“The only difference between amateur and professional writers,” according to Faith Liu, screenwriting graduate student, “is that professionals write when they don’t feel like it.”
Faith is from New Jersey. She is pursuing a graduate degree in screenwriting at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
She points out that, during the actual writing part of the process, professionals face the same challenges as amateurs: writer’s block, burnout, distractions. After all, professional writers aren’t paid in advance. They usually aren’t paid per hour—they’re only paid once they complete their work. Because they don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike, professional writers find a way to write no matter what.
“Your brain is at your command. If you wait for ideas, you’ll sit around for days or months.”
Early Writing: “Insane”
Faith began her literary career writing Naruto and Star Wars stories. Though she cringes to admit to it now, Faith acknowledges that fanfiction helped her grow as a writer by allowing her to experiment within a defined world.
While pursuing her English major at Hillsdale College, Faith wrote a 50,000 word novel in thirty days for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). She described the experience in a single word: “insane.” It proved practical in the end: Faith submitted ten pages of her novel in her application to USC.
Along with a personal statement and ten-page writing sample, the USC application challenged candidates to write five page scenes in response to screenwriting prompts, including: There are two characters in a room; one wants to stay home, and one wants to go out.
“I figured most people would pick a couple [for the first scene],” she recalled, but she knew it was crucial to find a unique approach. Exchanging submissions with other successful applicants before they began classes together confirmed Faith’s guess: For the first prompt, one of her future classmates wrote about “a depressed guy and a puppy.” Faith built her scene around a grandmother trying to coax her grandson out of a blanket fort, while he insists there are monsters outside.
Combat Writer’s Block
During her first semester at USC, Faith wrote 200 polished pages, which adds up to about 400 pages total. “It’s like being forced into a marathon without knowing you were supposed to be training for it… You can’t stop and wait for inspiration to hit you, because … inspiration is for people who have time.”
“You learn to start keeping more regular hours, dedicate more time to writing, and find more productive ways to cope with writer’s block.” Faith tries to set aside a block of time daily for writing. She favors the early morning, although it can be difficult to squeeze in quiet time before classes.
She recommends combatting writer’s block by working on multiple projects at once. “If you’re blocked on one story, switch to another, but keep writing.” That way, you’re not really procrastinating. “Don’t ever stop for the day when you get stuck, because you’ll start there the next day. You’ll be more happy to work if you end on a high point.”
Research What You Take for Granted
Writing essays for her English major at Hillsdale helped train Faith in the intensive research that she undertakes for her scripts today. “I gravitate towards research-heavy projects, either historical or sci-fi or fantasy–something that requires me to delve into another world.”
Since she frequently delves into other time periods instead of contemporary settings, Faith faces a fundamental research challenge: identifying what practices and customs we take for granted. We might recognize, for instance, that people didn’t say “okay” in the 16th century, but how long ago was it before people started shaking hands?
While Faith was working on a scene with two characters sitting down to have tea, she discovered that people did not drink tea in that time period. “What did they drink? Did they drink coffee? No, coffee hadn’t been invented yet either. I was flabbergasted–what do you drink that’s not tea or coffee?” It turned out that people drank beer. Faith compromised by changing it to mulled wine, “which sounded fancier and classier. Wine is a closer analogue to tea.”
Break Structure to Fit Narrative
Among her favorite screenplay writers, Faith admires Quentin Tarantino because he “doesn’t abide by regular plot structure.” In the typical three-act structure, a story opens by introducing a main character to an adventure. Once the protagonist accepts the call to adventure, the second act begins. In Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, “it’s not adventure—it’s character introduction, building up an entire cast, then locking them into building to see how long they can go without killing each other.” His writing breaks structure to fit narrative, which gives him greater flexibility in the stories he can tell.
If a writer builds narrative around structure instead of the other way around, it can choke the life out of a story. Faith prefers to base her first draft on an idea of a character. “Then I ask, does it fit structure? We have a very good subconscious idea of structure.” She explained our ideas naturally tend to follow narrative patterns. “When you look to make a second pass, you can check what you’ve already written. Does it fit? Could it be improved? Does structure explain why my beats aren’t falling right?” A beat is a single scene or even a moment within a scene that marks a turning point in the story.
“You have to be cognizant of structure at all times,” Faith warns, “because it works for a reason, but you can also commandeer it for your own ends.”
What Will Entertain?
In five years, Faith hopes to work as a feature or staff writer while directing short movie projects on the side. “The ultimate would be working at Pixar. That’s a dream for me.” She marveled, “The Pixar story artists are incredible…. I love the way they approach stories and the stories they tell.” Plus, “their working environment caters to the creative mind: They make their cubicles really fun, have a cereal bar available any time of day and night, and ride scooters around.”
Faith offers this advice for making the transition from academic writing to publishing: Remember your audience. “What will entertain them?” Faith asked. “It may sound crude, but it helps you remember: You’re not just writing to express yourself. Why would they invest time in reading your work, not someone else’s?
“In academic settings, people are interested in the subject and interested in you as a person. In the rest of the world, you don’t have that advantage—you’re vying with clickbait for attention. The burden is on you to be interesting.”