Letter To A New Writer

By Shaffique Jamal
On welcoming new additions into the writers’ group this week, I heard some questions, questions that I had when I began screenwriting. Where to start?

You want to know the facts before jumping in, you’re not sure how it should look and you have a story but there’s a disconnect from where it exists in your head and putting it on the page. You’re not alone.

Acts, beats, sluglines, loglines, timelines (okay you can guess the last one) but to the uninitiated these have little meaning; in this Internet age there are plenty of resources to help translate and explain writing technique. I can only really speak for myself; I have to keep things simple because otherwise I spend so much time thinking how to get it right that I end up wasting time and not really getting anywhere. But then, I’m not alone.

A couple of the first books mentioned to new writers are Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee and Save The Cat!: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder ; one day I’ll make it through the whole of Story, from what I’ve heard (I have no firsthand experience of this) studio execs have adopted the cat. The structure/terminology in Save The Cat is how they’ll relate to your story and what they’ll use when talking about it.

If Save The Cat clicks with you then that’s the thing to use; if not, remember the terminology in it, it’ll make your pitching easier, then find something that works for you. These kinds of books, along with talking about structure and layout, will cover universal themes found in the majority of stories that make up the ‘laws’ or steps of emotional fulfilment. You have to earn it.

When I was starting, getting to the end of that first draft out was hard, like getting out that last bit of toothpaste. The book that made it easier for me was Viki King’s How To Write A Screenplay In 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method. It gives you enough information to get started but not enough to bog you down. If you follow the steps, you probably won’t end up with a masterpiece but in less than a month you’ll have a full feature, a lump of clay in the rough dimensions you want. It’s a starting point.

I tend to not feel so creative in the evening, I’m mainly just fighting sleep, so I’ll tend to write as soon as I’ve woken up but having said that, depending on what I’m doing I might spend 3–4 hours after work on Friday working on my script because even if I get nothing done at the weekend at least I’ve made some progress for that week.

For me, prime time is the journey to work on the underground; for some reason being crammed in someone’s armpit makes me want to escape. So I set aside time in that waste of time journey, to get some writing done and if I’m lucky I’ll want to miss my stop so I can get something finished; this usually means I’ll be writing something on the way back home too. The more you write, necessity will show you what works for you. I’ve found that there’s no one place for me to work, because there are so many elements (outlining, loglining, writing from scratch, reading it all the way through, proof reading, reading other people’s scripts, editing, rewriting; you get the idea) you can treat it like a job and sit down between certain hours or you can use slots in your day, governed by your situation to move between bits of work.

When you have that first draft, another book I find useful is William M. Akers’ Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways To Make It Great. It’ll help you cleanup the lump of clay, so you can see more detail. Then it’s time for a rewrite but that’s a whole other topic of discussion.

You now have your first script, you sweated blood and cried real tears, it’s everything you hoped and is both so much more/less. I don’t have children but I hear that the second one’s easier because you learn what not to do, with the first. Now you know what’s expected; write another one, don’t worry, the first one’s not going anywhere. Once you’ve finished the second you’ve evolved as a writer. You finish things.

Go back and read your first you may hate it, you may love it, it may have potential but it’s all yours; rewrite. Put them out there, get feedback. It’s not personal, it’s just business.
Just remember, in this lonely vocation you are not alone.

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