For Screenwriters: William Goldman on your Working Habits

William Goldman -

By now, you should know who William Goldman is.

In case you don’t, William Goldman (1931-2018) is one of the best screenwriters Hollywood has seen. He was the author of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  (an original script that won him his first Oscar), All The President’s Men (maybe the most difficult adaptation ever made in Hollywood, it won him Oscar number two), Marathon Man (excellent script from his own book) and The Princess Brid” (same again). Sadly, he passed away in 2018, age 87.

As well as writing 25 produced scripts, Goldman created 17 novels, 3 plays and 6 non-fiction books about a variety of subjects. He even wrote one, Hype & Glory, about his experience as a member of the jury at the Miss America pageant and the Cannes Film Festival in the same year, 1988.

But his most remembered non-fiction books are about screenwriting, his trade. First, Adventures in the Screen Trade, a very successful and fascinating account of a key part of his film career. Then, came a follow up called Which Lie Did I Tell, which we’ll be dealing with here.

Writing Time

The one thing that writers like to talk about is their work habits. When do you write? For how long? Where? Endless questions. So I want to spend a minute now on the basic problem facing us all: doing it.

When I began, at twenty-four, the work always came out in a burst. The Temple of Gold took less than three weeks. A year later, Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow, less than two. And in between, nothing much happened that bettered the human condition, just going to the movies, a double feature a day, sometimes two, everything on 42nd Street or the Thalia on West 95th. Two years basically wasted until the next book, which was Soldier in the Rain.

I was having a career, God yes. Three novels published by age twenty-eight, two of them million-copy sellers in paperback, the third made into a movie.

What I wasn’t having was a life.

I never had a real job so whenever I wanted to write, I could. Morning, night, all night if I wanted—and I suspect if I had continued that way, I was heading for disaster.

There is no wrong when it comes to work habits. It doesn’t matter if you use a Mac or a quill pen. There is no best way to go about storytelling. Bergman writes from ten to three and in ten weeks, he’s got a screenplay. Graham Greene, another hero, counted words. Yes, you read that right, he counted each and every word until he reached his magic number—three hundred. And when he got there, guess what, he quit for the day, in the middle of a sentence or not.

They had the one thing writers need most: discipline.

The Princess Bride, Goldman adapting his own book.

On Discipline in Writing

My great editor, Hiram Haydn, was a very busy man. He started or ran publishing houses, had a wife and a bunch of kids, was editor of The American Scholar.

And wrote novels.

He was my editor from Soldier in the Rain through The Princess Bride, was a wondrous father figure for me. Once we were talking about a novel of his, The Hands of Esau, that he was close to finishing, and I asked him how long since he began it and he said probably eight years.

How do you stay the same person for that long, I wondered?

You just do the best you can, he replied. You hope.

When do you write?

Sunday morning, he said. Every Sunday morning.

That was the only time available to him. The rest of his life was kids and work and family and commuting and meetings and dealing with crazy writers; Sunday morning was all he could carve out, so he played it as it laid.

You have to protect your writing time, he said then.

A Bridge Too Far, Goldman adapting Cornelius Ryan’s book.

Protect your Writing Time to the Death

That’s the best basic advice I can give to any writer. You have to protect your writing time. You have to protect it to the death. I think it should always be the same time. Each day, each night, each whatever. Can be half an hour, more when you’re on a roll, probably shouldn’t be less. I know a brilliant young writer who has zero problem writing. Her problem is sitting. Her computer is surrounded by a mine field and she will come up with the most amazing reasons not to try to cross it. And no, she is neither crazy nor alone in her problem— because the easiest thing to do on earth is not writing.

The need for a schedule is simple: You’ll have hours, days, when you just sit there, but eventually, you come to know that your writing time is now and things begin to happen as you sit there.

Spanish publicity of Misery, Goldman adapting Stephen King’s book.

Tell No One

And if you manage to suck it up, if you decide you must get your stories down, then there is one other thing that’s crucial: don’t talk about it. Tell no one.

Once others know, they will look at you strangely, they will question you, they will ask you terrible questions—

—how’s it coming?

—is it fun?

—when is it going to be finished?

—I bet it’s fun

—when can I see it?

You don’t need those words buzzing around your ears. So keep the start of your career secret. Keep the time sacred.

Remember: nobody made you be a writer.

More about the late William Goldman in On William Goldman’s ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, William Goldman Speaks, William Goldman’s Ten Commandments of Pitching and For Screenwriters: Endings.

More about Screenwriting in Save the Movie! Is Blake Snyder to Blame?Best Screenwriting Books: THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, Best Screenwriting Books: ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING and Best Screenwriting Books: Dmytryk’s ON SCREEN WRITING , amongst many other posts!