Do you respect the mountain you’re about to climb as you pursue a screenwriting career?
February 10, 2013 § 4 Comments
Yes, it’s a mountain—the ultimate challenge. Consider it your own personal Everest or K-2. Sure, we all have mountains to climb in our lives, but finding success as a working screenwriter is one hell of a conquest. Do yourself a huge favor early in your journey and respect this fact. Don’t believe that somehow it’s different for you because you’re “special.” We’re all special and unique and we still have to claw, fight and write our way to any type of success by hard work, discipline, drive, sacrifice and passion.
We all think it’s easy at the start of our journey. Our enthusiasm and passion drives us far because we have yet to taste the bitter dregs of rejection and struggle. We think, “Hell, writing is easy. I know it took those other writers ten years to sell something, but I’m different… I’m talented and my ideas are better.” You’ll be seduced into believing the first draft or even your first few screenplays are groundbreaking material. You’ll truly feel it’s the best script that you’ve ever written—and this might be true—but it’s still not good enough. Often times, aspirants chase the easy part of the climb before they become proficient with the proper tools to make it safely to the next level. This is a dangerous method without the safety of proper discipline, technique, experience and training. Ah, what fools us mortals be.
You should always strive for the top, but realize that not everyone is going to achieve “A list” status or “make it”—and that’s okay. This is why you need to consider what your definition of “making it” is and if you’ll be okay with not reaching the very top of success. Know that everyone in your collective group of screenwriters will each have varied levels of success in their pursuit of the dream. More importantly, if your happiness will only come from reaching top and nothing else will do—you could be chasing an unrealistic dream. This ultimate dream of fame and walking red carpets is what brings thousands of aspirants out to Hollywood every year for their chance up to the plate. Never allow your level of success to dictate the value of you as a person or artist. Some of the greatest artists in history never achieved superstar financial status. If your pursuit in this game is only money, consider another business.
It’s the unrealistic dream that you may have read in Variety about the first time screenwriter who as a fetus dictated the script from his mother’s womb, she wrote it out, and once the kid was born he performed a rewrite and it sold for a million dollars. Seriously? Back to reality: The Writers Guild Annual Report for 2014 (ending fiscal year March 2014) stated that only 4,745 writers reported income in 2014. 3,681 of them worked in TV. That’s out of the over 19,000 members. Also about a hundred spec screenplays sell in any given year. That’s out of the estimated 30,000 – 50,000 projects registered with the Writers Guild every year. Some mountain, huh?
Maybe you’ll hit a few singles that get you on base and maybe you’ll strike out? We all strive to hit that one grand slam home run that us on the map, but have you trained enough for the marathon and the mountain you are climbing? It’s definitely not a place for a writer who isn’t working at a professional level.
You need to honestly ask yourself, “What level of success will make me happy?” I guarantee that your screenwriting journey will bring unimaginable happiness when you finally reach a mile high on your climb—but know with that also comes the slip and falls that send you back to the base camp. It’s how you react to these highs and lows that will toughen you up so you can survive on the long slog. Maybe you’ll discover that making your living by screenwriting is enough happiness to get you through. Only you can make that choice.
The steps to climbing a real mountain are very similar to those you’ll need to master as you make your attempt at establishing yourself as a screenwriter in Hollywood: Research, access your mental strength, get fit, acquire the gear, get training, plan your first climb (first script), keep improving your skills, find a good guide (mentor), understand what’s involved once you reach an advanced level, begin your climb (your pursuit of a career).
As you respect the marathon ahead of you—ask yourself if you have an artist’s mentality. You’ll need a bit of insanity as you stare up into the dark void above while you begin to make your ascent. Fight your fear so it won’t cripple you. You’ll need to withstand continued rejection, criticism, failure, ridicule, and times when you make little or no money. Your burning passion will guide you on your journey. If you’re okay with all of this, you just might have what it takes… but please be aware of this:
- So much is out of the writer’s control. Even if you do sell a project there are a myriad of scenarios that can kill it from moving forward: Lack of financing, a change in the marketplace, the executives get fired and the company loses interest, talent pulls out to do something else, you get fired and the producers change their minds about moving forward. So much can happen before it goes into production. It’s a business with ” No guarantees”—even with a contract and a start date.
- You may write scripts for years that no one ever buys or might languish in development hell where you get paid, but no projects make it to the screen. Every script you complete makes you a better writer, even if it doesn’t sell. Your goal is a constant mastering of your craft.
- It’s a crowded and very competitive marketplace. Perhaps your last project wasn’t marketable enough for a sale. It does not mean you have wasted your time. It’s possible that material will become hot at some point in the future. I always believe a spec script is never dead, it just hasn’t found the right home. Entertainment is an ever-changing marketplace — demands and tastes change with the climate. This often times means writing yet another “spec” or at least having a few good pitches up your sleeve that are well thought out and can accompany a solid writing sample.
Never believe that you’re bigger than your craft because you’ll be humbled when you realize how much you still don’t know. This is why you need to respect the journey and all that comes along the way. Humility goes a long way in life and in the film business. You can move forward with confidence about what you’ve learned and your abilities, but always respect for the mountain we all have to climb every day. The ascent never ends and be mindful that if you do reach the very top, no one stays there forever. The Yin and Yang of life creates a balance, so prepare for the unexpected shifts and you’ll be able to weather those storms.
Ultimately, strive to find happiness on your journey. Here’s a quote from the poem “Desiderata” written by Max Ehrmann, circa 1927.
“… And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
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“The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.” — Steven Pressfield
“There’s delusion—we all know what that is and who that is—then there’s a lifer—one who creates because he must. It’s the lifeblood of an artist.” — author/musician Bill See
“Believe me that in every big thing or achievement there are obstacles — big or small — and the reaction one shows to such an obstacle is what counts not the obstacle itself.”—Bruce Lee
“Having spent too many years in show business, the one thing I see that succeeds is persistence. It’s the person who just ain’t gonna go home. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to go home. This is what I’ll be doing until they put me in jail or in a coffin.” —David Mamet
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”—Ray Bradbury
“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling