Your End-of-Year Screenwriting Checklist

With holiday decorations going up at the local malls, radio stations dedicating themselves to Christmas carols 24/7 and winter weather visiting us everywhere, my screenwriters – working, emerging and otherwise – and I are working our way through our end-of-year screenwriting check lists. There is plenty to learn from the year in screenwriting that was, and much to plan for in order to make the most of the screenwriting year that lies ahead. This is the time to assess, to acknowledge, to be accountable, and to lay down strategies for what comes next. Think of this as your very own “A Christmas Carol”, where we will be visiting the present and future of your screenwriting career, but not before we take a moment to look at the past.

First: A Look Back at 2016

Whether you are a professional or emerging screenwriter, ask yourself: What have I done right in the year that is now coming to an end? Did I deliver on or even exceed expectations, or am I disappointed by this past year’s lack of accomplishments?  This is the time to evaluate your performance not only as far as productivity and output is concerned, but also when it comes to all the other screenwriting-related activities in which you should be engaged.

If you had set goals for yourself when the previous year came to an end, great! Now is the time to measure performance against expectations, and assess where you over-delivered, and where you might have fallen short. If no goals were set for the previous year, take a long honest look at the previous twelve months, and explore whether you have done all that you could to move your screenwriting career ahead by answering the following questions:

  • Did you write as much as you intended? (This can be both physical hours in front of the computer, as well as pages and scripts produced.)
    • Were you able to create and maintain a writing routine that allowed you to write consistently and productively?
    • Did you complete the work that you intended at the level of quality that you aimed for?
    • Did you seek out the sort of knowledgeable feedback, be it from friends or professional sources, to help you push your scripts to the next level?
  • Were you able to extend your network, and/or foster existing relationships?
    • For new writers, this means: Were you able to grow your network of industry contacts, be it via networking events, pitch opportunities, contest placements, referrals or others?
    • For working writers and emerging writers with an existing network this means: Were you able to maintain contacts with your existing fan-base, be it via the introduction of new work or casual coffee dates? Did you create meaningful new relationships within your class of writers, with other creatives, with executives, or with reps?
  • Did you effectively continue your industry education?
    • Did you take writing classes as you had intended?
    • Were you able to consistently view work in your chosen format and genre (i.e. TV dramas)
    • Were you able to regularly read industry screenplays, be they unproduced hot feature specs or new pilots?
    • Did you keep up with industry news on a regular basis?
    • Did you listen to podcasts and visit screenwriting websites regularly?
  • Did you stay on top of your submissions?
    • For new writers, this means:
      • Did you submit to the contests, television writing programs and listing services that you intended, as you intended? Are there entities whose deadlines you missed that you would like to make next year?
      • If you submitted work to industry companies, did you follow up on your submissions in a timely and methodical manner?
    • For working writers, this means:
      • Did your agent and/or manager take new work out? If so, did you find out where it went and what the feedback was?
      • If you sent new work in to reps and have not gotten feedback, have you followed up?
      • If there are entities or individuals you’ve met with in the past that you thought new work would be right for, did you surface those names to your reps?

Then: The Present! Or… last to-do before the year draws to an end

With the end of the year and the holiday season just around the corner, it’s a perfect time for selfless well-wishes and thoughtful greetings. While some people feel that holiday/Christmas/New Years cards can seem forced, I think this time of year offers a perfect opportunity to reach out to others in the industry – be they other writers, reps, producers, directors or executives – with a heartfelt wish for happy holidays and a great year ahead.

  • Working writers:
    • Send holiday cards to all of your industry contacts, including other writers, executives you’ve met along the way (if you’ve met or communicated in the last two years, they should get a card), and anyone else with whom you are seeking to foster a relationship
    • Send a small gift or gift card to:
      • Your showrunner, development executive, current executive, director or producer
      • Your agent, lawyer and/or manager (some writers like to send gift cards that will likely get passed on to the assistant, while others send something to both the rep and the assistant)
      • Any mentors or other members of your team
  • Emerging writers:
    • If you’ve won or placed in a high value contest, or were selected for a screenwriting lab or television writing program, send a small token gift for the contest, lab or program operators or selection committee
    • If you are repped (and regardless of whether or not they’ve gotten you a job yet) a small gift or gift card to:
      • Your agent, lawyer and/or manager (some writers like to send gift cards that will likely get passed on to the assistant, while others send something to both the rep and the assistant)
    • Send holiday cards to all of your industry contacts, even if it’s just a few other writers
    • Send a small gift to any mentors or anyone else who has been firmly in your corner, or conducive to moving your screenwriting career forward

Finally: Look to the Future

I am a planner. Which is to say… I love little more than best laid plans. And I love to build plans and strategies for my clients even more than I love doing that for myself. So come December, we set a lot of goals and make a lot of plans for the year ahead.

  • Writing goals
    • Whether you are a new or working writer, we want to plan for writing output in the year ahead. While new writers often juggle a job with their writing, working television writers juggle writing in the room with creating their own original content. Working feature writers will have to balance writing assignments with writing specs. No matter what career junction you’re at, make sure that you are setting yourself up to service both the job (be it a job-y job or a writing job) and your original body of work.
    • Commit to your writing by identifying paths to creating the desired output. Routine and consistency are key when juggling highly demanding schedules which may include other jobs, social commitments and even kids.
  • Networking goals
    • Emerging and working writers with an existing community should set goals aimed at regularly touching base with their contacts, i.e., keeping their contacts fresh via casual coffee meetings, dinner dates and other social opportunities, so that when the opportunity or need arises, the relationship is solid enough to lean on.
      • In addition to maintaining existing contacts, working writers should aim to grow their network. Start thinking about the executives, showrunners, producers and other writers you want to meet, and figure out how to create tangible paths for getting in contact with them, be it though a common rep, a friend, or even a cold approach.
    • New writers should aim to grow their network via events, panels and networking opportunities, while fostering existing contacts with anyone they know, including writers at their own level. You never know who from your writing class will break first – but you want to be front of mind when they do.
      • Additionally, new writers should seek out new and less traditional ways to connect with others in the industry. If you can’t make it out to LA for networking events and panels, maybe you could live tweet one of your favorite shows? And if live tweeting is not your thing, perhaps you can read all the scripts on The Black List and reach out to a handful of writers whose work really resonated with you?
  • Education goals
    • New, emerging and working writers should always be students of the game. Therefore, set ongoing weekly or monthly goals to do the following:
      • Read industry news
      • Listen to industry and screenwriting podcasts
      • Read unproduced screenplays, be they pilots or features
      • Watch other material in your space
      • Visit screenwriting-centric websites
      • Read fiction books that are in the same genre as your writing
      • Read non-fiction books for research relevant to your writing, and/or non-fiction books about the industry
      • Take classes, whether directly related to your writing (outlining, first draft or rewrite classes, writing labs or weekend workshops) or related in a roundabout way (such as sketch, improv or stand-up classes for comedy writers)
  • Submission and event goals
    • Are there contests you want to submit to? Writing programs, workshops and labs you are planning to apply to? Events you want to attend? Commit, schedule, and build a budget accordingly.

In order to set up goals you can actually deliver on, there are certain guidelines that have been passed on to me by my mentors, which I now recommend for my writers to follow:

  • Always under promise and over deliver
  • Create accountability checks. Don’t expect your partner, spouse or best friend to hold you accountable. Nobody wants to be a nag. Whether it’s a class you’re utilizing, a writer’s group you’re leaning on, a coach or a consultant who will hold your hand to the fire or a contest or fellowship you’re turning to for deadlines, make sure you’ve created the structure within which you deliver at every step.
  • Writers write year round. Therefore, if you find yourself making a push at the beginning of the year to submit to the television writing programs, a second push should come in July/August to ensure that your writing endeavors spans the whole 12 months.
  • Set dates for your goals. If you are able, schedule your year, distributing your goals evenly across the twelve months, rather than loading all of your goals upfront (which is sure to cause general fatigue) or waiting for the last moment (which is sure to breed disappointment and frustration)
  • Progress check yourself throughout the year, be it quarterly or twice a year, to see how you are coming along with your goals. You always want to know whether you are exceeding or falling behind, so that you can adjust your performance accordingly.

Whether you set few goals or many, make sure that your goals are focused on creating progress for your screenwriting career on both the creative and strategic fronts. The road to a screenwriting career is demanding and arduous. Maintaining and propelling an already thriving career requires no less attention and work. It takes dedication, forethought, strategy, and, yes, a little bit of luck. But luck, as they say, favors the prepared, and the prepared set goals and execute plans along the way.