Screenwriters need time to fail and write badly…
April 16, 2012 § 4 Comments
Yes, you read that correctly—time to fail and write badly. The journey to excellence also includes rejection, failure, criticism and poorly written screenplays. The only way to get through it and become a better writer is by getting your bad screenwriting out of the way as soon as possible. Hopefully not for long, but you’ll need to get those first few horrible screenplays out of your system to get to the business of writing well. You need to listen to constructive feedback and know what to take and what to ignore. As the art and craft of screenwriting is an ongoing learning experience, if you continue to learn and master your craft, eventually you’ll be at the top of your game at any given time.
As for failure, embrace it because there is no escape from it on your screenwriting journey. The times when you fail are tests to see if you really have what it takes to weather the long slog of establishing a career as a working screenwriter. If you are open to learning—you will use the failures as a learning experience and not bristle and fight against it. Failure and success is the Yin and Yang of any artistic journey. We can only cherish the hard work it takes to achieve success, because we’ve been able to take the punches and body blows that failure delivers. You’ll come back stronger the next time and work smarter and be a more efficient writer. If you listen to any successful person, they will discuss the many failures they’ve experienced, perhaps years of failure to get to the success you see from them today.
Stare failure down and do not be afraid of it. When it does come, and it will, you’ll be ready and take the blows and you’ll get back up, stare at the blank page and start the process all over again. Failure loves to knock out screenwriters, it hates those who get before a “ten count” and start screenwriting again.
The overnight success is usually ten years in the making. It’s rare for screenwriters to sell their first script—or their third script. It wasn’t until my fifth script and six years after film school that my screenwriting career took off. Our dreams keep us going, but make sure they’re realistic dreams in a marketplace filled with tens of thousands of projects being created every year. Don’t worry about the odds but focus on always becoming a better writer and expanding your writer’s tool kit. Learn your strengths and weaknesses as you find your unique voice.
Screenwriting experience takes time—an incredible amount of time and effort. You have to respect the process and not expect that your first time typing FADE OUT – THE END will result in God’s gift to Hollywood. I recently calculated the volume of material I have written over the years—from spec scripts to screenplay assignment jobs, rewrites, script doctor jobs, and it’s easily over 20,000 original pages of writing for TV and film. When I was just starting out, if someone told me this amount of writing would be necessary to get me to this point in my life, I might have been too overwhelmed to even attempt my Mount Everest. You will be humbled if you disrespect the craft.
On your journey you must learn patience my brave screenwriters. I find many aspiring writers are too anxious to sell their first script for a million dollars. They’re more interested in fame and fortune than becoming excellent and making a living as a working screenwriter. Or they don’t want to “sell out” and write “commercial Hollywood projects” as if they had any choices to work being offered to them. They don’t respect the incredibly long slog that is ahead of them. Relax and picture the long road you will be traveling. Every aspiring writer believes their journey will be difference because they are “special.” Don’t be tempted into this mindset because you’ll wake up one day and realize you’re eight years into the journey and haven’t sold anything or had a movie produced. You just might hit a homerun with your first script (and I hope you do), but the reality is that it’s like winning the lottery.
If you’re going to be in this for the long haul, screenwriters need time to become great writers first. You need to fire on all cylinders with every script you write. You need to look at the bigger picture and chart a course for your career—not be myopic and focus on just one script. How does the spec you are writing fit into your plans for a bigger career? Every aspect of your script must be at the highest levels if you’re going to play with the big boys and girls. Maybe structure comes easy for you, but dialogue and character development are your weaknesses? Maybe you can easily come up with ideas but maybe they aren’t all solid stories to hang a movie on? Becoming a great writer is a lifelong pursuit and if you believe Earnest Hemingway, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” the mastery of writing remains elusive no matter how long we practice the craft. Do you have a newfound respect for writing now? If not, the longer you work in the screenwriting game, you will eventually be humbled.
I’m a better writer than I was five years ago—and even two years ago. It’s a continual learning process and we’re always preparing for when opportunities arise. We also find our “voice” and style and become more confident that our writing best shows our unique talents. There’s a mysterious synchronicity in the universe, it knows when we are ready, and delivers us an opportunity at the exact right time.
Your journey will involve your own Mount Everest to climb, and over time and respecting the craft of screenwriting, you can only write at a level your experience will afford you at any given time. If you’ve only written one screenplay and only one draft of that script, please know that you have a lot of work ahead of you—years of work and possibly a decade before you’re a great writer who is capable of working a the level necessary to score assignment jobs. During your climb, screenwriters need to fail and write badly, so they can get to a place of success and writing well.
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“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.“—F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“Like everyone else, you want to learn the way to win, but never to accept the way to lose – to accept defeat. To learn to die is to be liberated from it. So when tomorrow comes you must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying!”—Bruce Lee
“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson
“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.” ~ J.K. Rowling
“You have to be very productive in order to become excellent. You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period. It may be very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You maybe ready to move into your good period and your excellent period. But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”—Ray Bradbury
“… The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“…That’s why an artist must be a warrior and, like all warriors, artists over time acquire modesty and humility. They may, some of them, conduct themselves flamboyantly in public. But alone with the work they are chase and humble. They know they are not the source of the creations they being into being. They only facilitate. They carry. They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.“—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“If you’re worried about failing, you ought to get into a different business, because statistics will tell you that sixty or seventy percent of the time you’re going to fail. By fail I mean that the movie won’t make money. Just do the best you can every time. And if you’re going to stay in the movies, and you like movies—and I love them—you’d better love them a lot, because it’s going to take all of your time. If you want to be in the movies, it’s going to break your heart.“—Richard Brooks, director of Blackboard Jungle, Sweet Bird of Youth, In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar