5 Ways to Show Up Like a (Professional) Screenwriter
Whenever I do a Career Coaching Intake Session with a new career coaching client, I send over an extensive questionnaire, hoping to get some of the more basic get-to-know-you stuff out of the way so that we can waste no time and get down to the nitty gritty in the session itself. And one of the things that I always look for is the area in which I ask the incoming writer to share three questions that the writer would like me to address during the session. I always find them so revealing and indicative of what’s top-of-mind for the writer.
This past week, as I was sitting down for some pre-session prep with a new coaching client, one question stood out for me:
How do I show up as someone who could one day be a professional screenwriter?
Now, over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with many a talented writer who made the leap from emerging scribe to working professional. And so it got me wondering… Was there a particular way that those writers showed up from day one? Beyond the obvious markers such as strong writing and a stellar body of work, what stood out about them, and hinted from early on that they might have what it takes to become a working professional?
Here are a few of those more intangible traits I found in writers that were able to impress from the start, and convey, through choices and actions, that they were indeed on the screenwriting career path:
Knowing your screenplay or pilot inside and out.
Recently, a writer I’ve worked with for a long LONG time sold a pilot to one of the premier streamers. Going over the pilot, and knowing that it starts with our protagonist in transition from one place to another, I asked the writer what I knew executives would ask: Why is our protagonist where she is when the show starts? Not only did the writer know what happened leading up to the opening scene, the writer had insight on the protagonists’ behavioral pattern, speaking directly to a core wound and a want that would accompany her into the series.
It’s great when that happens. When you talk to a writer who is an absolute authority on their material. Who has thought through every choice and every element. But that is not always the case. Over the years, I’ve asked questions of writers about their material, protagonist and story only to be told “Hmmm. I’ve not thought about that.” Talking to a writer who hasn’t thought through every turn in and element of the material, ironed out every piece of story logic in his screenplay or pilot, is always a red flag, and something that becomes easily detectable on a deep dive. At the end of the day, the writer has to be the authority about everything that’s in his screenplay or TV pilot.
And then there is history. Geography, Facts. In the time of Google, information has become readily available, and all of us have become experts on something. Years ago, a writer sent me a screenplay set in Germany in the late 1930’s, which referred to Israel as a sovereign country a number of times. The thing is… I am Israeli. So I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt – and without needing to Google it – that Israel wasn’t Israel in 1939. It was Palestine. Israel was not founded until 1948. Running into such errors tells the reader that the writer has not done his proper research. And writing a screenplay or pilot that gets its facts straight is definitely one way to come off as a professional. Assuming, of course, that the script is also a great piece of work.
Right off the bat, let’s acknowledge that notes can be a mixed bag. There’s who you get the notes from, the stage(s) you get the notes at, the notes that are right on point, and then the notes that make you wonder what screenplay or pilot the person giving the notes had been reading in the first place. And, for the record, that is something that working professionals are often confronted with as well, which means that the sooner you learn to process and embrace notes, the better off you will be for the span of your career. Which is to say… I write all of this knowing full well that notes are very rarely a straight forward thing.
Many writers starting out tend to have some resistance to notes, often finding any notes that challenge the work to be frustrating. Some writers, often earlier in their writing journey, will send out their material hoping to confirm that their screenplay or pilot is as good as they hoped it would be; Writers who aim to make writing their career learn to send their material out not only to confirm how good it is, but also to see how they can strengthen it, be it with some cosmetic changes or even massive story surgery. Either way, notes present an opportunity for learning, illuminating what might not have landed as well for the reader as the writer had hoped, where the material can be made stronger, what may be clear to the writer but lost on the reader who provided the notes.
When working on original material entirely on spec, it’s in the writer’s discretion which notes to apply, and which notes to let go of. A writer can opt to apply a note in order to improve the script, or receive a note that he doesn’t agree with and discard it accordingly. However, even when working on an original screenplay or pilot, it’s when the writer receives notes from his agent, manager or producer that things can get dicey. Yes, it’s his script and the name on the title page is his own, but if he receives a note that the note-giver deems important, he does have to address it if he wants to stay the course. While it remains the writers’ original work, it’s up to him to figure out satisfactory solutions to notes that both preserve what he feels strongly about in the material AND addresses the note. In order for the writer to make an impact in the professional space, he is going to have to get reps and producers on board with his script, notes and all.
The truth of the matter is that Hollywood has a certain… reputation for sometimes delivering less-than stellar notes. Hell, when I worked as a writer myself, my development executive offered me plenty of opportunities for eye rolls. But I was 23 and precious, so now I find myself faulting my age and lack experience much more so than any individual misguided note. It’s those writers who find the way to always see notes as opportunity for growth, to further develop the material, to impress the manager or exec they’re working with by how they apply the notes, who show up as pros.
How the writer applies the note is another way that he can stand tall. I get that sometimes a note can be frustrating, but applying it literally just to satisfy the note-giver is not going to earn any points; quite the opposite. Showing up as someone who could one day be a professional means the writer taking a note and making it their own; if a solution was pitched that doesn’t work, then it’s about finding a way to address it, that preserves the script and honors the note, elevating the work and cementing the writers’ reputation as someone to watch.
Rolling with the punches.
We all know that there are going to be plenty of disappointments on the path to a screenwriting career. A million little heartbreaks before the definitive it’s-finally-happening! career happy dance. I don’t think anyone ever gets completely immune to it, but the writers who make it are the ones who take the punches, and keep on rolling. You have to know how to mourn. You have to allow yourself to be hurt and sad and just plain pissed off. But then you have to find a way to get past it, to move on.
Years ago, I met with one of my writers – long before she became an EP on TV shows and sold pilots and features to big studios – to go over a new pilot she wrote. The episode itself was quite good but… it also felt to me like it was in all likelihood the episode that came two episodes before the pilot. Even though the writer worked long and hard on it, the reality was that she started her show too early in the story. That she would have to perform a major re-break if she wanted to make her pilot viable. She took the notes in stride, and for all intents and purposes kept her cool.
That night, just eight or nine hours later, I saw her at a group setting, as part of an in-person writers support group that I was facilitating. As we did at every meeting, we went around the room, and each writer shared how things were going for them and what they had been up to. When we got to her, the writer said something to the tune of:
“Well, this morning I got some pretty drastic notes on my pilot, so I went home, had a nervous breakdown, and I guess I’m going to start re-outlining first thing tomorrow morning.”
Writing it now, it may sound blasé, but let me assure you that the writer, in her personality, is anything but above-it-all. For someone who is generally pretty unshaken, even her own version of a nervous breakdown is worth making note of. What impressed me most was not that she had something that to her was akin to a nervous breakdown; what impressed me was that she had it, went through it and kept right on going. We had a new version of that re-broken pilot about a month later. And that was the same pilot that ultimately got her staffed.
Over the years, my writers who most consistently built traction, gained momentum and found success were the writers who always showed up to every meeting with lots of things to talk about, plenty of questions to ask. Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem providing directives and dictating the contents of our meeting, suggesting this and exploring that, but it’s those writers who have shown up week after week with tons of questions and things they wanted to cover who always made me feel like they were at the wheel, and I was just supporting them.
When literary manager Krista Sipp visited my Screenwriters Support Group a few weeks back, she spoke about how important it is for emerging writers to not wait to have a manager in order to move their screenwriting career forward. Don’t get me wrong: A good manager would absolutely help, and should open doors for the writer that she couldn’t open for herself. But at the heart of what Krista was saying is the idea that every writer should find ways to pave inroads and build relationships for themselves.
Now, I get that most writers feel that they need a rep in order to push things to the next level. And I absolutely get that. But the writers who showed up as professionals long before they became working writers were those writers who were always unearthing opportunities, be they a new fellowship that just launched or attending a panel with an executive they always wanted to meet. It’s not to say that such opportunities are going to be readily available at every turn, but I’ve always been impressed but those writers who kept close enough watch and put themselves out there in order to make most of those opportunities when they presented themselves.
Being endlessly curios about the industry and how it all works.
Every once in a while a writer will tell me: I don’t need to read scripts. I shouldn’t have to read industry news. I don’t like watching movies/TV. That is always, ALWAYS, a red flag. I know I’ve said this a million times before, so if you’ve heard or read this before… do bear with me. Writers build their screenwriting and TV writing career in a working, living, breathing, ever-changing, highly-dynamic industry. A writer won’t be perceived as professional if he doesn’t understand the landscape of the industry he is trying to break into, or how it all works once he does break in.
Years ago, I introduced two of my writers to one another simply because of the way they went about learning the industry. Not only did they know the studios, networks, and production companies the produced the type of shows they would like to staff on, they knew the names of the writers on their favorite shows down to the staff writer. They knew the names of studio executives that covered the shows they loved; they knew the names of reps who represented writers they looked up to. Any time we talked, their breadth of information impressed me beyond words. She went on to participate in the Disney/ABC writing program, and staff on TV shows from there; he won the Humanitas Prize, and has a number of his projects already set up with producers.
If it’s a career in screenwriting you’re after, consider all that it means to get where you want to go: Not just the dream of names on screens, but the hard work and hustle of it all. A manager friend once told me about working in the industry: “It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.” I have plenty to say about whether that’s the right way to think of it all, but I do know that you have to embrace what it means to be a screenwriter, knowledge, notes, hustle and all, for anyone who wants to become a professional.
For more insights on how to make the leap from emerging to professional, be sure to check out Stephen Pressfield’s Book, TURNING PRO. (Thanks for recommending it to me all that time ago, Joe!).