It’s a long haul journey, so prepare for the ride of a lifetime.
September 1, 2014 § 1 Comment
I remember completing my first screenplay. It was fun and I thought it was the greatest piece of writing ever created—until I received feedback and that knocked me back into reality. I had much to learn and the humbling experience was enough for me to realize that screenwriting is an ongoing journey of learning and writing, failing, and getting rejected. As I soldiered on, I could see legitimate progress as each new screenplay moved me farther down the field of play. Now, thirty-three screenplays later and seventeen paid screenwriting assignments, my eleventh produced film just started production. Nothing has come for free or handed to me on my journey. My family was not in the film business. I had to learn, climb and claw for everything that I’ve achieved with the invaluable support team of my family and dear friends. We make our own breaks and set up opportunities with every new screenplay that we create.
One can’t do it alone, but you are alone when you face that blank page and realize that no one forced you to choose this endeavor. It’s your dream so take responsibility for it. If you haven’t learned it yet, you will realize it’s not for the thin-skinned or for those who can’t handle failure and rejection. All of this comes with the territory and there are no guarantees. That is what makes it exciting and terrifying at the same time. Every time out, we stand on the side of the cliff and stare into the dark, unknown void below. What makes us take the leap of faith? Our passion and dreams burn as red-hot fuel for our courage to step forward and soar.
This is not an easy journey to reach any level of success for a sustained period. You really have to dig deep and ask yourself if you are willing to slog through the trenches for years, possibly writing material that will never sell only to maybe strike gold and sell something or be hired to write a script for a producer. If you’re in this for the fame and fortune, or you think it’s easy because you’ve read a few screenwriting books and read some scripts, you are very mistaken. The craft and the film business will humble you. It’s not enough to just put the words on paper and call yourself a “screenwriter.” That’s like saying you jumped out of a plane once and now you’re a skydiver. You have to possess the tenacity to weather the ups and downs of the film business, to constantly become a better screenwriter, to learn and grow with your craft, master executing notes, being the ultimate team player and collaborator, and writing material that reveals honestly and authenticity. If you’re in it because you think it’s a quick way for fame and to make big money, think again—you will be humbled by the business. Sure, Hollywood is the boulevard of successes, but also of countless broken dreams.
The life of a screenwriter is not glamorous, but you’d be lucky to become a “working screenwriter” — someone who makes their living by writing. I’m not talking about an A-list superstar (as if many screenwriters ever to get to be superstars compared to actors). Not everyone can achieve A-list status no matter how good they write or how badly they want it. Everyone has their own journey and not everyone will achieve the level of success they anticipated—but that’s okay. You have to decide what your idea of “making it” is and trust me, it changes over the years. Out of the gate from film school graduation, I was going to set the world on fire and sell scripts for a million dollars each. Funny how time and the pursuit has a way of tempering dreams and shaping a more realistic goal.
It hasn’t been easy and there were many times when fear and despair nearly extinguished the bright light I always see ahead of me. Somehow, I manage to hang on and take a few steps forward for every step back. They told me it would not be easy and they were correct. When given the insurmountable odds, it could potentially be impossible—but not for us dreamers. I’d rather work at making my dreams a reality, than never to attempt them and always wonder if I could have made it.
I think it’s an important question to pose to beginning writers—do you have the burning desire to be a writer and the all-encompassing drive it takes to achieve any type of success as a screenwriter? There will be times you ask yourself, “why the hell am I doing this?” and if your answer is, “because I don’t want to do anything else and it’s my life’s calling” — my friend you just might be a real screenwriter.
And what about time? It’s your greatest asset or your worst enemy. It depends on how you use your precious time to create a solid body of work and continue to become a better screenwriter. That’s why I ask if you have an artist’s mentality — or the insanity to believe that even as you stare into the dark void of the unknown, your burning passion will guide you across yet another hurdle. You’ll need to withstand continued rejection, criticism, failure, and even sometimes ridicule — and if you can remain strong and shout with confidence, “I am a screenwriter” and truly believe it, because you are doing the work. Even if you do sell screenplays, you can get stuck in development hell where nothing gets produced. It means sacrificing the time to create a solid body of work and not just talking about what you aspire to do.
I knew a lot of “actors” who loved the actor’s lifestyle, but really didn’t do much work at acting. They thought they would get by on their charm and good looks. Well, in Hollywood those qualities are a dime a dozen. The same goes for a “screenwriter.” Ideas are everywhere and it’s the execution that counts. It’s what separates those people who look at writing a screenplay as a way to become famous or to make money. That’s a fool’s endeavor. It takes a real love of the craft of writing that will keep your aim true and focused. You’ll have a body of work to show just how serious you are about being a “screenwriter” because you’re acting like a professional—even if you haven’t been paid. Every time you write you are living out your dream. Everything else on your journey is just an extra treat.
I’ve never found a way around the hard work, only through it. Success is not guaranteed or deserved to any of us. The “overnight success” can take ten years or even longer, so you’ll need the ability to hunker down for the long haul of a screenwriter’s journey in Hollywood. It took me six years out of film school to sell my first project and another two years after that for it to go into production.
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. That’s okay because every script you complete makes you a better writer, even if it doesn’t sell. Your goal is a constant mastering of your craft. Even when you finally score a writing job, a simple contract can take months going back and forth between lawyers and agents. Time burns quickly and if patience isn’t in your DNA, then I suggest you learn it because you will endure difficult circumstances and never-ending test of your will.
If you love the craft regardless of the outcome, you already possess the ability to weather the long slog it may take to becoming a working screenwriter. You are not insane in your thinking, you’re hammering away in a rarefied world among writers with an esprit de corps—fellow dreamers who refuse to give up and settle for less than living out their dreams.
Always remember, no one can extinguish your creative flames but you. Keep the hungry creative fires burning, keep believing, follow the professional’s code, and always keep writing and creating new projects. What other choice do you have? Give up? Never.
Copyright 2017 written by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald
“… the payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.” – Hemingway
“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
“One of the things that young writers falsely hope exists is inspiration. A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.”—William Goldman