January 1, 2016 § 1 Comment
Okay, it’s one thing to finish a screenplay and another to understand the complexities of how it fits into forging a career or what I call “the bigger picture.” Sure, a completed screenplay is an accomplishment to be celebrated, but you have to realize it’s only the beginning of a long journey. If you’ve completed a few screenplays, congratulations. Now get back to work because it’s always going to be about the work. Writing the perfect screenplay is elusive at best, but we can still try, right? Every time out is a chance to get better and learn while you build your screenwriting arsenal.
If also you lack humility on this adventure and think it’s an easy road, the film business will humble you and fast. According to the 2016 Scoggins Report, only 70 spec screenplays sold in Hollywood. Also there are approximately 50,000 scripts bouncing around Hollywood every year and half of the Writers Guild doesn’t report any income and those are writers with professional credits.
Consider your first screenplay as a training tool and one of many that you’ll have to write badly to get to a place where you’re writing at a professional level to compete. Specs usually end up being your calling card instead of a million dollar sale. Also realize now that everything you write is not going to sell. It might take ten scripts and four drafts of each to have one open the door for a job.
The pursuit of a Hollywood screenwriting career, especially in today’s film business, is not for the thin of skin or for anyone looking to achieve easy fame and fortune. I wish you the best of luck if that’s your intention. There are better careers that pay more on a regular basis instead of going from script to script with many never getting produced or you paid. Honestly, no one cares who wrote the screenplay when they see a film at the multiplex. They’re going to see the stars or the story and hopefully your name is still on the end product and you haven’t been fired or have to share credit.
If you’re calling yourself a screenwriter but without credits, do you have four or five solid screenplays written, other pitches, one sheets, or treatments and have you done the training necessary to compete? Professionalism is an attitude, work ethic and discipline that shows you are serious about your screenwriting even if you haven’t sold anything yet.
Time to check the list…
THE TEN WARNING SIGNS YOU’RE STILL AN ASPIRANT:
1 . You don’t spend the time necessary to become a better screenwriter because you still believe it’s easy to establish a career.
2. You’re writing beyond your ability at this point in your screenwriting journey because you want to sell a Hollywood tent-pole before you’re ready.
3. Your writing is only a rehash of what you’ve seen before in movies and on television and not something unique to your voice.
4. You lack the patience to master your craft and want success to come fast without sacrifice.
5. You’re not open to notes, you’re defensive about criticism on your screenplay and bristle at the suggestion of cutting anything. You have not learned how to be a collaborator and team player with professionals.
6. You haven’t accepted it’s a long haul journey to reach any level of success in the film business and believe it’s going to be different for you because you are the “chosen one”– it’s just that Hollywood hasn’t chosen you yet.
7. You don’t learn from your mistakes and you’re doomed to repeat them.
8. You constantly bemoan, “The producers, executives and agents don’t know what they’re talking about. I see the movies out there and I can do better.” If so, why haven’t you sold anything?
9. You feel entitled to success just because you’ve completed a script and expect Hollywood to grant you a big sale and a career.
10. You do more talking about your “writing” than actually writing.
If you’re guilty of any of the signs on this list, consider making immediate changes to your attitude and game plan. Hollywood is filled with screenwriters and the odds of establishing a career and being paid regularly are horrible, but it does happen. Respect the craft and the journey because that’s what professionals do and you don’t want to be stuck aspiring for success.
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“Don’t focus on where you’re not (famous or A-list writer)—focus on where you’re at—hopefully screenwriting. Regardless of success or experience, we’re all equals in front of that blank page channeling the muse.”—Scriptcat
“‘I never feel the need to discuss my work with anyone. No, I am too busy writing it. It has got to please me and if it does I don’t need to talk about it. If it doesn’t please me, talking about it won’t improve it, since the only thing to improve it is to work on it some more. I am not a literary man but only a writer. I don’t get any pleasure from talking shop.”—William Faulkner
“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye. Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“There is only one way to avoid criticism: say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”—Aristotle
April 6, 2013 § 7 Comments
If your passion drives you to embark on this crazy marathon of a screenwriting career, you’ll need to prepare for survival in Hollywood’s trenches. Talent is important, but so is your professionalism and ability to endure criticism, rejection and failure over the long haul. The odds may be stacked against you, but the way to standout in this very competitive business is to create a solid body of work and build a reputation as a team player and collaborator. The rest is just luck—a prepared screenwriter who meets with an opportunity and delivers the goods.
Here are ten honest questions that aspiring screenwriters must answer before they jump in and pursue a screenwriting career… and here we go…
- Do you have an artist’s mentality? You’ll need a bit of insanity as you stare into the dark void of the unknown and fight your fear so it won’t cripple you. You’ll need to withstand continued rejection, criticism, failure, ridicule, and times when you make no money. Your burning passion will guide you across yet another hurdle. If you’re okay with all of this, you just might have what it takes. Rejection loves to knock out screenwriters, it hates those who get up before the “ten count” and start screenwriting again.
- Have you mastered screenplay format? I find many aspiring writers have a serious lack of knowledge or respect about screenplay format. It’s what separates the professional from the amateur. Producers, directors, and executives will immediately recognize that if you didn’t have enough respect for your craft to know proper format, you’re not a professional. You may have a grand idea for a movie, but the execution of the idea is what really counts. I’ve seen too many times screenwriters being rejected after writing a spec because it was rushed and not well-written. Some screenwriters will stubbornly believe that their screenplay will sell just off the idea alone and they don’t have to do the hard work. In reality, good ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, it’s the execution of an effective screenplay that counts.
- Do you overwrite? I read too many scripts that are overwritten. Do you describe the wallpaper and give directions to the actors like: “He sighs, shrugs his shoulders, rolls his eyes, smiles and turns?” Many new screenwriters feel the need to micromanage every scene. Stop doing this. Producers and executives hate to read—funny in a business where the script is so important, but they like to see a lot of “white” on the page. This means the fewer words the better and it’s the job of the screenwriter to stay the hell out-of-the-way of the story. You are here to service the story not the other way around.
- Do you respect story and screenplay structure? I find some beginning writers have a lack of respect for the treatment/step outline/beat sheet and how it related to the screenplay structure. This arrogance will get a writer into trouble when they end up in barren wasteland of Act 2 and become lost on page sixty or with a hundred and fifty-page script and have no idea where to cut. Your screenplay dies from 1,000 little format, story and structure issues. It’s all about the attention to the little details. I can start reading a script and by the first page know it’s from an amateur. The producers and executives will notice too.
- Have you accepted this fact: Screenwriting is all about execution and rewriting? Hollywood is full of good ideas and the winning formula is: good idea + execution of good idea = amazing viable screenplay. It all comes down to being able to execute a good idea into an even better script. Many beginning writers believe their first draft is perfect and needs no rewrites. Reality check ahead! After I read someone’s magnum opus and they tell me it took six months to write it without a treatment or even a step outline, I grimace and realize they just don’t understand the process. A reader or producer will stop reading and become frustrated after the first few pages. Detach from the material and it will be much easier to cut it to the bone. When they do give you suggestions and notes do not bristle and defend every word. You’ll be branded as “difficult” and you’ll find it hard to work if you can’t shake that reputation. Rewrites will be a huge part of your screenwriting journey.
- Are you willing to give the time necessary to create a viable body of work? We all want overnight success with the least amount of effort, right? A screenwriting career is as easy as falling out of bed in the morning into a three picture deal. Wrong. It can take years and a half-dozen screenplays to achieve any level of success as a working screenwriter—or maybe never. You’ll need time to fail and write badly so you can get on to doing your best work. You need to think of your career as your life’s journey and continually learn, study, and work at becoming a better screenwriter. You want to become a master of your craft at the top of your game. This is the level of performance necessary to compete in a very crowded marketplace where no one really gives a shit about your precious screenplay. There are 30,000 – 50,000 scripts/ideas/pitches fighting to sell before yours does.
- Are you a one-script wonder — or a writing workhorse who constantly writes new material? Always have ready a new pitch, synopsis, treatment and script to offer. Hollywood is a business, and agents and managers size you up to see your career potential. You need to be good in a room while pitching your ideas — and you’ll need to execute notes well and write under the pressure of deadlines. Be a team player and don’t bristle at criticism. This is all part of being a professional screenwriter. Potential reps will look for these traits because your potential employers will as well.
- Have you found your unique voice and the type of material that attracts you? “Don’t write stuff you can’t handle. If you don’t like romantic comedies, don’t write “Annie Hall.” You have to always write your best, or you’re dead.”— William Goldman. Too many aspirants have no idea who their audience will be for the script they are writing. Remember that not every idea makes a great story for a movie. I continually realize this when I’m at a party and someone learns that I’m a writer and they proceed to pitch me something and begin by saying, “This is a great idea for a movie!” Nine times out of ten—it’s not.
- Are you humble and practice humility? If you’re in this for fame and fortune you’ve picked the wrong career. Do not consider yourself superior to your craft. Recognize those who went before you and learn from them, but find your unique voice. Forging a screenwriting career is like climbing the flaming lava flows of Mount Doom in Mordor. Disrespect you craft at your own peril.
- Are you patient? Overnight success is usually ten years in the making. If you are in this for the long haul, constantly learn and become a better writer. Also enjoy the journey and the little successes along the way.
- BONUS QUESTION as suggested by my fellow screenwriter Niraj Kapur (@Nirajwriter): Can you deal with rejection and come back stronger? Criticism and rejection will be part of your screenwriting journey for as long as you write scripts. It doesn’t change when you become a working professional and the stakes are higher because your job, money and reputation can be on the line. Don’t allow any criticism or rejection to knock you down. Protect yourself by detaching from the work and you’ll weather the storm of criticism if you know how to filter opinions and come back stronger with your next draft. Always strive to be a collaborator and team player and producers will hire you again.
Keep the faith, soldier on brave screenwriters and fill your blank pages.
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“To understand your fear is the beginning of really seeing.” — Bruce Lee
“It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.”—Telamon of Arcadia, mercenary, 5th Century B.C.
“The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week… the professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” – Stephen King
“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”—Ray Bradbury
“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling
“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