"Writing is a personal responsibility"

Syd Field (Screenwriting Lecturer)

What drives us to write? A spiritual desire to create art, or a more prosaic need to pay the bills? Whatever the reason, the act of writing demands discipline, effort, commitment and, perhaps above all, motivation. Motivation is the X factor that drives you to sit in front of the computer and move your fingers every day, no matter how much you hate the thought and no matter how badly things are going. If you lose motivation, writing becomes a chore and before long all those odd jobs that you’d put off for years start getting done. You’re only too happy to decorate or mend the shed or wash the car. Daytime television takes on a strange allure. Anything to avoid staring at the damn computer.

Writing a screenplay, whether destined to put an Oscar on your mantel or to line a litter tray, requires regular hard work towards goals of self-improvement and sales, and involves careful planning, research and execution. Neglect any of these areas at your peril. The best way to build your confidence and improve as a writer is to plan regularly, research regularly and write regularly. Or, to put it more simply, wise up and adopt a professional attitude.

The chief obstacle to motivation is fear: fear of groping around in the dark; fear of not being good enough; fear of embarrassment, defeat, failure. One of the aims of this book is to provide the knowledge you’ll need to conquer your fear and motivate yourself, allowing you to write with confidence and produce higher quality material.

Finding Your Voice

The prospects of fortune and success in a glamorous industry certainly provide incentives for screenwriters, but don’t become sidetracked from the writer’s greatest motivation of all: finding something you just have to say; something that makes you lick your lips in anticipation of booting up the computer every day.

Finding your voice is a tricky concept to explain. It’s a combination of saying what you want to say, in the way you want to say it, and developing an ability to say it with an originality and flair that makes the combination special. To succeed, your work needs a consistency of vision and a style of execution that elevates it above the average. It should show you in the best possible light; as a creative artist who is professional enough to learn and employ the craft of screenwriting.

Unfortunately, finding your voice is, like everything else, a process – it doesn’t happen spontaneously. Don’t be surprised when your first efforts appal you and bear little resemblance to what you want to say, or how. It’s that way for most of us. Don’t become demotivated and give up because quality can only be arrived at via quantity. If you realise this, you’ll be able to expel your initial garbage and write past it. Remember – nothing good is written, it’s always rewritten.

Another obstacle is that the prospect of revealing one’s innermost idiosyncrasies is often acutely embarrassing. But it is precisely this quality that the industry is looking for – a new voice with something different to say, and a fresh, individual way of saying it. Far too many writers hide their real voices behind façades of structure and plot, leaving their work empty and formulaic. Write your individuality onto the page. I would rather read a flawed script with personality shining through than a technically proficient but soulless script. The former can be remedied; the latter usually cannot.

Art Vs. Craft

It’s dangerous for a screenwriter to view himself solely as an artist. A talented student once told me, "I don’t need to learn structure – I want to write a film, not a movie." He never completed a first draft. If you share this highbrow self-image, maybe you should consider other forms of expression: painting, sculpture, novels or poetry. I’m certainly not denigrating such endeavours, but screenwriting is a synergy of craft and art, in that order. It allows plenty of room for creativity – within the parameters of a flexible structure and inflexible format. First learn the craft and then supply the talent because (unless you are truly exceptional) without the artifice the art will not be enough.

Discipline

If your embryonic writing projects are legion, all once promising but now discarded, or you make good progress until you reach the final straight, you are fleeing the most basic discipline of writing – Finish What You Start. For most of us the reality is that little comes easily. Hard work, hard thought and hard choices are the order of the day, every day. To break through this mental barrier you must develop a disciplined approach that treats writing as the bedrock of your daily life.

One obstacle is that writing sometimes doesn’t really feel like work. It’s so easy to duck out of. You’re at home so you can watch TV, get a sandwich, send emails, whatever. Train yourself to treat writing as a job. If you can’t write at home, find office space. If you have a full-time occupation, then writing becomes your part-time one. If you don’t, then write nine-to-five, or if you’re a night owl, nine pm to five am. You alone can decide how much time you can afford. Tuck the writing in comfortably around your commitments, or vice-versa. But be prepared for the possibility that if you simply can’t spare enough time and/or energy, or after months you’d still rather have an enema than turn on the computer then, like anything in life, if you can’t enjoy it you’d probably be better off doing something else. As Quentin Crisp put it, "If at first you don’t succeed, then darling, failure may be your forte."

Writing a Screenplay by John Costello is out now. To buy a copy, please follow one of the links provided and support Kamera by doing so.