Survival tips for screenwriters: Dealing with rejection, criticism and failure…
September 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
Trust me, the process of rejection, criticism and failure doesn’t get easier even when you finally become a professional working screenwriter with credits. It actually gets more difficult, as there is more at stake because you’re getting paid and the script could be in development or production. The expectations are much higher and your “failure” at this professional level could cost you the job, money and your reputation. Insecurities and fear still creep in, but you learn to deal with these negative emotions because you’ve been writing for years and know your strengths and weaknesses. Expectations are high of professionals, so you learn how to write under a deadline at the top of your game and deliver quality material. You’ll become a team player, an expert at delivering rewrites efficiently and fixing the script without ego. The professional writer can’t be upset about criticism or rejection—those emotions can’t get in the way of the process of screenwriting—there’s just too much at stake.
You need to take control early on your screenwriting journey by recognizing the only part of this crazy business that you really do have control over is the process of your screenwriting. Only you control if you sit down and create new material or not and much of everything else is out of a screenwriter’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 also need to accept the hard reality that you may toil away writing scripts for years that no one will ever buy. I’m not trying to be a killjoy, but alert you to the realties of the business. Many beginning screenwriters believe their journey will be different—they will sell their first script and end up with a three-picture deal without much effort and they won’t have to write 10,000 hours to become a master at their craft. That may happen, but the odds are against you and the film business has a funny way of humbling screenwriter’s with unrealistic attitudes. It’s a competitive and crowded marketplace with nearly 50,000 scripts bouncing around Hollywood in any given year and only 4,899 professional screenwriters in the WGAw reported any income last year—the other half did not work. Much of your early material will probably not sell but help build and establish you into an excellent screenwriter. Even when you do manage an option or sale, the project could languish in development hell where you get paid, but doesn’t make it to the big or small screen. Every script you complete makes you a better writer, even if it doesn’t sell. Your goal is a continual mastering of your craft. Knowing these pitfalls will help you survive the journey for the long haul.
When you do receive feedback and it’s very critical or brutal, don’t look at it as failure and become insecure. Don’t allow yourself to go to a dark place feeling, “Look at the amount of notes. It proves that I’m a horrible writer and I’ll never work or sell a script.” Use the experience at motivation to fix the script or move to writing your next project. Most likely your first screenplay will be a bit of a mess and that’s okay. It may take you five or six scripts to even discover yourself as a screenwriter—exploring your strengths, weaknesses, and your style. I didn’t make any noise until my fourth spec script and looking back on it now, I cringe at my beginner’s mistakes and poor choices. It wasn’t until six years out of film school and my fifth spec script that finally put me on the map with my first sale and eventual produced film.
As a screenwriter you will also have to stay open to constructive criticism. You will always receive notes as a screenplay is an ever-changing blueprint for a movie—even more in the development process. Once producers, a director and actors get involved there will be many changes and you should welcome the creative input from your co-creators on a project. You’ll need to be a team player and “collaborator” in the true definition of the word and this is the opportunity to show everyone your value to the project. There still is a good chance that the project can get dragged down by so many changes and you become frustrated and feel like throwing in the towel. Stay positive and work through these harrowing times. Stay focused and persistent at executing the notes and turning in a better script. Find the passion you had for the first draft and put that energy into shaping a new draft that will please not only yourself, but the talent it will eventually attract and keep interested.
As for rejection and failure, embrace them 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. 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. 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. Every “failure” is a chance to learn and ultimately it’s all your point of view about it anyway, right? You may see that not selling your script as failure, but what if it became a solid writing sample that got you a screenwriting assignment job? How would that original “failure” look to you now? When “failure” 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.
As you navigate this crazy film business, know that your screenwriting journey is a long marathon to any type of success and forging a career usually doesn’t happen overnight. If you are in this for the long haul, it will require tremendous patience and endless tenacity. You’ll have to learn how to deal with rejection, criticism, and failures along the way to your successes. Even becoming a better writer does not happen overnight and requires you to continually write, learn and create projects that will ultimately not sell. Your journey as a screenwriter will be a series of failures and mistakes, triumphs and successes, and when added up will hopefully lead to a career as a working screenwriter in Hollywood. The process will be long and difficult, but if you have patience and respect for your craft and the challenges ahead, you can focus on your love for the craft and your projects and not the urgency of success.
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“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.“—F. Scott Fitzgerald
“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