Don’t Be A Bad Boss (When You’re Your Own Boss)

Unless you’re getting a check for turning in what you’re writing, you’re your own boss. But, in this situation, don’t forget that you’re also your own employee.

It can be easier to manage others than to manage yourself. When dealing with another person, you have feedback in their responses to your management. When you delegate work to them, you measure their performance, then focus your attention on other tasks while they do their share of the work. When you set a deadline or goal, they need to work according to your standards. It’s on them.

This isn’t how it works when you’re the whole chain of command. You delegate work to yourself. You need to keep clear on both the big picture and the day to day details. If something is going to get done, it needs to be done by you.

So, how do you avoid becoming your own nightmare boss? It goes beyond being gentle with yourself.1

Think About Your Previous Bosses

No matter what the business, there are general qualities that separate an effective boss from an ineffective one. Look back on the previous employers, teachers, mentors, etc. you’ve had in your life.

What were some of the most succesful ways they motivated you? How did they communicate goals and expectations? Did they work with you to set realistic deadlines and measure your performance accordingly? How did they keep things organized?

Find An Assistant Manager

Think about this person as the XO on a naval ship. Part of their duties involve making sure the captain doesn’t make decisions that will jeopardize the crew or their mission.2 There’s a similar need for that when managing yourself.

Find someone who has an interest in your goals and is willing to keep tabs on you. A significant other, a parent, another writer. Anybody that you have regular contact with and who you trust.

Let this person in on your goals, plans for accomplishing them, and the deadlines you’re planning to work with. The better they know you, the better they’ll be at helping you evaluate if you’re creating unrealistic expectations for yourself (or if you could do more).

At the end of the day, you need to call the shots, but having an outside voice will help you to put things in perspective.

Hard Deadlines vs. Soft Deadlines

A hard deadline is when somebody else needs to see something by a set date. Any deadline you set for yourself with no external force involved is a soft deadline. Period.

A soft deadline can be moved, as needed. Yes, it’s important to set a goal and make the mad dash for it, but if it looks like you won’t make it without multiple sleepless nights, ask yourself if it might be worth it to push things back a bit. This is one of those situations where it’s good to check in with your Assistant Manager, both to remind you when a delay is a good idea, and to help keep you honest if you move the goalposts too often.

Keep Everything Outside Of Your Head

Use a calendar. Find a task list method that works for you. Make countdown signs on a whiteboard when a big deadline is coming up.

The more you try to just remember, the harder it is to remember it all. Save your brain power for the things that really matter and keep hard (and/or digital) copies of all your planning and administrative information.

Give Yourself A Day Off If You Need It

You can’t fake calling in sick when you’re your own boss. You are completely aware of any reasons you decide not to work on a given day. You aren’t just Ferris Bueller. You’re also Mr. Rooney.3

But you can’t let yourself take the attitude of a Mr. Rooney. If you feel you have a completely valid reason to have a Me Party,4 or take care of something else that’s come up, do it. Unless it becomes a nine-day bender of Netflix Watch Instantly and cookie dough straight from the tube, it’s not the worst thing in the world.

  1. See previous post on being gentle with yourself
  2. For examples of this, see every naval movie, ever. Also, most space movies where there are more than five crew members on a ship. 
  3. If you’ve checked this footnote, it may mean you haven’t seen this movie. If that’s the case, please fix that as quickly as possible. It is so choice. 
  4. A party for one. 

Be Gentle With Yourself

For the last year or so, I’ve kept a book on hand called Mindfulness in Plain English. While it’s principally about meditation, there are several parts that I tend to apply to other things, as well.


Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance of who you are.

Why might this be an important idea for a screenwriter to keep in mind?

You may not always get a scene exactly right on the first attempt, or make the deadlines you set for yourself, or nail that one cruicial line of dialogue right off the bat. It’s going to be difficult writing a solid script. It’s going to be difficult becoming the writer you want to be.

Don’t add to the challenges by deriding your efforts.

Adjectives Are Your Enemy

At a book signing, I asked Guillermo del Toro what advice he had for beginning screenwriters.

[With action and description], do not use adjectives. Use visuals. Use sound. Be very dry.

You should only be writing things you can show. If you have adjectives on the page, ask yourself, “How can I see this?”

What happens when you force yourself to avoid excessive adjectives and adverbs?

1. You take up less space with your text.

Cutting out adjectives cuts out words. You’re cutting down how many lines are in a paragraph and how many pages are in your screenplay. You’re speeding up the read.

If a script reads fast, it’s more likely to get read from start to finish.

2. You spend less time on minor details.

Do you need to say that this character wears a blue dress? If it’s not 100% necessary to the story that you define the color of the dress, and your script is fortunate enough to be produced, the color of that dress will be decided at the discretion of the director, the costume designer, and possibly the actor.

The hunt to remove adjectives will help you see exactly what details are integral to your story, and which ones can be excised without substantially changing the narrative.

You’re here to tell a story. Who is involved? What happens? What happens as a result of this? These are the things that are important. The more you fill your action and description lines with adjectives, the more you obscure the key elements of your story.

3. You replace generic actions and descriptions with clear imagery.

Think about what you picture when you read “Reginald looks around the room, clearly uncomfortable.” Compare that to your mental image of “Reginald glances around the room, fidgeting with his ascot.”

Both lines are attempting to communicate the same thing: We see Reginald behaving in a manner that suggests his discomfort. One line relies on an adjective to imply what will happen, where the second uses concrete nouns and verbs to show a specific picture of discomfort.

Keeping it specific and concrete is in your best interest. It suggests to the reader that you have a command of your characters. It suggests a specific behavior to an actor to incorporate into their performance. It helps to keep you focused on what can be clearly seen and heard.

A Post For Those Who Have Seen Cast Away

I went on the Warner Bros. studio tour today, and something happened that I wanted to share with you. The tour guide was talking about product placement on the set of Chuck when he asked if any of us had seen the movie Cast Away. Then came a series of questions.

No peeking at imdb.

1. What company does Tom Hanks’s character work for?

2. What’s the name of the volleyball?

3. What’s the name of Tom Hanks’s character?

How’d you do?

If you’re anything like the tour group I was with, the first two questions were a piece of cake, but the third one was a complete mystery.

Let that sink in.

I’m not bringing this up to make a point about “selling out” or “the corruption of the medium by advertisers.” I think there’s something positive to be learned from this.

Naming the volleyball after its brand name did a number of things. On the level of product placement, it enhanced audience recall of the brand name, but from a story standpoint, it made the decision to have Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball for an hour seem less crazy. He’s calling it by its brand name. His character is acknowledging to himself, and the audience, that this is a somewhat silly attempt to give himself a sense of companionship so he doesn’t go stir crazy. By using the easiest choice of a name (that which was already printed on the ball), it seems more grounded. He’s not spending time coming up with the perfect name for an imaginary companion, and giving this companion all kinds of imaginary qualities. He’s taking what’s there and nudging it.

A quick note of thanks to those who have linked to and upvoted this blog on reddit! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the content so far, and I hope you (and the other readers of this site) will get something out of what I’m working on for the future.

Be A Protagonist

It’s sometimes usually hard to take your own advice, or, as the case may be, to apply advice from one aspect of your life to another.

Think about your day. What did you do today that moved you toward your larger goals?

Step that back. Can you clearly articulate what your goals are?

If either of these questions stymied you, ask yourself if you would accept that from a protagonist in something you’re writing.

No. You wouldn’t. And you shouldn’t accept that from yourself.

This is not a call for constant productivity; for making demands of yourself that are greater than you could accomplish; for turning life into a series of to-dos. It’s a call to examine the way you think about yourself and what you do.

A protagonist should be attempting to achieve something large, but they have to do it in small increments. One scene at a time. One dramatic beat at a time. But there should always be momentum.

Remember, your characters aren’t constantly doing only things that work towards their major goals. The parts that aren’t worth focusing on get cut out.

Do the same for yourself. Don’t get caught up in the deleted scenes. Find your direction. Build your momentum. Be the scrappy underdog that makes good. Or the bold hero triumphing over adversity. Or the giant robot beating the crap out of other giant robots.

Whatever you have to see yourself as to get the point across, see yourself as a character worthy of attention, sympathy, and success.

See yourself as a protagonist.