Screenwriters Behaving Badly
(An exploration of writerly behaviors in two parts)
Confession: I am sweating. I am squirming. I am shifting in my seat. Writing this blog post has been a pain in the you-know-what. I’ve tried cracking it every which way, and ultimately felt like I never really got my groove with it, possibly because, well, it’s something of an icky subject to write about. Doesn’t matter how many times you try it, trust me when I tell you that there is never an easy way to break the news to another adult that they have somehow misbehaved. But despite all of that, the reality for me is that this stuff is way too important to not put it out there. After all, this stuff is all about the nuanced behaviors that relationships are often built upon, the very relationships that can and often do become foundational to one’s ongoing screenwriting career. Despite my Israeli reputation for being direct and oftentimes blunt, it is not by any stretch the part of the job that I savor. But way back when I got into this coaching business, I did so with the intention of becoming an advisor and a support system, which does on occasion mean getting even my most talented writers out of their own way.
That said, just one more caveat before I go on: This blog post is by no means about writers behaving well despite others behaving badly towards them. I am fully aware of the fact that writers in this industry sometimes find themselves unfortunately being taken advantage of or mishandled, and these are NOT the scenarios that I am talking about.
And so… Without further ado, I wanted to share some advice – derived of writerly behavior recently observed – that – despite its inevitable ickiness – I ultimately felt had to be put out there:
SCENARIO I: THE IMPORTANCE OF A THANK-YOU
A few months ago, I was having drinks with a producer friend. He had been developing a project with a writer, but when a similar project sold on the spec market, he decided to put the script he and the writer had been working on away. However, before ending their creative collaboration completely, the producer made an introduction on the writer’s behalf: he referred the writer to an agent he often works with. The agent fell in love with the writer’s original work, and signed the writer right away. “Good for the writer,” my producer friend told me, “I mean, I know that our project together pretty much died on the vine, but I thought that this agent thing would at least net me a thank you card in the end.” Even though the conversation itself quickly veered to other topics and other people, I found myself thinking about it long after we had paid our check and said goodnight.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the reason my producer friend was, well, annoyed, was not because he was expecting to be thanked with a marching band at his door or an expensive bottle of tequila sent his way. But the reality was that he – the producer – had nothing to gain from connecting the writer to the agent and thus the introduction did not fit within his business model. He did not collect any money. He didn’t promote his own career. This introduction served him in no single way. So the absence of a simple thank you card or a small gift implied a lack of appreciation for what he had done, and left a bitter taste in his mouth.
A few days later I was lunching with another friend. I told her about the producer’s story, and that the writer never gave the producer the thanks – the card, the token gift or gift basket – he deserved. “That’s just bad manners,” dismissed my Texan friend. “It must just be him.” But was it only this one writer? Were all other writers behaving as they should with their counterparts – be they agents, managers, producers or even other writers – in the industry? I quickly realized that to dig into this question, I had to look no further than my own experience with writers throughout the years.
Though I have not done so often, on occasion – and only when I encounter work that I think is truly superior or “undeniable” as the industry likes to say – I have been able to make introductions on my writers’ behalf. Though those introductions do happen rarely, there may be anywhere from a handful to a dozen of them within a calendar year. Thinking through the ones for whom I facilitated such introductions, I realized that I could easily remember which ones extended some sort of gesture of gratitude, be it a small gift or a card, and the ones who hadn’t. And the more I thought of those who had, the more I realized that those were the very same writers who were sending thank-you cards after general meetings, who graced their agents and managers with gift baskets upon landing a job, and who always sent a care package, a bucket of popcorn or a bouquet of flowers come holiday time. This reminded me once again that everything you do in this industry registers. That even if you may not get a thank you for your Holiday card, people are noticing, marking these small gestures that are so important, and ultimately allowing them to influence the relationships that will emerge.
The reality here is simply: A little gratitude goes a long way. And a paperless post thank you card costs the writer nothing in the end. Maybe the producer wouldn’t have mentioned to me – by name – a writer who sent him a thank you card or gift basked, but he sure did make a point to mention the one who failed to say THANK YOU when a thank you was deserved, because, well, all things being equal, nobody wants to work with a writer, a director or even a producer or actor, who is ungrateful. And I get the argument that agents and managers don’t need a thank you card because they are getting 10%. But if they chose to help you, to push you, to invest in your career instead of somebody else, you should take every appropriate opportunity to show your appreciation for that. If you feel like even still a thank-you card is not something you would ever want to send your rep, then maybe it’s time to reconsider the relationship at hand. But I digress.
In the end, all this is to say: Be sure to extend a little old-fashioned gratitude whenever someone helps you out, not only when them helping you does nothing for their business model as was the scenario with my producer friend, but also when they are getting you staffed in a room, helping you sell your spec or fighting for you on that open writing assignment. Not just because other writers are doing it, but also because coming off as grateful and appreciative will make others want to work with you and by extension help you one day when you find that you need their help, support or enthusiasm.
SCENARIO II: THE KEY TO SHOWING UP RIGHT
A few weeks ago, a writer I had been working with for some time showed up for a coaching session at 11am hungover. AGAIN. Not only was he hungover, but his mood, quite obviously, was foul. We started out our session as we usually did, discussing everything he had accomplished between his last session and this one, which turned out to be not very much. And then, the writer said he had to talk to me about something: Having met some of my other writers, writers like him who went for emerging to professional, writers who got into writing programs, landed writing assignments and got staffed, he said he was getting the sense that I just wasn’t “there for him” in the same way I was for my other writers. When I asked him to elaborate, he told me that he just didn’t believe that I believed in his screenwriting career – or potential for it – the same way I did with many of my other writers. Sure, I was giving him advice, guiding him along his path, but he got the sense that I didn’t think he was a sure thing, writing-career wise.
The more he talked about this, the more I realized that he was right. The simple truth was that the longer I knew this writer, the more I realized he may have had less passion for writing than he professed. Even though when we first met he declared that this was his one and only focus – that it was screenwriting or bust, the simple reality was that he showed up hungover to our meeting not for the first or second time. This was the third time in four months that he was admittedly hung over from partying with friends the previous night. On two other occasions, he slept straight through our meetings. He had systematically missed his writing deadlines, and failed to show up to his writers group meetings more times than he was present. So yes, admittedly, in time, I lost faith that his conviction was anywhere near what he said it was. Because over time this writer had shown me that despite everything he said, he really wasn’t all that serious.
Which reminded me that my husband was once again right: It’s not just about what you say. Just as important are the actions you take to follow it up. This particular writer may have thought he was taking his writing seriously, but ultimately he was showing me that it really wasn’t THAT important. Not as important as partying with his friends. Not as important as sleeping in, or doing God knows what. And the reality of breaking in is that it’s just too freaking hard to half-ass it and hope to get anywhere.
“It’s forging ahead and having that day job where you work 9 to 6 or whatever, but instead of waking up at 8 to make it to your job by 9, you wake up at 5 so you can write for three or four hours before you go in to work,” told me Circle of Confusion’s Josh Adler when I interviewed him for my upcoming book. “It’s a lot of sacrifice and hard work, you know? The people that make it in this business and sustain in this business are not slackers. Most of them are really hard workers. And most of them have a passion and a drive to be in this business and are willing to do whatever it takes to make it and stay in this business. I’ve had clients that had three jobs that worked all day and on the weekends, they were driving an Uber or whatever just to be able to pay rent and so they could write for an hour a day at night when they got home and they were exhausted at midnight or whatever —and did that for ten years before they broke. So it’s different for everybody, but most people don’t make it without a lot of hard work.”
Which reminded me of one simple truth: You have the power to inspire with your actions. A hard working writer, a writer who is consistent, who continues to prioritize writing, who fights for his break and his career, inspires those around him to believe in him, to root for him, and, eventually, to work with and for him. That is the sort of writer others want to get in business with. At the end of the day, these are the sorts of writers – the passionate, the ambitious, the hard working, the serious – that I want to coach. And those are the very writers who end up building and sustaining a screenwriting career.