Do you want to learn how to become a prolific screenwriter?
I love catching up with screenwriters. I don't write screenplays myself, but it's a fascinating genre because many principles apply to other types of writing.
My guest today is Brock Swinson. He's the interviewer for Creative Screenwriting magazine and the author of Ink by the Barrel, which illustrates Brock's prolific writing principles.
In the interview, Brock shares his secrets for breaking into the screenwriting industry and how to overcome the most significant challenge most writers face.
In this episode, we discuss the following:
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Brock: Approaching it in a way that I'm going to finish this thing almost no matter what happens. I think it's those people who show up with that idea, those are the ones that are getting things made. It might take you a decade. I mean, that can be disheartening. So it's more about — that's what I like to talk about being prolific. You really have to approach this in a way that you're going to do it your whole life.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: My guest today is Brock Swinson. He's the interviewer for Creative Screenwriting and also the author of Ink by the Barrel. Welcome to the show, Brock.
Brock: Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Bryan: I love catching up with screenwriters. I don't write screenplays myself, but it's a fascinating genre because there's lots of principles that apply to other types of writing. For example, the three-act structure will be one that comes to mind — the principle that novelists often use. How did you get into screenwriting, Brock?
Brock: I mean, to go way back, it's like my family toxin movie quotes. We grew up watching a ton of movies. I saw Psycho when I was like six years old. It just kind of went off from there. I went to school to learn more about it. I really did a little bit of everything. I did live in LA for a bit doing commercials and weird TV shows like Guinness Book of Records. I was a PA and stuff like that. I started working for Creative Screenwriting magazine. I've always been like an aspiring screenwriter. I'm actually making my first film this year. I've been writing for the magazine for 10 years.
Then at some point, in the middle of that, I kind of said, "Hey, we have all this great audio. We should be using this." They just said I could have it. So that led to my podcast Creative Principles. It's kind of like the combination of, I like to call it Bard authority kind of using my work at the magazine. I've led us some really great interviews — people like Ethan Hawke, and Aaron Sorkin, and Mel Brooks, and all kinds of big names that I've got to talk to the last 10 years or so.
Bryan: When you're talking to screenwriters that are quite well-known or perhaps famous writers in a particular industry, do you find yourself having to take a lot of notes and prepare in advance and study up on their work? How do you approach interviewing somebody like that?
Brock: It has definitely changed over the years. I used to kind of like — I think it's more about just having a conversation. When I interviewed Aaron Sorkin, I still had a full-time job. So I would take a lunch break and go sit in my car and be on the phone with someone like Aaron Sorkin. During those, especially if they're more well-known, I'm barely listening to what they're saying because I was nervous. I'm just kind of reading through my 10 or 15 questions that I have and moving on to the next one. Now it's like, if I can help it, I almost don't even prepare. I make sure I know what they've got coming out and a couple questions like that. But I spend like 80% of my interview just talking to them about things that interests me and hobbies. After doing 400 interviews, a lot of it is just kind of in my head, I guess. I just really just try to have a conversation. Because the best information I get is usually from a follow-up question.
Bryan: When you think back to the 400 interviews that you've had on the podcast, are there any particular themes that seem to reoccur in specific episodes, or any particular perhaps challenges that the writers you've interviewed have overcome that you feel could help newer listeners or newer writers?
Brock: I think so. I mean, all that kind of led to the first book I wrote too, Ink by the Barrel. It's based on probably the first 250 or so interviews I did. I like to use Ryan Holiday's notecard system. I always just put a ton of notes in a pile. It's the same when I read something. What I did is broke this up into the ideas of defending your time, finding your voice, and developing your process. That seems to be the pretty generic way to write almost anything. Probably, the biggest takeaway though that I hear the most and that causes people to believe in a writer's block is when they don't separate the internal writer from the internal editor. If you're trying to edit as you write, you're just never going to get any words on the page. At least, that has been the general case for most people I talk to.
Bryan: Yeah, that's a challenge I encountered as well and the challenge when I talk to new writers they often encounter. Years ago, I remember trying to write literary fiction. I'd write a sentence and then go back and rewrite it. I'd keep doing that, but I'd never actually finished the story or get feedback from an editor. That's only when I started writing and publishing online and hitting publish more often that I started getting website traffic and readers and then earning an income from writing.
When you think back to some of the guests that you've had on, is there anything in particular that they're doing that perhaps newer writers aren't doing, apart from separating writing and editing? For example, Ethan Hawke or Aaron Sorkin will be two notable guests that come to mind.
Brock: Yeah, I mean everyone has got a different story. One thing really unique about Aaron Sorkin is he started as such like a juggernaut. He wrote A Few Good Men. It was a play. It turned into a movie. He got mentored by William Goldman who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I feel like this is a combination of me talking to him, that I also took his master class because it's what he was promoting at the time. He really felt like he had to be a perfectionist so much so that he couldn't really take a risk. I would almost argue that he's one in a million, that it doesn't almost relate to.
So when I talk to people about if they want to — more than screenwriters, I talk to authors. I talk to journalists and chefs and musicians and all types of creative types. I really think you should look for someone who's a level or two ahead of you, as opposed to Aaron Sorkin or Ethan Hawke. Those interviews do the best. They get the most reads and listens and everything else. But if you're trying to break in, you need to hear about the man or woman who just broke in last year. They're probably going to have more relevant advice than someone who's been around for 20 years. It's just success after success, or at least seemingly.
Bryan: Screenwriting strikes me as a particularly challenging career to break into. I don't have a lot of experience as a screenwriter. So I'm curious. As somebody who's at the coalface of it, just how difficult is it?
Brock: It's very difficult. Personally, I do know a lot of these names and stuff like that. But I'm just now really starting to build some relationships. I've written about five screenplays and for the documentary though. Something you'd hear from a lot of people is just really go make it yourself. A lot of people think that you can just have a great idea or even a great script, and it will rise to the top. That's true for probably one screenplay a year. It's not as common as you think. So you really have to be the type of person that when you show up with a screenplay or pitch an idea, you're planning to make the whole movie. I think that's why there are so many writer/directors. That's why that's so common.
It's like the movie I'm working on now. It's a documentary series about the history of stunt performers. It's like 100-years of stunt. It's called Daredevil Society. I raised $20,000 so far to get started on this movie. But I'm going in it about a different way than scripts I've written before. I'm coming in as the writer/director. I'm doing the interviews. I'm doing all my expertise and my passion, all this kind of stuff like that. I'm approaching it in a way that I'm going to finish this thing almost no matter what happens. I think it's those people who show up with that idea, those are the ones that are getting things made. It might take you a decade. I mean, that can be disheartening. So it's more about — that's what I like to talk about being prolific. You really have to approach this in a way that you're going to do it your whole life.
Bryan: Wow. 10 years. That's an incredibly long time. When you describe being prolific and it can take 10 years for a screenplay to make its way onto the screen, what does prolific look like for a screenwriter? Is it producing a set word count each day is, or is it something else?
Brock: The first interview I did when I first got hired by the magazine, ironically, I feel like I learned more in that interview than I did in all of college. I sat down with this guy. I think one of the things he told me is, he just tries to write two beats a week. That might be like two scenes or two beats a day. So like two scenes a day. He'll get a couple of films made and a couple of TV shows made, but there's a pile of scripts which is just not getting made. I mean, it's just everyone has kind of a different story.
Now, on the other end of that like the freakishly prolific, there's Mattson Tomlin. He wrote the new Batman that just came out last year or two. He was writing 12 scripts a year. He was really running a movie every single month. So you have to have a crazy outlining process. You have to be confident with what you're doing. You have to put a ton of work into that. I wouldn't say anyone should strive for that right away. I would say like I'll try to write two scripts a year now, along with everything else I'm doing. That seems to be a little more manageable. But he wrote those 12 scripts, and two or three of them got made. So he definitely advanced very quickly in the craft. It may just be that it takes a year of that grind to sell something. I doubt he's following that up year after year at that pace. But that was his breaking story. He wrote Project Power with Jamie Foxx and then the new Batman movie.
Bryan: Wow. Impressive. So it can take three to six months for an established author to write a novel, factoring in rewrites, drafts, editing, revisions, feedback from beta readers. Is it a similar process for writing a screenplay?
Brock: It sort of depends. If you get hired by someone, they're going to give you a date. If a studio, they're selling the New Super Mario Brothers movie or whatever it is, they're probably going to give you a couple of months. But if you're running a spec script — which is what I encourage most people to do — it's really up to you. You can spend a year or years on it. But if you want to get to that level where you're in a writer's room writing for TV shows, you need to be able to probably write 30 pages or so in a month or more than that. You need to finish full episodes pretty quickly to be a paid writer today.
Bryan: When it comes to you writing your screenplays and scripts, how much of the week do you allocate to that versus everything else that you do to build a sustainable writing career?
Brock: I used to sort of try and chip away at everything I was doing every single day, but that just really didn't work for me. So instead, I do probably more sprints and marathons of writing. I get up every morning create something. But it's a balance of maybe some film editing for my documentary, maybe some writing articles and emails. I'm also a copywriter. I've been a marketing copywriter for about 10 years as well.
With the book I'm writing now, I'll throw notecards in a pile for probably 10 months. Then I'll spend two months writing that book. The same kind of process with my scripts. I'll spend maybe 30 or 60 days just thinking about it, and then we'll kind of start to write. I've also got a writing partner for some of the work that I do. So I kind of go back and forth. Whenever I can create some form of accountability, it does work best for me — whether that's a deadline from a publisher or a partner I'm meeting with every week.
Bryan: Oh, interesting. A writing partner? Is that somebody who you're collaborating with, or is it just somebody who you hold each other accountable for what you produce each week?
Brock: In this case, we're collaborating together. He's someone I've known my whole life. We have very similar tastes in movies. I have interviewed a lot of screenwriting partners. The general advice is there a draft ahead. Because you have two eyes on it. You're moving a little bit faster than everyone else. It's also kind of less daunting. Because instead of 120 pages, maybe you're writing 60 pages of the movie. We've written two films together. We write more horror stuff, where I write more maybe in the style of like Taylor Sheridan that does Yellowstone or something like that. So it kind of depends what the project is. But I like to bounce between those. Then we use the rules of genre and then accountability to turn out some screenplays a little bit faster.
One thing we do with our first script — actually, our second script — we spent six weeks coming up with 100 ideas for horror movies. We narrowed that down. We spent six weeks talking about that, going through them, picking the top 10. We sent those out to a bunch of people that we know love horror movies. They helped us narrow it down to three. Then we just picked our favorite one and wrote that. By the time we got to that stage, everything went pretty quickly. So I'm very much into the iceberg idea of outlining. Then it happens a lot faster once you've done all that early work.
Bryan: Are you creating a lot of those outlines using index cards or a whiteboard? Are you using a dedicated screenwriting software?
Brock: Outlines and stuff like that, it's usually something simple. We might even be using like a Google Doc or something just to talk through it. Me, personally, with the documentary, I feel like I switch this up all the time. But I'm big on index cards or at least something physical. Whenever things are too digital for me, whenever I'm trying to do three projects — we're all on the computer. I'll get stuck and feel like I just can't quite do as much of it — initially or eventually, something will go to index cards.
Bryan: Yeah, I used index cards for a book I wrote some time ago. Sometimes I find if I'm stuck, it's helpful to have something tactile that I can move around, rather than trying to figure out why it's not working by staring at the writing application on my computer. So I definitely recommend that approach. That is similar to what Ryan Holiday recommends with the commonplace book, where you're actually physically thumbing through or moving through your ideas. So you've taken a lot of the advice from your interviews, and you've distilled them into a new book Ink by the Barrel. Could you tell the listeners about the book?
Brock: Yes, I started writing it during the pandemic. I wrote the first draft pretty quick. Then I kind of went away from that and came back. It's just now officially out. Ink by the Barrel, the idea comes from — it's falsely attributed to Mark Twain. It actually comes from a congressman who said, "You never quarrel with a man who buys his ink by the barrel." That expression means: don't get in a fight with the press. They have more power than you. I'm kind of turning the idea around just to say that you should be the type of person who buys your ink by the barrel.
Now today, that's more metaphorically. But I really believe you get to the quality through the quantities. Everybody has got some bad scripts or bad novels or bad pages somewhere. But the more you turn those things out, the better you're going to be. Then I divided that up into three sections of the book. It's really just all about being prolific. Some of the ideas might even contradict each other. Because I feel like everyone's process might be a little bit different, and who you are today might not be who you are in 20 years. But the whole goal is to create a habit that lasts a lifetime.
Bryan: So did you spend much of 2020 writing this particular book?
Brock: I want to say I spent a bit of time with no cards. Then I probably wrote the first draft in less than two months, maybe like 45 days or something like that. Then I just set it aside. I sent some copy to some friends shortly after that. But I really just waited. I had this multiple jobs and different things that I was doing. Part of the reason why it's just coming out now and I'm actually giving it away for free is, I'm really just now getting into marketing. I've almost avoided marketing myself for all these years, besides the podcast.
Just because I've been a ghostwriter, I've kind of worked behind the scenes for a lot of people. I worked at ClickFunnels for a while. So I got to write copy for people like Russell Brunson and Tony Robbins and Dean Graziosi and some of the big names. I just did a lot of stuff with an investor named Pace Morby for about a year. I've always been behind the scenes. But it's just now felt like the right time that I'm confident enough to start creating my own courses, my own books, my own movies, stuff like that. I feel like I've been an apprentice for a decade, and now it's time to step up and take some bigger swings.
Bryan: Those are some good names to work as a copywriter for. You must have learned some good principles about using words to sell products and services. I actually worked as a copywriter myself, but it was for a software company. Copywriting and also screenwriting are both been impacted by AI. Screenwriters are striking because they're worried how AI is going to change how people write scripts. Conversely, copywriters are using AI more and more to create sales pages and optimize their copy. Have you experimented with the technology much?
Brock: A little bit. In the last job I had, everyone was kind of talking about it. I've checked things before. They've always been nothing really special. ChatGPT does seem like something more unique. I think what screenwriters are worried about is the producers or studios, they kind of see it as like, well, it's good enough. It probably is good enough with old TV shows. Meaning, procedurals, like every law and order or every NYPD Blue or something like that. It's a pretty standard formulas you follow.
But whenever some film or movie really changes the zeitgeist, it's like you couldn't really predict it. If you think about back in '99 when The Sixth Sense or The Matrix came out, those were spec scripts. There was someone just sitting down writing something totally unique. The big thing about using those ChatGPT and everything else, they are basically a form of plagiarizing. That's what people hate about it, I think. That's probably the reason for the strike.
I personally looked at it the way that a showrunner runs a writer's room. I see ChatGPT as a very intelligent intern if you know how to use it correctly. I think the term now is like 'prompt engineer.' I'm seeing that all over Upwork. Now everybody wants a prompt engineer. The new movie we're talking about is loosely based — we're running a movie with my partner. It's loosely based on the idea of the movie Casa Blanca but instead the Nazis, there's a Jack the Ripper type. So we went through, we talked a few hours about an idea. Then we put a similar prompt into ChatGPT, and it was pretty close.
I would say you can use it for scaffolding. You can use it to kind of figure out the tentpole scenes. But it's really generic. It kind of goes to the extreme of things. I think at the end, we said now put a Tarantino spin on it. And it kind of did that. So I'll might use it for outlining or to get to just like a couple steps ahead of that — the very, very initial process. But all the really good stuff comes elsewhere. I feel like it is just based on what's already out there. So you're not really going to see anything new. I think that's what's so detrimental about where we are now. It could change in 10 years. We'll see where it goes.
Bryan: Yeah, the technology is certainly getting better. But it's an interesting description that it should be something, that it should be an assistant rather than something that you're going to use for a bottom. I read an article some time ago about ChatGPT. Somebody had asked it to write the outline for the final episode of Better Call Saul. They were saying the results were quite cliched, and it didn't quite have the same snappy dialogue that's in the final episode. So I thought that was quite good. Anyway, back to the book Ink by the Barrel. You decided to give it away for free rather than to sell it. What was the thinking behind that?
Brock: Everyone I've worked with has always been kind of a service-first thing. Russell Brunson pays more of you. That's just kind of what they've done. Pace talks a lot about this book called The Go-Giver and this idea of just giving all the best stuff away for free. So I gave away the book and the audio book. It's on brockswinson.com right now. I recorded the audiobook. I like the idea that you can listen to it. Then if you want to, later, you can say, what do you say about Jerry Seinfeld? You can just kind of control find in the PDF and go back, and use that as a resource. I gave that away. I gave the Prolific Challenge away, which is something I paired with it. It was a 30-day video series just to encourage people to develop the habit of writing.
Now eventually, I'll start to sell some stuff. I think the more you can just give away to people, earn their trust, let them know you're for real, let them know the type of work you're putting in everything, they're more likely to take that chance. Because the other comparison is just like they're going to see an ad with a price tag on it. They don't know who you are. They don't know any of this stuff. So I think you just want to build that trust first.
I had 1,000 people signed up for that challenge. The first idea was back in April, but I'll be doing a couple more times this year. I let people apply. I worked with about 12 people one on one, just talking to them. I was kind of surprised with the common problems that they had. It's like talking to myself 10 years ago, and I just couldn't make it a habit to write every day. I couldn't figure out what to do next. I really liked that idea. Eventually, I'll kind of do a mentorship around that and work with people one on one, and really just teach them the multitude of things that I've done, how that can relate to their own work.
Bryan: Did you get a lot of screenwriters, or was it fiction writers or novelists?
Brock: It was probably more like prose fiction. But also, the ad I was using at the time had Hemingway and Mark Twain on it. So I think it's more about who I was targeting at first. I've done some other ones. I did a 10-script giveaway that was also for free. That was more screenwriters. When I write weekly emails, ironically, if I was marketing with someone who's doing all this, I would say, "Hey, you're doing too much." But I'm trying to do it under the umbrella of like the idea is just to be prolific so I can — I've been obsessed with this for this whole time, even with my podcasts. I'm always talking about the intersection of creativity and productivity. That, to me, is what prolific means. The more I can do that in different ways, I'll eventually see what hits. Then that's kind of where I'm going with everything.
Bryan: Yeah, for a while, I taught productivity as a writer, maintaining this certain word count. What I learned is that that's helpful when you're at the first draft because you want to get to 10,000, or 20,000, or 30,000 words. But when you're editing, it's not the same to try and hit a target word count. So I started tracking the hours I'd spend on a draft or perhaps how the status of a particular chapter. Are there any other lessons about that intersection that you've uncovered over the years?
Brock: I actually kind of said that. In the Prolific Challenge, every day I would record a five-minute video. I would talk about a lesson from the book, and I would show a clip from some of my interviews. Because since the pandemic, they've all been in video format. I would show a clip of Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Judd Apatow reinforcing an idea from the book. But the biggest thing is like what you just said. I would encourage people, like, your instinct is probably going to be, "I want to write 500 words today or 1,000 words today." But it's almost better to start with the timing and the environment. Pick a time every day. Probably the morning, maybe at night. It's whenever most of your family or friends are asleep. It's probably when you're going to find the time, and take 10 minutes if you're brand new, 20 minutes. Nothing crazy. You can work up to Stephen King's four hours a day, but don't start there.
And really, just don't worry about word count. Worry about time. Then I probably reinforced this 10 times. I haven't met Neil Gaiman. But I've heard him say, "You can sit at your desk. You can write or you can do nothing, but you can't do anything else." That's the whole idea. You're just developing a habit of 30 days. Even if you "fail" most of the time, it's just an experiment. It's just a process to prove to yourself that you can at least sit there and stare at the screen. Eventually, some words are going to come out.
Bryan: Yeah, I think he might have said that on his master class or perhaps on a Tim Ferriss' interview, that he forces himself to sit in a room and maybe he doesn't do anything. He won't leave the room till the time is up. I suppose it's a great way of building productive writing habit. Do you track your output in any way?
Brock: Not like kind of what you just said. I feel like I'm more probably to-do-list oriented or something like that. The recent thing I'm doing — I'd probably switch this every six day a week. I'm always switching what I'm doing — I'll pick. I can only do about three things per day. That's kind of the max before I get overwhelmed. Otherwise, I'll make a list of 10 things and just hate myself all day. It's like it's the worst mental state for me to be in.
I'll pick three things per day to be thinking about that over a month. You can do like maybe 90 things. I'll print out probably 40. They're on a piece of paper. Like, this is what I want to do. Right now, 30 of those for me, I'm recording a new Upwork challenge. I want to teach people for free how to find their first client in five days guaranteed. That's the idea. So I'm going to record 30 videos. Already, that's a third of my month. I've got probably another 30 things I have to do that are paydays or accountability or whatever. Then I'll leave 30 open spots.
I like to print this out and write everything in ink. Then when you see how many spots was left, you know that you can only do so many things. Then everything is like is this worthy of the time? Is this equivalent of what else is I promised myself I would do in the month of June? I'm literally keeping that thing in my pocket, because we're traveling a bit. So I want to kind of keep it with me. I had changes all the time. But that feels effective for me right now, at least for the month of June. We'll kind of see where it goes.
Bryan: I'm glad you mentioned the concept or the idea of a season. A while ago, we interviewed Louise Dean, as she was nominated for — I think it was the Booker Prize which is like a literary award in Europe. She also coaches novelists. She advises them to write the first draft in the season. Because it's not so long that you're going to put it off indefinitely, but it's long enough to actually get some meaningful, creative work done. Even though you're not going to have it edited and published in nine months, you'll have the first draft done. I thought that was quite a good principle. Three things is enough to do that. One of those things is working on your draft of your book.
We're nearly out of time, Brock. But I was curious. You've mentioned some of the notable interviewees. But are there any other interviewees that really made a big impact on you, or that come to mind, or that you'd recommend the listeners go and check out on the show?
Brock: I mean, they've all got a different story. Probably, one that stands out to me because I feel like I'm writing in the same sense, where I strive to — we interviewed Paul Schrader, episode 100 of my show, I think. Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver. He wrote First Reformed which won the Oscar and The Card Counter. He's got a new movie out now called Master Gardener. He's been around forever. I think part of that churning out those, what people say five to seven bad scripts, you're finding what your voice is. Every movie that he writes now is basically a different form of the same movie. It's some kind of antihero barreling towards a violent catharsis. That's how he writes. That's how I like to think of a lot of my characters. Even the same thing for the movie Parasite that won the Oscar, that writer/director did probably eight movies about class warfare.
Eventually, you're going to find some idea that really you're obsessed with. I think that's when you're going to know like this is my voice. This is the story I need to tell. I may tell it 100 different ways. But that's just, I don't know. I feel like all the interviews I've done, there's some version of that in there.
Bryan: It's kind of like putting in your reps are figuring out how to retell your story in different ways. Brock, where can listeners go if they want to read your work?
Brock: Yes, I'm on this Creative Screenwriting website. It's Creative Principles Podcast. It should be on all the major forms. Then at brockswinson.com, you can go up right now and get the book for free. And if you get the book for free, you'll also be part of my weekly newsletter. I'll let you know what's coming out next.
A few things we're working on — I have a small team. It's just myself and my assistant — we are doing an Upwork challenge now. Eventually, we'll teach people how to make six figures on Upwork, how to write a movie in 30 days, how to write a book in 30 days and stuff like that. They're just really principle-based about how to be prolific. All of that is on brockswinson.com.
Bryan: I'll be sharing the links to the show notes. Thank you for your time.
Brock: Thank you. It's great to be here.
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