I have more ideas than I can handle and would really like to see your advice on the subject of controlling your creative process on the blog as well. I have taken some of your advice on making notes and planning out the script in as much detail as possible.
This is a great question because it’s something that will challenge you if/when you become a professional screenwriter. Unlike many other members of the filmmaking community, screenwriters can ‘stack’ projects – that is while you are writing another project, you can line up other future assignments. And if you become really successful, you can move into the role of producer as well. For example, here is the current list of projects with which screenwriter-producer Akiva Goldsman is attached to (from IMDBpro.com):
Fantastic Four – Producer, 2013, Treatment/outline
Primeval – Producer, 2012, Optioned property
Robotech – Producer, 2012, Script
Sgt. Rock – Producer2012, Optioned property
The Lonely Dog – Producer, 2012, Optioned property
Heart Shaped Box – Producer, 2011, Unknown
Lobo – Producer, 2011, Script
Lone Survivor – Producer, 2011, Script
The Ha-Ha – Producer, Director, 2011, Unknown
The Incredible Mr. Limpet – Producer, 2011, Optioned property
Untitled I Am Legend Prequel – Producer, 2011, Unknown
Amulet – Producer, Writer (screenplay), 2010, Unknown
In the Small – Producer, 2010, Script
That’s 13 projects, mostly as producer. How about screenwriter-producer Ron Bass:
A Season in Central Park – Writer (writer), 2011, Unknown
Teacher Man – Writer (screenplay), Producer, 2011, Script
True Believer – Writer (screenplay), 2011, Script
Boomsday – Writer (screenplay), 2010, Unknown
Player’s Rules – Writer (writer), 2010, Unknown
The Private Lives of Albert Einstein – Writer (screenplay), 2010, Scrip
What a Wonderful World – Writer (screenplay), Executive Producer, Producer, 2010, Unknown
That’s 7 projects, mostly as writer.
Even a pre-pro writer has to develop the use of the same mental ‘muscles’ that someone like Goldsman and Bass use because while writing a spec script, they typically have many other ideas they’re interested in writing – and then, of course, new ones pop up along the way.
So now, as a pre-pro, or later, as a pro, you need to learn how to manage your many story ideas while you maintain a clear focus on writing your current screenplay.
One aspect is simply managing your ideas and your writing — and this is where all my pontificating about writing being a two-fold process [prep-writing and page-writing] — can come in quite handy. The script you are currently writing is, obviously in the page-writing category. All your other ideas are in the prep-writing phase. That’s two different dynamics.
For the page-writing, you need to put ass on chair, close the door, turn off the phone, immerse yourself in your story world and characters and write. Whether it’s one page a day or 24 hour marathon writing sessions, it makes no difference to the basic requirement of disattaching yourself from this world and going into your story world.
For the prep-writing, it’s much looser dynamic. You have all these other story ideas. My guess is that you will naturally create a hierarchy of which one you want to do next, followed by another one you feel pretty good about, then a bunch of others sitting on a rather equivalent level of projects to develop for down the road.
One suggestion: Create a Word file for each project (or if you prefer, buy a spiral notebook for each project). Anytime a stray thought or possibility comes to mind for any of the projects, make sure you record that info in that story’s file. So part of this prep-writing dynamic is to be mindful of each of your story ideas, attuned to anything you experience in this life that may create an idea for any of your projects. You can do this anytime: In your car, at the grocery store, in the shower, on a run, sitting at your desk, in a coffee shop, in the library, and so on. It’s really about an awareness on your part that your creativity can ‘speak’ to you anytime and anywhere.
The bigger challenge is to focus on one or two and develop them so that once you finish the current script you’re writing, you’re ready to jump write into the page-writing phase for the next project. Suggestion: Pick one story that you feel has a strong story concept and about which you are passionate, and focus on developing that one. This requires a bit more structure than the generalized approach I described above. Here you will want to focus on these aspects of the story development process:
* Brainstorming plot points and possible plot elements
* Developing characters
* Structuring your plot
* Outline (if you’re into that approach to writing)
So you basically have three things going on in the course of your creative day:
* Page-writing: The time you seal yourself away to write the script you’re currently working on. You must consider this ‘sacred’ time – do not let anything get in the way of your commitment to finishing your current script.
* Prep-writing (general): Everything from generating story concepts to anytime you have any idea or thought about any of your various future projects – being attuned to whenever you creativity reacts to external stimuli of your day-to-day life and recording those ideas into a file for each of your stories.
* Prep-writing (specific): Cracking the next story you want to work on – research, brainstorming plot, character development, structuring plot, outline.
How to manage all that? How about this:
* Page-writing (current script): 2 hours before your day job.
* Prep-writing (general): Anytime during the day.
* Prep-writing (specific): 2 hours at night after your day job.
If you actually approach your time like this being conscious of what you’re doing, then you can manage to both write and prep your stories.
There’s one other dynamic: Managing your expectations. Since the page-writing process is a labor-intensive affair, one which challenges you throughout to find the resolve to keep pressing ahead, it’s quite typical for a writer to start to look at one of their future ideas and become enamored of it. Hey, maybe I should set aside the script I’m currently working on and write this other story – it seems better, more exciting, etc.
While your other story idea may end up being a better script, this is dangerous territory – because almost assuredly part of what’s going on here is the ‘grass is greener on the other side’ syndrome: The script you’re writing – the one you ‘know’ – is a slog; the script you hope to write – the one you don’t ‘know’ as intimately – appears to be easier / better to write. However if you set aside the script you’re writing and move onto the other project, here’s what will likely happen: A few months down the road, you’ll be writing this other story, and that process will be turning into a slog, then suddenly you look at some other of your story ideas, and you find yourself saying the exact same thing you did originally: Hey, maybe I should set aside the script I’m currently working on and write this other story – it seems better, more exciting, etc.
In other words, you end up with a stack of unfinished scripts.
My advice: Always finish the script you’re writing before moving into the page-writing phase of a future script. Do not use your interest in some other story as an excuse not to do the hard, necessary work you need to do to finish a screenplay.
How about you, GITS readers? How do you manage your ‘slate’ of story ideas? How do you balance your page-writing time and prep-writing time? And how do you manage your expectations about what you’re writing now and what you want to write next?
UPDATE: There are some superior ideas and approaches readers are posting in comments, so if you haven’t clicked through, I strongly encourage you to do so.
[Originally posted January 16, 2010]