How do you find time to write a screenplay, and how long does it take to write one?
Almost all big-time professional screenwriters worked at something else for years before they made their first dollar from screenwriting, and/or had long dry spells between screenwriting gigs.
- Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester-by-the-Sea) wrote industrial shows and speeches for the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) was a musician and tended bar.
- Dan Gillroy (Nightcrawler) was an admin for a theatrical producer and wrote for Variety.
- Eli Attie (House, The West Wing) wrote speeches for Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
How can you get stuff written when you’ve got a day job, and maybe family responsibilities as well?
The obvious answers are:
- Get up early or stay up late
- Write on weekends
- Write during your breaks and lunch hours
- Write on vacation
- Write on the job – if it’s OK with your boss (see below)
- Write during your commute – as long as you’re not driving
I wrote the first ten pages of my first screenplay under idyllic conditions – on a porch overlooking a meadow next to a creek at my in-laws’ off-the-grid ranch high in the mountains of Southern Wyoming. I had three kids under six at the time, but there were lots of relatives around to prevent them from falling in the creek.
I wrote the rest of the first draft in a spiral notebook on the subway on the way to and from my lawyer job in downtown LA. Then I wrote my second draft in Final Draft while taking a rewrite class at UCLA Extension.
Finding screenwriting time when you’ve got a day job is especially important for a small-time professional screenwriter, since it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be able to support yourself from screenwriting alone.
What kinds of day jobs are best for screenwriters? There are many possibilities:
- Jobs that are very undemanding and allow you to write on the job. For example, I once had a summer office job that required only about 30 minutes a day of actual work. The rest of the time I was free to write.
- Freelance jobs that pay well on an hourly basis, so you don’t have to work too many hours to support yourself and can spend the rest of your time writing.
- Jobs in the entertainment industry that expose you to contacts who can get you gigs (although these are often low-paying and exhausting).
- Jobs that involve writing of any kind, so you can get better at it.
- Jobs that develop your expertise in an area (e.g., the military, espionage, law, law enforcement, medicine, etc.) so that you can write about it realistically. You can also market this expertise to potential clients.
The worst type of job for an aspiring small-time professional screenwriter is:
- physically and/or mentally exhausting, and
- unconnected with writing or entertainment
If you’re stuck in a “worst” job, you could focus on getting a “best” one as part of your small-time professional screenwriter career path.
Reclaiming Your Screen Time
If you don’t think you have time to write, check how much time you’re spending farting around on your phone every day.
iPhones have the Screen Time function, and there are lots of apps that can measure how much time you’re frittering away.
You can set Screen Time limits and use apps like Forest (simultaneously, if needed) to break your phone addiction and free up your time and mental bandwidth for writing.
Hitting a Deadline
One nice thing about screenwriting contests, labs, etc. is that they have deadlines, which can be very motivating for some people.
Taking a class, finding a writing buddy, or joining a writing group (where you’re scheduled to present your pages for discussion on a specific day) can also compel you to get work done.
There’s also WRAC:
What do you do when you can’t get the words on the page and no one is around to keep you accountable? WRAC, Writer Accountability, was created to help writers set goals, be accountable and share tips and advice in a supportive community.
And if you feel like you’re suffering from writer’s block, check out this article.
How long does it take?
Big-time professional screenwriters typically get 12 weeks to write a first draft, as John August notes in his excellent blog.
Shorter deadlines may be compelled by production requirements.
For example, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote The Fault in Our Stars in six days. John August wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in three weeks.
On the other hand, Dan Gilroy noted in this interview, “If I had a year, I’d spent 11 months thinking about the idea and then four weeks writing.”
When I’m paid by the hour to write scripts, I need to keep track of my time. For example, it took me 67 hours (spread over several weeks) to go from a client’s basic idea (mail order brides + neo-Nazis in Ukraine) to a detailed treatment and then to a first draft of the script Odessa.
As with many things related to screenwriting, there’s no one right answer to the question, “how long does it take to write a script?”