Stay The Screenwriting Career Course
Screenwriting is hard. It’s a tough business to break into. It’s even harder to stay in it. Although being a good writer will get you noticed, perhaps even getting paid to write, it isn’t enough to build a sustainable career. “You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful,” proclaimed Jeff Bezos to Princeton Graduates in 2010. This adage holds true today. Naturally there is an element of luck involved in your career since most factors of your success are outside a screenwriter’s control.
If writing captivating stories is truly your calling, perseverance is the key. Everything else hinges upon it.
If you need a break, take one. But always return to your keyboard in due course. One of the biggest regrets people of advanced age have is not having pursued their passions. If you’re dabbling in screenwriting and decide it’s not for you, by all means move on. But if you quit because it’s hard, statistically, you will regret it later in life. What might have been? You’ll never know if you reach your maximum potential as a screenwriter if you didn’t put in the effort.
Your writing will always improve by default if you keep working your muse and getting feedback on your work. Your writing will cause you emotional (possibly financial) pain, doubt, confusion and insecurity in the short term. But failing to act and not writing your screenplay will cause a bigger pain in the long run; the pain of reflection of an unrealized life. “In the end, we are our choices,” said Jeff Bezos. So start making life choices of consequence. How’s that for a pep talk?
Your writing gifts are not your career choices.
Don’t get overwhelmed by what the industry is doing, or not doing. The film business is simultaneously as irrational as the stock market and as conservative as a number cruncher. Trends come and go. Don’t chase soap bubbles because they will pop as soon as you touch them.
Focus on the purpose of storytelling. Your purpose. Audiences will always want to be entertained, escape, and challenged. They will always want to explore new worlds and characters that are both like them and unlike them. These are constants in the film and TV world. Audiences will always seek an individual connection to the human spirit. If you’re primarily driven by fame and prestige, it will be evident in your generic writing.
Decide what kind of screenwriter you want to be. Do you want to play it safe and tweak often-told stories or do you want to be innovative and put a unique spin on it? Be mindful that many writers confuse being innovative and disruptive with an outlandish gimmick that alienates rather than attracts an audience. Since every story can be reduced to 32 Dramatic Situations, you could aim for the 33rd, but should you? Do you really want to be known for creating the 33rd Dramatic Situation or would you rather be known for telling engaging stories in a unique way?
Once you’ve decided that you’re in the screenwriting game for the long haul, decide how you want to be perceived in the industry? This is important in defining what projects you will be invited to submit to.
What will be your starting point?
Typically, the answer to this question begins with defining what you like to watch and your preferred platforms. They can range from daytime soaps to prestige dramas. Big budget action movies to obscure films set in a Mid-West town. These are entry points and you shouldn’t feel eternally hemmed in by them throughout your career. Build a level of writing proficiency in these arenas until you find your own voice before you graduate to something else.
Do you want to be a writer for hire flitting from writing assignment to writing assignment or do you want to write entirely original material? More often than not, it will be a combination of both, moving toward the latter as you become a more established screenwriter.
Pick your genre lane(s) and and their parameters. Do you want to swing for the fences, or do you want to be comfortable chugging along in the center of your lane at 35 mph? It’s fine to change lanes earlier in your career, but as you progress, there will be increasing expectations to remain reasonably close to what you’re known for.
When the going gets tough, the tough get writing
There will be times in your writing career where you’re writing through fog. Even if you love your work, you may not see a definite path to production. If you pound your keyboard through endless bouts of writers’ block, how do you react? Do you plow through the fog with grit and determination until you reach a breakthrough, or do you throw your hands in the air and give up? Some stories are worth putting aside for a while if they aren’t coming together. Others are worth sticking it out. It’s always darkest, just before the light.
Carefully choose your associates. Vet who you allow to read your first drafts. More importantly, be the gatekeeper of who you accept feedback and criticism from. Hollywood is filled with narcissists insisting they know best. They are the first to launch blistering attacks on you from their perceived positions of power. Rather than offering sound advice, they are merely broadcasting their own inadequacies and insecurities. The loudest voice in the room is rarely the one you should listen to. Choose your enemies wisely. The industry needs to earn its right to argue with you.
Like all extremities, don’t let ego preclude you from taking rational advice. When a producer is trying to mitigate their financial risk by offering feedback on your screenplay, take it as such. They want your script to be a successful film as much as you. You both stand to benefit since you will both be judged by your last project. The audience will be the final adjudicator. That said, you have a right to stand by your convictions and walk away from a producer that doesn’t share your creative vision, even if your screenplay languishes on your computer for years. You may look for areas of compromise to keep your project alive. This is really your call. As long as you don’t sell out and accept a version of your story you never intended to tell. An unproduced writer still has industry value, albeit a less visible one.
Screenwriters must also find the opportunity to share their creative gifts with up and coming writers. Carve out some time to offer advice, share your knowledge, give a webinar, or even read a few pages of their scripts. Even spending ten minutes with a new writer sharing your thoughts on whether their writing is any good or how to progress along their careers, you will leave a lasting impact.
Determine how you want to remembered when you retire. Were you approachable, affable, inspiring? Or were you constantly complaining about the vagaries of the industry? Did you accept your awards with grace and aplomb, contempt for the runners up, or with arrogance? Your career choices will define your screenwriting legacy.
In the end the only story that matters is the one you create for yourself.