How to Write Every Day

How to Write Every Day: The Archive

This is a painful series to re-read. To a certain extent, it was a diary of my struggles as much as it was advice for you guys. Nevertheless, there’s some good stuff, here, so it’s worth archiving.

How to Write Every Day, Epilogue: Be Like Miles

Sorry for all these hectoring career pieces, rather than, you know, actual writing help. In fact, I’ve been getting these out of the way building up to tomorrow...when the new Checklist finally debuts! Until then...

  • “I don’t pay no attention to what critics say about me, the good or the bad.  The toughest critic I got is myself…and I’m too vain to play anything I think is bad.” –Miles Davis
Professional writers don’t have a magical formula.  None of them were born with a natural mastery of every separate skill that a writer needs, and they don’t have access to some secret wellspring of inspiration that you can’t tap into.  Anyone who wants to become a good, professional writer can do so.  Just do these two, simple things:
  1. Write three pages of a manuscript every day, day after day, year after year, whether those pages are good or bad.
  2. After you write them, be aware of how good they were.
That’s it.  The good news is that anybody can do this.  In the end, it’s all perspiration and no inspiration.  Not everybody can write good pages on any given day, but anybody can write bad pages.  Go try it.  You’ll succeed.

As long as you have the ability to step back at some point and identify the bad pages, you’ll be fine.  After all, you’ll be writing three more pages the next day, so you can just re-write them then.  The study of the craft, such as what we do on this blog, can speed up that process, but in the end, no matter how much you do or don’t educate yourself, if you just keep writing, you’ll inevitably come up with a better solution through trial and error, like those monkeys that eventually write Shakespeare.

So wow, right?  Problem solved.  But if anyone can do it, why don’t they? Two demons get in the way: laziness and self-esteem.

Laziness is the obvious problem: it’s hard to make yourself write three pages everyday.  Writing is lonely, isolated work with no instantaneous reward system.  So we come up with a million excuses not to write every day: “I’ll wait for inspiration,” or, “I’d rather plan ahead for what I’m going to write later, instead of writing actual pages today.”  But these are evil temptations.  The best way to ensure that you’ll write something good tomorrow is to write something bad today, and only pages are pages, because pre-writing isn’t the same thing as writing.  You have to write actual pages everyday, period.

Self-esteem is the more hidden danger.  It can sabotage you in one of two ways:  One risk is that you’ll keep writing and writing without knowing or caring that your work isn’t good enough. If you just do the first of the above steps without the second, all those years of work will be in vain.  Publishers get unreadable thousand-word manuscripts in the mail every day.  It’s tragic. You have to be your own toughest critic.

But self-esteem is more likely to wreck you before you get off the ground.  As hard as it is to write good pages, it’s even harder to write bad pages, because your self-esteem gets in the way.  Writing good pages makes you feel good, and you want to keep doing it. By the same token, writing bad pages makes you feel bad, and you desperately want to stop.

That is where 99.99% of writers wreck themselves.  They’re unwilling to be bad, and feel bad about it, until they can become better.  They’re unwilling to be like Miles.  If you can master the art of working every day even though it often makes you feel bad, then you’ll make it in this business.  Just try it.

How To Write Every Day, Conclusion: Is Your Goal to Keep Writing or Stop Writing?

My whole generation of screenwriters was raised on tales of the ‘90s spec boom, and it twisted our heads.  Like the rubes in “The Grapes of Wrath”, we believed that, once we got to California, we could just reach out our hands and pick the fruit of wealth off the trees.  Instead, we arrived and found armed guards at the border, keeping us out.  As with the Joads, it’s hard to get over that shock.  Many of us never have.

It used to be quite common to hear life plans like this: “I’ll go out to Hollywood, work for five years, make my ‘fuck you money’, and then move to a more artsy city and do what I really want to do.”  Of course, even at the time, this plan was short-sighted and naïve, but these days, it seems painfully quixotic.

Not only does this delusion leave writers unprepared for the reality of the marketplace, but it keeps them from ever getting near that market to begin with, because it makes it very hard to move seamlessly from project to project.

If you’re trying to write that silver-bullet, million-dollar spec, then you’ll probably be unable to resist the temptation to put all your eggs in one basket.  You’ll polish that gem over and over, send it out and then start dreaming of beach houses and fast cars, instead of dreaming up your next project.  Only when you realize that nobody wants that last script will you reluctantly force yourself to start all over again.

If your goal is to one day stop working and start coasting, then that’s exactly what you’ll do, over and over again.  In the end, you’ll achieve your goal, albeit with one small change: they’ll get all the money, and all you’ll get is the ‘fuck you.’

Instead of dreaming of the day you’ll be able to stop working, aim higher: Picture a fantasy in which you’ll be able to keep working.  Write because you want to write and write and write.  Write because you want to get paid to do what you would have been doing anyway.

That’s a much more ambitious fantasy, and it helps you create a much better reality in the meantime, because if you picture yourself writing in the future, then it’s far more likely that you’ll write today.
And writing everyday is the only way that you’ll ever get good enough to sell your work.

How To Write Every Day, Part 4: Work on Multiple Projects

I talked last time about the overwhelming urge to take a break from writing when you reach a tricky fork in the road, at which point you can simply write the bad version, or you can brainstorm new versions of the scene, as long as you don’t count that as your writing for the day.

But sometimes you just get that sinking sensation: You’ve strayed too far from your outline and now you’re waist-deep in the big muddy.  The big fool inside your head says to push on, but should you listen?  Sometimes you become obsessed with making the wrong solution work, but it never will.  Instead, you realize that you need to step back and spot that much better, much simpler solution that’s been eluding you. 

But try as you might, you fail.  You know it’s there, and you know that there’s no point in going on until you spot it, but you just can’t see it…yet.

This is why, if you’re committed to writing everyday, you need to be able to jump to a parallel project.  Some writers advise against this, because they say that you need to be able to totally immerse yourself in your world, rather than dipping your toe into different ponds, but I disagree.  I would say that it’s more important to maintain perspective, and the only way to do that is to take a step back occasionally.

Writing a few pages of another project is helpful in multiple ways:
  • It buoys you up out of that sinking sensation and allows you to start fresh on new challenges.
  • It reminds you that not everything is riding on your main project, so it can be what it needs to be, instead of being all things to all people.
  • It allows you to move that big problem to the back of your mind, but it keeps working the muscles that you need to solve it, which makes it more likely that you’ll have that “Eureka!” moment, when a solution for the supposedly forgotten problem suddenly flashes into your head.  If you take days off to justthink about the main problem, it’s more likely that you’ll forget it entirely.
But what if you don’t have another project ready to go?  That’s fine.  Go through your old abandoned projects and dream up radical re-writes, and try writing the first three pages.  Find another abandoned screenplays and write the bad version of the next scene you were never able to tackle.  Maybe, now that you have some perspective on thoseprojects, they’ll come roaring back to life.

But it doesn’t really matter—Just keep flexing that muscle until you’re ready to go back to your main project in a few days.  You might just find that all those false solutions have melted away, and the real solution is staring you right in the face.  (And, most importantly, you haven’t broken your writing momentum.)

How To Write Every Day, Part 3: Turn on a Dime

My film school should have more accurately been called “Film Fantasy Camp”.  Whenever one student would gingerly suggest that another might want to re-conceive a troubled project, the teachers would explode with anger: That’s a badnote!  You can’t suggest major changes!  You’re supposed to be helping your peers perfect their own unique and personal vision, not impose foreign, external notions of how movies “should” work!

And that would have been true ...if we’d been on a “Screenwriting Cruise” with a bunch of moonlighting dentists who wanted to finally write those dream projects they’d been tinkering with, and then use their savings to turn those screenplays into a real-life, honest-to-gosh movies.

But we were kids, borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, and desperate to pay them off one day by selling screenplays to willing buyers.  For those of us who made it the marketplace, here’s what we discovered: There is no “i” in film. Writers are not there to please themselves, and producers aren’t there to please themselves, either.  They are both supposed to serve the same god: that aforementioned foreign, external notion of how movies work.

The best book about the reality of working in Hollywood is “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit” by Robert Ben Garant and Tom Lennon.  In their very first chapter, they say:
  • Why do you need to be writing compulsively?  Because so much of your work will be thrown away.
  • To survive in the studio system, you cannot fall in love with everything you write.  Be prepared to throw LOTS of it away and start over from scratch.  As a studio writer, you are more contractor than artiste.  Look at it as though they have hired you “write” them a new kitchen or bathroom.  Don’t let it break your heart when you have to throw out a week’s worth of writing.  It happens all the time, for reasons you can’t predict—the star of the film hay have just made a CROQUET film and subsequently will not GOLF or even hold a MALLET in your film because it will seem as if they’ve “done that before.”  So you will have to rewrite an entire sequence.  You will be rewriting all the time.  Learn to love it.  Or at least not hate it.  And most importantly, LEARN from your rewriting.  Keep making the script better.
As Lennon and Ben Garant continually point out, this doesn’t mean that the system is broken.  Casablanca was written this way.  The ending was totally re-written while Bogart and Bergman were standing on the tarmac.  Moves are collaborative, and they’re supposed to be.

But graduates of my school find themselves totally unprepared for this reality.  Now they have to learn real re-writing from scratch, which is going to be almost impossible because not only have they not been taughtit, they’ve been explicitly told they shouldn’t have to learn it.  Good luck paying back those loans.

You have to be able to turn on a dime, not only because that’s a good way to serve your producers but because that’s a good way to serve your script.  Re-write scenes from scratch all the time, just for the hell of it.  Maybe there’s a better version.

Running into a problem on page 90?  Maybe you should trying changing a plot twist on page 60, and re-writing the last 30 pages.  Why not?  You aren’t running out of room on a 5-inch floppy disk.  You’ll still have all the older versions saved.  Re-writing those 30 pages might be productive, or it might not, but at least you’re writing.  You may or may not be making your script any better, but as long as you’re writing pages, you’re definitely making yourself a better writer, and that’s what really matters.

How To Write Every Day, Part 2: Write it Badly Today So You Can Write It Better Tomorrow

Here’s the number one thing that used to trip me up: I would sit down to write the next scene in my outline, only to realize that what I had planned didn’t quite work.  Then I would sit there, fingers perched above the keyboard, trying to fix it in my head before I began writing.  Soon I would boil over with frustration and give up.

One solution to this problem is to close the screenwriting software, open up Word, and start brainstorming new ways to write the scene.  This is sometimes necessary, but once again, as I warned of yesterday, it involves abandoning the hard work of writing pages in favor of the fun work of spitballing.

Inevitably, as soon as I re-entered “anything-is-possible-land”, I couldn’t stand to go back to the cold, hard reality of writing actual pages, which are always much more disappointing.  Instead, I would fall in love with the world of possibilities I had opened up, and give myself “a night to think it over”.  But that meant I had gone a day without writing any actual pages, and once I had taken a day off, the force of habit was broken, and it become too easy to stop altogether.

Now I know better: If I can’t figure out a better version of that scene, then that’s fine: I just write the lame, clichéd first-instinct version in my head.  As a result, one of three things tends to happen:
  • In rare cases, everything suddenly snaps together and I write my way out of the problem, resulting in a great scene.
  • More commonly, the scene sucks, but at least now I can look at the problem….
  • …But what happens most often is that I discover the problems I thought would ruin the scene (too boring, not enough conflict, too much exposition) are nothing compared to the huge problems that I only uncovered by trying to write it.  (There’s no good reason for him to admit to the scheme!  My heroine doesn’t actually find that come-on to be charming!  The explosion would have eliminated the evidence!)
All too often, if you can’t solve a problem with the scene you’re about to write, it’s because you’re misdiagnosing the problem.  If so, the only way to correct that diagnosis is to start writing the scene, even if you already know it’s not going to be any good.

George Lucas didn’t wait until Luke Skywalker was perfected in his head to start writing Star Wars.  He wrote down the dumb first version that popped into his head, The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, then said, “Gee, this isn’t very good,” but there are a few elements that work, so let’s start re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing…

Once you accept this, it makes writing everyday a lot easier.  Even if all you do is re-write from scratch the same scene you wrote yesterday, that still counts!  Writing three pages a day doesn’t mean that you’re going to finish a 120 page screenplay in exactly 40 days.  If you’re constantly re-writing bad pages from scratch, it might be more like 90 days.  But at that rate you’ll still be writing four screenplays a year, which is plenty.  The important thing is that you never stopped writing pages, and never lost your momentum.

But wait, you may ask, what if I can’t go forward, but I’m not ready to re-write what I just wrote, either.  That’s tomorrow...

How To Write Every Day, Part 1: Pitches Are Fantasy, Pages Are Reality

When we discussed this before, I wasn’t sure whether or not writing outlines should count towards daily writing goals, but now...
Whenever any profession hits a new peak in pay, even if that peak is the result of speculative bubble, the practitioners instantly declare that peak to be the new normal, and any decrease, even it’s just a decrease to previous norms, will forever after be seen as unforgivable.

So it was with screenwriting.  During the spec script bubble of the early ‘90s, studios lost their heads.  They were overpaying for scripts, and even paying princely sums for movies that hadn’t been written.  In the most infamous example, Joe Eszterhas scribbled a pitch on the back of a napkin and sold it for four million dollars.  The movie was called One Night Stand with Wesley Snipes.  Ever see it?  Me neither.

After the flop of that movie and many others, studios cut their spending way back.  Soon, with a few notable exceptions, they stopped buying pitches and returned to their previous policy of only buying finished scripts.  To this day, screenwriters lament the end of the glory days, and await the day when we can once again sell ideas before we write anything.

But the studios are right: Pitches aren’t worth anything yet.  This is actually true in a court of law: You can’t copyright an idea.  You can only copyright the expressionof an idea.  Only pages are valuable, and that’s the way it should be.

For years, whenever I would try to force myself to write everyday, I would start out writing actual pages, but after the pages stopped flowing, I would start writing outlines for future stories instead.  What’s the difference?  It’s all writing, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t.  Anything other than actual pages is just pre-writing.  Don’t get me wrong, outlines and treatments are very important, but you can’t confuse that with real writing.   What would inevitably happen when I would switch to writing outlines, is that I would never want to switch back. Pre-writing is addictive because it’s a lot more rewarding than writing pages.  Potential is always better than reality.

Before you start writing, you can say, “What’s my movie like? Well, let me tell you: Imagine that Han Solo and Hannibal Lecter have to team up free the guys from the Great Escape!” That sounds great!  What a cool idea!  Then you sit down to write it and you realize that, unless you’re writing an especially silly (and yet awesome) piece of fan fiction, you can’t just appropriatethe pre-existing value of those characters. Instead, you have to re-create all that value from scratch, which is damn hard.

It’s one thing to say, “My new character is going to be like Han Solo”!  It’s entirely different to say, “I just wrote some pages and the new character I’ve created is just as appealing as Han Solo!” The first is worthless, the second is priceless.

Force yourself to stop saying “I have a good idea for a movie!”  Instead, you should say, “I may have a good idea for a movie.” If you thinkyou’ve got a good idea for movie, then find out by writing some pages. Ideas aren’t copyrightable because they’re a dime a dozen.  An outline is just a doorway that leads you to a character.  Step through it, get to know that character by writing pages of dialogue, and then you’ll know if have something real, or just another One Night Stand.

So if you shouldn’t switch to outlines, what should you do when the pages stop flowing?  We’ll pick up there tomorrow…

How To Write Every Day, Prologue: It’s Been a Hell of a Month

Funny story: A month ago, my weight loss and sweats returned. Two weeks ago, a PET scan indicated a 50/50 chance that my cancer was back.  Last week, I had a biopsy in the OR. Three days ago, around noon, my oncologist called me to tell me the results: Yes, sadly, the cancer had returned. But wait… two hours later, after the full pathologist’s report arrived, he called back and said that actually no, it wasn’t cancer after all--just an infection that has now passed and I’m totally fine.


Long-time readers will recall that the last time things went wrong, it snuffed out a hot streak in my career.  That was hardly a danger this time, but this latest scare also seemed to me to be particularly ill-timed, because even though I have very little career heat right now, I am doing two things better than I ever have before: writing steadily everyday, and moving seamlessly from project to project.

Of course, if you’ve been following my progress in the sidebar, you know that I’ve been sort of making a mockery of the concept: I’ve been forcing myself to write at least a page a day, but the result that been that I’ve been writing precisely one page a day.  To a certain degree, that’s because of my infection (my oncologist blames my flu shot) and the resulting flurry of tests and uncertainty, but that’s not entirely it…

You’re recall that the last time I tentatively broached this subject, I was forcing myself to write 3-8 pages a day.  But I soon discovered that I couldn’t even keep up with that longer than a month.  I still needed to feel “inspired” to write those three pages, and inspiration can’t last forever.

It was only once I got down to one page that true force of habit kicked in.  I discovered that, no matter how busy or stressed I was in any given day, if I just had to write one, I could still do it, just to say I hadn’t broken the streak.  And sure enough, as I predicted last time, the 21-day cliché kicked into gear.  It soon got to the point where it was painful to go to bed without dashing one off.

But now that I’m officially fine, starting today I’m once again holding myself to the standard to 3 to 8 pages a day, because I now feel that I have the additional resources I need to keep that going. This week, I’ll talk about some of the conclusions I’ve drawn that have enabled me to start forming better habits.

How to Write Every Day (In Theory)

In the world of writing advice, there are certain maxims which get repeated ad nauseum: “Show, Don’t Tell”, “Be Specific, Not Generic”, “Write What You Know”, etc.  And we’ve talked about those a lot here.  But there’s one piece of advice that is more sacrosanct than all the others.  And it’s one that I haven’t talked a lot about for the unfortunate reason that I’ve never mastered it: “Write Everyday!” 

It’s not that I don’t believe in this rule—I do.  It’s not like I haven’t tried—I have.  It’s not like I don’t have several tricks to help me do it—In fact, I’ve been meaning to run a series called “How to Write Every Day” for some time, but I figured that I’d be a hypocrite if I ran such a series unless I’d written everyday for at least a month…but that month never arrived. 

It’s not that I don’t write, but my writing always tends to devolve into a vicious cycle of all or nothing.  One of my many discipline tricks has been to put that Google calendar in my sidebar…If you’ll look over there, you’ll see that it’s currently empty for the month of October, but you might recall that I was posting upwards of fourteen pages a day for the last two weeks of September. 

The crazy thing, of course, is that anyone who reads these regular blog posts knows that I obviously can write everyday.  I’m also pretty good at writing for others on deadline.  So why can’t I bring that discipline to specs that are the lifeblood of a writer’s career?  A big difference is that, with both the blog and the outside work, someone is waiting for the work.  That right there is a vote of confidence that I must know what I’m doing, and a good reason to make it “good enough,” rather than wait until I can perfect it. 

When writing on spec, however, I constantly lose steam, knowing that’s there’s no deadline and no consequences for sitting on the idea a little longer, hoping it’ll somehow hatch into something better, even through I know that doesn’t work. 

I’ve tried several tricks over the years that have greatly increased my discipline and output for several weeks at a time, though each one falters too often:
  • The Pomodoro Technique: Rather than stare at the blank page for hours on end without allowing yourself a break, this technique encourages you to break your writing day into “units” and set a timer (I recommend this one) for a series of 45 minute sessions.   Each unit should have a discrete, achievable goal, rather than just “finish my manuscript”.  The problem is that I keep expanding the definition of what a “unit” can be: I allow myself to re-read my old work, or read other screenplays, or blog, or, even worse, do internet research, until I finally admit that the units have become meaningless and give them up.
  • Internet “Freedom: One of the most frequent rules you hear from professionals is this: Write at a computer that’s not connected to the internet.  I agree that this is essential (see my weakness for so-called “internet research” above) but if you’re not rich enough to afford two computer workspaces, so what can you do?  The biggest boon my writing ever got was when I downloaded the $10 computer program called “Freedom”.  It “crashes” your internet for up to eight hours at a time.  The only way to get it back before then is to force quit Freedom andreboot your computer, which is just too onerous.  This really does force me to write, but of course it can be overcome as well.  Can’t get on the internet?  Then I’ll re-organize my hard drive!  Anything other than write!
  • Outside Discipline: This can take various forms.  I have writer friends who, on their own volition, call me up at random times and say “You should be writing!”, then ask me to return the favor at a time of my choosing. As I already mentioned, I’ve also created the Google Calendar that I keep in my toolbar.  The idea is that I’ll be ashamed for my blog readers to see that I’m not writing, which clearly doesn’t work very well. 
Obviously, one of the most poisonous ideas you can have is that writing should always be fun, (or else you’re “forcing it”, which is supposedly bad).  Instead, you have to transform writing from a hobby driven by inspiration into a discipline driven by the time of day.  Like any other job, you’ll have fun days and no-fun days, but you’ll still show up and produce on cue.

But how do you get to this state? I’ve recently been hearing about a new idea that really makes sense to me: whenever you’re dealing with anything that you know you should do but you don’t want to do, then there’s one all-important milestone: 21 days. 

This theory is that, no matter how much you don’t want to do something, if you know it’s worthwhile (flossing, sit-ups, jogging), and you force yourself to do it for 21 straight days, a switch goes off in your brain and it somehow becomes more troubling not to do it and than it is to do it.  

Why would I be more likely to succeed this time?  Looking at my calendars, I see that one big problem is my fluctuating page-a-day goals, they shoot up during bursts of inspiration, and then, since I’ve exceeded my goals for several days, I give myself a few days off, which somehow becomes several weeks, because I get out of the habit. 

So I’m also going to try out another trick: Manic depressives can’t get better until they admit that they’re just as sick when they’re up as they are when they’re down, so for the first time, I’m going to add page maximums as well as minimums.  I’m going to do at least three (because some days I do freelance writing and I don’t have a lot of time) and no more than eight, even on my free days.  The idea is to stop exhausting my creativity and try to always keep some in the tank instead. (When I’m done with the day’s pages, I can always work on upcoming treatments, so that I don’t have to take off any days inbetween projects.)

I’ve felt that switch flip with both blogging and exercise. If I can make it to 21 days with this, I think it’ll happen here too. I was going to try it and then write it up once it succeeded, but on second thought, for it to work, I’d better announce it now beforehand, which is what I’m doing now. 

So wish me luck, and I encourage any of you who have similar problems to play along.  Let’s try to flip that switch.  (And feel free to let me know in the comments any clever techniques I may not have heard of.)