Breaking into Screenwriting is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
“I broke in sooooo fast!!!”… Said no writer anywhere ever.
Seriously. I mean… in the 90’s, maybe? Back then, it seemed like writers were emerging from complete obscurity to sell a screenplay seemingly overnight (only to disappear back into some writer’s no man’s land, but with a healthy amount of cash on hand). Today, we all love stories about the quick-on-her-feet screenwriter who impresses a showrunner at the supermarket check-out line and promptly gets a staff writing job in the room, but these are not, by any stretch, every-day breaking-in stories. These stories are not the rule. They are the absolute exception.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from working with writers as long as I have, it is this: No one breaks in as quickly as they would like to. Hardly anyone ever breaks in when they finally feel that they’re ready. Breaking in, for most, happens a long. LONG time after that.
And it can be so frustrating.
I’ve worked with those writers myself, so talented, so tenacious, so charismatic, with brilliance on every page who just couldn’t get there. I remember a particular walk with my husband and my old dog, lamenting the roadblocks one of my favorite clients was encountering on a regular basis: meeting closed doors after closed doors, getting rejected by reps and contests and writing fellowships at every turn. “I just don’t get it!” I remember lamenting, because to me it just didn’t make sense. The writer had done everything right: She networked. She connected. She was brilliant on the page. She was, one hundred percent, the sort of writer who should be working. I just couldn’t understand how no one else was seeing that, yet.
In the end, the stars aligned, and that writer shortly thereafter turned professional, getting into a TV writing program and quickly staffing from there. I am happy to report that she is now starting her 3rd year on a TV show, has a number of produced episodes of television under her belt, and just-completed a spec feature about to be unleashed on the marketplace in a pretty big way.
But those lean years… man, they seemed to last FOREVER. And when you’re in them, you find yourself wondering if they will ever end.
Which is why you have to pace yourself. Because, as the title of this blogpost states, breaking into screenwriting is a marathon. It is never, ever a sprint. And so you have to set expectations for yourself accordingly. Train with this in mind, if you will.
If breaking in is a marathon, it may not be the best strategy to write in intense bursts, logging crazy hours, while at the same time working your day job, tending to your family and managing social lives. Instead, you have to (there’s that word again) pace yourself. Create a sustainable and lasting writing routine. Take a step back and consider: How many days a week can you write? How many hours a day? Where and when? What can you do consistently that may not be that impressive on its own, but over time represent significant hours of writing amassed methodically and consistently?
While ambition is great, it is important to me that my writers temper their ambitious goals with some realism, setting reasonable expectations for the days and hours worked every week, over months and potentially years. Most writers would love to write 7 days a week; over the years, however, I learned that few are able to sustain this. Instead, aim to write 4, 5 or even 6 days a week, setting a realistic writing schedule that you can maintain regularly.
If you want to push your craft forward, you will need to put in the hours. There is no question about that. The more hours you put in, the better you will become. This is the simple reality of developing craft. While most writers who have a job can’t also put in 4-5 writing hours every day, I would like to see the weekly writing hour count start at least 10 hours per week, then grow from there. Of course, some weeks will be the exception: You will have a big project at work, family visiting from out of town, or are traveling yourself. But once those weeks are done, have a routine in place that you can easily return to.
Identify when and where you write best. Not when you HAVE TO, when you are pushing for a submission deadline or when a manager approached too soon is suddenly waiting for your script, but rather on an uneventful Wednesday, when it will just be time to once again sit down and do the work. Be sure to identify: are you a morning writer or an evening writer? Do you do better at home in front of your writing desk, or are you more productive in a coffee shop or a library? Do you need headphones and a playlist, or does background noise not bother you in the least? All of these must be taken into consideration when creating a writing routine.
While you want every script you work on, be it a feature screenplay or an original pilot, to be the very best you can make it, breaking in is rarely just about one script. Even when you do have that one killer, undeniable script ready to show, most reps will want to see other work that will confirm that your amazing screenplay or pilot was not an accident, so in order to perform well on the page again and again, get your process in place. From pre-work/discovery through to vetting your work, make sure that you know those wash-rinse-repeat steps. Are you better with outline, beats or both? Do you need character bios before you can dive into scene work? And once you’re past that first vomit draft (assuming you do one) and finally have something you can present, to whom do you show the work? Is it a writer’s group? A few writer friends? A reader? A consultant? All of the above? Someone else? Having that process in place will allow you to have a better understanding of how to dive into and complete strong work again and again on a consistent and ongoing basis.
And then there’s networking. Going out. Meeting people. Building relationships. Mingling. Sometimes, it feels like there is so much going on that you can be out every day, whether it’s grabbing coffee with writer friends, or going to mixers, talks, workshops and panels. Because you have to balance writing and work and friends/family, you don’t want to be out there seven days a week – for most, or at least those who are, like myself, not such dedicated social animals, that would be way too much. Instead, you want to be able to get out there in a more sustainable and consistent way. How many classes and workshops should you attend each year? How many panels, mixers and events? Set targets per month or quarter, then make sure to meet them. Equally, don’t try to see everyone you know in one week. Unless you are remote to Los Angeles and flying in for a mad-dash of breakfast/lunch/coffee/dinner/drinks meetings even if just with other writers, you want to pace yourself, making sure that you tend both to existing relationships, while also adding new contacts and new friends into the fold.
Most importantly, take a step back, and examine your various screenwriting-related efforts. First and foremost, there is the writing, and the process that entails. Then there’s reading scripts. Watching movies and TV shows. Networking. Submitting. Going to events. How do you do enough to make it count, but not too much so that you burn out? Consistency is the name of the game when trying to win a marathon. And training right, preparing accordingly, coming up with a sustainable routine that can carry you through the tough stretches is how you ultimately win the battle.