What to Expect When You’re Building a Screenwriting Career
Over the years, many writers have come to me wanting to know what to expect along their journey to the screenwriting or TV writing career they were hungry for. I’ve had the privilege of being invited to speak at universities, film festivals, screenwriting conventions and writing programs about that exact topic.
Sometimes, my input was well received; other times, I was named a Dream Killer. The “what to expect” of it all has been so central to it all, that when I wrote my first book Getting it Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career my publisher initially asked me to frame the book à la the famed pregnancy book What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Luckily, when they realized that the timeline and complications to building a screenwriting career don’t quite align with the challenges and timeline for making a person, they let go of that idea.
However, somehow, all these years later, I’ve never written up my straight forward assessment of what to expect. What to expect when you’re building a screenwriting career. What to expect when you’re looking for representation. What to expect when placing a screenwriting contest. Which makes this as good a time as any to dive in. Better later than never, right?
So in this first installment of my What to Expect: Breaking into Screenwriting series, I want to take a look at some of the big picture realities, what to expect, what not to expect, and what lies within the realm of possibility.
Expect great writing to light your path.
If there is one thing that everyone in this industry is looking for it’s great writing. Writing that is not just good, but truly stands out, that leaps off the page, efficient yet voice-y, telling us stories, introducing us to characters and building narratives in a manner we have not quite seen done the exact same way before. Therefore, if you can’t stay away from the written word, if you are ambitious enough to keep working on your craft, driven enough to become stronger as you uncover your innate voice, develop new screenplays and pilots, immerse yourself in your characters and worlds, then you are on the right track!
Expect a bumpy road.
But just because it’s bumpy, doesn’t mean it’s doomed! Sure, there will be frustrations and disappointments, near-misses and close calls before you actually arrive at the career you are working for. It’s all par for the course. But if you keep at it, find paths to overcome and get around those hurdles, continue along your path without allowing it to dissuade or deter you, you give yourself the best of chances to arrive at your desired career destination!
Expect it to be a marathon, not a sprint.
Breaking in takes time (more on that below), but many a scribe do get there. Therefore, pace yourself, condition yourself, and train yourself to truly understand that it will likely not happen quickly (as it rarely does), and instead prepare yourself for the long haul, the extended runway that most screenwriting careers require these days. Which brings us to…
Expect it to take longer than you think.
In fact, it will likely take more time than you think is reasonable. But as Claudia Forestieri said when she participated in my LatinX panel for Final Draft, if you are serious about screenwriting, there is no need to worry about the year count of how long it will take. If you want to be a working writer jump in, work on your craft, and buckle in for the ride. While some writers break in quickly, in a matter of 2-3 years from the time they’ve honed their writing, others take significantly longer. Over the years, I’ve had writers get into the prestigious TV writing fellowships on their first submission, while others got in on their 5th or 6th submission. I’ve seen writers get signed quickly on the 1st or 2nd script that went out to representation, while others sent out multiple screenplays and pilots before getting the desired attention. One is not better than the other, nor does it set up one writer for a more promising career than the other. It just takes what it takes.
Don’t expect to break in overnight.
While stories of overnight success can be exciting and awe-inspiring, the reality is that for every story of overnight success, there’s a ton of hard work, frustrations and challenges. When my friend and client Kim Garland broke in, it was seemingly quick: She got into The Black List/Women in Film Episodic Lab, got repped, and in a matter of months staffed on SyFy’s Chucky. But the truth of the matter is that years of work had gone into her breaking in journey.
As Circle of Confusion’s Josh Adler told me when I interviewed him for my book Breaking In: Tales From the Screenwriting Trenches:
“It’s so funny to me, the overnight successes that everybody talks about. It’s almost like everybody knows the term ten-years-in-the-making overnight success, but every time it happens, everybody just assumes, “Oh, this is the one that was an overnight one.” Every client that I have, they’re not 22-year old kids straight out of college with their first script that sells and becomes some huge thing. Most of them worked at it for a long time and they had a bunch of misses, close calls, their scripts got past the gatekeepers and went all the way up, and right at the last minute—right when they were going to get that yes—they got a no or a whatever, and they’ve had a lot of heartache and disappointment and a lot of nos. And then they get the yes.”
Don’t expect to know exactly how you’re going to break in.
No writer knows the exact path that will lead to their screenwriting career; they may suspect that it will happen this way or that, but over my long career doing this, I’ve certainly seen writers break in NOT in the way that they expected. Because of this, you have to consider all the avenues that are available to you, and make smart decisions about where you want to take your chances. You may decide that a particular path is not one you are interested in traveling on your journey to breaking in and therefore not participate in it or deliver on its requirements, but as breaking in is never easy, make smart choices and diversify your paths in order to give yourself the best chance you can.
When you do break in… Expect that things could start happening FAST.
Yes, there are many stories out there about writers getting signed… and nothing happened. Writers getting interest from producers… only to have nothing happen. Writers being told that a big name actor wants to attach to their material… only to have nothing happen. There is no denying that. But I find that when things happen in earnest, they tend to happen quickly. It took Crosby Selander less than 3 months to go from being named finalist in the Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition to having his spec script sell for 7 figures. As mentioned above, it took Kim Garland roughly the same amount of time to go from TV Writing Lab participant to staffed writer. Now, it doesn’t mean that every time things will happen at just that clip, or that the ultimate destination of staffing or a sale will be so quickly reached. But in general, I find that when the machine starts moving, the reality of it is undeniable, whether it’s your rep giving you notes or getting you out to generals, or being put up for staffing. Whether or not you are awarded that writing assignment or staffing gig, whether your pilot sells or your script named to The Black List, whether you manage to get some generals under your belt well, that remains to be seen.
Expect to find answers even when none are given.
Many writers complain – rightfully – that often they send their screenplay or pilot to an agent, manager, executive or producer, only never to hear back again. This can be incredibly frustrating, as a lot of hard work, writing and rewriting, has gone into the work. While many writers hold out hope that they may hear back at some point from the executive or rep who asked for their work, it’s important to lay those hopes to rest if, over an extended period of time and numerous follow-ups the writer does not hear back. It’s been said that in the industry, a “No” is silence over time. Or, put a bit more simply, if it’s not a Yes, it’s a No.
Expect that it will take more than one script.
As my friend John Zaozirny, whom I had the pleasure of doing a Q & A for Final Draft with once told me: “Scripts are not a lottery ticket.” I could not agree more. It takes multiple years, multiple scripts to get to breaking in, and then it takes more scripts to keep the conversation going, to stimulate dormant relationships, to reinvigorate stale conversations. But that is also what I love about writing: Writers get to reinvent themselves, to give their career another push or set out on a pivot with every screenplay or TV pilot they write. It’s just them and the computer. And no one else working in the industry on the creative side gets that luxury: Directors need cameras, and actors, and crews. Actors need a stage, a script, a director. For writers, it is just about their ideas, their execution, and their page. And, in my experience, there is a lot of power in that.
Don’t expect breaking in to be synonymous with a big payday. Especially at the start of your career.
The goal for any screenwriter setting out to build a screenwriting or TV writing career is to get paid for her products (spec scripts or pitches) or services (writing services in TV writers rooms, writing the pilot or movie that she pitched, or on open writing assignments). While the idea is very much to get you to a place in which you are paid to write, it’s also important to anticipate that most screenwriting careers don’t start with a huge payday (though it does, on occasion, happen!). Therefore, it’s important to not see any original screenplay or TV pilot as that get-out-of-jail-free-card or lottery ticket that Zaozirny talked about. The reality is that most writers begin their career receiving moderate, even minimal, fees, be they for products or services, then, over time, as they become part of the WGA and establish their brand and reputation, they build up their quote and their income.
Expect your community to see you through.
You’ve heard me – and everyone else – say it a million times before: The journey to a screenwriting career is not for the faint of heart. And while there will surely be causes for celebration along the way (for which you will want people to celebrate with!), there will also be disappointments and frustrations. Therefore, you have to build yourself a close, dependable community of like-minded writers who will understand what you are going through, be able to empathize with it, support you through it, help you get past the challenges and back on track for the screenwriting career that you’re pursuing.
Expect your tenacity to play a role in your success.
Call it what you will: Persistence. Determination. Dedication. If you really want to become a working screenwriter, expect your perseverance to carry you through the challenges, frustrations and disappointments. Because there will be some. Because it takes so many No’s to get to that one, all important Yes.
I think The Gersh Agency’s Sean Barclay put it best when he told me:
“Are you in this for ten years? Is this a business trip or is this your business? And I think the answer is it takes different people different amounts of time but be prepared for a fucking journey. There’s a reason why people get compensated so well when they make it at the highest level because it’s a process, it is a multi-year journey, just to get in the conversation.”
If you enjoyed this blog post, the first installment in my What to Expect series, keep an eye out for future installments including Learning the Craft, Getting Representation, Breaking into TV Writing and Screenwriting Contests, just to name a few!
I’ve seen your interviews before on various screenwriting channels and Google suggested this article for me–glad to find it! With your experience and advice I respect your input and am thankful to read these points about screenwriting.
I am a spec writer and am polishing up a screenplay for submission next year. There are some hard swallows but the advice is on point. I did start (much later in life) with the expectation that I am running a marathon. These points are great reminders and will serve me well as I “feel” around learning about the business of the industry and not just the writing portion. Thank you and I will be sure to subscribe to your blog/site!