Natalia Megas is a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist who turns biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives into screenplays that have won awards and placed in contests like Austin Film Festival, Sundance Labs, and PAGE International. You can follow her on Twitter @DameWriter.
If you’re like me, you’re a screenwriter who only discovered the joy of bringing stories and characters to life on the big screen when you were already juggling a job and family. Chances are, you never went to film school and your job has nothing to do with the film industry. Feeling too old and having too little time for screenwriting can create room for much doubt about pursuing the art at all. I know.
But “you’re never too old to push the pen,” insists my former English professor-turned-screenwriter Dr. Raman Singh, who was over 60 years old when he wrote his first screenplay and got it produced, a 2005 romantic comedy Opa! aka Lost in Love starring Matthew Modine and Richard Griffiths. Singh joins many other older screenwriters, including Raymond Chandler, known for Double Indemnity, who wrote his first screenplay at 56. (I have yet to find a female screenwriter who was first produced later in life but that’s a topic for another time.)
I snatch these words of encouragement from my former professor before they become too vague and run with them, dismissing all rumors of “cuckoo ageism” in Hollywood. It’s never too late to become a screenwriter I drill into my head. But finding time to write and improve my screenwriting still lurks in dark places of my mind…
I’ve always struggled with carving out time in my schedule for screenwriting. Any way I sliced it, I got the last sliver of time in the day. Everything in my world came before screenwriting, from family obligations to childcare to my never-ending job. It left me with nagging feelings of frustration and insecurity. It finally took a stranger, like my perceptive doctor, to recommend I get a planner and promise myself screenwriting time. After all, creative writing was the food that nurtured my sanity.
So when I was approaching 40 and screenwriting still felt like I was on page one, I knew I had to make a change. If you’re like me, giving up is not an option.
Over the duration of my screenwriting life, these eight screenwriting strategies have helped me most:
1. Block off time: I blocked off my mornings starting at 5am and made it official in my planner to guilt me into it. Although it almost took me a year to finish, from inception to last revision, I completed my first feature screenplay this way, chipping at my screenplay for a few hours before work every morning.
2. Book a room: When I wanted to make real headway, I binged on writing. I followed the lead of some Hollywood screenwriters and got a hotel room with a mini fridge for a weekend. I left my daughter with my husband on Friday and didn’t talk to them until I was home by Sunday afternoon. I wrote my second screenplay in a weekend, after outlining it for months prior. It went on to win the best screenplay award at the NOVA Film Fest. The second time I used this tactic, I completed my second short screenplay, which went on to place in screenwriting competitions. Something magical happens when you devote all your focus and time to the imagination. The story becomes alive.
3. Frequent a library or cafe: If waking up early or booking a room to write doesn’t suit you, I know leaving the house every day to write also works. For me, it’s the library but fellow Story Broad screenwriter Ava Williams says going to a cafe to write helps “get my head in the game.”
4. Write a short to save time: Writing a short for my first screenplay was cutting corners in learning the craft. Instead of learning it through trial and error and taking another year to write a screenplay, I demystified the screenwriting process by writing a short that allowed me to experience the beginning, middle and end of a story in half the time. I couldn’t get that bird’s eye view until it was complete. An addendum to this is make a short. For fellow Story Broad Shoshanna Rosenbaum, writing and directing her recent short “helped me see how many ways there are to interpret the words on the page, and also that the screenplay is one piece of work and the film is another.” Focusing on a short screenplay can bring many welcomed surprises.
5. Use family time to learn the craft: I found that during a family outing, I could still be “writing” in my head, even if the outside world didn’t notice. Animated films like Toy Story provide the perfect screenplay template to analyze plot points, story structure, and character. Midway during a movie with my family, I’d yell out, “that’s the refusal of the call,” or “”Oh no, it’s the hero’s brink of death!” Recognizing those stages, which is blatant and predictable in animated films, helped me understand the narrative structures like Christopher Vogler’s Mythic Journey. #HittingTwoBirdsWithOneStone.
6. Become a film screener/screenplay reviewer: When I became a film screener and script reader for a couple of film festivals, it was a huge learning tool. As a screenwriter, I experienced the consequences of drawing a scene out too long, losing the direction of a storyline or seducing viewers with beautiful cinematography but offering no story substance. First came anger, then frustration with the films. Pretty much what I gather a producer feels when he/she reads a script by an inexperienced screenwriter. If I wasn’t required to sit through the whole film I was screening, there were many films I would have stopped watching 10 minutes in. Many film festivals and competitions need reviewers. Check out D.C. Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition or your local film festival.
7. Attend local film festivals: “The biggest issue facing older writers is that they can’t uproot and move to L.A. to make the connections to advance their career,” says my former teacher Yale screenwriting professor, Marc Lapadula. So I try to bring L.A. to me any chance I get. I attend local film festivals, conferences, and writing labs. Attending film festivals won’t get my screenplay made but I get to network with like-minded people and build relationships with them. An added bonus: a couple of times, the documentaries I saw at a fest inspired me to write a screenplay.
8. Redefine what it means to write: I used to beat myself up when I wasn’t making progress on a screenplay, which equated into physical writing. Then it hit me when Singh said to me, “Imagination rules. [But] experience makes [storytelling] believable.” As I scrambled to make time to write, I forgot to live and have those life experiences that make storytelling relatable and real. It was in living my life that I was already “writing.” Whether you’re an author or screenwriter, you’re a storyteller and unique in your perspectives on life. By living life, a screenplay can become richer in things like scenes, dialogue, theme, character, story and subtext. Lapadula agrees. “A solid screenplay can come from anyone at any age. The older you are, the more real life experience you have to draw from. That’s a plus,” he says.
I think Pilar Alessandra, author of the top-selling book The Coffee Break Screenwriter said it best to me: “Imagine a person who’s lived the life of several movies, complete with personal heartaches, grand adventures, career triumphs and comic mishaps. That’s what a writer over 40 brings to a script.”
Get tips on writing on the fly in Pilar Alessandra’s book
The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script 10 Minutes at a Time