The only guarantee is there are no guarantees: How screenwriters stay sane on their journey…
November 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
There will be days when you feel like you’re surrounded by dark clouds in the middle of the ocean, floating on a tiny raft and waving like crazy to get noticed. The same goes for your screenwriting. No matter how hard you work or how good your screenplay turns out, it feels like nobody cares and you can’t make any forward momentum on the field of play. A great survival tactic is to always focus on your writing because if you do, you’ll never stray too far from your path. Be mindful of your hunger and passion for your work and allow it to drive you through the rough times with even more determination to finish the project you’re working on. Passion and determination can drive you to act in courageous ways you never imagined. I’m no stranger to rough times, but I was able to weather each storm and hang on just a little longer because I always kept my faith and never gave up. Quitting was never an option for me nor did I ever have an expiration date on my dreams. It’s always been an open-ended operation with fluid mission plans for the long haul.
It also helps not to look six scripts ahead and have that crushing feeling of the need to sell your latest project. The stress of being in debt, working a day job and hoping that your new script will launch your career is not a good mental place to reside. The universe knows when you’re ready and will surround you with opportunities that you can handle at the right time. You just have to be ready and open to pursue them and that involves being the best screenwriter you can be at this moment in time, but continuing to always get better. This means working on telling stories that are effective, well written, authentic and that showcase your unique “voice” and style. Look at your climb to success being a series of plateaus that you reach that will allow you to learn from experience and climb even higher next time. It’s always going to be a series of little successes that end up opening the door that launches you into a career.
Once you’re through the gates, it’s crunch time and you need to be the ultimate team player and work even harder to stay in the game. You’re being paid as a professional and will be expected to deliver the goods on schedule. You have to survive the ups and downs that any screenwriting career delivers and these survival tactics evolve from experience over time. Remember to use what works for you and discard what doesn’t. This experience can only happen over time. It’s a journey and it’s ultimately your responsibility to charter your course and back it up with solid writing and the ability to collaborate and be a team player. Your talent and ability is as important as your professional attitude and work ethic. It takes all three to charter a course to any kind of success.
Take everything as face value for talk is the cheapest commodity in Hollywood. Many times interest in you or your script and the endless talk is just that—interest and talk. Everyone wants credit for their good intentions and many times a producer’s upbeat attitude about your project can become infectious. You want to believe that others see your dream. Why not? It’s what keeps us going as screenwriters—faith and belief. I’m sure when producers and executives tell you that your project is going into production, they just might believe it themselves to be true — but too many times a writer is told this to buy more free time. Everyone wants to keep a writer’s interest in hanging on until they work out the pesky financing details. If they can’t raise the money for the budget and have a tiny development budget, there really is no money to pay the writer.
Unfortunately, writers often make employment judgments based upon pending projects — meaning that you might turn down a job as they told you— (not by an assistant — but the guys at the top)— that your project is a “GO PICTURE.” So, if you can’t trust the word of the powers that be, whose word can you trust? Realistically, no one’s word. Trust your instincts. A signed contract and upfront money is an important first step to production, but even then so many elements of the project can fall through—financing, global economic shifts, genre interest shifts, actors fall through, scheduling falls through, loads of pitfalls that are out of your control. You can even be fired! Yes, that’s a realistic possibility too.
Yes, it does get exhausting at times when it feels like you are the only one who believes in you and your screenplays. Hollywood doesn’t care about your latest spec screenplay (unless it’s an assignment job and the producers are paying you to deliver the goods on time). That’s not to be mean, just a dose of reality you will find as you send out your screenplays and try to get read and noticed. The town is filled with thousands of like minded screenwriting aspirants who all want to “make it” and sell their script for high six figures. One writer’s idea of “making it” is another writer’s idea of failure. If you’re okay with making a living, whatever income that entails to pay your bills and feed yourself, and you are happy waking up in the morning—you are a success. But—if you’re chasing the highest levels of success and you’ll only be happy with being an A-list screenwriter who makes a million dollars a year—there were only about fifty of those last year out of the ten thousand screenwriters in the WGA. Chase away and best of luck.
This is why it helps to have friends and family support your endeavors as a screenwriter. Otherwise, it can be a lonely road with many pitfalls and ups and down. In Stephen King’s fantastic book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he writes, “Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.” Perfectly said. Surround yourself with like-minded people who support you in the good and bad times. Not the fair-weather friends who are there only when times are flush.
It’s going to be a long journey and you’ll be at peace if you’re humble about the process and the amount of work necessary to achieve any level of success. You’ll also focus more on being in the present and working on making your latest project the best you’ve ever written and that is success in itself. See each project as how it fits into the bigger picture of your career goals. Don’t waste your time on material that doesn’t fit into your career plan. If you want to sell and be known as a horror screenwriting, master that genre and don’t write a romantic comedy. Time passes quickly in life and dealings in Hollywood take longer than you’ll ever imagine, so utilize your time effectively as time is your most precious commodity because you can never get it back.
You’ll have to endure the rough times to get to the good times. It’s the nature of pursuing a screenwriting career in a very crowded and competitive marketplace. You’ve chosen one of the hardest careers to achieve any level of success in, but if it’s truly your dream, you will do what’s necessary to stay in the game. The only competition should be with yourself to become an excellent screenwriter, but there is still no guarantee of success. Even if you do sell a screenplay there are many factors that can stand in the way of production and time marches on. Always know there are no guarantees even when things look good. The only guarantee is that your only real chance at success comes from a building a strong foundation before you attempt the climb—a foundation that involves being an excellent screenwriter, being the ultimate team player and professional, writing authentic stories that touch audiences, and following your disciplines. It’s a daily routine. Everything else is just luck and timing, but we know that luck happens when a prepared screenwriter meets with an opportunity and delivers the goods.
Write on brave screenwriters, keep the faith, and fill those precious blank pages.
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“The reward of suffering is experience.”—Aeschylus, Ancient Greek Dramatist known as the founder of Greek Tragedy
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“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
“…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
“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