The Writing Schedule Defines Us

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” – Somerset Maugham, Writer, Of Human Bondage

It’s early. Still dark outside. My head is pounding and in between words I’m doing a combination of stretching, yawning, and tearing up from the contacts that I slept in. I should’ve stayed in bed. I should’ve caught up on sleep, I’d be much more productive than I am now sitting at my kitchen table, pounding the computer keys, and pounding back the cup of coffee that sits to my left.

Good morning, computer. Good morning, Microsoft Word. Good morning, strong coffee. It’s not so nice to see you again. There’s a warm body and clean sheets and covers just a few steps away, and I’m here with you. This is the worst affair. Ever.

So why am I here? I promised myself two hours every morning of pure, uninterrupted writing. While my wife sleeps, and my dog isn’t whining to go for a walk. Manhattan is not quite in full swing, as the busses and morning cabs are still idling and loading up outside my window, but the commuters seem to be taking their sweet time.

The first few words are immediately schlock. There are phrases that fall squarely in the middle of trash and sludge. But after a sip or two, those become less and less. Fingers get a little more relaxed. I hit the back button a few less times. A few less spelling mistakes. A little more flow. Inspiration hasn’t hit me yet, but the words are coming without thinking. The sentences get a little longer, the repetition a little less. As the sun starts to peer through my window, I’m beginning to hit a groove.

A moment strikes. An idea, yes. Good? I don’t know, but it’s worth writing down. A few more of these and – that’s a turning point. For my character. That deserves a card. I jot a few words down on an index card, pin it to my board, and keep going.

After my third cup of coffee, it’s time to stop. The last two hours has produced 3 pages, 2 index cards, and more questions for my character. The questions keep me from writing any more pages, but give me a much rounder knowledge of my world and my hero. Was I productive? Absolutely. What’s next? I pat myself on the back and come back to it tomorrow. Right now, I’ve got to go to work.

Like many, on top of being a screenwriter, I have a 40+ hour work week. I’m not complaining, after all, I can pay rent. But it’s a high stress job, and once you’re at the office, you’re there. That’s why the schedule is important, but that’s not why it’s there.

We talk a lot about setting the writing schedule on TSL, and this is why: The schedule defines us.

It’s the difference between “having a really good idea” and “having a really good script”. When you know you’re going to work, your brain has a tendency to show up, no matter what time it is. In reality, for most people, setting a schedule is a great idea, but easy to say. What’s it like to actually do it?

We can tell you to watch TV a little less, but in reality, when you’ve come home at 7pm from your day job, sometimes what you want to do is just watch TV. For myself, my day job is that of a writer, so is it unreasonable to think that the very last thing I want to do when I get home is sit down and write? Most days, the last thing I want to see is a keyboard.

We can say be realistic about your situation. Which again is easy to say, but I have no idea what your situation is. You could work the night shift as a security guard, pouring out ideas while sitting and watching the clock. You could be the VP of my bank, jotting dialogues down on your blackberry. Maybe you’re a Mom. And right now is the only 15 minutes you have free all day, somewhere between changing diapers, cleaning up throw up mucus that looks like you could enter into a rodeo, and cooking dinner for 4, or 5, or 6.  Sounds pretty realistic, and who am I to say that you’re not trying?

But when we’re talking about setting a schedule, what we’re really talking about is completing pages. We’re talking about completing sentences. We’re talking about being writers. Not thinkers.

This isn’t a new concept. It’s reality. Steven Pressfield in “The War of Art” discusses the difference between the amateur and the pro, stating “The amateur is a weekend warrior, the professional full-time.”

I’ve met tons of thinkers. I have great conversations with thinkers. Have had drinks, gotten a lot of great insights on scripts, stories, characters. Expectations vs. reality. We talk about long term plans, personal goals. The differences between a back up plan and a bartending gig. Thinkers play a great game. Thinkers have solid poker faces. Thinkers are fantastic people, interesting, and know a lot of information. But the conversation usually ends with this question:

Me: So what are you writing now?

Thinker: Ah, I’ve got a few things I’m working on.

To a professional, this translates to: I’m an amateur. I’ve got great ideas, nothing on paper. That question tells me whether you’re serious or not.  And that question is what gets me out of bed every morning.

I don’t want be a thinker. I don’t have the energy. It takes more energy to continuously say “I have to start this “ or  “I want to write that” than to actually wake up and write. Back to Pressfield – I just don’t want to think of myself as an amateur, because I’m not. Every morning, when I sit down to write, I’m a professional.

So what’s the answer? Is it as simple as setting an alarm every day and waking up? For some, maybe. It may be as simple as getting out of bed before everyone else, and putting pen to paper. Or it may be that you stay up past everyone else, because when the clock strikes midnight, you sit down to your computer and write. Maybe you put hours on Outlook. Cross out two hours a day where you don’t have meetings. Some people call them lunch. You call them “working hours.” Doing these things will certainly fill the requisite of scheduled time, but is that really enough?

In my opinion? No. I think you have to go back to the beginning. You have to ask yourself what you want. What’s your goal in this? What was it when you started? In setting a writing schedule, you have to distinguish yourself.

The pro gets lots of perks. Simply from the act of doing, their writing gets significantly better. From the act of throwing one away, scripts get significantly stronger. From the act of sitting down every day, a writer’s mind can open up, almost at will, and start to engage your characters. You can relax, sketch your ideas. Come back to the great ones later. You can kill your babies, because there will always be more. And those great scenes that you get all giddy with when you read? They’ll still be there, waiting for you the next morning, ready to work.

There’s no shame in being the amateur. The amateur writes when they can. They have a life. Responsibilities. To the amateur, their schedule is already set, and filled, and there’s nothing else they can fit in. And that’s fine, great ideas do come on weekends as well. But don’t kid yourself. Don’t call yourself a pro and then try us up for size. Don’t take yourself through a ride of should’ves and could’ves and wannas. Be realistic in setting your schedule, yes, but to the point of the real you. Your real goals. Your real answer:

Are you a professional, or an amateur? A writer, or a thinker? Pick one, and see it through.