There are times when writing can be exciting, effortless, and fun.
And then there are all the other times: when you don’t know where to start, or can’t remember why you started, or when you’re buried so deep you don’t even know which way to dig to get yourself out. In those moments, writing can feel like the loneliest job in the world.
We’ve had the pleasure of hosting some talented, dedicated and hardworking filmmakers on this blog. Writers who produce, directors who write, people who have hustled to get where they are. People who have failed until they succeeded. People worth emulating. Let’s revisit some of their stories for advice on common writer frustrations.
1. Sporadic Progress
Writing can come easy when the inspiration strikes. But the difference between a prolific writer and an unemployed one often comes down to who is willing to do the work even when they aren’t feeling it.
Creed II writer Juel Taylor works with his writing partner, Tony Rettenmaier seven days a week, inspired or not.
The consistency of doing something every day adds up, you know what I mean? The process for us is just being around each other and having projects to do, and showing up to ‘work’ every day. Even if it’s small, the repetition of doing it all the time is where the output comes from.
When inspiration wanes, when notes come piling in, writers can despair of ever making sense from their pieces of story. Even subconsciously, the temptation to skip out (or sleep in) and avoid facing that blinking cursor is strong. Take heart; if you continue to show up for your script and do what you can, your daily efforts will add up to major progress.
“A writer writes, always.” –Larry Donner, Throw Momma From the Train
2. Getting Overwhelmed
Life, right? Something unexpected is always coming at you, and when the tyranny of the urgent kicks in and reorganizes your priorities for you, writing is usually the first thing to go.
Maintaining stability and limiting the pressures you face in other areas of your life can be critical. Writer/director Xavier Burgin made choices as an aspiring filmmaker to mitigate financial burdens in order to give himself the best chance at success.
You really need some type of support system that allows you to focus on your stuff. With me, for example, one of the great things I have is family out here in Los Angeles, so after school I decided to live with them so I can focus more on my work … Honestly, the biggest difference for a lot of filmmakers is not going to be your talent … Usually the folks who are getting a lot of attention just have more resources than you.
How can you take advantage of the resources available to you in order to get your writing on track? We challenge you to really think deeply about what sort of help you need, and where you might ask for it—even if it means making a life adjustment.
3. Losing Steam
It’s easy to wander in the weeds of a script until your desire to write it—which initially seemed like a chugga-chugga freight train—is at a gasping crawl.
What gets that engine going again? Pressure. When Craig Johnson conceived a feature as his film school thesis (instead of the more typical short), he committed to a hard deadline.
I knew that there was a screenplay reading offered by NYU … So I called up the dean of the school and I said, ‘Book me for that first slot,’ which was something like a month away. And I told him, ‘Invite people because I’m going to have a great screenplay ready to go.’
Armed only with a vague idea, Craig wedged himself into a very tight writing schedule. Call it overly optimistic, but one thing this plan did not allow was room to get bored or lose focus. Craig had to keep moving in order to finish on time—and the script he wrote turned into his first feature, True Adolescents.
4. Giving Up
Sev Ohanian and Aneesh Chaganty got their big break when the success of their digital short Seeds led to an opportunity to make a feature. But they weren’t sure that the same technology-driven storytelling style would translate to a feature film. That nagging doubt persisted as they worked on the script for Searching, a film told entirely on a computer monitor.
Rather than shelving their story about a father searching for his missing daughter online, or turning it into a safer, more conventional narrative, they continued experimenting until they had a breakthrough. As Sev explains:
One day it was like this beautiful thing where he called me saying he had an idea for an opening scene, and I told him that I had an idea for an opening scene, and we pitched each other the exact same idea. And that’s the opening montage you see in the movie. We knew from that moment that we had an idea that would transcend the gimmick. It would be emotional and human, and make you care about the characters, and if all goes well, that opening scene would make you also forget that what you’re watching is happening on the computer screen.
Every writer has a “graveyard” folder full of abandon scripts. Some ideas just aren’t meant to be movies. But if you surrender every time you hit a bump in the road you’ll never finish anything at all!
Remember, if it was easy, everyone would do it.
5. Being Secretive
A lot of writers are very tight-lipped about their ideas. They’re paranoid about some other hack stealing their amazing, unprecedented, utterly unique and brilliant concept. The reality? Most writers and producers are so preoccupied with their own babies, they aren’t interested in kidnapping yours.
When you hide your light under a bushel you might be missing an opportunity to make your idea a reality. For instance, Bruce Romans jogged his way into a pitch meeting that accidentally broke his TV career.
I came into it backwards. I had written a small independent film that was getting made. Just with dumb luck, I was jogging with a friend of mine. He was a television executive at Fox but he was only in charge of comedy, because the networks divide drama and comedy into two different departments. I told him an idea I had and he said, ‘Why don’t you come into Fox tomorrow? I’m going to walk you across the hall to my counterpart in drama. Tell her your idea and we’ll see if she likes it.’ It was a pitch meeting. I didn’t even know what a pitch meeting was at the time.
So if you have an idea you’re excited about, share that excitement with the world. Shout it from the rooftops! You’ll get great feedback, generate support from your network, and who knows … you might just kickstart your career!
The most important takeaway here is to remember that even the best writers struggle sometimes. But if you take your craft seriously, persevere, and continue to improve, these common obstacles will become easier to overcome. For more great practical filmmaking advice, read our full interviews with Juel, Xavier, Craig, Sev, and Bruce.