Screenwriting Meeting Prep: That Dreaded Question

Every writer who goes into an industry meeting with pretty much anyone of consequence has that ONE question that he really hopes no one is going to ask. Don’t fool yourself. EVERYONE has it. The  question that they don’t want to have to answer, gnawing at the back of their mind but still very much ever-present, an exaggerated elephant in the room, an overgrown cystic zit no amount of make-up in the world can cover up. Friends and family will tell the writer: No one will notice. The zit doesn’t matter. You look fine. The writing will speak for itself. But this is a relationship-based business, so yes, it does matter. And as soon as the writer walks into the room, he knows: Everyone is looking at it. They’re not saying anything, but they are looking. Fuuuucccccck.

The good news is that everyone has this question, whenever they are trying to emerge in any job or any walk of life. And you can usually draw a straight line from the question to the writer’s insecurities, even if they are covered by a thick layer of bravado. I myself had this question blaring at me day in and day out when I started coaching full time. My question was a simple, persistent one: Who the fuck am I? I remember talking through this with the shrink that I am now way too busy to see anymore: “You have a degree.” I said to her, “You worked for this. You went to school. What have I done to earn the right to do this for a living?” Ironically, it was that very shrink who ultimately convinced me that there is no degree for this, and that the professional experience, the passion for writers and the industry know-how that I brought to the table answered that question in spades. For the record, coaching was not the first time when this question came up for me. I faced it once before when I was working as a development exec. Then, it had a slightly different tune: Who the fuck am I to say my notes on a script are the right ones? Who the fuck am I to determine casting direction? Who the fuck am I to decide? A slightly altered spin, but overall, same question which I managed to curtail every time. But to this day, every once in a while, I still hear a version of that question rustling in my mind. However, now I don’t so much mind it since the answer is one that I can get behind. The good news is that the question that had once put me back on my heels now does its job in keeping me humble.

As mentioned above, the dreaded question usually can arrive directly or indirectly, masked or blunt, and speaks directly to the insecurities or perceived weaknesses one ultimately tries to camouflage. Over time, I’ve seen this happen to different writers in many different ways. Here are just a few examples:

There are the obvious questions. If you are an older writer, the question will be: why are you just starting now? And how do we know you are going to continue? If you’ve written with multiple writing partners: which will be the dependable relationship, if any? If you’ve written across brands: what sort of writer are you, REALLY?

And then there are those questions that are a bit more complex. If you have had extreme gaps in your productivity (For example, one of my writers surfaced with a script sale in 2001, which then produced a box office hit. The writer proceeded to disappear entirely, only to resurface ten years later with a new script and new determination), how do we know that THIS TIME you are here to stay? And, unless you’ve been in a coma, what the hell have you been doing that would justify such a lack of creative production? Alternately, you decided to walk away from a reputable manager, implying that you may not have any loyalty. Why? Or else, you won a screenwriting contest and have done nothing with the win for a number of years, which implies that you were never really serious. What makes us think that things would be different now?

These are just a few examples, but I am sure you get the point. The inevitable quandary is: what do you do to avoid being put on the spot before these questions even come up? To me, the answer is simple: This is your chance for a preemptive strike. Avoid the dreaded question from being asked by answering it yourself before it even comes up.

How do you do that? Integrate that questionable part of your story into your personal narrative. Make the very best part of your answer part of a concise story. If you’ve written with multiple writing partners but now decided to go solo, be sure to speak about your exploration of varying partnerships before making the decision to commit to writing on your own. If your hair has gone gray before your first meeting commenced, share with the listener successes you’ve had in past careers, and your dedication to making this one just as successful. If there is an undeniable gap in your production, be sure to tell the listener why. We know you haven’t had another script, but have you really not been creative all this time? Did you perhaps explore writing in another format, or take on creative ventures that weren’t strong enough to share with professionals?

The point is: Even the harshest question can be answered if you prepare yourself for it enough. Think through that dreaded question, the one that you REALLY hope no one asks, and then come up with a compelling and honest answer that will not only leave you whole and satisfied, but one that will also erase, or in the very least minimize, any lingering doubt. It’s important to arrive at the threshold of opportunity coming not from a fearful or defensive position, but from one of strength and confidence in your abilities and personal journey.

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