Screenwriters: No One Said This Was Going To Be Fun
Before I even get started, let me apologize. This is not going to be one of those blog posts that fall under one of those very vanilla categories one could classify as “nice.” It is not a feel-good sort of entry. It might not even be the sort of thing that you feel inspired by reading. But it has to be written nonetheless. And here is why:
A few weeks ago, at the conclusion of a series of rewrites, one of my writers emailed me to say: “I think the script is so much better now. The only problem is that writing is just not so much fun. There are some days when it actually feels like work.” This is not the first time I was faced with such a complaint. Back in February, when I required that one of my writers adhere to outlining within a structure, he complained that “writing used to be a good time. I used to be able to sit down and just go with it, see what comes. Now there are all these rules. I hate it.”
Which naturally brings me to ask… Who in the world said that screenwriting was going to be fun? Screenwriting is a craft. And like every craft, it exists within set standards and clear structural guidelines. At the end of the day, and for those lucky enough who get to make a living at it, writing is a job. And just like any job, it will bring with it frustrations, challenges, and problems. You will have colleagues you think are idiots. You may even have one of those terrible bosses – be it a showrunner, a studio head or a development executive – who absolutely drives you nuts. And within all that, your job is to write. Writers who are writing professionally – or working daily with the aspiration of turning professional – understand this. They don’t wait for the muse to strike or for the stars to align in order to get their writing done. They sit down every day and face any challenges that come, knowing that their job is to keep moving forward, to get those pages done, regardless of their mood or what goes on around it.
And, just for the record, it doesn’t get easier: When you are staffed in a writer’s room, you have to churn new pages every day, even if the direction of the show is not one that you yourself might have chosen to take. Once you have an agent or manager, you will have to turn in new scripts every 4 to 6 months, or else you will lose representation’s interest. One of my clients, repped by a high profile manager, makes his living working as an assistant director on reality shows, which means that he usually works about 14 hours a day. His previous script got him a whole slew of meetings, generals that produced fans who are now eager to read what he has next. Even though he is working 14 hours days on set, he still has to produce those pages, to finish new work so that his manager can get it out there. If he doesn’t, he loses not only his manager’s attention, but also the industry’s interest. I promise you that for him, juggling writing and AD-ing feels very much like all work.
Recently, I spent some time with a writer’s group that gets together regularly to kvetch about the business side of a screenwriter’s life. As the evening wore on, the question came up: Have the writers in the room ever just wanted to quit? Give up and walk away? Have they ever been close to giving up? Now, just for the record, these are all writers who have had some modicum of success along their screenwriting path. Some have won contests, others sold pitches, had movies produced, a few of the writers in the room were repped by reputable agents and managers. And when the question was asked: “How many of you have ever wanted to give up?” every single hand went up.
Screenwriting, whether for film or television, is hard work. It’s intricate and complex and structured, and yet needs to appear seamless and effortless in order to be effective. It takes discipline, tenacity, consistency and talent. A slice of humble pie will sooner or later come into play. There is doubt. Disappointment. And doubt again. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? Will I ever find success? Ah, success. The success that often feels so hard to attain. Sometimes even impossible to grab. Success requires multiple scripts written on a tight schedule and an endless stream of ideas to draw from. And it provides no guarantees. So it’s only natural that few writers who have been in it for any significant stretch continue to feel that this whole screenwriting thing is fun and games. This is a high-rewards business when you succeed in it, and success will require, continuously, hard work. Every working writer understands this sooner or later: With a deadline hanging over you and a story you’re struggling to break, writing is a lot of things, but fun is rarely one of them. You will work with people whose opinions you are unable to respect; you will put in long hours and miss out on hanging out with family and friends. But with any luck – and this is why every writer continues on this path – the satisfaction that comes in the end will most of the time manage to outweigh the sacrifices you have to make.
My advice? Let go of the concept of fun, and enjoy the days in which writing feels effortless. The harder you work, the more you will come to appreciate them. Approach this like a job. Set deadlines and milestones and goals for yourself. Know that serious writers write despite which side of the bed they woke up on, and regardless of whether or not their muse has graced them on any particular days. This is serious stuff we’re talking about here. Serious money, serious competition, serious demands. And serious writers write not because it’s fun (though sometimes it can be) but because they have to tell stories visually, and can’t imagine having as much passion for anything else.