Updated: Apr 20, 2018
Studies have shown that 8 out of 10 people will not keep their New Years Resolutions. That study was conducted by me, in my head, just now. Okay. That may not be ‘accurate’ in the traditional sense, but it’s okay because my resolution for 2018 is to be more inaccurate when it comes to citing studies. However, it is a fact universally acknowledged that more people tend to abandon their resolutions than actually see them through. Which I think is a shame. Because, for all that can be said about New Year’s Eve and the concept of resolutions, the New Year is a time of hopefulness and a chance to start fresh.
So, while I don’t suggest screenwriters should come up with lofty, unrealistic goals for the year (as we all have, let’s be honest) like ‘I’m going to write a screenplay every month’, I do believe that the New Year is the perfect opportunity to come up with some realistic goals for the year, and practical resolutions that will help you achieve those goals.
THE BASIC WRITING RESOLUTIONS
There are three resolutions that I believe all writers should have, regardless of what their goals are. They’re the basic principles of success in writing:
- Write every day.
- Finish what you start.
- Write something you like.
If you’re not doing all three of these things, you’re just destined to go around in circles. These three basic resolutions set you up for success because they, respectively, make you a better writer, a more prolific and productive writer, and a happy writer. They’re also incredibly easy resolutions to keep. There’s nothing unrealistic about ‘finishing what you start’. There’s nothing difficult about writing something you want to write. And there are hundreds of apps designed to help you write on the go, so there’s no longer an excuse not to write every single day.
It’s also the basic framework for everything that follows. When I say they’re the basics, I mean it. Without these things, you’re not a screenwriter. You’re just a person with some screenwriting software. Professional painters become successful not because they’re ‘naturally gifted’, but because they put the time in daily and they do work they love. So it is with writers, and with poets, and all forms of creative expression. Build the muscle, finish your work, and make sure you’re having fun while doing it.
SET GOALS AND REWARDS
I think we can all agree that writing is usually fun. Sometimes, however, there are days where it feels like trying to get water from a rock. It just feels impossible. Those days are typically the days that resolutions get broken. It’s just another day of staring at a screen or a page, hoping the words will fall from your fingertips magically. It rarely works that way. And it’s even worse if you have no endpoint or deadline.
To be completely transparent, I’m terrible with deadlines (Kate will back me up on that!). Nine times out of ten, I submit the work right on the wire or just afterwards. It’s now at the point that I ask my writing clients to give me a deadline one week sooner than the real deadline… And that’s because I’m a perfectionist, like many people. But, being a perfectionist, I need that deadline. Without it, I’d truly never finish anything. I’d just be rewriting sentences and debating whether or not I should leave in that joke about the Russian guy with the poodles. A deadline is a kind of goal, an endpoint for you to reach. But a goal needs a motivating factor. You need a reward.
There’s the old ‘Pavlovian Conditioning’ theory, where some Russian dude called Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to respond a certain way when an action was taken. The dogs were probably poodles, but I’m not sure, so don’t reference me in academic reports (again, living up to my resolution!).
Pavlovian conditioning works for humans, too. We feel good when we’re rewarded for our work, and it makes us want to do it again. It’s why bodybuilders have a ‘cheat day’ as a kind of emotional reward for their hard work, spending hours pursuing near-unrealistic and visually exhausting muscle mass.
For writers, I believe setting a daily page count is perfect. Once you hit that number, you get a reward. That could be chocolate, or a movie, or whatever else makes you happy. But the most important thing is to establish that the reward for hitting that page count is small. Big rewards should be saved for the accomplishment of the overall goal. Basically, don’t buy a new car every day that you write five pages. That’s a terrible idea, unless you’re super rich. On the off-chance you are super rich, contact me, because I’d be more than willing to be your token poor friend.
Self-doubt and criticism plagues everybody, not just artists. Similarly, there will be times where you’ll feel you’ve failed in your writing. A scene may not be playing right; one character isn’t working; the theme is all wrong, etc. You’ll convince yourself that you’re not a good writer and that this whole screenplay is a huge mistake, and probably the thing that will tank your career for good. Don’t believe that. One bad day doesn’t make you a bad writer. Nobody can write great stuff every day. It’s impossible. I’m pretty sure Shakespeare’s early drafts were full of his bad day writings. Just know that tomorrow will be better, and move on.
When you fail, the best thing to do is to acknowledge it, but support yourself. Reward yourself if you hit your daily goal. Tomorrow, you might think differently about what you wrote. And when it comes to failure, whether it’s minor (I forgot to write today) or major (the whole screenplay needs to be rewritten from scratch), embrace it. A failure is its own win. You made a mistake, but you recognized it, and you can work to avoid it next time.
It’s kind of like making a disastrous cake: you can complain about it and waste time going through endless amounts of turmoil about ‘what could have been’, or you can recognize what happened and prepare for the next try. Failure is a cruel mistress, but she will guide you like a Russian dude with some poodles.
DEVELOP A ROUTINE
No writer is the same. Some writers get up and write at 5am. Others write at four in the afternoon. Some write on laptops in coffee franchises named after fictional astrological money (hehe get it? Starb— never mind), while others write on their phones in the bathroom. The only shared element is that many writers have a routine. From everything I’ve read, that’s the secret to keeping a New Year’s Resolution: routine. You have to condition your brain for work, like a Russian guy with his poodles. Where do you write? When? And why? Do you work better to music, or to silence, or to the bustling of people?
These questions summarize the routine you should follow. For me, I’m at my most productive when I’m in my office at 10am-ish, preferably with the door open so I can hear the sounds of nature. I rarely use music — only during big emotional moments or setpieces.
The routine also allows you to write on-the-go. If you go on vacation to a ski resort, for example, and you know what your routine is — you write in your living room at 11pm, and you love the sound of traffic for some reason — you can easily conjure up that same feeling. Find a YouTube clip of traffic, settle on the couch at 11pm and get writing.
I have no scientific basis for this claim, but I think ‘writers’ block’ often happens when your routine has been broken. If I try and write at 6pm, I struggle. I can push through, but it’s a real slog. At 10am, I can get through a whole bunch of pages. Having that allotted time to just sit and write is a godsend.
NEW YEAR, NEW YOU?
Hm. Probably not. New year, same you. You’re cool, don’t worry about it. But every writer should be focused on bettering themselves with every passing year, and resolutions are a good way of doing that. Ultimately, the only way to keep a resolution is all dependent on you. What do you want to achieve? How are you going to achieve it? How do you work best? Find something that works for you.
The only resolution you absolutely need to keep is to not give up. Write as much as you can, submit your work, get it seen, network. Whatever you do, do more of it. Don’t stop. You’re a writer. Whatever resolution you come up with, stick with it.
Just keep writing.
And make like a Russian dude and train those— [Oy with the Poodles already!]