Twelve Lessons I Learned from writing 12 pilots in 12 Months

Saturday December 30th at 1:30AM I completed my 12th original pilot script. I started my first original pilot script January 2, 2017 with the intent to finish one for every month of the year.

I didn’t tell a whole lot of people about it, but among those I did tell many thought I was biting off more than I could chew. And they had very good reason to think that. Many times in my life I have set ambitious hopes for myself and fallen short of accomplishing them. One might even call it a recurring pattern.

But not this time. This time I took a big bite and chewed the whole thing. And this is the most ambitious goal I ever seriously pursued.

So, how is it that I was able to accomplish this goal when I’d never come close to doing something like it prior? What made this different? The answer is education.

Below are a number of techniques I used and lessons I learned. All of them helped me to different extents over the past twelve months. I hope they help you with whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

  1. Make sure your goals are realistic

On average each pilot took about 30 hours of my time from soup to nuts. That’s an hour a day. I knew I wasted plenty of time doing unimportant things like binge watching TV and mindlessly scrolling thru social media. There were definitely enough hours in the day to do what I needed to do as long as I made sure to devote the time to it.

It’s unrealistic with my life to say I can set aside four to six hours a day for writing (like Stephen King suggests). The trick is to make sure the goal is monumental enough to matter to you while not being so big that it requires literally more time than you have to give.

  1. Burn the boats

This is a Tony Robbin lesson. If there are no boats, you can’t go back home. You must survive on the island. I couldn’t think of a concrete way to burn my metaphorical boats, so I had to convince myself that I did. I told myself if I could not accomplish this goal then I would have to move away from L.A. I didn’t tell anyone else about this, but I made a promise to myself that I would leave if I failed. Sound harsh? Maybe. But, because of how I convinced myself, it felt real enough to help motivate me.

  1. When you’re not feeling it, negotiate with yourself.

Many many many times I sat down to work when I did not feel like working. Would have much rather played a video game. So, when I was lacking all inspiration/motivation I would have a conversation with myself and give myself a very tiny assignment (see #4) and promise of reward if I completed it (such as an hour of video games).

If that didn’t work I would then taunt myself. ‘What? You can’t sit down and do this one small thing that will take five minutes (or sometimes literally fifteen seconds)?’ I know that can sound like a bully, but for me it was more of an older tougher brother encouraging me with gentle banter.

Every time I didn’t feel like working, but managed to find a way to do so was like a mental battle. It’s easy to lose those battles, but the power/responsibility is yours to discover what you individually need to win them.

  1. Every little bit counts

Something as small as just creating a file folder and naming it ‘August Pilot – ???’ was a task. I know that sounds stupidly small, but at some point in my process a file folder needed to get created. So, if I only ‘worked’ for fifteen seconds to make that, I still got to cross a task off the list. And every tiny bit of progress gave me more and more of a sense of accomplishment.

Warning: Sometimes I would feel the urge to do more than the one small assignment after completing it. It’s fine for me to keep going and do more work as long as I count it as bonus work.

In other words, if I promise myself I can go play a video game after creating a blank word doc, but I decide once I’m at the computer that I can go ahead and do one or more other tasks, I am NOT allowed to feel bad if I change my mind and ultimately don’t do those things. I did what I promised I would do and I’m not allowed to feel bad about not doing more than that. If I feel bad about the bonus stuff then I can get more and more discouraged.

  1. The Pomodoro Technique

This insanely simple technique is nothing more than using a timer, but damn it’s powerful. The original technique was specifically about using an old egg timer, but any countdown clock works (cell phone, microwave, etc.). Rather than give myself a task to complete, sometimes I would just give myself a time limit.

‘Okay, you must do something that furthers this month’s pilot uninterrupted for the next six minutes.’

Even if I just stared at the screen and thought about stuff that was better than doing nothing.

  1. Eliminate Distractions

I am still trying to improve at this. I often let text messages, push notifications, my dog or my girlfriend or who knows what interrupt me when I’m working. It’s hard not to.

Here are some ways I eliminate distractions: Put the phone in airplane mode, turn off the wifi on my computer, try to write during times when my girlfriend wasn’t home, ask my girlfriend to plan an hour or two with the dog outside of the apartment so I could be alone, take my laptop somewhere isolated (I suck at writing in coffee shops, but I can sometimes write on a park bench or the library). The crux of this is to identify what is causing you to focus your attention on the wrong thing and create a way to work around that.

  1. ‘Finished’ Not ‘Perfect’ or Dare to Fail

A lot of creative people don’t actually create all that much, because they don’t want to make something that isn’t as good as they want it to be. I get that. I used to love to think of myself as a better writer than others, but since I rarely ever actually wrote it didn’t matter how good my inner thoughts were. A terrible completed draft is infinitely better than the ideas that only exist in your head.

So, just finish it. I don’t know that any of my twelve pilots are great. They may not even be good. But they’re done. And I’m on cloud nine about it. So, just dare yourself to fail. Write the worst scenes with the worst dialogue in the worst scenarios. Once you finish it, it will be so much easier to revise than it was to create. And you will have improved simply by doing it.

  1. The Details Don’t Matter

So many times I would need to know the name of a particular thing that I either didn’t know or couldn’t remember. For example, I was trying to write, ‘He removed his nightstick and held it up in the air.’ But for the life of me I couldn’t remember the word ‘night stick’ (apologies to my brother who served on the Dallas Police Force for 25 years). Now, I could have switched over to Google and searched for it. Would have taken 30 seconds at most. But I really didn’t want to toggle away from the screen I was working on.

I wanted to just barrel thru and write the rest of the scene since I knew where it was going. So, I wrote, ‘He removed his skinny bat and held it up in the air.’ I couldn’t remember ‘night stick,’ but I definitely knew it was not called a ‘skinny bat.’ But I also didn’t care. No one is going to read this first draft but me. And when I’m revising I’m welcome to look it up then. But in that first draft, don’t spend too much time on the minutia. The minutia will almost certainly change with the next draft anyway.

  1. Put it On the Calendar

If you’re like me, you live and die by the Google Calendar. Whatever calendar you use, use it for this. Pick a time block you know you can commit to and note it in your calendar just like you would a business meeting, a doctor appointment or a date. It’s easier to back out of something that doesn’t have a definitive time. 

This technique works no matter what goal you’re trying to accomplish. For example, if you want to master the piano, put in your calendar which 30 minutes (or whatever time you devote daily) of your day tomorrow will be spent practicing? Don’t just say, ‘I need to practice tomorrow.’ Schedule it. And treat it like a real appointment that you would only cancel in an emergency.

  1. Sacrifice

I watched a lot fewer movies and TV shows in 2017 than I did in 2016. I skipped out on a number of fun activities with fun people in 2017 even though I could have gone. But I prioritized this project so high that it was worth it to me to say ‘No, I can’t come to karaoke that night even though it sounds amazing. I have a deadline to meet.’

Like Steven Pressfield said in The War of Art: “The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”

  1. Make Your Goals About What You Can Do

I used to have a goal to get hired to perform on the Second City’s Mainstage in Chicago. I never accomplished that goal. And now I realize that wasn’t a good goal. Because it’s not about what I can do.

I could theoretically have the best audition possible for me and still not got cast. This goal involved factors beyond what I could do. If I could go back in time I would modify that goal to this: “I want to get as good at sketch and improv as possible and try to bring my A game whenever I get an audition for Second City.” That goal is all about me and not about the auditors in the room or any other factor I cannot control.

When I set out to write 12 pilots in 12 months I did not say something like, ‘I will win a script contest this year’ or ‘I will sell a show idea before I’m 37.’ If me accomplishing this goal leads to something else, that’s amazing.  But if it doesn’t, I still did what I set out to do. My mission is accomplished.

  1. Deadlines Are As Important as I Make Them

When I was in school I pretty much always did my homework and got it in on time. I might have procrastinated on an assignment til the night before, but if an all nighter was needed, I did it. I refused to turn in something late. I was raised by a mother who loved me, but did not tolerate or accept lateness in my school work.

Cut to me in my 20s. I rarely ever had assignments handed down to me from an authority figure after college. So, I didn’t do much. I would come up with a project and more often than not let it die on the vine long before I got it done – sometimes before I got it started. I believed that I would get the motivation I needed to write once someone hired me to do so.

But the truth is I never needed someone else to give me a deadline like I thought I did. I just needed to give myself a deadline and treat it as if it was a school assignment. The difficult truth about being professionally creative is that most of us need to prove ourselves before we’re hired to do it. Rarely if ever does someone without a lot of credits to their name get hired to do something for money in entertainment.

So, we need to make our own credits and that usually means self imposed assignments. So, treat them like they’re incredibly important. If a gun was held to a loved one’s head and the gunman said the only way to avoid them being shot was for you to memorize and practice that audition piece or write that screenplay or go workout then you would make it happen. That means you have the ability. You just need to commit to summoning it and following it thru.

Those are the twelve points I could think of that might help. I hope they do. They’ve certainly helped me.

I have no idea what my journey is going to look like as a writer. Currently I don’t get paid to write. I hope that changes soon. But if it doesn’t, I’m still going to write like crazy.

I now confidently identify as a writer. And I’m not going to stop. I’m 100% committed to writing more and more and more for the rest of my life. With whatever it is that you want to do with your life, I hope you can have clarity of your goal and perseverance to accomplish it.

Thanks, y’all!