Articles & Advice

About That Chip on Your Shoulder…

I get it. This blog post is going to piss some people off. And if the title already pissed you off, then… maybe don’t keep reading? Because this industry, if it is one thing for new writers trying to break in, it’s challenging. It’s frustrating. It’s crazy-making. And I get every writer out there who feels angered and resentful due to the years that it takes to break in, by the pages upon pages of good, well-executed screenplays and pilot scripts that he can’t get anyone to read, by that feeling of having come so close, only to find herself absolutely nowhere. Believe me, I understand every bit of frustration born of this. 

Some writers learn to accept this as a simple, albeit sometimes cruel, reality. It takes what it takes. It is what it is. Some writers will break in faster than their equally talented and hard-working counterparts; that’s just how it goes for some. In many ways, it’s all about surviving attrition; finding a way to keep positive and productive in the face of everything that should be working but isn’t, silencing those internal voices that keep the writer wondering if they’re out of their minds continuing down this path, starting to doubt whether they will be able to shine through, write that next undeniable script because the last one, that by all accounts was great, didn’t seem to generate the desired impact, make those meaningful connections, get a manager, or a fellowship director or a showrunner to choose them to take a chance on. 

The truth is: It’s hard. And writers have every right, and often many reasons, to feel justified by their exasperations.  

My husband and I have a saying: GUP IT. As in, exhibit grace under pressure, no matter the annoyances, the feeling that sometimes, the way that the chips fall or things work – or don’t work – out is just not right. But, whether understandably or not, some writers are not able to GUP IT, not capable of just setting those frustrations aside. After a while, these kinds of things can do a pretty spectacular job of wearing you down. 

Over the years, I’ve heard from many of my writers about the ones who complain all the time: Members of their writers’ groups who repeatedly voice how unfair it all is to them. Class members lamenting how it’s all unjust. Hell, I’ve even heard writers at tables next to mine at my coffee shop complain to their friends about how wrong it is that they have not broken in yet, while so many of their other friends have. 

Those feelings are perfectly normal. But in time, if they become the guiding sentiment when it comes to breaking in, it can become challenging to look at the writer and see anything beyond it. 

While some writers do find a way to keep their heads down, to vent their frustration in the safety of a writers’ group, to a partner or a spouse, or at a weekly therapy session, to channel their irritation into their writing and creativity, this is not something that every writer is capable of. Some writers can’t quite see past the slights and frustrations, or manage to compartmentalize their feelings about those things that are keeping them down. Instead, they get pissed off. Incensed. Mad. And the chip on their shoulder… it starts to grow. Even if they don’t notice it at first, even if they don’t mean it to, soon enough it may become a permanent fixture.  

And trust me, you can see that chip from a mile away.

And the thing is… Nobody inside the industry likes a guy, or a girl, for that matter, with a “the industry sucks and here’s why…” attitude. Nobody likes the guy who feels that he’s been cheated out of a career long overdue him. No one wants to sign the writer who laments where she should be in her career right now, or the scribe who focuses on how entirely unfair the industry has been to her, or how the people who should have, who promised they would, never did step up to help. No one is going to want to sign those writers, to put them in rooms, to put their reputations behind them. Because that chip, it only tends to fester and get bigger and more repellant with time. 

I said it before, and I will say it again now: This industry can be so so so SO hard. It can be disappointing, and disheartening, and challenging, and rough. Sometimes it appears so tough, so taxing at times, that it’s borderline cruel and can often feel incredibly personal. In my experience, almost all writers break in long after they think they are ready to. And even the most successful screenplay or TV pilot is rarely received as any writer had hoped, always subjected to some level of rejection, never pleasing everyone. It’s nearly impossible to sell a feature outright or to set up a pilot when you are not yet a working, vetted TV writer and still somewhat on the outside. Landing a job in a writer’s room, even as an assistant, can sometimes seem impossible. And to those who do land in one of the coveted spots on a support staff, it doesn’t always mean an immediate or even imminent rise up to staff writer. Reps will love the work but ultimately ghost the writer; industry executives that hit it off with the scribe can suddenly stop returning emails. 

Man, just writing this… it sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Like… who would want to do this? But it’s not all bad, I promise. Still, I want to assure you that GOOD WRITERS REALLY DO BREAK IN. And that breaking in is so, so sweet, and brings with it so much opportunity and reward. Watching writers break in is the joy of my job, and fortunately for me (very much due to the hard-working, talented writers who have chosen to come work with me over the years), it’s something that I get to see with some regularity. That is not to say that, once broken in, the writer’s career is going to be easy or without its challenges, but the point it… you can get there. Writers get there every day. 

Anyway, where was I? We talked about the frustrations that can befall the writer. So let’s dig into the various options for when they, predictably, arrive, be they severe or tolerably mild. 

It’s the writer’s job to learn to process these disappointments without feeling cheated, frustrated, fed-up. That’s not to say that the writers shouldn’t feel any of these things, but has to find a way to continue forward regardless. Even though industry execs, agents, managers and producers are not always the most communicative, and have been known to ghost people (and projects) without explanation, it’s the writer’s job to not allow those behaviors to take an irreversible, visible toll on him in the long term. The writer has to believe that as long as he is building genuine relationships and pushing his craft, he will find a home, there will be a fan base that cares enough to eventually move the needle on his behalf, be it by helping him land representation, get a general meeting, get into a writer’s room for the first time, or pitch a take for an open writing assignment. 

In other words, the writer has to find a way to stay positive and keep to the beliefs that if she continues on, if she works hard, if she continues to build relationships, one day it will all pay off. Not always easy, and unfair though it may be, these are the type of writers that, all things being equal, the industry wants to get in business with. 

I realize that reading this, some writers may think that I’m excusing some industry execs’ bad behavior. I am not doing that in any way. What I am trying to impress upon my readers is this: The bad behavior, unfortunately, is not likely to just one day stop. Despite it, industry executives are looking for those writers who are always able to put their best foot forward, rather than the writers who are worn down, now with a permanent chip on their shoulder.  So if you want to succeed in this industry, you have to find a way to let it wash over you. To GUP it. Don’t take it to heart. Don’t let it taint you. Don’t let it change who you are. Find the right outlets for every entirely valid frustration: therapy sessions. Good friends. Even a humble career coach. Because if you don’t, it will show up in your behavior and your attitude, it will seep into your relationships and your meetings, and it will make that mountain that you are currently ascending as you try to build your screenwriting career that much more unkind and that much harder to climb.
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...

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