The 5 Things Expected from an Emerging Screenwriter
As part of my job, I meet new writers regularly. While career coaching has allowed me to work with both professional and up-and-coming writers, on most weeks I will meet with at least a couple writers taking those early career steps as they thoughtfully navigate the emerging writer landscape.
And one question that I’ve been asked quite often lately is: As an emerging writer, what does the industry expect of me?
It’s been said a million times: Building a screenwriting career is no small feat. We’ve all heard it said that breaking into the industry is as difficult as becoming a professional football player (which… having run the numbers, I can emphatically say that I do not agree. Breaking into screenwriting is not easier than much, but it’s easier than this!). Getting into something like the network TV writing fellowships is as challenging as getting into Harvard or Yale (which, okay, on that one I concede). All of which is to say: Yes. Breaking into screenwriting, be it in TV, features or (as is with most cases at this point in time) both, is difficult. Challenging. For some it will even be frustratingly illusive. But it does happen all the time. I get a front row seat for those stories of writers breaking in, which is what makes mine a very happy job.
Luck, as they say, favors the prepared. Which is why the above question has stood out for me: It’s all about writers aiming to prepare themselves for the professional space. And so I wanted to break it down, for any writer seeking to make that uphill climb a little more forgiving by understanding what the industry looks for where new, unproven writers are concerned.
Know your voice.
Often, when I meet a new writer, they are still in the process of discovering their voice; if they are writing features, they may have a thriller and a comedy in their body of work. If it’s TV they are aiming at, they may have a dark 1-hour pilot alongside a multi-cam sample. Don’t get me wrong: This process of discovery is important. It’s critical to understand your voice, and the area/s of storytelling that would most suit it, because that would then be the area in which you are most likely able to find success.
However, when talking to new writers and discussing what to write next and how to build on their body of work, the answer of what to write, comedy or thrillers, comedy or dramas, may be: Whatever will get me work.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I totally understand wanting to get paid for your work, and wanting to write the thing that will get you into that writing assignment or staffing opportunity that will get you paid. But the important thing to remember here is that every writer comes complete with a unique voice, not to mention story sensibility, that lends itself to a particular space. Therefore, it’s important to understand your voice, and where it would naturally fit best in order to create that professional success.
Additionally, once you are considered for representation, staffing, or a writing assignment, you will be considered because of what it is you do best, where your voice and skillset is at its ultimate. Managers, agents, executives and other writers want to know how to talk about you, so you must be clear on what type of writer you are in order to best illustrate it for them
Lastly, don’t overlook the various ways to learn the craft through which to put on display your vision and voice. It’s the knowledge of that craft, that understanding of structure and character standards and weaving of plot that will elevate you to the career that you want. Check out writing classes from such industry leaders as Script Anatomy, Pilar Alessandra and Corey Mandell. There is an abundance of books, blogs and podcasts out there. In other words, no shortage on who and what you can learn from!
Understand how things work.
For a writer to find success in the professional space, it’s important that she understand how said professional space works. A few months ago, a writer I work with was introduced to an agent through a family contact. The agent told the writer something to the tune of: “I like your voice, but if we worked together, I’d want you to develop more exciting, industry-minded work.” The writer was open to development but asked the agent whether he, or his agency, would compensate her for it, so that she could focus full time on developing that market-ready sample. Suffice it to say, that conversation did not go much further than that.
I am all for writers getting paid, but it’s important to remember where compensation is up for grabs, and developing something with reps, who work with the writer on spec themselves, is just not that place. Much of the same can be said for independent producers, who don’t have studios or overall deals bankrolling them. With that in mind, it’s essential for a new, emerging writer to have a full grasp of how things actually work, be it with representation which works largely on spec until the writer herself gets paid, or with film studios and networks.
Have reasonable expectations.
While the industry is a space in which everything is very much possible (though, arguably, also somewhat improbable) it’s important to come into the space with realistic expectation in order to appear professional at every turn.
While many writers come into the TV space hoping to showrun their own show one day, the reality is that most writers have to work their way up long before creating and running a show can become a reality. Equally, while 7-figure spec sales sound exciting, the reality is that very few specs from new writers in a given decade manage to generate that. I am all for shooting for the stars, but also understanding what can be expected.
Every writer wants to write a screenplay or TV pilot that gets snatched up by representation and is seen as industry-ready; in most scenarios, however, even those scripts that are viable for the market are going to go through rounds of notes before they are sent into the professional space, and representation will likely not get it out there a minute before they think it’s ready, regardless of how many drafts it might have gone through.
Additionally, know what reasonable expectations are for writing assignments, for staffing opportunities, and for selling pilots, pitches or specs. If you’ve never staffed in a writers’ room before and are not the creator of the show, you are likely not going to start your career in the writers’ room as anything except a staff writer. While any writer would love to sell their screenplay in a splashy, seven-figure spec sale as mentioned above, the reality of the matter is that those are near impossible to orchestrate and rarely are the way a new writer arrives in the industry. The industry is not a lottery, and while writers should absolutely get paid for their work, it usually takes some time to build a significant quote in the feature or TV space, be it for assignment or selling pitches or completed content.
Define where you want to go, and take actions that will help you get there.
Becoming a working writer tends to be too broad a destination in order for anyone to have a cohesive plan that will help them achieve it. Therefore, you want to identify what it is that you ultimately want to do (write features? TV? comedy? horror? or maybe direct?), and accordingly take those steps that will reasonably compute into your specific, targeted plan.
Want to write TV? Be sure that you are building the body of work that reflects that. And if TV staffing is the goal, consider those all-important network fellowships. If you want to be a comedy feature writer, construct the samples to make the case for you on the page, and also consider your local comedy scene and how to work your comedy muscle in that arena. Wherever you want to end up on the writing front, arriving at that destination is something that rarely happens by accident.
Know your space.
Just as you are expected to know your voice, you are expected to understand and be familiar with the existing content in the space that your voice occupies. If you are a horror writer, you’re expected to know everything from the new Chucky to Midnight Mass and Candyman, not to mention horror classics like Babadook and other horror titles that may be a bit more obscure. So read scripts, watch movies and shows, listen to blogpost, and devour any other relevant material you can get your hands on. Working in the industry you are going to come in contact with professionals who know everything about their particular product space, and you want to be able to impress them by going toe to toe.
Above all, a new writer is expected to approach screenwriting or TV writing as the career that they want. Educate yourself methodically, learn the space and discover your voice, in order to show up as the exciting young writer – no matter the age – that reps and executives are eager to work with and get to know.