How to organise yourself and put writing at the top of your plans by Douglas Dougan
As every Scot (like myself) knows, Hogmanay and the new year is as important as Christmas – in fact if you ever visit Edinburgh on December 31st you will see that Scotland makes a bigger fuss of New Year’s Eve than Christmas Day. But the new year is also a time for everyone to reflect on the twelve months gone by, wipe the slate clean and plan for the year ahead. It’s time to organise your writing life.
If you have big ambitions to finish those scripts, get them in to commissioners and start on your scriptwriting career, or maybe if you are just starting out, January is a great time to plan and organise how you will do it.
We all have our own ways of being a writer, but here are some thoughts and tips on how to maximise your effort at the keyboard.
Treat it like a job
Let’s face it, most of us who write end up writing at home, at the kitchen table or at a desk in the corner of the living room. Maybe you are lucky and have a boxroom or office at home that can become your workspace. Regardless, the fact is you are working at home – and that comes with distractions and too easy procrastination.
The writer Douglas Adams (creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) famously was a master procrastinator who would rather clean the fridge or have a bath than toil through the next draft of his books and scripts. It was just too easy to walk away from the keyboard.
The solution is to give your writing dedicated space and time. I have a friend who is a hugely prolific scriptwriter for television and radio. Every working hour of his week is spent writing … but he works at home. His solution? After breakfast, he goes for a morning walk. It clears his brain and adds to his step tracker total but, more importantly, it is his way of psychologically tricking his brain into the fact that he is ‘going to work’. When he returns home (to ‘the office’) he goes straight to the desk, sits down and he is now at work. Try it; see if it works for you.
An alternative some writers use in this situation is to write in cafés or libraries. If that works for you, great. Libraries I can do because they are quiet but cafés are too noisy and have too many distractions for me – especially if you are a people watcher.
However you do it, aim to write every day, or at least on a regular basis. Plan a reasonable writing schedule and stick with it. Perhaps you’ll write for two hours every day, or more, or less. Whatever the amount of time, make up your mind to stick with it.
In the end, do whatever works for you to keep writing. If this is something you struggle with, make this the year to give your writing the dedication it deserves.
Maximise every minute
Once you are at your desk, you want to make sure that every second counts. Of course, thinking is part of creative writing but you need to ensure that you don’t waste the time you have on your scripts.
One approach some people take is called The Pomodoro Technique. It is a time management method that people in business use but it works as well for creatives.
The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, usually 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. The name ‘pomodoro’ comes from the fact that people originally used one of those tomato shaped kitchen timers to measure their work periods. Nowadays you can use your phone or there are even little apps you can place on your computer that will do it for you (search for ‘pomodoro technique’ in your app store).
I was sceptical when I first heard of this but gave it a try and I now swear by it to make my days as productive as they can be. It is amazing how much you can do in a 25 minute burst, and it feels much less daunting than facing a stretch of six hours when you have to write.
Like my friend walking to work, this has the added benefit of forcing you to take a five-minute break every half hour. Get up from the desk, move, make a cup of tea or whatever. A healthy body clears your creative mind so it helps to stop you sitting for hours without moving.
Now the computer is on and you are writing, this might be the year you strategise. Here at Script Angel, we spend a lot of time working with our writers to discuss what kind of writing they want to do and how to get into the marketplace. Being a screenwriter is one thing, being a successful screenwriter is another. Writing is only half the job – you also have to learn how to operate in the business of film and television.
Essentially, a screenwriter is a supplier to a market. Like anyone in business, that means you have to research who the buyers are, what they want and what the industry looks like. For screenwriters that means watching as much TV and film as you can, read screenplays, and do research. Check out trade publications to see who is producing what.
Finding market information is pointless if you can’t lay your hands on it when you need it, so make this0 the year you get organised. Start a contacts file (both paper and electronic will do). Keep a note of potential commissioners’ names, job titles and contact details, plus their track record of productions or broadcasts. Then you can use this contact file to track submissions as you send them.
Don’t forget the value of competitions too – they can be as valuable a stepping stone as getting a commission. There are tonnes of competitions out there, both in UK and abroad. Script Angel keeps a growing list of the most important screenwriting competitions and deadlines here.
Look out for a future Script Angel article where I shall talk about how best to submit to these competitions and increase your chances of winning.
Never stop learning
Now you have an organised plan of how to prioritise your writing for this year, you could add to your scriptwriting toolbox. Invest in some worthy books on the craft, subscribe to writing magazines and online news sites. And don’t forget to read like mad – the best way to study the craft is to learn at the feet of the masters. My latest favourite source of screenplays to read is the new site Script Slug. If TV is your thing, you can’t go wrong with the BBC Writersroom script library.
Maybe this year you could aim to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. Safe is boring. Try something new this year – whether it’s a new genre, a new format, or a wildly unpredictable new character.
Call yourself a writer
I have lost track of the number of people who say, “I want to be a writer”. They do the work and have the ambition but still they talk in terms of the future. If you are that person, change it this year.
If you write, you’re a writer.
Don’t ever let yourself believe differently. Make it your goal to better your writing skills and habits. Get a business card printed that says in the job title space: ‘screenwriter’.
Claim it and wear it with pride.