Write your bad screenplays so you can get to the good ones…

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.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2022 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.

Also check out my YOUTUBE Channel with weekly videos offering script tips.

Did you just complete your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website and more information. Click on the icon below for the link to my website and schedule your consultation today.

Need help navigating Hollywood’s trenches as you pursue a screenwriting career? Check out my book available on Amazon with 47 five star reviews. Click on the book photo for the link to Amazon.

Need inspirational gifts for the screenwriter in your life? Maybe that’s you! Check out my COFFEE RING CARTOONS merch at my online store by clicking on the photo below. Coffee mugs, T-shirts, notebooks, mouse pads, and drink coasters.

When you put yourself out there and keep doing the necessary work… opportunities will come your way.

The longer you chase your dream of being a professional screenwriter and slug it out in Hollywood’s trenches, the more you’ll realize just how difficult it is to sell a screenplay and if you do, to sustain a career. The years pass by fast, and Hollywood definitely works on its own schedule — never the schedule of an eager writer looking to sell a big spec or start a career. I offer this reality check only to keep you humble, focused on the necessary work, and always keeping your eye on the bigger picture of where you are going with your pursuits. A screenplay written without the thought of what it can do for you with regards to your ultimate career goals can be an exercise in futility.  If you want to be a horror genre screenwriter and that is your passion, don’t write a romantic comedy.  Stick to what you love to write and a genre that is your passion — and write the hell out of it.  You’ll be looked upon as less “scattered” when it’s time to get you on the studio rewrite lists for jobs. Agents and managers can also understand what you can do better than if you showed up with a western, romantic comedy, drama, sci-fi, and action screenplay. How can a writer be good at all genres? Most likely they are not.

Now let’s examine the role of a good opportunity that can help start your screenwriting career.  First of all, I believe you create new opportunities with every new screenplay. When your script is completely ready to be sent out and compete in the marketplace, it will serve as your “calling card” to showcase the best of your abilities. It’s rare your screenplay will sell on the first time out, but it can secure you a meeting or open a door with a production company. This can lead to a script assignment job — the bread and butter of working screenwriters. Today the business is all about intellectual property and developing existing books, news events, and even re-making old films. But the key is recognizing a good opportunity when it comes your way.

A few years ago, I took a rewrite job with a producer and because I did so well with the job, the producer hired me three more times — two were other rewrites and one was a script assignment of my own. I could have turned down the original rewrite job because I had to share credit (never an issue with me) with the original writer. I decided to jump in with both feet and plant my flag to showcase my ability to save the project that was floundering. You never know where one opportunity will lead and what doors it will open.

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I recently had this discussion with a screenwriter who asked if he should continue to focus on writing his big-budget specs and hoping for a major sale, or should he write lower budgeted films at a company where he has a solid connection. I told him that fewer that 100 specs a year sell in Hollywood. In fact in 2021 only 34 specs sold. And if you consider the 50,000 scripts registered at the Writer’s Guild every year, the odds of selling a major spec to a studio as an unknown writer… well, you’d might have a better chance at winning the lottery. You have to seriously ask yourself what is the best use of your time.  Yes, some writers are willing to hold out, year after year, writing big budget specs as unknowns, hoping for a miracle sale to happen and hitting a wall every time out. As the years fly past, this pursuit can really affect one’s mental and financial health. Or, if you have an opportunity to write a movie with a company where it will get made, why not take that easier opportunity? You never know where your job will lead and you can build on the opportunity. What if you write a few successful movies for them, and then you ask to move into producing? Or maybe directing? And you’re learning production while you’re getting paid. As an unknown writer, you’d never have those opportunities at a major studio to start with your first movie.

And looking at the bigger picture, most writers end up where they never imagined. Your career will never be what you imagined when you were pounding out your specs at home. You have to seize upon a good opportunity to get past the gates, and then what you do with that opportunity is the most important thing. I told this writer to take the writing job with the company, low budget or not, because it’s real. Money makes it real. Not some promises of “interest” or talk of possibly an option. He will be a paid and credited screenwriter, and that goes a hell of a long way to getting the next job over someone who has never been paid to write anything. It’s also building those vital relationships as he will be working closely with producers and the directors. These relationships are vital to building the foundation of a screenwriting career.

At the start, someone has to take a chance on you. If you deliver the goods and have a productive working relationship, that’s when they offer you another job, and hopefully another — and that’s called a career. It’s being paid to do what you love for a living. Trust me, producers like working with writers whom they can trust.

Every screenwriter has their own idea of  “making it” and what a dream career looks like. I say you have to continue to “make it” with every new job after the first one. It’s not the romanticized idea of what a screenwriter’s life is like. There is no down time to rest. The hardest part of the journey is selling that first screenplay or being offered your first assignment job. Once you have a credited film, it’s a lot easier to find your next job because someone has already taken a chance on you. Always consider all opportunities that come your way. You probably won’t be paid a lot for your first few jobs, but you have to build the foundation of a career first before it can flourish.

Keep the faith, and keep filling your blank pages on your road to success.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2022 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.

Also check out my YOUTUBE Channel with weekly videos offering script tips.

Did you just complete your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the icon below for the link to my website and more information. Click on the photo below for the link to my website and schedule your consultation today.

Need help navigating Hollywood’s trenches as you pursue a screenwriting career? Check out my book available on Amazon with 47 five star reviews. Click on the book photo for the link to Amazon.

“I have known Mark my entire life, and he is  absolute living proof of the grit and tenacity it takes to make it as a  writer in this business. Take your first steps toward your own career by  reading the words of this true fighter.”

Matt Reeves, writer/director
 (Dawn Of The Planet of the Apes, War For The Planet of the Apes, The Batman)

“A  great book for anyone who ever aspired to become anything; Sanderson  reminds us how important it is to have a life passion, how important it  is to work hard at it, and how that, in itself, is a victory.”

 — J. J. Abrams, writer/producer/director
(Lost, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)