A Day in the Life of a Screenwriter

Ron Peterson and Film Connection grad Major Cheryl G. Agbunag

We recently asked longtime Film Connection mentor Ron Osborn (Meet Joe Black, Moonlighting, Duckman, The West Wing) to tell us a bit more about how he manages his day-to-day life as a screenwriter. What the seven-time-Emmy-nominee sent back was nothing short of spectacular (and funny), so we’ve included Ron’s response here in its entirety. Pay careful attention to how well Ron knows himself and his own habits of mind. He even knows when putting the writing off until the next day works like kindling to his fire.

Now will your writing day look just like Ron’s? Probably not since you’re a different person and a different writer altogether. Nevertheless, look at how you operate, what do you really need to get yourself focused, prepared, and downright hungry to write? If you’ve had some success hacking your own writer’s mind, by all means, leave a comment.

Ron Osborn’s Daily Writing Schedule

First things first…

If this is the first day of a new script, I have decided it’s so because I’ve spent a number of days/weeks/months/years ruminating on the idea, throwing various brain droppings written on napkins, scraps of paper, yellow legal pad pages, into an ever-growing folder (I currently have seven folders stacked on the left side of my desk of various ideas that are/have been for years in play) – and I don’t begin writing until I’m certain of six things: where I’m beginning the story, my first act break, my mid-point, my second act break, how I’m ending the story and, key to everything in-between, my theme. Assuming I’ve done at least that much heavy lifting – I might start with little more than those six things or I might have a seventeen-page treatment with scenes and snippets of dialogue, as well as another six, eight pages of supporting scene and character notes (as was the case on my last script) – my first day is pretty much the same as the next twenty, thirty, forty, or however many days. To wit…

…my alarm goes off at 3:40 am.

I turn on the coffee by 3:50 am. I’m at my desk, coffee in hand by 4.00 am. This is just the best, most focused time for me to write. It’s as if the entire world has gone quiet for me and I am very aware of its consideration and that I must use this time wisely before said world feels the need to get back to its agenda and tap me on my shoulder, ring on my phone, ding in my texts, or holler from another room. It’s a ritual, I know it’s a ritual, and I’ve come to respect it. Jack Kerouac lit a candle when he began to write, then blew out the candle when he was done. That was his ritual and it focused him.

The first thing I do is make sure nothing extraneous is on my desk. It’s very clean, ordered (I like straight-edges to be aligned at right angles and no, I don’t have O.C.D.), and I like to have a yellow legal pad with a blank page in front of me. Everything else, such as bills, student work to read, the refinance of my mortgage, all go in stacks of priority on the floor that sometimes my chair rolls over. I do all my writing in red ink. I don’t know why. It has to be a very fine-point pen and it has to be red. I read that Prince composed all his music and lyrics in purple ink, so I’m in good company.

After a good two, two-and-a-half hours of work, I always try to fit some exercise in…yoga two mornings a week, spinning on my stationary bike two mornings a week, a light no-frills workout two mornings a week (and really, I don’t have O.C.D.), followed by breakfast spent over the morning paper. The exercise thing I find vital in a line of work that is so stressful and sedentary and solitary; and I find, too, that I’m in a much better frame of mind and more creative on those days when I exercise, than on those days when I do not. It might be a total placebo, but I’ll take what I can get. I would use small animal sacrifice if it gave me the same result.

I’m back at work by 9:00 am.

This writing is the less quiet, more intrusive time and I often have a white noise machine on low. When I’ve hit a brick wall…I like to play computer gin rummy as I ruminate. The upside is, if I just ruminate, I focus too specifically on the problem and demand too much of myself and become more frustrated when answers don’t magically yield themselves. If I tell my brain its main function for the next ten, fifteen minutes is to beat a logarithm, then that gives me permission to not think about the problem, focus on something more immediate, and many times the solution bubbles up from my unconscious. (Walking the dog or a long bike ride can yield the same results.) The downside is, my wife often comes into my office with some such business of the day, only to find me playing a computer card game that causes her to wonder aloud how she can find a way to get paid to do same. I work until 11.59 am whereupon I promptly turn on the television to find out how much further the world has spun off its axis as told to me by an all-knowing, all-news channel (and no, that’s not O.C.D., that’s me just being a news hound needing to check in at noon to see if the world has spun further off its axis) as I make my lunch; I also finish the more in-depth articles from the morning paper over lunch that I didn’t have time to read earlier.

I’m back at work at 1:30 (which includes cleaning the kitchen from breakfast and lunch so as to not further distract me in an O.C.D. kind of way that really isn’t), whereupon I keep writing until 4:30. This gives me a solid eight hours of writing with structured breaks so as to not overload the brain. After that is when I answer most of my day’s emails, return calls that can wait, run errands…

…and I will admit, just as I begin my day of writing in a specific and ritualized way, there is very specific way I like to end said day (and no, this is not O.C.D. because there are enough times when the gods conspire to keep this from happening)…I like to stop writing mid-scene even though I know the rest of a scene…or I know what the next scene is, or I know what the next two scenes are, such that that I could easily keep writing for another twenty, thirty minutes, even an hour, and stretch my page count for the day. But – and this I can’t underestimate – nothing beats sitting down at my desk the next morning, cup of coffee wafting up from off-screen, legal pad with blank page in front of me and red pen in hand, and I know exactly where I’m going to go. That half-scene or scene, or two scenes are worth not finishing the night before if it primes the pump at 4.00 am and prevents me from sitting down with a blank page and nowhere to go. Such a great feeling.

Somerset Maugham was asked what his ritual was when he wrote. And to paraphrase he said, “I write from this time to this time, every day.” Whereupon he was asked, what if he had nothing to write. His response was, “I write my name.” I get it. I couldn’t do it, but I get it. Creativity without discipline is a gun without target.

 

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