What (My) Screenwriters Did Right in 2014
This past year was good to many of my writers. And I’m not talking about the ones who got staffed again, or the ones who landed repeat writing assignments. I am talking about those writers who moved up the “emerging” ladder: Made it into fellowships, landed reputable representation, pitched studios for the first time, won contests, started developing material with name talent in the industry space. As last year wound down and this year began, I started wondering: What is there to be learned from them? What sorts of healthy screenwriting-related habits do these writers share? What sets them apart from the rest? The more I thought about it, the more it crystalized. Though they certainly all have many differences, here are a few of the commonalities they displayed:
They never let you see them sweat
Working on your screenwriting craft can be tough. And building a screenwriting career even tougher. But when it’s time to step up, these scribes do just that. Don’t get me wrong: I hear all about the meltdowns, and the nervous breakdowns, and the walls hit. That’s okay; I’m the person who should be hearing about them, as opposed to the writers’ reps or collaborating executives. Bottom line? When it’s time to show up, these writers always ALWAYS show up with work on hand. One such writer, whom I see rather regularly, is a machine. She never fails to turn in work – and good work at that. She wakes up at 5am, sets aggressive deadlines for herself, and meets them every way she can. But every time we talk about the process she will tell me something like “Two days ago, after I had a nervous breakdown, I finally broke the story.” Those nervous breakdowns become anecdotal at best. Time and time again, without fail, and despite all the natural hurdles, she succeeds at delivering the work.
While others talk about doing the work, they actually do it
These writers are writing. All the time. Sometimes they love it. Sometimes they hate it. Sometimes it’s shit. But they still write. Trust me when I tell you that I, and other readers and consultants, have sent our best writers back to the drawing board more than once. Sure, they may not like us at that moment very much. But every time something like this happens, they get over the insecurities, the frustrations, the disappointment and all the rest of it, and got it done. And yes, I did just say insecurities. Every single one of these writers has got them. Each one of them wonders at the onset of beginning a script if they’re just a fraud about to be found out. If all the previous work was some mad stroke of luck. If they should just quit the whole thing and walk away, because they will never be as good as everyone expects. But then they get over it, they sit down, and they write. They don’t let their insecurities get in their way or keep them from what has to be done.
They are never precious
Sure, at some point, once they’ve gotten past all the self-doubt, they love everything they’re working on and are, in fact, completely consumed by it. But chances are that if you tell them to kill their darlings, after a short mourning period, and especially if they believe it’s for the betterment of the work, they’ll step back and figure out the best way to do so. One of my writers, who had an entirely serviceable comedy script, opted to throw out and recreate an entire second act in service of a better draft. Another, after delivering a first draft of a previously-outlined pilot, had to throw it out and start all over again, only to come up with a significantly superior pilot than anything else she’d ever done. This doesn’t mean that they won’t fight for what they believe in in a particular script, or sacrifice integral story points or characters to satisfy someone whose opinion they can’t get behind. But they will do what they have to for the work to get to that illusive next level.
They are resilient
True story: One of my writers has been researching and developing a project since the year 2000. That’s right, the year 2000. Between then and now, he’s worked on other projects, had a couple of movies produced, but all the while continued to develop this work. This past year this project has finally garnered some interest. Crazy amount of industry interest, in fact. It’s been pitched at studios and to major talent. Now, this project has a number of powerful big-named players looking to get involved. The writer never once said “it’s about time” or “took long enough” or “finally.” He’s been so resilient about it that he has hardly even noticed the time that has passed while he’s been pursuing it. And if all the current interest suddenly disappeared? He would be nowhere near done trying to bring this project to life.
Work gets exposed early and often
If you’ve been reading my stuff for any period of time, you’ve heard me say this a million times before: Expose the work early and often. And the writers that I see succeed do just that. They never shy away from notes; in fact, they go out and get them as soon as they suspect a draft is cohesive enough to present. They share outlines, treatments, presentation decks. They discuss the logic and heart of the work with as many relevant people as they can. Some do this through writers groups; others will share the work much wider than that. Recently, one such writer who had his first feature produced last year shared a second draft of his new screenplay not only with three consultants, but also with members of his writer’s group, a creative support group, and a couple of like-minded scribes he met along the way. He wasn’t looking to hear how funny the script is (which it is) or how uniquely original are the characters. All he wanted to figure out was what did and didn’t work. And that informed, powerful insight really helped him get there.
They wait for no one
Remember the writer I told you about who now has major studio interest in a project that spent the last 14 years in his own private development hell? All that industry enthusiasm, the studio interest, he created that himself. How? He built relationships with everyone he met. He became the guy everyone was rooting for, the guy with whom others wanted to associate themselves. One night – and before the studio interest happened – I casually introduced him to an Academy-Award-Nominated producer friend. Mind you, he wasn’t the only writer in the room; there were roughly 12 of them. A few weeks later, this same producer and I were meeting for dinner, and she asked whether I minded if this writer joined us. Turns out that after that initial casual encounter, he reached out to her. He pitched her one of the projects he was working on. He told her he was a fan. He was lovely and humble and his talent was all over the pages he sent her. He didn’t ask me for her email, or for an introduction, or reached out to his manager to ask that he set something up for them. He went ahead and reached out himself. And now this emerging writer still waiting for his big break is developing a screenplay with a major producer involved and attached.
Even if they have a job… They treat writing like a job
Earlier, I wrote about my one client who wakes up at 5am to get started on the work. She does this consistently, every day. And when she doesn’t, it’s by design, not by mistake. In many ways, building a screenwriting career is a full time job, whether or not you already have a whole other full time job on your hands. This means that you have to do it consistently, that you have to set goals and execute on your plans again and again. While it is not necessarily fair, it is, for good or bad, how it works. And of my writers who break through and succeed, all of them view the pursuit of screenwriting this way. Few of them are independently wealthy. Many have to have a job in order to make rent. But one way or another, whether at 5am or midnight, they carve out time to work for their screenwriting career every day.
Whether you adopt all six of these behaviors, or decide to try on just one of them, I urge you to consider challenging yourself into behaviors that will better your chances for success. Because win, lose or draw, there is great peace in knowing that you’ve given yourself the best possible chance at a real, bona fide screenwriting break.