As a writer and a coach who supports others to see their writing projects through to completion, I’m deeply interested in how other writers make their writing happen. When I heard about Justin Hedges (pictured at right), also known as “The 3 a.m. Screenwriter,” I instantly wanted to know more. Does he really get up at 3 a.m. to write? Can he truly function like that when it comes to the rest of his life? I reached out to Justin to find out more and was inspired by his story and his process.
What follows is our Q&A:
First, tell us about how you became a screenwriter.
There are three people who are directly responsible for me becoming a screenwriter: my mother, my best friend, and my wife.
My mother was determined to instill a love of reading in my brother and I. We devoured books, comic books, everything we could. She also took us to see Star Wars in 1978 during its Oscar-push re-release. Boom. Movies became a permanent part of our family dynamic, and something I’ve loved ever since.
JUMP CUT TO: My freshman year of high school. At one point, I wrote this vampire story that my best friend, Larry, just loved. He told me his family knew someone in publishing, and that I should try to get it published. I didn’t, but I never forgot the huge rush I got out of hearing someone say my writing was good enough for publication. It stayed with me for years.
Finally, there’s my wife, Laura. I cannot stress enough how important it’s been to have someone who believes in me like she does. No Laura Hedges, no 3 a.m. Screenwriter.
Do you really get up every morning at 3 a.m. to write?
When I first started the 3 a.m. Screenwriter blog, I did indeed set the alarm every morning for three a.m., and I got as much writing done as I could before getting ready for the day job around five. It’s where the blog name came from as I brainstormed for a good way to ‘brand’ myself.
Over the course of a few months, though, it became apparent that it would take a Superman to maintain that schedule. It is possible, certainly, if you can get to sleep early enough, but that wasn’t working out for me. I still get up earlier than necessary for my day job, but it’s more like thirty minutes one day, an hour another, etc. It all depends on when I get to bed; I set the alarm for six hours after I go to bed, which works out to three a.m. some days, four a.m. others, etc. So I began to redefine what 3 a.m. Screenwriting was, and I found other ways to achieve my daily writing goals.
What other ways do you meet your daily writing goals?
Essentially, I take my writing with me. I was already taking my laptop and a notebook everywhere I went: to work, to the movies, pretty much everywhere. At first, I wasn’t always taking advantage of the opportunities that presented. I only used them when I had a good, new idea that I didn’t want to forget. Now, I open one of the two, laptop or notebook, anytime I have ten minutes or more of down time, like lunchtime at the day job, a ten-minute break, waiting for a movie to start, etc. If you’re not at least taking a nub pencil and pocket-size notebook everywhere you go, you’re doing yourself and your writing a disservice. Take it with you. Always.
Also, my wife does all the driving when we’re together, which includes commuting together to work. Any drive over thirty minutes, I’m taking out the laptop and getting work done in the car. Our commute together is about an hour one-way, and I average about thirty to forty minutes of that writing. In fact, I’m answering these questions in the car right now.
Add it all up, and I’m getting a good two hours of writing done every day before I even get home from the day job. That leaves plenty of time for the wife, children, and grandson once we’re home, and doesn’t include the extra writing I get done on Saturdays and Sundays.
Are you super consistent about this pattern?
There is one thing that I’m super consistent about, and that’s getting the work done every day. How I get it done varies, whether it’s early in the morning before work, or in the car, or during breaks/lunch, or a combination of the three. The key is to set a daily goal, whether that’s a page count, word count, or number of hours writing, and stick to it by any means necessary. Meeting that goal is what must be consistent every day.
What inspired you to begin getting up at 3 a.m. to write?
Elmore Leonard. I read a quote about writing on the blog Screenwriting From Iowa about how Leonard would get up every morning two hours earlier than necessary for his day job and dedicated that time exclusively to writing. I was getting up at five a.m. every morning to get ready for work already, so I started setting the alarm for three. It worked for a while, and then I found other ways to get my writing in and still get a good night’s sleep.
Are you getting enough sleep to function well?
At first, no, but I am now that I’ve modified the schedule and the whole philosophy of 3 a.m. Screenwriting. The combination of not getting enough sleep, but simultaneously developing the habit of getting a certain amount of writing done each day, forced me into developing all of these other good writing habits that all fall under one simple philosophy: forward progress, every day.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on several spec television series and movie-of-the-week projects with my creative partner, Angelo Bell. We recently had a pitch meeting at a major network and are determined to generate more until we get that elusive ‘Yes.’
What advice would you give to people who say they don’t have time to write?
Full disclosure, I have no problem whatsoever coming off as a jerk in answering this question, but it’s only because I’m passionate about the answer and helping people avoid my own past mistakes. Stop making excuses for not writing and just write. If you love writing, or painting, or photography, whatever, you make the time to do it. It isn’t hard at all. With writing as an example, just one page a day is a full-length screenplay in one hundred days, or a full-length novel in one year. That’s not bad.
Excuses to not do something are a lot easier to create than the will to do it; I understand this, because I’ve been there. But if you love it, truly love it, you have to make the time to do it. The single most-common habit that successful, professional writers have is that they write every day. If you want to emulate their success, you need to emulate their habits. Make the time, even if it’s just fifteen minutes here, twenty there, throughout the day.
And don’t tell me you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s just not true, one of those funny little colloquialisms that sounds true but really isn’t. They are clever words, sure, but without a hint of truth in them. Start out simple, and develop one good writing habit, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day. Then find thirty minutes. Then sixty. Keep going until you think you’ve reached a happy balance between life and writing. It will work.
If you don’t believe me, believe John Grisham (The Firm), Ron Bass (Rain Man), and Elmore Leonard (Three-Ten To Yuma, Get Shorty). I already told you about Leonard, but all three reportedly did the same thing. They all got up hours earlier than necessary to write before their day jobs. I think it worked out okay for them.
Many thanks to Justin for his insights.
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