When I started out on this crazy screenwriting journey, I made the same mistake many beginning screenwriters make when they complete their first specs—believing that everything they write will sell—and sell for a million dollars. When you consider that on the average about one hundred specs a year sell at the studio level and only about a quarter of the Writers Guild members report income in any given year, your specs should really be considered the necessary training ground for you to become a better screenwriter—not chances to win Hollywood’s lottery.
Trust me, I know it’s hard to accept the spec you are writing probably will not sell and may end up being only a writing sample, but you need to put your specs into perspective. If you don’t put in the necessary work with solid rewrites from constructive feedback and create professionally competitive material, your specs could end up in a drawer collecting dust, or worse a dumpster and have a negative effect on your career aspirations.
Specs are a necessary part of every screenwriter’s journey because they are the scripts you “cut your teeth on” to prepare you for when you do get hired for assignment jobs. My fifth spec is the one that opened the door to a career for me. Back in the day, a new production company optioned my screenplay and made it as their first released film. My professional relationship with the producers on the rewrites and my attitude during production helped build my reputation with them and they hired me for a series of screenwriting assignment jobs. This opened the door and launched my career. Since then I’ve been hired twenty-one times for paid assignments, some of them sadly went into “development hell,” but I’ve had fifteen of the scripts produced into films and distributed globally.
No spec ever wastes your time because you hopefully gain precious knowledge and experience with every new screenplay. I’ve completed 37 feature-length scripts since I started screenwriting and have been paid for twenty-one of them in addition to one spec sale. My early specs were not great and I look back at them as learning experiences. I realized that I needed time to get better and learn how to compete on a professional level. The truth is that I’m still learning because as screenwriters we never stop mastering our craft. You always learn something new with every screenplay and working with every producer. This is why it’s vital to respect the process and journey otherwise the craft and the film business will humble you fast. Trust me, years of rejection and criticism just might make you decide to pick another career to pursue. I’ve had many friends who wanted to be actors and writers, and very few achieved any success in the film business today.
Also consider the genre you’re writing. Which genre drives your passion? Many of Hollywood biggest films now are multi-genre movies so they can appeal to a global audience. If you’re writing in every genre and an agent or manager asks, “What genre do you write?” What is your answer? If you replay, “Well… I write everything… horror, drama, comedy, and action.” No writer is a master at every genre and you will appear scattered. Agents want to get you on studio rewrite lists and those are genre specific. Also your first screenplay sale will probably determine the genre that you’ll be working in as you establish your career. If you sell a comedy out of the gate, your agent won’t be sending you out for horror or action assignment jobs.
Moving forward on your spec journey, realize that Hollywood doesn’t owe you or me a read, a job, or a career just because we’ve put words on paper in the form of a screenplay. Sure, many have a screenplay or have tried to write one, but not everyone respects the craft or the mountain they need to climb for any shot at success. Specs are vital to your journey, but detach from their outcome and protect yourself from the reality of rejection so it doesn’t destroy your creative soul. Also remember what you write about is as important as the execution of the screenplay. My fifth spec was a difficult commercial sell because it was a historical movie about WWII and life on the home front of the United States with four ten-year olds as the protagonists. When I first shopped the script, Hollywood was not making historical films, and I kept coming up short with my submissions. Yes, it was a top 20 script in the Nicholl Fellowship, and I received positive feedback about the story and writing, but alas no sale. It took three years until it found a home with a producer and new company that wanted to make quality independent films. And it was a total of seven years from the day I typed FADE OUT of the first draft to the first day of photography. A long haul journey for sure, but I never gave up and it paid off.
Be smart about your career. Don’t waste time making the same mistakes over and over again. Always remember that it’s your responsibility to chart the course and keep your eye of the big picture. Before you start your next spec and burn precious time, consider how it figures into your overall screenwriting goals—not just the mantra that I hear from so many aspirants, “I have a good idea for a script.” Many times it’s not a good idea and if your goal is to be a horror genre screenwriter, why are you writing a romantic comedy especially when Hollywood isn’t producing that genre now? Think, plan, create a checklist, hit your goals, create a solid story treatment before you start pages, and then put your ass in a seat and fill those blank pages.
Also realize even if you do sell a script there are no guarantees. I’ve been paid to write five production ready screenplays that are in development hell, and they will probably never be made due to situations out of my control. What’s the alternative to not writing? You’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success. At least with a solid body of material you create opportunities. The rest is timing and the right project getting to the right producer.
Copyright 2019 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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Paddy Chayefsky on cutting/editing:
If it should occur to you to cut, do so. That’s the first basic rule of cutting. If you’re reading through and stop, something is wrong. Cut it. If something bothers you, then it’s bad. Cut it. If you can cut inside the speech, you’re really cutting most effectively. It’s purifying, it’s refining. Making it precise. Precision is one of the basic elements of poetry. My own rules are very simple. First, cut out all the wisdom; then cut out all the adjectives. I’ve cut some of my favorite stuff. I have no compassion when it comes to cutting. No pity, no sympathy. Some of my dearest and most beloved bits of writing have gone with a very quick slash, slash, slash. Because something was heavy there. Cutting leads to economy, precision, and to a vastly improved script.
“Starting tonight, every night in your life before you go to sleep, read at least one poem by anyone you choose. Poetry and motion pictures are twins. You’ll get more out of reading poetry than you will get out of any other kind of reading. You are people with eyes. You must find ways of extending this vision and putting it on film. As an experiment all of you could get out of here and shoot a cinematic haiku. Just go through a book of Japanese haiku and shoot a thirty-second film. They’re purely cinematic, very visual. You must read poems every night of your life in order to enable yourself to refresh your images. In forty years you’ll thank me for telling you this.”—Ray Bradbury, Conversations with The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute.
“Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”– Kurt Vonnegut