5 Ways to Get Your Screenplay or TV Pilot Industry-Ready
Screenwriting and TV writing, at least in most cases, is an iterative process. The first draft is a vomit draft. A trash draft. Possibly a little closer to something readable when based on a carefully thought out outline. Then the cleanup. The rewrite. The group notes. The friend notes. The consultant or instructor or reader notes. Then more rewrites. Wash, rinse, repeat, again and again.
They say that you will know when your screenplay is industry ready. But they also say that the biggest mistake new writers make is getting their work out there too early. Want to know more about this? Check out my previously blogpost, Top Lit Reps Advise: Don’t Make These Screenwriting Mistakes. So… which one is right, and how do you know that your screenplay is truly ready to be read and judged by industry professionals?
Here are a few tips to help you get there:
First, vet the work in a safe environment.
Whether in a class setting, with writing friends who are pretty much at the same level or the help of a writer’s group, get feedback from people who understand what you’re trying to do, can brainstorm with you about it, then, through repeat reads and careful attention, help you get to a showable draft that, while not yet ready for the industry, is now ready to be shared with a few story minds who are, for lack of better words, a bit more next-level.
Ask writer friends who are further along on their screenwriting career for notes.
If you are able to, this would be the time to go to those friends in your writing community who may be a few steps ahead in their screenwriting journey. This doesn’t mean that you need to quickly make some showrunner friends to now come in and note your work, but you do want to engage those who have been at it longer, and whose story sense have been an asset. Whether you find such friends in a class, through friend introductions or by sheer happenstance doesn’t matter; if you appreciate their story sense and how their career has progressed on the strength of it, if they offer to give you notes, opt to accept them.
Go to the haters.
But don’t just go to those writers group friends, talented though they may be, who are invested in your success, or those next level writers who could be giving you notes based more on their best version of your story than the vision you had for the project. If you really want to push yourself, go to the haters. While being told that your screenplay or TV pilot is great (especially by people you respect) can make you feel triumphant, there is little you can actually learn from it. So go to those people who will challenge you to push your work to the next level. And I’m not talking about those friends who always hate everything and never have anything good to say; I’m talking about those folks with elevated analytical skills, who give tough notes that may be challenging but ultimately help make the work better. Once they’ve seen the work a few times, given notes that at first were crippling but are now, at best, suggestive, and now acknowledge, while a few minor things can still be polished or changed the material is pretty much there, you know have something good on your hands.
Know any readers?
Don’t have those friends (or hater-friends?) who will challenge your work at every turn and not let you get away with anything? Then going to seasoned industry readers may be the way to go if you want to push the writing to the next level. Before getting a screenplay out there, you want to have eyes on the work that read professional-grade scripts on a regular basis, in order to ascertain whether your screenplay or TV pilot hold up to those standards. And if you don’t have industry executive, working writer or producer friends, then a professional reader or screenwriting consultant might be the best way to help you get there. To check out those readers and consultants that I recommend to my writers on a regular basis, check out my RESOURCE GUIDE.
While reader quality may vary, seeing how your screenplay does in screenwriting competitions may provide a meaningful gauge for how your work holds up in a crowded space. Now, I am not by any means suggesting that you enter your screenplay into the single largest competition and nothing else, and then let its results determine whether you keep fighting the good fight for your screenplay or instead put it away. But if you put your screenplay into a half dozen big contests, and even a few respectable medium contests and fail to crack semi-finalist in the biggest contests such as the Austin Film Festival or The Nicholl, or Top-10, Top-5 or Top-3 lists in a contest like Final Draft’s Big Break, and in the medium contests your screenplay only does a smidge better, then you know that your work is not landing as you intended.
For the record: I am in no way saying that one person, competition or even organization should determine whether it’s showtime for your screenplay or TV pilot. But in order to make sure that the material lands as you want it to, you will have to get multiple eyes on the work. After all, in order to be successful in the professional space, your screenplay or TV pilot will have to convert a slew of fans. It will take multiple people, be they managers, agents or executives, getting enthused about the work in order to get it out there, even at the earliest career levels. Many representation companies sign a new writer collectively, meaning that they sign a new writer only after multiple reps expressed excitement about the work, while some reps are known to expose a screenplay to other writers on their list in order to make sure that it’s ready before it gets exposure in the marketplace. All of which is to say: Your screenplay or TV pilot will have to pass muster with multiple people in order to create meaningful forward motion for your career. Therefore, it would serve you to expose your work to multiple opinions before you put it out there.
And another thing: Just because a note is given, doesn’t mean you have to take it in order to make your screenplay or TV pilot market ready. This blog post is not by any means encouraging you to get your screenplay or TV pilot ready for professional eyes by servicing every note ever given on your original work. Instead, it’s about getting the notes, deciding which notes to take that will help you better convey the story you’re aiming to tell, and which notes to discard because nothing about them really add to or elevate the work. There are decisions you will make in your screenplay or pilot that will not work for everyone.
In the end, and in an industry made of opinions, not everyone is going to love your work. That is just something you’re going to have to accept. What you are looking for, however, is a general agreement that, whether or not the reader fell in love with the work, for all intents and purposes, it lands. Maybe they didn’t connect with your protagonist because they never quite respond to that sort of a character; maybe they are generally unexcited by the world; or maybe the pacing or the tone is not the sort of thing that works for them. But they – whoever they may be in your case – see what you’re doing, and they acknowledge that it works. That’s when you know it’s time. You’ve done the job. You’ve vetted the work. You challenged yourself, took no shortcuts, and pushed the work as far as you can, or that anyone else can suggest. Once you’ve done that, and regardless of the various opinions your screenplay or TV pilot will garner along the way, it will be ready and set up to find success in the professional space.