My One-and-Only Beautiful Baby

“I have been working on the screenplay for 10 years.”

Few screenwriters and playwrights earn a living, and even fewer do so with only one or two produced works. To make writing a career, you must be receiving residuals and royalties from a larger collection of works that are being seen by audiences constantly. Yes, there are stories of one-hit wonders, able to survive for years on a single movie deal (few plays are that big, outside of Broadway musicals), but those are outliers.

The more scripts and manuscripts you have in your portfolio, the more likely you are to have the type of play or movie a producer wants.

After you complete a work, you should begin another project. After you type fadeout, curtain, or the end, take only a short break before beginning the next story. I do not wait to edit and refine the first work before starting the next.

Since a good writer often asks other writers and editors to review a manuscript, use the time while others have your work to brainstorm and plan the next. You might be surprised at how many ideas that did not fit in your first story will fit in a future work.

Do not let perfectionism getting your way. The more works you do write, the better each new work will be.

I cannot tell you that a screenplay, stage play, or novel should only take a year to write. I understand that many authors have full-time jobs and other obligations unconnected to writing. However, it should be painfully obvious that 10 years is much too long for finishing a screenplay.

An approach that works for me is to set a clear and realistic goal for producing more than one work per year. I attempt to complete four plays or screenplays each calendar year. Many of these will never be produced, but each script improves over previous works. When time permits, I do go back and update unproduced material, applying lessons that I have learned since the first draft was finished.

Blogging weekly and writing a monthly published column help me develop good working habits. Find a way to write on a deadline. Discipline is essential.

Most poets I know write dozens or hundreds of poems each year. They fill notebooks, experimenting and learning as they write. For many years, I filled one or more notebooks every two years with mediocre poetry, and that routine improved all my writing.

Likewise, short story authors, essayists, and other writers practice their forms and genres regularly. Again, my own experience is that blogging on a weekly basis and more frequently when possible improves all the writing on which I am working.

Unfortunately, I have met many aspiring screenwriters, playwrights, and novelists deeply attached to a single work. This is their “one and only beautiful baby” problem.

I cannot explain why these long form authors become stuck on single projects. If anything, I have far too many projects and struggle to focus on refining and marketing my works. For me, the thought of working on a single story day after day, year after year, is frightening. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I am certain I would begin to hate any work that demanded my attention day in and day out.

Writers should have more discipline than I demonstrate. Even my finished drafts should be polished and submitted to producers and publishers, but as I finish one work I am likely to begin two or three others. Therefore, a part of me does admire the writer able to focus single-mindedly on one manuscript.

The beautiful baby problem is not constructive. Spending months and years refining a single screenplay, stage script, or novel seldom results in production or publication. I have met many writers who optioned a script or had a play produced that wasn’t the work they intended to pitch to a producer. The cliché is true, producers will ask “What else do you have?”

I lose track of what I have written. When I go through my computer directories or the stacks of handwritten pages, I rediscover old works. Some writers don’t understand how I can do this, but I write so much that I could never remember it all. (I have tried to keep an inventory of projects, so I can return to old works later.)

Write, write, and write some more. Do not let your one-and-only get in the way of earning a living. Do not allow yourself to become “stuck” emotionally on the success of that one great story you need to share. Move forward and keep moving.

A Rewrite too Far?

One of my colleagues has been working on a novel for decades. Yes, decades. Another writer I know has revised a script for at least a decade.

I have piles of unfinished and neglected ideas, some two decades old, but I don’t have completed works that I have rewritten or revised more than once. One revision, excluding any adaptation, is about the limit of my patience. This leads me to the question:

When does a writer go a rewrite too far?

My answer is yet another question:

Are you a professional writer or writing for yourself?

You can be both, a professional writing for yourself, but most people I meet who are in the endless rewrite cycle are not paid professional writers. When you earn a living writing, you have to accept that “good enough” is often the best you can do within the limits of the publishing or production process.

I have writing that is strictly for me. If it sells someday, I suppose that might be good, but the personal writing is for my own pleasure, reflection, development, and even entertainment. No one demands I write X poems by date Y. My essays for myself rest in notebooks no one else has read or might ever read. Writing for me is not about any other audience, and it certainly is not about earning any income.

However, the writing I do with the intention of selling it is treated as a business investment. It is the difference between the work my trusted mechanic does on my car and the work he might do on the classic car in his garage at home. He has to get my car repaired on a schedule, for a reasonable price. The personal project? It can take him as many years as necessary. It is a hobby project. (My mechanic also knows some cars are transportation, while others are more. He “analyzes” my expectations as a customer. That’s what writers have to do, too.)

I can sense my colleagues and friends with decades-old projects glaring at the screen as they read my words. They would likely tell me, “I do plan to sell this project! I only want it to be good enough to sell!”

No. You’re attached to the work. A scriptwriter I know calls this “Falling in love with the pages.” You should be moving on to other projects, one right after another, instead of seeking affirmation that your beloved work has value. I’ve got news for you: if you haven’t sold a manuscript in five or six years, it probably will not sell. Ironically, it might sell if you write something else that does sell. When a writer sells a work, the next question tends to be, “What else do you have?” That’s when you can pitch the beloved manuscript.

I have scripts I love that have not sold. I have scripts I thought were so-so that have progressed much further along the production process. I have written articles I loved that were rejected and ones I disliked that received raves from the editor. That’s part of being a “professional” writer: you never know what will sell (though you can guess what won’t sell).

If you are a novelist, short story writer, or even an investigative reporter, the self-publishing movement means you don’t have to wait five or six years. If you submit a manuscript to 30 or 40 publishers without closing a deal, then take the self-publishing route. Submit the work to Amazon, Apple, or Barnes and Noble. If readers buy it, you can take comfort in knowing you were right and the publishers were wrong. If it doesn’t sell, at least you’ve moved ahead to the next work.

Moving ahead is essential. Dwelling on a single work might produce a single masterpiece, which is fine if that’s your goal. I’m all for literary writers following their dreams. I’m not a literary writer, though. I admit it. Yes, I write about social issues, and want to “change the world” with my works, but I write for general audiences. I have to move ahead because the audience is moving ahead and changing.

Screenwriting is different. Movie scripts can take a decade or more to go from page to screen. The upcoming “Cowboys and Aliens” was written in 1997. The film is being released during the summer of 2011. Movies are collaborative, requiring the efforts of hundred to even thousands of people. But, you still hope to sell the actual script rights (“optioned” to film) within two to three years.

During the two, three, or even more, years that a screenwriter or agent is pitching the idea, the writer has to keep writing. Having one script is insufficient. One screenwriter told me that a “serious” feature film writer should complete two 90-120 page screenplays a year. Don’t keep revising the unsold script — write something else. Again, when you sell a screenplay you will be asked what else you have waiting to be read.

I know this isn’t easy advice for many aspiring writers to read. It isn’t easy to write the next novel, non-fiction book, film, or stage play if you haven’t sold the work you love. Until that first work sells, it is like a gate is closed to future works.

What writers need to remember is that the manuscript you love might not be what the market wants. Publishing and producing are businesses. A great work might not have a large enough market for a publisher or production company to risk the investment. Rejection is not always an insult to your ability as a writer. Sometimes, it really isn’t the right work for the moment.

By writing and writing and writing some more, you increase the odds that one of your works meets the perceived marketplace. This isn’t to say publishers and producers are unfailingly accurate market forecasters, but they are the men and women you need to impress. If you have six or seven “good” manuscripts, that’s better than having one “great” work that doesn’t meet any perceived market opportunities.

Finally, something aspiring writers don’t necessarily realize.

When you do sell a manuscript, you usually end up making revisions or even a major rewrite. You’re really selling the original idea, not a work carved in stone. Most screenwriters I know end up doing one or two complete rewrites. The novelists I know also do major revisions before a book is finally published. “Sold” does not mean “finished.” Writing is unlike other art forms in that respect. A sculpture or painting is sold “as-is” but only the rarest of manuscripts is.