Yes, you read that correctly. Screenwriters need time to fail and write badly. The journey to excellence includes rejection, failure, criticism, and poorly written screenplays. The only way to get through this process 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 that first small stack of horrible screenplays out of your system to get to the business of writing well. It’s a vital learning period and your specs are the training tools you need to find your style, voice, and become familiar with the craft. Be open to constructive feedback and know which notes to use and to ignore. Eventually you’ll be at the top of your game at any given time if you continue to learn and master your craft.
As for failure, embrace it because there is no escape from it on your screenwriting journey. The times when you fail are important 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, you will use the failures as learning experiences and not bristle and fight against them but embrace them as opportunities. There is no success without failure. It’s 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 successful place where you see 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 the doors opened and 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 and an incredible amount of desire 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 that I have written over the years—from 41 feature scripts, 9 TV pilots, including my screenplay assignment jobs, rewrites, script doctor jobs, and a web series, and it’s easily over 50,000 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 the ascent of my Mount Everest. Be warned… if you are not already humble… Hollywood and the enormity of the craft will humble you fast.
My brave fellow screenwriters you must learn patience on your journey. I find many aspiring writers are too anxious to see their first script for a million dollars. They chase fame and fortune. Or they don’t want to put in the necessary time it takes to create a solid body of work. While others are afraid if they write a commercial project it’s a “sell out” — as if they had that many choices to work being offered to them. They don’t respect the incredibly long slog that is ahead. 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 home run 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. 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 in the major leagues. 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?
Your journey will involve your own Mount Everest to climb. Over time and respecting the craft, 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 competitive writer who is capable of working a the level necessary to score assignment jobs. During your climb, it’s okay to fail and write bad screenplays so you can get to that place of success and writing well.
Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith.
Copyright 2022 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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