As a screenwriting teacher whose focus is on actors transitioning into screenwriting, when it comes to “put in 10,000 hours” I often hear one of two mindsets:
1. “ ‘Fleabag’ was Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s first thing, and then she won all those Emmy’s so that’s my plan.”
2. “ ‘Queens Gambit’ took 20 years to get made, that’s too long.”
While both of these make for popular memes, they’re over-simplified, incorrect, and send the wrong message. Let’s understand the truth behind each, and then show how you can make a writing career both possible and probable.
Yes, “Fleabag” won a lot of Emmys. But, Phoebe Waller-Bridge actually launched her theater company and started working as a playwright six years before “Fleabag” launched at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and nine years before it came to your TV screen. That’s almost a decade of studying the craft of writing.
Yes, it took Scott Frank 20 years to get “Queen’s Gambit” made. But you know what else he did in those 20 years? He wrote “Logan,” “Marley & Me,” “The Interpreter” (to name a few), and wrote and created “Godless” on Netflix. Maybe instead of thinking: “it took so long,” we should think: would it have been made without that body of work, without those relationships forged at Netflix, and without those executives that could now trust his expertise?
The job of writing, no matter how you cut it, requires an enormous amount of work and only the people who put in that work get it done. But, here’s the good news, it’s achievable with, what may seem obvious but is so often ignored, a simple two-prong approach to getting your 10,000 hours: Read and watch everything. Write everything.
Read and Watch Everything
I’m genuinely shocked by the number of actors and writers I meet who do not view watching films and television as a necessary part of their job. They’ll see stuff, sure, but only the movies that have buzz or the TV shows that they “like.” This blows my mind. The school of screenwriting is not one that can be completed with a BFA from 10 years ago. How we tell stories and what stories we tell are constantly evolving, therefore we must constantly be students.
Think of it like being a first-year at a law firm. What are your billable hours? Your fun hours are watching the movie with buzz and the TV show that you love because you’re super into vampires. But your billable hours are watching every single thing that is being bought and sold and made. Sound daunting? Well, here’s the good news, is it really that terrible that you have to watch movies and TV for a living? And second, do you have a TV, computer, or phone? Then what’s stopping you? Yes, there’s a lot of content, but when you treat it like a job, not only will you feel that you are working toward your career every day, but you actually are!
For movies, it’s simple. Watch every movie that’s released every Friday. You’re freelance, you have flexible hours, you get to exercise when you want, take a road trip when you feel like it, and all the screenwriting business asks of you in return is that Friday night you go watch (or stream these days) the new releases. I promise if you commit to seeing everything instead of just what people tell you is good, or what you think you’ll “like” you’ll not only become a better judge and critic for yourself, but movies you don’t love you’ll learn to study instead, and you’ll be a better writer for it!
For television, watch every single pilot. That’s right every single one. If you fall in love with a show, great, but watch it in your fun time. You’ll learn more about pilot structure, the difference between streaming and network, adaptations for TV, character development, and pilot problems from three weeks of committing to this study than three years of only watching the shows you love.
The more advanced version of both of these is reading the screenplays and pilot scripts themselves. The finished product is designed for you to get so involved emotionally in the wallpaper, the furnishings, etc. you can’t see the load-bearing walls. But we will learn the most from the original architectural plans themselves.
If I wanted to be a gymnast and I could imagine a perfect floor routine in my head, perfectly choreographed and executed that would win me a gold medal, can you imagine the audacity to think that just because I can imagine it, I could walk onto the Tokyo mat in 2021 and win? Without having done a cartwheel? Yet, young writers think just because they have an idea for their Oscar-winning film, their execution of it will become an Oscar-winning film, without having done a cartwheel.
Sound daunting all of a sudden? Well, here’s the good news: do you have a computer? Turns out, that’s all you need to start practicing those cartwheels. There are two easy ways to immediately increase your skill level.
Write spec scripts. If you’re pursuing the fellowships, follow their recommendations, but otherwise, pick any show you love and know well, and write a spec episode. You’ll practice your skill level, the cartwheels, the handstands, the splits, all without wasting the practice on one of your great ideas.
Copy the greats. Watch a scene or sequence from a movie you love. Do your best to type it up as you think the screenwriter wrote it. Now compare to the original script. How’d you do? They probably had more impressive skills to show off in their execution compared to yours. Learn from them.
Whether it’s Scott Frank, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, or Simone Biles, you can’t just keep applying your 10,000 hours to just one thing. Write everything. Read everything. Watch everything. Those are your 10,000 hours and with only a laptop, they’re all entirely achievable right now without even leaving the house.
So stop sharing memes and start billing.
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and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.