Want a Screenwriting Career? Don’t Be THIS
On most things, I find that there is wiggle room when it comes to screenwriting, breaking in and building a screenwriting or TV writing career. We break things down into two options: What’s probable (and by that, I mean difficult but achievable) and what’s possible (highly, highly unlikely but… you never know).
But if there is one thing that I know for sure, it’s this: No one in the industry is looking to work, hire or collaborate with a screenwriting or TV writing hobbyist. The industry at large is looking to work with serious screenwriters who have an enduring career-building runway ahead of them. Managers, and, at some point, agents, are looking to get in business with the sort of writing client with whom they can have a productive, lucrative, and long-standing relationship.
A few years back, I was invited to speak at the Willamette Writers Conference. One of the panels I sat on was all about representation, in which I participated alongside my friend, manager Krista Sipp. One of the writers in the audience told Krista that he had no interest in being a full-time writer; he had a full-time job he quite liked, so he wondered whether she would consider working with someone like him. Krista deadpanned: “You wouldn’t want a part-time manager, so why would I want to work with a writer who, no matter what, doesn’t want to write full time?”
This may sound contradictory to the directive of Just write a great script. After all, a great script can come from anyone, anywhere, no? That’s part of the beauty of screenwriting; anyone can step up, do the work, be great on the page. In essence? Yes. But in my experience, it takes many years, many concepts, many pages, many drafts, to be truly great on the page. While talent is certainly part of the equation and anyone who comes into this with a strong story sensibility and unique voice is already ahead of the game, the reality is that this is a craft, which means that the more you practice it, the better you will get. So even those writers who ultimately just wrote a great script usually wrote said great screenplay or TV pilot having cut their teeth and worked on their craft, learning from all the screenplays and pilots that came before in order to be able to finally have it all come together on the page.
One of the many reminders I’ve gotten from the industry over the years about just how serious it is when it comes to seeking those potential career screenwriters came in one of my mentoring cycles for the Final Draft Big Break Contest. Every year, I have the privilege of mentoring all the category winners, whose screenplays and pilots rose to the top of the heap. That one year, one of my writers was able to win his category with the first screenplay he’d ever written. No small feat! And the writer, for the record, was lovely. Smart, and charming, and a pleasure to work with. And he had interest from the industry, a number of different managers who wanted to talk to him. But every time he told these prospective reps that this was, indeed, his first screenplay the conversation screeched to a halt and he was encouraged to get back in touch once he’s had a couple more quality screenplays or TV pilots under his belt.
Now, don’t get me wrong: You can absolutely write one screenplay, or one screenplay per decade, and set out to try and get it made. Find producers, bring together financing, maybe even try to make it yourself with a group of like-minded, filmmaking-minded friends. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that plan… except that that plan doesn’t necessarily parlay into getting representation and building a screenwriting career in which assignments are booked and original material is regularly churned.
When I talk to a writer who tells me that he wrote a comedy screenplay in 2014 and a 1-hour drama pilot in 2021, and now feels that he is primed for a rep, I know that the writer is setting himself up for disappointment. Not because his writing is not going to be strong, or because he doesn’t have every desire or intention to become a working screenwriter. But because the writer has generated one new script in seven years, and because his previous screenplay was an entirely different genre and space, I also know that he is likely to be seen as a hobbyist, one whose writerly identity is not fully formed yet, and whose process and productivity could be deemed lacking. He is sort of a writer, but he dabbles. He hasn’t made a point to be fully, consistently submerged in it.
To be clear, I don’t think that taking on writing, in addition to a full-time job – which most people have to have – and the responsibilities of family – which some people have – is an easy thing. It takes a toll on the writer’s life, relationships and resources. But the reality is that for those writers who were able to convert from emerging to professionals, most have been treating their writing as their second job long before they were getting paid for it. You can argue for or against the fairness of it all, but that’s simply the reality of it: In order to break in, and to be perceived as a serious writer with strong prospects for a lasting career, you have to come armed with a solid, recent, cohesive body of work that reflects the sort of writer you want to be within the working industry.
For an example, look no further than my longtime client and friend Chandus Jackson. Long before he booked his first open writing assignment in 2020 and landed a staff writers’ position on CBS’s BULL, Chandus was finding ways to carve regular time for his writing, despite having a full-time job and four children. In fact, he was a morning-time writer, keeping his old military hours and getting up early to write long before he had to tend to the kids.
Some reps have gone on record saying that they expect their writers to write four original scripts a year, which, for the record, and especially with a full-time job, I do not think is realistic, especially if we are prioritizing quality over quantity. For any writer looking to break in, he should aim to write, at minimum, one great new pilot or feature screenplay a year. That way, each year there is new material to submit to prospective reps, to enter into screenwriting competitions, and use in pursuit of a spot in the TV writing fellowships (in addition to a current TV spec episode, which may be a requirement for submission). Writing at a regular clip allows the writer not only to improve their craft and amass an impressive body of work, but also to learn her own process, so that when it comes time for those staffing opportunities and open writing assignments, she has it down pat.
If you’re looking for resources to help you power through to a more consistent writing approach, I am a big fan of Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield. Be sure to check it out!
Once again, I don’t think any of this is easy. Juggling work and family and life and writing is not an easy thing to do consistently, and I commend anyone who is able to do it, especially when the writer is not getting paid yet, and putting all of this time and energy into an effort that comes with no guarantees. But if screenwriting or TV writing is a serious pursuit, remember that people in the industry like to gamble on emerging new writers who inspire them to believe that a career is not only possible, but likely. And that starts by coming off as a serious, dedicated scribe who produces quality new work out with regularity and consistency.