Ten years ago, I wrote a little book called The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters and it literally changed my life. When I set out to write it, I just wanted to learn from successful writers. I wanted to pick their brains and model their writing habits, and hopefully inspire other writers to model excellence. Little did I know it would help me not only become a professional screenwriter, but also ignite the teacher in me, transforming me into a writer who teaches to a teacher who writes.
Over the years, thanks to its best-selling status and especially the positive feedback from readers, the publisher kept asking me to revise the book for subsequent editions, but I kept turning it down. After all, the habits wouldn’t change, so I felt it wouldn’t be worth putting out the same book with a new cover just for profit’s sake.
But when they asked me to update it for a tenth anniversary edition, I finally agreed. Why then? Because I felt proud of the fact that this book had remained in print for this long, and I wanted to celebrate that achievement. But I also wanted it to be worthwhile not only to new buyers, but to those who owned the first edition. Publishing rules require new editions to have a minimum of 25 percent new material, so new A-list writers were added, blurbs were edited down, and while the habits remain the same, I believe the additional advice given by these new writers is worth more than the price of this new edition.
These new writers include: Terry Rossio (Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean I-IV); Tony Gilroy (State of Play, Duplicity, Michael Clayton, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Identity, The Devil’s Advocate); Derek Haas & Michael Brandt (2 Fast 2 Furious, Wanted, 3:10 to Yuma, The Double, The Courier); Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, We Bought a Zoo); Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force One, Hollow Man, End of Days, Castle); Bill Marsilii (Déjà vu, The Wind in the Willows) and Laeta Kalogridis (Night Watch, Alexander, Pathfinder, Shutter Island, Battle Angel).
And here is some of the new advice you’ll find in this new edition. I hope you find it as useful and inspiring as I did when I interviewed them:
On trusting your instincts
Aline Brosh McKenna: It’s important to look at the kind of stories you yourself enjoy, what are the movies that you run out to see on the first day, some people have a wide assortment of genres that they like and some don’t, and being in touch with yourself as an audience member is an important part of being a writer, learning to listen to your own inside voice telling you what you’re interested in, and that’s the voice I try to listen to that leads me to the most interesting places. One of the things about screenwriting is that there is a strong tradition of writing in genres. When I talk to people who are first starting out I always advise them to pick a genre, and innovate inside of the genre. Finding what’s unique is finding your own voice.
On the crucial importance of the concept
Bill Marsilii: The concept is the most critical aspect of a screenplay, especially for someone trying to break in. You can be the most talented jockey in the world but if you sit on top of a mule, you’ll never be able to race with professionals. I see too many beginners ignoring this point. They see a movie and then try to write one just like it. I don’t need a new writer to come up with another buddy cop script. There are already plenty of pros that can do it and do it very well. But if you have an idea that nobody else is writing out there or has done before, even if it’s not executed that well, Hollywood will buy it from you and throw 12 writers at it. And ideally, once you’re in the door, you’ll have a chance to write something else.
On finding the muse
Michael Brandt: Find the right music and turn it up loud. Writing for me comes in bursts, and a great burst of 45 minutes is usually better than 5 hours of forced typing.
Derek Haas: I have a time of day in which I know I’m at my best... the morning. Then I turn off the Internet and get to work.
Aline Brosh McKenna: I wish I had rituals like other writers. But I have found over years that there is no summoning the muse, there is sitting in chairs.
Terry Rossio: The only odd thing I do is take long drives. I will intentionally schedule a two, three or four hour drive when I need to make a lot of progress on a project. Sometimes I’ll pick up a Stephen King book; for some reason, the rhythm of his writing, the casual ease of it, helps me believe that I can do it, too. Best to not try combine these two techniques.
On facing the blank page
Tony Gilroy: Except for the first day’s work on a script, I never really have to look at a blank page. I like to edit the final printout of a day’s writing right before going to sleep, so in the morning, I have something to work on, which builds up steam for that day’s writing.
Terry Rossio: I do have one trick ... when the deadline is really upon me, and I must sit and write for many hours straight, I’ll play a single song, set to repeat. One song, over and over. This creates, over time, an odd, hypnotic atmosphere, as if time is not moving at all.
Laeta Kalogridis: Get some exercise and drink a lot of tea. Turn on the music really loud and close the door. AND TURN OFF THE INTERNET CONNECTION.
On Writer’s Block
Andrew W. Marlowe: I got over the fear of the blank page when I learned that it’s okay to write shitty stuff. Writing the shitty stuff is the portal to writing the good stuff. So when you think of it, there’s no such thing as “writer’s block.” There’s simply “writer’s embarrassment” because anybody can put words on the page. You’re physically capable of putting words on the page. You just don’t want to because you know they’re shitty. You’re embarrassed by them. But if you can get over that embarrassment and give yourself permission to write absolute crap, generally by the third or fourth page, stuff becomes good. Or you’ll find something meaningful or an idea worth servicing. You have to give yourself permission to write poorly before you can write well.
On Making the Time to Write
Bill Marsilii: Having two jobs, the only time I had was writing after midnight. I was also able to think about my script during my commute, which was close to three hours alone in the car daily, where I was working on my dialogue out loud. When I talk to aspiring writers, I often use the analogy of being in love. If you first meet that special person, where you’re thrilled and excited and your I.Q. jumps 20 points whenever you’re around them, you’re not going to say, “How can I find the time to date? I work 40 hours a week! I’m going to come home, take a shower and go back out again?! I’m tired! And Battlestar Galactica is on!” No, when you’re love, you’ll be writing little love notes at work and wanting to spend all your free time with that person. You will call her late at night just to say goodnight and hear her voice. Feel that way about your screenplay. Hold out for a soul mate of an idea. When you’re in love with what you’re writing, you’ll find the time to write.
On making the script as good as it can be
Tony Gilroy: Be hard on yourself before anyone else. It always astonishes me how many writers just want to be told how great their writing is. If you give them a note like, “This is a good idea, but your third act is really the beginning of a movie, you should really explore it,” their answer is, “Do you know how long I’ve been working on this?!” Anybody who has a moment’s hesitation about throwing away anything that doesn’t work, no matter how hard it was to acquire, is fooling themselves. It also astounds me that writers who have seen thousands and thousands of movies write something that doesn’t even look like a movie. You’re writing a movie. You have a movie in your head and you try to describe it as best you can. When you’re reading a script, you can tell whether the writer can see the movie or not. If you can’t see the movie, it’s worthless.
Bill Marsilii: The funny thing about Hollywood is that they want you to be original just like some other hit movie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “We want something original and edgy, Tim Burton-esque.” And I’d think, “Gee, Tim Burton has already done Tim Burton-esque!” But this is what you will deal with once you break in. Before this, however, as you work on your spec, it’s crucial to avoid “first draft theater,” where it seems that what you’re reading is literally the first thing that popped into the writer’s head. They didn’t bother to examine it, to make it better, or to find a more clever or original way of writing it. They just settled for the first thing they could think of. One of the ways I ensure that I go beyond the cliché is to go through a process I call, “Doing the 20’s.” I’ll be writing a particular moment, and I’ll stop and force myself to list twenty different ways to do it, like twenty cool ways my two characters could meet, or twenty cool chase scenes. Because as hard as it can be to come up with a great idea, I’ve found that it’s just as hard to come up with twenty bad ones. The further you get down the list, the better they’ll start to get. If you make yourself write twenty ideas, not worrying about whether they’re any good or not, often the ninth or tenth one will be golden because you didn’t settle for the first thing that popped into your mind.
On the Reader Being Your First Audience
Michael Brandt: Write for the reader. The first twenty times your script is read, it won’t be by a director, an actor, or the head of a studio. It’ll be by a reader who has a stack of hundreds of scripts to read. You have to show him or her the movie on the page... and that means forgetting all the bullshit rules and just writing to entertain the hell out of the reader. Make it come to life on the page.
Andrew W. Marlowe: Never be boring on the page. It doesn’t mean dazzle me with action or have crazy stuff happening on every page. You have an obligation that your audience be emotionally engaged in whatever story you’re telling.
On Handling Rejection
Michael Brandt: We learned a long time ago that rejection has to do with so many factors that are out of your control. We’ll get fired off a project one day and then hired by the same studio and producers the next day on something else.
Andrew W. Marlowe: You have to learn that failing is part of the process. Execs are paid to say no, and you’re asking them to invest a lot of money in something they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. You basically saying to them, “Look, this is a roulette wheel and I’m number eight, and I want you to put $80,000 (WGA minimum scale) on number eight in the hopes that it will turn out.” That’s a lot of money in any business. Would you pay yourself $80,000 in the hopes you get a financial return on it? Until you get yourself a track record, you’re going to hear a lot of no’s. But the trick is to listen to the kind of no’s you’re getting. Because there are no’s that come with encouragement, like “It was a good story and you’re a good writer.” That’s a version of a yes in this business, “Yes, we can do business together in the future. Maybe if I have a script that needs rewriting, I’ll hire you because you have a great original voice.” Those are the good kind of no’s. Now, if you keep getting, “No, don’t waste our time, we never want to see you again,” then you need to recalibrate and keep honing your craft until people respond positively to your writing.
Bill Marsilii: I’m developing a thicker skin as I go on. When you work on a project that doesn’t become a movie or that comes very close, you have to allow yourself to grieve a bit. But you can’t go on too long feeling devastated and never writing again. The best way to get past it is to fall in love again with something else. As a professional, you always have several projects in various stages of development. The more stuff you’re excited about, the less painful it gets when one of them dies. There’s this great moment in Ed Wood, where Johnny Depp is on the phone talking to a studio executive, with this huge smile on his face, “So, what did you think of my movie? … Worst movie you ever saw? … Well, my next one will be better... Hello?” and this whole time, his smile never flinches. As upsetting as it can get, sometimes you just have to move on and say, “My next one will be better.”
Aline Brosh McKenna: Rejection doesn’t just happen for projects. It happens in everywhere in life so I deal with rejection the way I tell my kids how to deal with it. I tell them, even the highest paid baseball players miss more times than when they hit the ball. But you’re in a creative endeavor and sometimes people don’t love your work, but for some reason, I got comfortable with it really early. Some people will be your fans and love your work and help you succeed and others won’t. That’s just endemic to the job.
Terry Rossio: My strategy is to be involved in multiple projects. When one goes bad, you move on to the other. It’s also good to work in various media, some of which can be more easily controlled. If a film project goes south, then I have my novel, my play, my graphic novel, etc.