Time is running out.

As I’ve mentioned before, my latest manager and I parted ways several months ago under slightly less than amicable terms. The agent who was hip-pocketing me was laid off in the Great Pre-Strike Agency Purge of last fall and disappeared to who knows where. I’m flying solo at this point for the first time in years, and the fall spec season is almost upon us.

This season begins with Labor Day and continues until about Thanksgiving. After that, you might as well be firing your screenplay into a black hole: Hollywood quickly turns into a ghost town in December, with unread scripts blowing through the empty streets like tumbleweeds.  If I have any hope of being in the game this year, I need to find a new rep by, oh… last week or so.

Not that I have a new spec ready, of course. Though at least this time it’s not from lack of trying.

When I was laid off at the end of March, I realized that in a weird way, this was the greatest thing that could possibly happen to me: I would now finally be able to write full time, albeit temporarily. Sure, I’d have to find a new job, but how long does it take to search Careerbuilder.com and send off a couple of resumes every day, anyway? For the first time in my life I filed for unemployment; part of me may have been a little ashamed, but after I convinced myself to look at it as an arts subsidy from the State of California, I felt much better about cashing those bi-weekly checks.

I realized that I had three months until the baby was due. I also guessed (correctly, as it turns out) that after she was born, my writing time would be whittled down to just about nothing. Assuming that I didn’t find a job right away (again, correctly), I resolved to make the most of this period of unemployment and turn into a writing machine, grinding out the pages in an effort to stockpile for the day when I’d be too brain dead to write… but conscious enough to at least rewrite. My goal was to end up with drafts for at least three different projects.

(A side note — Vonnegut once wrote that among writers, there are Bashers and Swoopers: Bashers will write a little bit at a time, perfecting as they go, and when they gets to the end, the book — or screenplay — is done. Swoopers, on the other hand, swoop through and write as quickly and sloppily as possible, finish the draft, swoop through the second draft and fix a few problems, swoop through the third draft and fix some more, etc. And then, after X number of drafts, they’re done. Both approaches have their pros and cons, but I am absolutely, 100% a Swooper, if only because when I’m writing a first draft, I’m always terrified that I’ll never be able to finish for one reason or another. GETTING IT DONE is the priority, after which MAKING IT GOOD takes precedence.)

And so… I wrote. A lot. Every day. My wife and I would wake up in the morning, she’d go to work and I’d sit down at the computer around seven o’clock, coffee in hand, and do a little token job-searching. By nine or ten I’d begin my REAL work of the day: the quota of pages I’d set myself, typically between five and ten. I would usually finish by mid-afternoon, at which point I would then put together a crib or swing or whatever baby stuff needed to be assembled before the Peanut joined our little family. Around May, we started painting the baby’s room. Despite the financial worries and the anxiety over the kid, this three-month period turned out to be one of the happiest, most satisfying times of my entire life. I felt like I was doing what I was meant to do with myself; the fact that I wasn’t actually making a living at it yet was a minor technicality.

In the end, I actually met my goal and then some: I produced the second draft of an earlier script we’ll call the Judd Apatow Rip-Off; wrote the first draft of the High School Comedy I’d outlined several months before; and finally completed a brand new first draft of a project I’d aborted a year before — call it the Domestic Comedy. I also wrote several treatments and a ten-page short script, then began plotting the Ultimate Sci-Fi Nerdfest Project that I would be co-writing with my friend Dave.

So I got it all done.  Now I just have to make it all good.

Of the three finished scripts the High School Comedy is the most fully developed; everybody I pitch it to likes the idea a lot, so I have high hopes for it. The Domestic Comedy was hastily written in a white heat right before the Peanut’s due date — one week to plot and outline, a little under two weeks to actually produce the first draft; it’s going to need a lot of work, but I think something’s there in the mess. The Apatow Rip-Off is probably actually a write-off: it’s a page one rewrite of a script that I wrote in January after about 18 months of running in circles thanks to problems with my manager. The simple fact that I finished it is probably victory enough — I gave it another shot with this second draft, and I suspect I’m done with it. (Though you never know.)

So the High School Comedy is the one I’m revising now — when I’m not rewriting the optioned Wedding Comedy, that is. And I really need to finish the former if I want to land another agent. (No more managers if I can help it.) And if I want to land another agent, I need to start sending out the script to possible reps in the next few weeks if I want to make it into this fall’s spec derby. Except that that the script probably won’t be done by then. See the problem?

Well, the solution is obvious: finish the script when I can, find an agent then and if I miss the fall, I miss the fall. There’s always the spring spec season.

But I don’t want to wait that long. I have to make up for lost time after getting out of my lousy management situation. And I ain’t getting any younger. You could argue that I should have spent those three months focusing on one project, but in this specific case, I don’t think so — I needed to get those stories onto the page.  Plus, when I eventually go out with the High School Comedy, I’ll have a head start on its follow-up.

And in the end, maybe the ticking clock I hear is only in my own noggin.  Because when a script is good — REALLY good — it really doesn’t matter when it hits the market.  Quality is always noticed eventually, even if you have to wait for your reader to return from his or her holiday ski trip/spiritual retreat/shopping expedition in Nepal.  (This is assuming I can even produce something of quality, of course.  The jury’s still out on that one.)

But still… it would be nice to get the thing out in time.

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13 Comments on “tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick…”

  1. WhatACard Says:

    The time thing with kids gets easier. Really. You start to have more time once she’s sleeping predictably. If you haven’t yet, read Ferber. Or ask me for a crash course. Here it is, I’m not even going to waiut for you to ask: at 5 or 6 months, you can let her cry at night. Really. Let her cry for 5 minutes, then go in and rub her back. Leave. Let her cry for another 5 minutes. Go in, rub her back, and leave. Stretch it out to 10 minutes of crying. You get the idea. The first day is the worst night of your life. Except the second night. That’s even worse as you know what to expect. Day 3 gets better, and soon, she sleeps through the night and you have a predictable bed time. And “free” time for you to write.

    Good luck with the agent search.

  2. matt Says:

    Don’t worry at all about the “spec seasons.” A good spec can sell in June, or October, or March. In fact, don’t think of your script as a spec. Think of it as a writing sample. Most pros I know (myself included) didn’t sell a spec to start their career — they wrote a stellar script, it was sent out as a “sample,” and then cashed in with re-write jobs.

    So write the best script you can. Nothing else really matters.

  3. writerdad303 Says:

    WhatACard — thanks for the crash course! I’m living for the day she sleeps through the night. Last night/this morning we went from 1:30 to about 5:30 without her waking up, which was pure bliss…

    Matt — you’re totally right, of course. I think I’m still stuck in the mindset that my former reps encouraged. I just need to keep working hard without sweating the imaginary deadline that it looks like I’m going to miss anyway…

  4. matt Says:

    I used to have a sketchy manager who was really all about the sell-a-spec olympics. It was only years later, when I signed with an agent at a major agency, that I realized if your rep is good enough they can get enough execs to read your script without it being a hot spec or even necessarily super-commercial.

    A good rep thinks in terms of your long term career. And everyone knows a great script that never sells will take your further than a shitty commercial script that does sell. The dirty secrets of most spec sales is that they are bought for concept alone. All the more reason not to sweat it.

  5. Mike Says:

    Whatever you do, never give up. Seasons come and seasons go, but the three (3) Ps will make you a screenwriter for all seasons: Persevere. Persevere. Persevere.
    Steal writing time when and where you can, and always…

    Keep Writing!

  6. writerdad303 Says:

    Matt — everything you say makes sense and is a real relief to hear. Yeah, my last manager was all about the ultra-commercial high concept, which definitely contributed to the dissolution of our professional relationship. I’m glad you commented on this topic… Jeez, why am I the one with the blog? 🙂

    Mike — thanks for the encouragement; I’m doing my best to keep it going. And thanks for reading!

  7. matt Says:

    I went through manager after manager — the small ones play the high-concept game because high-concept scripts can sell regardless of the writing contained therein. High concept scripts also have a better chance of getting by studio readers, and since the rinky-dink managers don’t have deep connections, they can’t do anything if your script doesn’t get covered well. A powerful manager or agent on the other hand can get execs to read your script straight-away.

    All this is by way of saying: unless you are sitting on a concept like BIG, you should be writing a script that only you can write. That you’re worried won’t be commercial enough. Those are the kinds of things that turn heads. Young guys routinely get huge assignments off tiny scripts.

  8. William Says:

    WD — You’re a writing animal. Inspiring. Keep it going. Eye of the tiger man, eye of the tiger.

    Matt — Thanks for your insights from the inside. Getting an agent is a nut I haven’t even begun to crack. The kind you speak of, the long term kind, I think that’s what we all want. Representation that is in it for the long haul but it’s that age old question, how do you sift through flotsam and land the right guy/girl who’s not going to blow smoke up your ass?

    When I started taking writing seriously all I wanted to do was win the Nicholl and launch a career as a writer/director. Now I just want to get my films made and if I can get an agent that will allow me the flexibility of doing a writing assignment to put money in my pocket and finance my personal endeavors that would be all too incredible. I’m in New York so I think representation is taken just as seriously as it is in LA but there are always poseurs.

    Any insights from those in the know would be appreciated.

  9. matt Says:

    William — do you have any specific questions? I’d be happy to answer.

    It’s very difficult to get an agent at one of the big five without a manager or a referral. You would need to write a stellar query, charm the shit out of the assistant, and then hope you get a good read from the agent. But all those things are possible.

    If you have a great script.

    And you only need one.

    This is what I tell people that shocks them the most. If your script is good enough, no one’s going to ask for a second script. And if/when they do, you just tell them this is the best script you’ve ever written, the one that came together for you after years of practice, and that’s good enough for everyone.

  10. writerdad303 Says:

    William — thanks! “Writing animal”, eh? Maybe I need to change the name of the blog…:)

    Matt — in your second-to-last comment, you pretty much summarized my experience with managers; maybe I’ll post a little more about the specifics. And at this point, I’m definitely banking on the “one great script” theory to get me to the next level — the good thing about ditching the bad rep is that I’m now definitely all about writing the stuff that I want to write, rather than what someone has convinced me will sell. Hopefully that enthusiasm will translate to the page…

  11. William Says:

    Matt — thanks for that tip. Very enlightening.

    I guess it really comes down to doing your homework with an agency. Finding out who reps some of the people you admire and making an attempt to hook up with a junior person at that agency.

    I don’t expect to be signed with any of the big five but at the same time I wouldn’t want an agent who wasn’t, pardon the pun, on the same page as I was when it comes to my career goals. I mean, what’s the point? I think all anyone wants in an agent is someone who will go to the mat for them, knows the work, is a huge supporter of their work and has the clients interests in mind. I know that’s a tall order with agents and their reputations and all.

  12. William Says:

    Okay, Matt I have a question for you (this can be answered by anyone who feels qualified to answer:

    Is it better to hone in on a certain type/genre of writing (say, for instance, I’m good at writing the crime/dark/gritty stuff) and that be “what you do” or should you cast the net out there and take a stab at many genres in order to get work and stay employed.

    I know the answer for me, I’m just curious what everyone’s take on this is. BTW dark stuff is always a tough sell from what I have seen.

  13. writerdad303 Says:

    That’s a great question, William. I’m really curious what Matt’s response will be. I’ve always wondered this myself; every class I’ve ever taken has emphasized the notion that you should have writing samples in a variety of genres, yet when I started taking meetings and dealing with reps, it seemed more important that I “brand” myself — I started out writing dark, Schraderesque dramas and thrillers, but people really responded to a goofy comedy I wrote on a whim, so that’s the path I’ve pursued (and been encouraged to pursue) ever since. And I like writing comedies, but now I feel reluctant to spend time on, say, a new idea for a thriller. Of course, there are plenty of examples of writers who start in one genre and then jump tracks, but they usually seem to be well established professionally when they do it. On the other hand, as Matt says, a great script will get noticed… Ah, I dunno — let’s hear what the guy with the actual screenwriting career has to say about it. 🙂

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