10 parting words of advice

by Allen Palmer on November 12, 2013

in Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Girl getting on school bus

In my last post, I talked about my final day with the departing AFTRS Grad Cert Screenwriting cohort of 2013, and promised I’d share my ten final tips. Here they are:

1. Write religiously

Without the regular deadlines of a program like the Grad Cert, it’s easy to lose momentum and conviction. You need to create times in your life that are sacrosanct and not let anything stop you from being at your desk at those times. You don’t feel “inspired” today? Please.

If you’re like me you’ll also find that one hour a day for six days a week is going to be a lot more use to you than a solitary session of six hours. That’s because it allows you to better harness the power of your subconscious in solving the problems that are inevitable when you’re writing a screenplay – particularly in the early stages of shaping the story where progress tends to be not linear but circular.

You’re waiting to write in the holidays? You’re kidding yourself. Chip away, every day.

2. Get the right second job

For the first 20-odd years of my life as a screenwriter, I paid scant attention to my finances, feeling that it was a distraction from the main game of writing but that was just plain denial.

I think that, as a writer, you need to recognise that you don’t have one job; you have two. The first is writing. The second is supporting your writing. And if you don’t do that second job well, good luck with the first.

You’ll have to make a tough choice about the level of income you need, recognising that earning more will generally involve creating less, and that earning less might mean creating more but living like a hermit. My time working as a housekeeper in Surrey, England, was a boom time for my writing but a very slow time romantically.

I actually think it’s worthwhile investing time in developing some sort of business outside of screenwriting because success isn’t going to happen overnight. It might take 5 or 10 years. Or more. I (grudgingly) developed skills as a copywriter and that let me earn $100/hr or more. But that is an entirely separate craft that took time to master.

You might be able to make a living teaching yoga. Or baking cupcakes. Or being a Wedding Singer. Obviously it’s a delicate balance. You don’t want this sideline to start consuming too much of your emotional and creative energies. But living on the poverty line isn’t nearly as much fun as it appears in La Boheme, so I encourage you very strongly to get this part of your life sorted so that you are then better able to focus on your creative pursuit.

3. Play hard to get

Sometimes you’ll pitch a half-formed idea and a producer will say, “That sounds great. I want to option it!”. My advice generally is to graciously decline.

When you team up with a producer – I don’t care who they are – before your story has the shape you want for it, they will try to turn your story into their story. In this situation, the role Jake Gyllenhaal played in Brokeback Mountain can, in the space of a couple of script meetings, end up going to his sister, Maggie.

I know it might mean working without any development money, but in the long term (and, that’s the only timeframe that is relevant for writers) you are more likely to get your story to where you want to take it, and find the appropriate producer for that story, if you don’t drop your knickers for the first producer who comes through the door.

Decline the pitiful sum of money they’ll offer you for the option, ignore the huge boost that your shrivelled ego is craving, and take the time to have your story say what you want it to say.

That doesn’t mean that you should work in total isolation.

4. Listen openly (but accept discerningly)

There are two mistakes you can make as a writer in relation to feedback. One is not to listen to anyone. And the other is to give credence to every crackpot who offers you an opinion.

If people aren’t responding to your screenplay, it’s not their fault. It generally means that something isn’t right with the work. They might not be able to articulate exactly what that errant element is, and they might drive you crazy with their helpful “suggestions”, but you should try to dig down and discover what is at the root of their dissatisfaction.

In the past, if I got a note that didn’t make sense, I wasn’t shy in pointing out why that change probably wasn’t such a great idea – and I’d throw in a story lesson free of charge.

But these days, even when I get feedback that I don’t necessarily agree with, I try think to, “OK, how can I take this note – however tangentially – and make the screenplay better?”. That approach has worked a lot better for me – both in terms of my work and in terms of relationships with my collaborators.

5. Watch attentively

If you want to grow as a writer, you can’t just watch episode after episode of North American comedy, Danish crime, or British period drama. You need to hit the pause button every now and again and try to work out what’s going on under the bonnet.

Examine the characterisation in 30 Rock, Arrested Development and Community. What is it about the individual characters – and the overall orchestration of the cast – that engages and delivers conflict?

Look at the way the story develops within a series of The Killing, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad – how do they keep you hooked?

If you want to master your craft, park the popcorn occasionally and pick up a pen.

6. Roam distantly

While I think it’s important to watch film and TV to deepen your understanding of your craft, as a creative I think you need to be cautious about spending too much time consuming other people’s art. Let me clarify.

A work of art is someone else’s response to life. A play, a novel or a film is an experience, observation or perspective that’s already been digested, processed and expressed. While another person’s art can obviously influence and inspire, I think that of more value in the creation of your own art is experiencing life in the raw.

Get out there in the world – without a pair of earphones or your smartphone – look around you and listen.

Travel. Because when we travel our body automatically becomes more alert to our environment.

One of my former students has just done the 800km Camino de Santiago walk in Spain and I can tell from her exuberant posts on Facebook that this Latin experience will bubble up in her work somewhere.

But it doesn’t have to be exotic travel. If I want a dose of undigested life, I jump on the train to Wyong. The things I’ve heard …

Read. But not just novels. Pick up non-fiction, esoteric enthusiast magazines and old newspapers. Never been to a library? Go visit while you still can.

I’d also encourage you to try a bunch of different jobs – and the weirder the better. Who wants to see architects or doctors or cops in films? Boring. Go do something that’s never been portrayed on screen and take your audience into a fresh new storyworld.

7. Don’t forget to breathe

Something that writers starting out struggle to accept is that they need to balance their creativity with some spiritual reflection. They think that if they haven’t got the scene or the character or the story quite right after eight hours, then surely it will plead for mercy in the ninth.


Great writing comes partly from direct effort. But partly also from the work of unseen hands working upstairs on the second shift. Some of my most intractable creative problems have been solved when I’m not thinking about them.

But, quite apart from the benefits to your creativity, taking time out is good for the soul. If you already run, swim, cycle, walk the dog, surf or sail, fantastic. All those activities will get you out of your head and make you a more companionable human being for your nearest and dearest.

But I would also encourage you to explore yoga and meditation. The black dogs of depression are never far away for most writers and being able to draw on these quiet reflective places when the hounds start yapping will help keep you safe and sane.

Don’t wait til they start whining. Go do it now. Today.

8. Persist unblinkingly

Some people write because they have a strong belief that they will make it as a screenwriter. This sounds nice but it’s a shaky foundation for a career because belief for most of us will come and go. Believe, by all means. But, above all else, persist.

Why persist? Because this is the best job in the world.

I say that for two reasons. Firstly as a writer you get to spend your days not in the world of facts and figures like most people, but in the realm of emotions. As a writer of romantic comedy, if I get things right, I get to laugh and cry on a daily basis. Audiences pay good money to experience what we’re able to conjure for ourselves.

The other reason I love being a writer is that it lets you explore and try to understand what it means to be human.

Of course, this means grappling with questions for which there are no answers and initially you will find this frustrating. However, if you begin to view these universal metaphysical concerns not as problems to be solved but as mysteries to be engaged with, it’s likely to alter your experience of them.

You cannot solve life. But pondering its paradoxes can become a lifelong fascination.

9. Progress humbly

You are going to get good at this. It might take a while but if you stick at it you’ll do something remarkable in the business. Just don’t become an ass when you do.

In my experience, the most accomplished people also tend to be the most open to feedback, the most generous in acknowledging others, and the most humble about their achievements. You want to be like them. Partly because that’s what decent human beings do. But also because if that out-sized ego gets into your wheelhouse it’s not going to help your writing.

As writers, you’ll tend to hold only two views about your abilities: either that you’re an imbecile or that you’re genius – often in the same day – and neither thought is helpful.

The secret to writing well is to not waste time thinking about where you rank on the talent scale, and just write. Sink deep down into your characters, look around you at your circumstances and the other characters, and respond as they would.

This passage from Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery sums up how you need to lose all consciousness of your role in the act of creation:

“Don’t think of what you have to do, don’t consider how to carry it out!” he exclaimed. “The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise.”

10. Enjoy relentlessly

One of my students, when I met her at Open Day in 2012, had wanted to do the Grad Dip Directing and the Grad Cert Screenwriting – simultaneously. She was in a hurry. She wanted to get to where she was going and she wanted to get there yesterday because time was getting away from her. She was 23.

I understand the impatience. I know what that feels like. But, this “there” that you’re trying to get to, it doesn’t exist.

In screenwriting, as in life generally, you are on a train that passes through many stations, but there are no stops.

Everyone believes they’re bound for Success, but even if you are one of the fortunate ones who does reach that place, you won’t be able to disembark.

At best, if you’re lucky, the station will have a very long platform and you’ll get to enjoy passing through that junction for some time, but eventually it too will fade from view.

And then you’ll pass through a whole range of other less scenic locales: Frustration, Disappointment, and maybe even Abject-Failure-on-Sea.

The good news is that the train doesn’t stop at any of these places either.

So cease believing that your life will be just so wonderful when your genius as a screenwriter is finally recognised – because that place too will have its challenges – not least of which is resisting the temptation to be the aforementioned ass.

Stop thinking it will be great when … and start loving where you are. Because right here is all we ever have. And right here has been very good to me.

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