Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How do you write your own stuff and not let bad scripts for work get to you?

I got a Twitter question last week from @MichaelBrettler

"Script reader here as well. Any advice on reading for a company and writing at same time? Hard not to become disillusioned."

Believe me, I know where you're coming from. When I first went freelance and was reading for two companies, I had more scripts than I knew what to deal with. After a week of reading 12-15 scripts, the last thing I wanted to do was start working on my own. It's really hard to get the creative juices going because reading so much bad stuff can often be draining.

What I eventually decided to do was I'd shift to working 4 days a week and then I'd either try to write the other three days, or I'd take one day completely off from writing, and then just devote myself to the script for the remaining two. This meant that on those four-day weeks, I was probably putting in a lot more hours than on the 5-day work weeks.

But if you've got a 9-7 job at a company, it's a little trickier finding time to write for yourself. More than likely, you've got scripts you need to read when you get home at night and then just when you think you'll get free time on the weekend, you get hit with another three or four. And yes, very few of them are good.

I'd say the first thing you need to figure out is your time management. How many scripts are you dealing with per day? How many scripts will you have to deal with per weekend? There's also a better question: How few scripts can you get away with doing per day and per weekend?

If the President of Development drops four scripts on you at 7pm Friday, will he follow up first thing in the morning on Monday? Or is he likely to not check in until late afternoon or even Tuesday? On top of that, how soon will you get more scripts on Monday? I had a boss who had a habit of giving me three scripts on Friday afternoons, but then I'd get nothing at all on Monday. I figured out pretty quickly that I should just read the scripts over the weekend, and then do the write-ups throughout the day on Monday.

(But I ALWAYS read over the weekend... just in case this individual asked me Monday morning what I thought of a script. Often, unless it's a CONSIDER, you can get away with a brief verbal summary and review, and then tell them the write-up will be to them at the end of the day.)

So once you've got that worked out, you can start figuring out a schedule for working on your own ideas. Set a schedule and stick to it. Sometimes that might mean you spend most of a weekend staring at your screen or pacing your room thinking of ideas. Self-discipline is key here.

Ah, but I still haven't addressed "Burn-out." Let's face it, most of what you read is crap - but hopefully you're getting professional submissions that are crap in just the right way. The story ideas might be horribly derivative, the dialogue flat... but it all conforms to the basic three-act structure. If you're really lucky, the hack has studied Save the Cat and is religious about his beats.

Why is this a good thing? Because it makes this bad script VERY easy to skim or speed read.

And then there's the other technique....

Let's assume the script is 100 pages. Read the first fifteen pages. Then check in around p. 25-30. Then check in around p. 45. Then p. 60. Then p. 75. Then read p. 90-100.

Nine times out of ten, you'll be able to follow the story well enough to get decent coverage on the premise. And better still, you won't have lost quite so much time on it.

I can already imagine the angry comments I'm going to get from that lesson. Cold hard fact - I was taught that by a VP of Development with decades of experience under his belt. I should note that this technique is never applied when we can tell the writing is any good. (And if you've gotten to p. 15, you should be able to make that call. You'll probably even be able to hash out what the concept is - and with those two factors in play, you'll know if this is something your company's interested in.)

So when the writing's good and the premise is awesome, you bet your ass we read the whole thing. If it's a rom-com and the big boss has just made it clear he's not into those, it gets the skim read with a clear conscience (unless the writing is awesome, in which case it'll probably get a "CONSIDER FOR WRITER" and lead to that writer being called in for a meeting.)

So that's how I suggest keeping your sanity - don't let the bad scripts get to you. You're no good to yourself as a writer, and you're no good to your bosses if you burn out reading bad period pieces or hackneyed teen horror. Between that and time management you might find it possible to get your muse back.


  1. This is one of the reasons I stopped reading for a while and found a non-industry day job. I felt I had to clear my head of other people's bad writing and focus on my own... ;-)

    I think compartmentalizing and managing your time carefully are great suggestions, but the bigger problem for me was the distraction (admittedly, a funny shaped cloud can distract me!) and I never quite figured out how to overcome it.

  2. I definitely try and avoid the bad scripts when i'm writing. Good scripts inspire me. Bad scripts just suck the time and life out of me.