7 Ways to Make Sure Your Screenwriting Career Never Takes Off
By Lee Jessup • September 20, 2018
Often, I get asked: What are the commonalities you’ve seen among your writers who have broken in? What are the shared traits of working screenwriters? And, even more specifically, what are the most important things that a screenwriter can do to move her screenwriting career forward?
A couple of weeks ago, a writer – who is a self-professed contrarian, a screenwriting disruptor – asked me the opposite, which, contextually, was quite in line with his sardonic humor. He asked me to hold back no punches because he really, really wanted to know: If I want to never ever make it as a screenwriter, what do I have to do???
To my great surprise, the list was easier to construct than I would have thought. Here is what I told him:
Talk about writing. Read about writing. Muse about your writing potential. But don’t actually write.
My friend Adam Finer over at NYFA is known for saying: “If you’re not writing, you’re a written.” My belief is a simpler one: If you are going to claim a thing, such as writing, as your own, you have to actually participate in the thing itself. So, if you call yourself a writer, rather than someone who wrote something once, or a person who hopes to commit his life story to digital paper one day, you better be writing. Actively. And often. Not every minute of every day, but writing, generating ideas, digging into discovery, producing pages, on a regular basis.
If you do want writing to be your thing, create a writing routine. Know when you are at your best. Are you a daytime writer, or a nocturnal one? Do you perform best in the quiet of a library, your living room, or is a busy coffee shop where you are most stimulated? If you want to make a go of a screenwriting career, always be working on something, whether it’s in ideation or final draft stage. The point? #alwaysbewriting. Because without the writing, the practical work on the page, there is just no career conversation to be had.
Write, but not with any consistency, focus or real-time investment.
Over the years, I’ve encountered all too many writers who wrote, but only once in a while, when inspiration struck. Or when the mood was right. Or when the stars aligned. I’ve met too many weekend warriors who only wrote on the weekends, and only once in a while when no other family/life/social commitments got in the way. And I have met those writers who did aim to write a lot, but only sat down when they could guarantee that, despite the job and the family and their everyday life, they could finally get a 3-hour chunk. Seriously, people? I don’t know about you, but I never get a 3-hour chunk for anything other than work or sleep these days.
Let’s be clear on one thing: Real writers write whether or not inspiration strikes. They write because it’s a compulsion. Because it’s their job. Or their second, non-paying job that they have made a commitment to nonetheless. They write because they are compelled to come back to the computer, to those pages and those characters, night in and night out. They write because that’s what they do: Write. Sometimes good stuff. Sometimes bad. And sometimes they delete more than they produce new pages. But the point is… They write.
As I stated in a previous blog post, NOT WRITING IS NOT AN OPTION:
“If you want to become a professional screenwriter, you have to be generating ideas and pages constantly. Whatever the pace, you just have to do it. Write regularly. Make this thing a real and consistent priority. If you are a slow writer? Keep writing, and your pace will accelerate the more hours you are putting in. Not only are you trying to push yourself to your very best writing, closer and closer to mastery, you are competing with all of the other writers who have opted to sacrifice family and chill time, not to mention sleep. Trust me, I know them: My 5am-ers. Getting up before the sun to get their hours in before they have to tend to the kids. The late-nighters who spend their evenings in the living room punching keys while their friends are out drinking or their spouse is sleeping. They are willing to give all of that up for the craft. To get better at it.”
Confuse Rewriting with Writing.
Often times, when writers get a positive response to their writing from a rep who liked their voice but didn’t connect to the material, they are told “Send me your next thing.” Sure, sometimes it’s “What else do you have?”but much more often it is an offer from the rep to read their NEXT piece of work. Why is that? The general belief is that you, the writer, will get better from script to script. Therefore, if your most recent script had some good things going for it, the next one will be better.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for a good, thoughtful rewrite. I don’t believe that any writer should ever send out a first draft. It often takes 3, 4, 5 drafts to get a script anywhere near industry ready. So rewriting your work is not in any way something you should steer clear of when it comes to getting your materials ready. What I’m talking about is forever rewriting old work, rather than starting on new material. Over the years I’ve met writers who are eternally digging through 5-, 10-, even 15-year-old scripts to figure out how to make them stronger, better, funnier, rather than taking on new work, ever. This is not to say that you can’t have that one old script that you want to fight the good fight for, that you honestly believe deserves another chance. That can aboslutely happen, and you should listen to those instincts, as long as they are about one old script, rather than every old script you’ve written.
The bottom line? Whether just starting out or already working, new content is a screenwriter’s lifeblood. It introduces (or reintroduces) the writer to the marketplace, reignites old conversations, and keeps the writer front of mind and relevant. Without new work to talk about, your screenwriting career will not be getting anywhere!
Never, ever, under any circumstance, get notes from anyone.
For a screenplay or television pilot to gain traction in the professional space, it has to be read and well received by many, many people. Whether it’s about moving forward in a screenwriting contest, landing a coveted television writing program spot, or getting a manager or an agent, the quality of the material has to be agreed upon by any number of people. So how do you make sure that your material is received as you had hoped? You get notes. You expose your work, early and often, to people whose opinion you trust, whose story savvy you can rely on, and who will be demanding of the work and help you push it to its best, strongest place possible. Only when you get feedback on what’s bumping your reader, what logic is failing to track, and what characters are hard to like or invest in, can you dig back into the work and make it as strong as you need it to be to garner the reception you are looking for.
Avoid reading scripts or watching other material in your space at any cost, because nothing out there is any good anyway, and you don’t want your art to be tainted.
The obvious question here is: If you hate everything this industry makes, why in the world would you want to be a part of it???
Maybe just as obvious is the point that no writer writes in a bubble. The world of television and film is a dynamic, exciting, ever-changing one, and in order to know how your material fits within it, compliments it and extends it, is by having a deep understanding of the other content in your particular genre space. You can’t know what the industry expectations are of screenplays in today’s marketplace if you’re not reading other TV pilots or feature scripts. You won’t know whether or not what you are writing has already been done (or had a version of it done) if you’re not watching TV shows or movies actively. And you will never be able to hold up your end of a meaningful conversation with anyone else working in the industry if you can’t comment and provide your opinion on other material in the space. No one wants to be an educator. So, if you do want to move your screenwriting career forward, be sure that you are able to hold your own.
Don’t get your material out there, because Hollywood is completely corrupt, and they’ll probably steal your stuff.
As a writer without an active screenwriting career you really have two jobs: The first one, obviously, and as you probably guessed from the above, is to write. Write a lot. Challenge yourself to keep getting better. The second one? The second one is to get your material read. If it doesn’t get read, it will never garner interest. If it doesn’t get interest, it won’t gain you any industry advocates, be they executives, agents or managers. By all means, register your material with the WGA and the US Copyright Office before you get it out there. Read all releases before you sign them. Don’t send your material to anyone you can’t find with a quick IMDB Pro search. And always make sure to have a paper trail.
Release forms are utilized by the industry for a reason. As Bellevue Entertainment’s John Zaozirny explained when I interviewed him for BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: “If I do not like your screenplay and then later on I develop a screenplay that has any similarities, and lord knows there’s only so many stories under then sun, then I’ve opened myself up to a scenario where you could sue me for stealing your idea. So if I want to develop a script about an Ambassador on the run for a crime he didn’t commit and you sent me a screenplay years ago about an Ambassador who was investigating the murder of his wife, you could argue that the two things are the same. There’s very little gain on my end for reading some random query letter, there’s much more to gain for the writer. Cause if they’re querying me then I’m probably in a more established position than they are. It’s all downside for me if I do it without the release form.”
Aim for the big sale, only the big sale, and nothing but the sale.
Because unknown writers are selling feature specs and original pilots all the time, right? WRONG. Both in features and on TV, the majority of writers make their living writing pages, be it on a writing assignment (that can include anything from an adaptation to a page-one-rewrite) or in the room. On the feature side, material continues to be hard to move (which makes Savy Einstein’s story of her script getting picked up by ScreenGems that much more remarkable).
When I interviewed top-selling manager Jeff Portnoy about selling feature specs, he told me: “It’s very rare for a feature spec screenplay to sell to a major studio without any elements attached to it. It still happens. It’s just fewand far between and the reason for that is when the bubble was at its high, when spec sales were at their apex, studios were spending tens of millions of dollars a year on spec screenplays and very few of them actually got produced… So they started saying, let’s let the producers package them and bring them to us so they are ready to go and then we can greenlight them. Why should we keep buying specs that never get made?”
I also talked to Zadoc Angell, a prominent TV Lit manager with a slew of talented, established TV writers on his list, and big pilot sales to his name. Zadoc told me:
“It kills me when writers are just so focused on: how can I write a pilot that can sell? The likelihood of that happening is so low. And here’s why it’s low: in the feature world, the writer is not king. If it’s a beautiful screenplay, that’s all a studio really needs to acquire… They don’t care if you live in LA or Montana if the script is amazing so they acquire it, then they can have traditional Hollywood screenwriters do the rewrites for them, throw on a big director who’s going to make it his vision, go cast it, shoot it, and the writer is totally out of the process. In TV, if you buy a pilot from a writer, you’re buying that writer’s vision, not just for one episode, but hopefully for 100 episodes. So you’re investing in that writer in a much bigger way, and it’s a long-term ongoing relationship. So that’s why just writing a great pilot and hoping it will sell is sort of limited in its thinking, because… they’re looking to invest in writers that they believe in and who they think have a vision for the long-term and that they can see executing that vision week to week.”
In other words: In a world where everything is difficult, selling, especially for unknown, unestablished writers is potentially the hardest. Yes, it has happened in the past, and will happen again. But making it happen is often akin to hitting the narrowest of bullseyes. Even if you do manage to sell a screenplay or a TV pilot (for more specifics on this, check out my old WHAT’S POSSIBLE, WHAT’S PROBABLE? blogs, for both Breaking Into TVand Breaking into Features), it’s near impossible to make a career – and by extension a consistent living – of just selling material. Or to put it otherwise: While you can conceivably sell a feature script or a TV pilot, in my experience it is very difficult to make a consistent living and build a long lasting career on doing just that in today’s challenging industry environment.
Therefore, if indeed a screenwriting career is what you want, you have to broaden your horizons and consider how to build your screenwriting career through more consistent, dependable avenues, such as staffing and working your way up in a TV show’s writers room, or pitching your way into a writing assignment. This is not to say that you can’t, conceivably, be that rare writer who is able to sell a script right off the bat. But if it’s a screenwriting career you’re going for, selling, and only selling, is a tough way to get there.
Author of Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches from Focal Press and Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career published in 2014, I am a career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. My clients include working film and television writers, writers who sold feature specs, original pilots and pitches to major studios and networks, as well as contest winners, television writing program participants, feature film lab participants and fellows, and emerging screenwriters just...