An Unapologetic Rant: Don’t Be THAT Screenwriter

This is an unapologetic rant. I know. I usually stick to the positive. I usually try to keep my pet peeves to myself and off the page. I don’t want to make anyone upset. I certainly don’t seek to offend. Enough times people have said to me “that one time you blogged about… ” and I think to myself: “Dear Lord, what did my big mouth say this time?” I am lucky. I’ve rarely had to apologize. Because I’ve considered my words and tried to err on the side of positive every time. But today… not so much.  To put it in the simplest terms, today I’ve reached my limit. I’ve had enough. I’ve gotten to a place of more than having had my fill of a particular type of posturing screenwriter, and as there never seems to be a shortage of them, well… That’s why the rant is coming out.

If you are looking for an uplifting post about how little effort has to go into your screenwriting to create success, stop reading now. Please. Seriously, I won’t take offense. My intention is not to piss off anyone. But the reality is that this is one that, despite the ripples it might cause, is due for the blogs. It’s time for me to call bullshit, and do so out loud.

But before I do, a disclaimer (doesn’t there always have to be one?): For the most part, I am lucky. So lucky, in fact, that I consider myself spoiled. Ninety-five percent of the writers I come across are talented and hard working and consistent, and I am freaking honored to be allowed to support them. They make my job a joy. They always keep me humble. But then, those are NOT the type of writer I am going to be venting about.

And a caveat: I am also not venting about the writer just starting out, who is hard at work on their first script, or just figuring out the mechanics of screenwriting. Every writer starts somewhere, and I have every respect for the writer who takes on and immerses themselves in learning, developing and bettering his craft.

Here is the so-called writer I have beef with: The writer who shows up and tells me that while they never opened a screenwriting book or attended a screenwriting class, never had their work evaluated by a professional reader, participated in a writer’s group or engaged the services of a screenwriting consultant, they are as professional a screenwriter as any other, and their script is ready for market, as good as can be, worth no less than a million bucks.

As you read this, remember one thing: I am a career coach. Not a writing consultant. So 100% of the writers who come to work with me do so with the expectation that their material is, for lack of better words, ready for market. Sometimes along with this un-vetted, untested, poorly structured script they tell me that oh, even though they’ve never shot a frame of footage or taken a directing course in their lives they are sure they would be the best director the studio could hire to bring their script to life. And if it’s television they are writing? They tell me how they not only want to sell the show but they want to run it, as in show run it, and won’t settle for less. They spent good money on their screenwriting software, and put many hours into the creation of their draft so what the hell?

But it doesn’t end there. They will tell me that they wrote a network movie of the week. A network movie of the week? Who in the world makes those these days? Or that they have the great next network miniseries a la “Lonesome Dove,” the kind of thing the network will be screening consecutively over five days in the height of the season because that’s what they do all the time, right? I could go on. Believe me, there are more real-life examples than I can count. But as much as I viscerally need this vent, I think you get the point by now.

Just to be clear, here is why this pisses me off so incredibly much: if you’ve been reading the trades for anything more than a few days you know that there is no million dollar sale. If you’ve been following the way television works, you know that you don’t get to become a showrunner by virtue of selling your very first original pilot. Sure, there are the outliers but for the most part, it’s going to take a lot more experience than that. It’s going to take time and work and blood and sweat and tears. The sort of thing that every other writer out there who is trying to make it is putting into the craft.

There is that word again: craft. Craft is not easy. It takes time and skill and many pages and many drafts and many scripts to develop. It doesn’t just show up. You have to put in the time and work to figure it out. To make it seamless. To keep seasoned industry folks from seeing the structure. It takes hard work to create magic while adhering to specific rules and screenwriting standards.

Showing up with one screenplay you’ve been occasionally tinkering with on occasion over the last five years without having anyone in the professional analysis space vet the material and expecting that to make you a professional screenwriter is disrespectful to every hard-working aspiring, emerging and professional screenwriter who is putting the work in day in and day out. Assuming that you can just show up, deliver untested work and collect your big payday, that screenwriting is just that easy, is presumptuous at best and insulting to the screenwriting community at worse. When I taught my national business of screenwriting workshop, there was always someone who showed up a d told me that they took up screenwriting because they thought it was easier than all the other long-form story telling formats by comparison. But there is a skill set here that has to be developed. And it’s the writers who develop it from script to script, from draft to draft, consistently and methodically, that deserve the sort of industry attention that leads to a job and a paycheck.

The fact of the matter is that we have not been in a climate of the single script sale for over a decade. Because of this, agents and managers are not going to put their muscle behind someone who is after the one-and-done (i.e. selling one script, only never to be heard from again), despite all the posturing in the world. So if you want to be a real screenwriter here is what it’s going to take:

  • Develop your craft. With more than one screenplay. Write and rewrite and rewrite again. Get notes from readers from consultants and other writers for whose skill set and taste level you can vouch. From script to script, you will have a stronger handle of your voice, and a better mastery of your craft.
  • Learn the marketplace. Know how things work. Understand what you can and should expect when you finally get the attention you desire. If you want to run the show, what is it going to take? If you want to work on a television show do you just send in a resume? And if you want to sell a script how does that work? The industry likes career screenwriters. Professional experts who have mastered their craft and who will be here to deliver again and again so…
  • Develop a respectable body of work. That means: 2 to 3 scripts in the same format in the same or like genre. If you’re writing for TV and want to staff, you want to write a recent season spec. You’re also allowed a script or two in a different genre or a different format. And once you have a solid body build on it, one to two new scripts every year. Remember, you have to keep reinventing yourself. And everything listed in that body of work should be vetted, perfected, up to industry standards and ready to share.
  • Speaking of standards… read other scripts out there. Know what is current and hot and exciting today in the space. Read Black List scripts, read contest scripts, and understand what’s making waves. And not only that. Read industry news and start to understand who is on the buying end.
  • Build your network. Get to know other writers, other creatives in the space. Create relationships that will help you expose your work, help you become a better writer. Learn how to speak better about the products you present. Go to networking events, listen to panels, connect with anyone and everyone you can. You cannot operate in a bubble removed from the industry and think that one day you will just show up prepared.

The important thing to remember about screenwriting is that it is not the lottery. Sheer luck is not going to get you there. I am fortunate to know that most of my writers are already engaged with all of those good conditioning habits that I’ve talked about, and are determined to do what it takes in order to win in this high demands/high rewards vocation. This already sets you apart from all of those posturing screenwriters who talk a big talk but lack the goods, practice, founded confidence or experience to deliver once it matters. When you put in the time, energy and focus into your business and your craft, you will always engage the industry executives across from you, and garner your work and brand the sort of attention it deserves.