I'm going to start the new year proper by getting myself into trouble here with a sweeping generalization: the problem with most aspiring screenwriters is that they're not really interested in writing.
This thought arises from having taught screenwriting and creative writing in Los Angeles for the past nine years, and as I duck the various blunt objects being thrown my way, I'll add that I've heard this sentiment echoed not only from colleagues, but from pretty much every writing instructor I've ever met.
To elaborate: All too often, the pre-pro screenwriter one encounters is obsessed with getting The Big Spec Script finished, period. The aspiring screenwriter is focused on the sale, and everything that goes with it (the agents, the buyers, how to beat the system, et al) and thus, their primary concern is amassing pages, getting the thing finished, revised if it must be -- and then Getting the Movie Made (while collecting the major bucks).
Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily; drive, ambition, and concentration on getting the job done are certainly pluses in the screenwriting game. But if you were to submit the above paragraph to a "what's wrong with this picture?" test, you might notice two things: one, it's all about The Movie (as opposed to the movies, plural, as in sustaining a career) and it's not about The Writing.
On every other screenwriting blog you'll see charts and time lines and lists, testaments to how many drafts have been pronounced finis, how many pages have been completed thus far. We define ourselves in numbers, measuring accomplishments in literal inches of piled pages. Yet in my screenwriting classes, I'm often puzzled to find students with a resistance to writing more than it seems they need to write, to get that spec draft done. They're on self-imposed deadlines that betray a fixation on The Finished Draft, blinders that keep them from looking beyond the parameters of the little white Final Draft screen -- and from stretching their writing muscles.
What gets overlooked, from this race to the completion finish line perspective, is that a real writer writes -- writes anything and everything, as a daily practice, that will inform the task at hand. A real writer writes to discover, to explore, to get into trouble -- not to make sure the second act turning point is on page 90 and that the movie ends on 119. And screenwriters who really understand what they're taking on when they commit to this line of work, understand that it's not about the one script. It's about being able to forge a career writing scripts, which means committing to writing, like... all the time. From now on.
Truth is, the muse doesn't want to know from page counts. She's about inspiration, and often she needs to be called, to come. One summons her with writing as a practice, as a devotion, as a process that is, believe it or not, sometimes more rewarding than the end product. An avoidance of this practice is often the reason that many first spec scripts, when "done," lack the depth, the breadth, the craft and the soul that can actually make all the difference.
Which brings me to my most arrogant moment in this already obnoxious discourse: I'm going to suggest a new year's resolution for all pre-pro screenwriters. (Yeah, it's bad enough that you've got your own resolutions to suffer with, here's somebody foisting an extra resolution on you that you never asked for in the first place, but:) I say... stop worrying about Getting the Draft Done. Cease with the plotting and structuring, desist with the page-counting, in fact -- and here I step onto the wood that's been piled for burning heretics -- consider leaving the draft alone, altogether. This year...
Write beyond your draft.
Does your hero have an inner conflict, born of a troubled childhood? Write the scene between your hero's parents that will bring them alive for you and put you through the emotions that seeded that conflict in him... even though the parents aren't in your movie. Want to know why your rom-com he and she will really make an ideal couple? Write the scene that shows them celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary in that unique way only they know how to do... even though your movie ends before they even get engaged.
Having trouble with the heroine's best friend? Write a few pages from her diary, or blog, so you can get to know her from the inside out. Getting stuck on deciding what your story's theme is? Write an interview with yourself, where you keep asking provocative questions about the story that you don't have ready answers for. Not happy with the way an important scene is playing? Put the draft aside and write "the wrong version," the way it can't possibly go; write it comedic, write it soap-operatic -- and do every draft from scratch, instead of trying to doggedly square-peg that dialogue you love so much into one round scene hole.
Write beyond your draft. Write under it, over it, before and after it, write waaaaaay outside of it. And yes (smack me now) have fun with it. Don't get stuck only writing what's Supposed To Be In the Movie. Write awful, terrible, wonderful pages in any freaking form you like -- comic strip, personal essay -- to find out what you need to know, that'll inform the draft when you come back to it.
Because that's the good news, the odd but fruitful paradox: all the extra work you do, all that writing, is only going to give you more to go on -- more information, more insight, more experience which will deepen your craft and deepen the draft.
This same process gets replicated in a film's editing process: whole shot-and-cut scenes and sequences in a movie disappear -- and yet the story that's left on-screen is intriguely more resonant, when it refers to incidents that no longer exist in the movie proper. The film is stronger now for what's been left out of it -- because the characters are carrying that unseen history and experience inside them.
But really my suggested resolution is about giving yourself permission to stop being a Draft Slave. To write a good spec script, it's less important to pile up the actual draft pages. It's more important to fully explore and comprehend the characters and world of your story. So any writing you do that speaks to your story is valuable. And you need to let yourself take the time and energy to write beyond the draft itself. It'll pay off in the end, I guarantee it.
And while you're at it, it can't hurt to have a muse -- a coach, a consulter, a mentor or writing board to bounce off. In this regard I direct you to a site that was started today by my friend Barbara Abercrombie, a blog born with the express purpose of nurturing and nudging writers through their process.
Barbara doesn't come from film, which is all the better; her specialty being memoir, she's exceedingly good with character (i.e. developing it and grounding it in personal truths), so, the romantic comedy being a character-driven genre, consider Writing Time a good source for writing-beyond-the draft fodder and food for thought.
She's already offering everything you need to know about writing on 1 page, so there's a starter excuse for closing the file on The Draft for a change, and opening up a writing door to the beyond.