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Wanna Make it in Screenwriting? Thick Skin is Required!

The other day a writer emailed me: 

I am gutted. The management company I sent my screenplay to (I never reached out to reps before) just emailed me that they didn’t connect with my screenplay and that it’s gonna be a pass for them. I am devastated. Am I ever going to have a screenwriting career? Should I just quit?

This was not, by any stretch, the first time I’ve been privy to these sorts of sentiments. One such incident that stands out was when one of my genre writers asked to talk with me after he failed to place in one of the biggest screenwriting competitions, the only one he submitted to that year, and could not get any traction with any of the three managers he had approached for representation. He asked for us to meet in order to explore whether this was an indication that he should stop screenwriting altogether. 

Let me start by saying this: I get it. This industry is tough. Frustrating. And, at times, devastating. Breaking in is never easy, for anyone, at least not in my experience working with writers over the many years I’ve been doing this. But rejection – from managers, from agents, from competitions, from fellowships, is par for the course. So if you are serious about building that screenwriting or TV writing career, you’re going to have to learn to digest disappointment without allowing it to rattle you too much or take you too far off course. 

After she broke in and started her first TV writing gig on SyFy’s Chucky, my client Kim Garland counted how many submissions she had gone through over the years, and came up with a number: 160. This was, for the record, mostly competitions, festivals and fellowships; she had never even taken on a rep search in earnest, always too busy building her body of work and her pedigree. And here’s the thing: To anyone who’s been around writers and watched their journeys, that number is not outlandish. It’s what it takes. Writing a lot. Submitting a lot. Getting frustrated. Trying again. Getting stronger from script to script. Finding a way to keep going, despite all the frustration it brings, until you finally manage to break in. 

Another of my clients, Crosby, was named finalist to the prestigious Script Pipeline screenwriting competition just last month. The screenplay that made him finalist had been submitted to a slew of other contests, where it failed to place; it also made the round with rep contacts, none of whom bit on it. But once he’d been anointed finalist, he found himself taking a handful of manager meetings, with a slew of reps who loved his work and were eager to work with him. The very screenplay that had been rejected at every turn was suddenly blasting doors open for him. And I read the script, so I can tell you: It’s a VERY good script. And I’m happy to share that just last week, Crosby signed with prestigious boutique management firm Kaplan/Perrone.

But back to the point: 

When a screenplay or pilot you work hard on doesn’t place in a screenwriting competition, doesn’t net you a call from fellowships, doesn’t get a manager interested in you, that rejection can feel so hurtful, so personal. It can cause the writer to question if they are any good, what’s the point of it all, why they’re even doing this. None of which are pleasant thoughts to sit with, especially when you’ve been pouring time, money and effort for this writing thing. But if you vet your work enough, you should have conviction that the work is good and that someone, somewhere, will recognize and appreciate it, and that conviction should empower you to take your next step towards your screenwriting career, whatever it may be. 

Building a screenwriting or TV writing career is rarely about the one screenplay or TV pilot. Of course, it’s the one script that helps you break in. The one script that breaks through the noise of competition, that gets representation interested. But if you truly are intending to become a career writer, then your fate in the industry should not be determined by any one screenplay. Because you will have more stories to tell. More pages to write. More screenplays and TV pilots to submit to potential reps and competitions and fellowships. You, the writer, are the exciting entity. Any one screenplay is just the extension of it. 

So what do you do? How do you get through it? 

  • Work on your craft! Push your craft forward, become a stronger writer, who will generate even stronger work. It may take longer than anyone wants it to, but great work does get recognized eventually. 

  • Vet your work. Have those people in place, be they friends who are writers, instructors, consultants or professional, paid readers whose opinions you trust, to help prepare your work for the professional space. As my friend Melissa London Hilfers (LINK) always says, go to the negative Nellies; find those people who will be hard and demanding on the work, and convert them into fans. Once you have, you will know that your work is ready to get out there.
  • Find your tribe. You will need to commiserate. Sure, it’s great to have other people who get it to celebrate the wins with when they happen. But just as important is having other writer friends there who get the challenges of the journey, so that they can help you through it and empathize when things don’t go your way, even though you’ve worked on and vetted your work, and hoped that this time, finally, things will go your way. 

Breaking into screenwriting or TV writing is never easy. At least not in my experience. And if you want to make a real go of it, you’re going to have to brace yourself. To prepare yourself for the rejections, because they will surely come, so learn to let them slide off of you as much as you can, like water off a duck’s back. Don’t get me wrong: some rejections will forever sting. But trust in your craft, in your promise and in your determination; and trust that those will push you over the top and eventually create the opportunities required to build and sustain a screenwriting career.
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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