your creativity might lurk in its own mysterious realm, it’s easy to see if your process is working: are you racking up pages?  If not – you might consider shaking up your work habits.

  1. They neglect their own self-care.

In the words of the great Tom Waits, “Even Jesus wanted a little more time.”

And, indeed, perhaps the biggest complaint about screenwriting is the massive time-suck it requires (just ask the significant other of any writer on a deadline).

Combine the time demands with the intense concentration required, and you have created the perfect environment for self-neglect.

Yes, there will be times when you might need to survive on Red Bull and chaw – but if that’s the only way you can function, burn-out is on its way.

Sleep is not a luxury. Food is medicine. Physical exercise blows out stress. Just remind yourself: nobody is going to thank you for burning out!

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Apocalypse-Now-1

Creative Chaos and Other Screenwriting Tips

As I navigated through studio politics and creative challenges, I came to the conclusion that there are only two types of people working in Hollywood.

People who solve problems. And people who create problems.

Guess which one writers need to be?

Now, in fairness, not all problem creators are destructive – at least, not creatively.

Some of the greatest filmmakers we most revere are (or were) notorious crazy makers. This is known, in the purest light, as “inspiration.”

For example, Francis Ford Coppola. By all accounts (and I’ve read plenty), the making of Apocalypse Now was chaos personified. Novelist William Kennedy, who collaborated with Coppola on “The Cotton Club” screenplay, watched in bewilderment and dismay as Coppola reshuffled their script – moving the second-act break became the first-act break.

Chaos.

But if you don’t know already, a certain, indefinable amount of chaos is not only expected, not only tolerated – it is encouraged by the powers-that-be.

Because – often – that’s where the art happens. Just as often, it’s the cause of utter disaster.

Of all the screenwriting tips, the most important is understanding that writers solve problems. Their whole purpose is to solve problems – hopefully without creating more of them.

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Fade In:

The genesis of this website and my book came unexpectedly.

One day I was asked to appear on a panel of screenwriters at the Writers Guild of America, West. The topic assigned to me was, “How do you increase the stakes in a second act?”

Innocent enough, right?

Yet that question needled me like a dried-up Christmas tree.

So why did I find this seemingly easy question so tough? Well, to start, it is impossible to answer in the abstract. Every script is (or better be) an utterly unique creature. So, truly, there is no way to answer that question without asking – what’s happening in your first act? Read more