I am a constant planner. A summarizer. On my good days, I’d like to think that I’m an observer and a learner. Which makes end-of-year such a great time for me, along with my clients, to take a step back and reflect.
If there is one thing I like to do around this time of year above all else, it is this: Take lessons learned and experiences had, and distill them into conclusions and indicators for where we’re headed next. Crystalize what I, on my own path, and my clients by extension, have learned throughout this most recent 12-month journey.
With that in mind, there is one career-driven question that I like to ask my clients, be they just starting out or already on their professional path, as one writing year wraps up, and another starts unfolding. And that question is:
WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU WANT TO DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT YEAR?
In order to start identifying the answer to this question, you have to first ask yourself what’s worked for you this past year, as far as your writing, and by extension all things writing-career related, are concerned: Have you nailed down and built on your routine? Are you getting the writing that you wanted done? Are you reading enough? Networking enough? Submitting enough? Is your output, and the quality of your output, where you want it to be? Are you working smart, rather than hard, to move things forward? And what empirical evidence, in the form of completed, well-received screenplays, growing communities, understanding of craft, and potential industry success do you have to show for it?
Of course, even with the best effort, not every writing year will go just the way that you wanted it to. You may work hard to crack a screenplay, but despite the drafts, the exposure and the ongoing feedback, just never quite get there. You may win a screenwriting competition, or be accepted into a prestigious TV writing lab or fellowship, but have it fail to generate the opportunities and exposure that you had hoped would come with it.
Maybe the show that you just staffed on, that you were so excited about, got prematurely cancelled. Maybe you stepped into a new writers room, and it turned out to be a disaster, a really tough job, rather than the harmonious, stimulating writing environment you were promised and therefore expected. If you are a feature writer, you may have come sooooo close on a number of writing assignments, while none landed. Or else the feature spec that your rep got out there, the one that you poured blood sweat and tears into, generated only the most minor interest.
Or perhaps… you’re doing what you’ve always done, and doing it well: Writing good scripts. Investing time into your community and fostering genuine, meaningful relationships. So much so that you are in the fortunate (and humble) position of having everyone root for you. But it’s not just that: You’re submitting to screenwriting competitions and applications to fellowships, programs and labs, and for the most part fairing respectably well. Your manager is excited about the work you’re turning into her. Execs are happy to read you and meet, but… nothing much beyond that. You feel like you are right there, but you’re just… not getting to that elusive next level.
In the spirit of paying heed to the idea of insanity (doing the same thing, but expecting different results), and consciously doing the opposite, you have to ask yourself what you can do differently, what you can do in a way that you haven’t before while capitalizing on those tried and true things that bore fruit for you, in order to shake that success you’re looking for loose.
And it can be any number of things:
Take a class. If you’ve been writing the same way over a handful of years, a writing class might be just the thing you need, no matter where you are in your career. Classes can help you think differently about your craft, and give you a different access point to a story you’re trying to tell. Bonus: Classes may also introduce you to some interesting new writers. Not sure which class to take? Check out my Resource Guide.
Make something. Are you getting tired of waiting for permission to write, waiting for someone to get you into a room, or give you a writing assignment? Go out and make a short, a proof of concept, or even a web series. Stage a collection of 1-Act plays written by other writer friends, or a reading of your screenplay with local, professional actors. The point? Take ownership of your work, and make it come to life on your own terms. Just be sure to aim for the highest and best quality of the thing you’re making every time; always strive for excellence, and learn what you can along the way.
Take classes and workshops to address pitching, networking or personal presentation weaknesses. If you find that you’re having a hard time with pitching yourself or your work, consider taking an improv class, or else exploring something like Toastmasters to help you get past any networking or pitching hang-ups. Equally, personal essay classes can be a huge boost to those submitting applications to both feature and TV fellowships as well as incubators and labs, not to mention those who need some help figuring out how to talk about themselves.
Try something new and fun and entirely unrelated to writing. Learn a new language. Sign up for a dance class. Take up cooking. Start sculpting or painting. In my experience, creative and intellectual exploration leads to added motivation and creativity, cultivates new ways to look at things, and infuses the creative process with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
Start a new kind of writer’s group. While writer’s groups, in which the basic contract is give-notes/get-notes, are the obvious choice for most writers, consider starting something that may veer away from the tried-and-true format geared at developing and workshopping new material. Consider a screenwriter’s support group, where writers in career stages similar to yours can share, and get support with, industry wins, challenges and frustrations, or else accountability groups that include daily/weekly/monthly goal setting and accountability checks in order to keep its members productive week in and week out.
Travel. Nothing can enhance your point of view or introduce you to new ideas faster than getting on a plane, a boat or a train that quickly forces you into new worlds and experiences. As a writer, you are always drawing from a well; therefore, that well must be filled and re-filled on an ongoing basis. Not sure what I’m talking about? Check out my previous blogpost, How A Big Life Leads to Better Writing.
Get a puppy. Fall in love. Engaging emotionally, connecting, and being in the moment deepen your human/emotional experience, which, in return, deepens the sentiments and experiences you sow into your work, creates authenticity, and brings new truth to the writing.
The point? While the consistency, i.e. the wash-rinse-repeat of it all, is instrumental to the construction of your brand, your community, your pedigree and your body of work, finding new ways to shake it up, to try different things and to challenge yourself can make a world of difference. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater or revolutionize your approach so much that you end up feeling like you’re starting from scratch all over again. But oftentimes introducing one new element to your year, your routine and your approach can go a long way for pushing your screenwriting career, no matter what stage it’s in, to the next level.