One key to the craft: Learning how to manage several projects at once.

Here’s something interesting to do if you subscribe to IMDBpro.com: Check out some of the top screenwriters and see what projects they have in development. Here are three of them: Ron Bass, Steve Zaillian, and Guillermo del Toro:

Ron Bass

Players Rules (2010), writer
True Believer (2011), writer
Teacher man (2011), writer, producer
Lover’s Leap (2011), writer, producer
Godmother (2011), writer
A Season in Central park (2011), writer
What a Wonderful World (2012), writer, producer
Boomsday (2012), writer

Steve Zaillian

My Dinner With Herve (2011), producer
I Heard You Pain Houses (2011), writer
Deep Water (2011), producer
A Thousand Splendid Suns (2011), writer, director
Untitled John Hlavin Project (2012), producer
Timecrimes (2012), producer
The Girl Who Played With Fire (2012), writer
Red Riding (2012), writer, producer
Gangland (2012), producer
As She Climbed Across the Table (2012), producer
Untitled Cryonics Project (2013), producer

Guillermo del Toro

The Witches (2011), writer, director
Saturn at the End of Days (2011), writer, director, producer
Pinocchio (2011), executive producer, writer (story)
Death: The High Cost of Living (2011), executive producer
Puss in Boots (2011), executive producer
The Haunted Mansion (2012), executive producer, producer, writer, director
Midnight Delivery (2012), producer
Drood (2012), producer
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2012), director
Trollhunters (2013), producer, writer, director
The Orphanage (2013), producer, writer
Champions (2013), producer, writer
Alma (2013), executive producer

Notice something — apart from the fact that these projects represent a buttload of work? Each one has several titles in play per year. That’s called stacking projects and it’s requires a certain skill-set.

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First, why do you want to stack projects? Simple answer: So you can know what your next gig… and your next gig… and your next gig is going to be. As a free-lancer, that’s as close as you get to job security. If you can stretch your project horizon out a year or two, that’s a damn fine situation, knowing you’ll have the wherewithal to pay for little Brenna and Slater’s $20K private school tuition for the foreseeable future.

But it also means you have to be able to handle several projects at once. I can’t say exactly how other writers manage stacking projects, but here’s how one way to approach it.

At any given time, you are actively working on three projects:

  • The rewrite: This is a project for which you have already written a draft and turned in, and you will edit per studio / producer notes.
  • The first draft: This is a project you are working on to get to the studio.
  • Prep-writing: This is your next project on which you are doing research, brainstorming, developing characters, and plotting.

In a perfect world, you get to knock out a first draft while your rewrite is under review. Prep-writing is something you do along with the other writing. Sometimes you spend 1–2 days per week just doing that. Or you devote your evenings for research.

If a screenwriter wants to stack projects, they need to develop the ability to jump from one script to the next, shift creative gears from this story universe to that. If you are capable of doing this and doing it well, you have the makings of a producer which is what some writers end up adding to their resume, like Kurtzman & Orci. Per IMDBpro.com, they currently have 18 projects they’re attached to, 14 by my count on which they are involved as producers only, not writers.

Here’s the thing: You can develop this skill-set right now. Generate three quality story concepts. Crack one and write a first draft. While you’re doing that, prep another one. And while you’re doing that, start researching the third one.

When you finish Project A’s second draft [you never let anyone other than you read a first draft], send it off for people to review. During that time, knock out the first draft of Project B. And while you’re doing that, prep Project C.

Now you’re stacking projects. And as you complete the first one, you fold in yet another of your great story concepts to take its place.

Prep, writing, rewriting. Three different projects at once. This way you’ll not only be generating a lot of scripts, you’ll also be learning the art of stacking projects.

Comment: Some writers aren’t wired to work like this. They must focus on one project at a time. That’s okay. Understand what kind of writer you are and follow your instincts. In fact, I do not recommend stacking projects for those people who are on their first or second script. As a rule of thumb, you need to put in enough time writing to feel comfortable with the essentials of the craft before you should entertain the idea of stacking projects. It will do you no good if you write several scripts, each one of them below average because you weren’t able to give them the kind of individual attention they deserved.

On the other hand, if you’ve written four or five screenplays, and you know how to knock out drafts and get a good result from your writing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t at least try to stack multiple projects at a time. That way when you do sell a spec script and break into the business, you’ll be primed to line up multiple projects at a time.

[Originally posted November 2013]

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