Making Intelligent Choices In Your Screenwriter Career
Being a screenwriter is a difficult career choice. But so worth it! It is more of a calling than a career in the traditional sense. You don’t have to earn a qualification to practice screenwriting, nor do you necessarily move up the career ladder after achieving a certain level of hours worked. It’s like most careers in the film and television industries – you are a freelancer. You’re either writing and selling your screenplay or writing somebody else’s.
You are only as good as your last screenplay. Most of your success will be controlled by external industry factors. Sure, there’s a degree of luck involved in your success. You may meet someone at an event that likes you and likes your script just as much. They may even write you a check on the spot before grabbing another drink. Dare to dream.
Is all luck determined by chance? Do you notice certain script writers happen to be at the right place at the right time at a greater rate than the baseline level of chance? Becoming a successful screenwriter is a tight rope between trusting your gut and navigating external factors – mostly outside your control. The famous French microbiologist Lous Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” There is truth to this quote. Part of your preparation for success relies on you making intelligent and strategic decisions. Use your time wisely.
Here are some ways to increase your chances of screenwriting career success:
You should be spending roughly half your time honing your craft and writing new screenplays and half your time networking. Since being creative is highly subjective, think about being more strategic in building and sustaining your network. This is an intelligent career choice. That’s not to suggest you should brush off a children’s show writer at an event because you write gritty dramas.
You may meet a children’s show writer another time or they could meet a gritty drama writer. That’s when the “R” word comes into play – Referral. It goes hand in hand with the “N” word – networking.
This should go without saying, but some screenwriters still need to be reminded. Writing is writing. Not talking about that thing you’re going to write… someday. Discussing your story, getting feedback, or pitching are classed as “writing-related activities.”
Practise relies on a combination of having a natural propensity for telling an engaging story and mastering your screenwriting craft. The latter can be perfected to a greater degree. Screenwriters aren’t born with writing skills. Nobody needs to tell you that your first few screenplays will be… unremarkable. It may take you five screenplays to get noticed, or it might take you ten. Do the work.
This is ONLY dependent on you. You don’t need permission to write from anybody other than yourself.
This is really a matter of not giving up. Call it grit. Call it stubbornness. Call it tenacity. Call it earning your stripes. You’d be amazed at how many A-list screenwriters have had scripts in development for over a decade – or longer! If you believe in a project, keep working at it.
Being a working screenwriter isn’t a linear process of churning out screenplay after screenplay and collecting a stream of paychecks.
You could write a draft of a feature script. Then write another. Maybe a TV pilot in between. And then go back and rewrite the first feature. Improvement can be gradual if you polish the same screenplay a few times before sending it out – or it could be a quantum leap if you get some useful input from your writing group or a script consultant.
You could pick up a screenplay you wrote years ago and look at it with fresh eyes. Sometimes it may need a major overhaul because you’ve had enough distance from your screenplay to approach the next draft as a new script. Your creative tectonic plates can shift quickly or slowly – “controlled chaos” is real.
The rungs of the career ladder are often intangible. It’s not like a video game where the distinction between a beginner, intermediate and advanced levels are clear. Many screenwriters (even A-listers) claim that they feel like a newbie every time they start a new screenplay.
This a combination of taking various screenwriting courses and practice. An MFA in Screenwriting or extension course may not guarantee career success, but you will have a completed screenplay at the end of it you can show around. That has value. Working your craft muscles is a matter of constant learning.
Think about an alternative course of study. Take an acting class, a cooking class, car repairs, or even learn a new language. These new experiences will activate neural pathways to generate new and exciting story possibilities.
You may also want to learn from the best. You might try to get a mentor or watch videos of your favorite screenwriters being interviewed about their process. You may even want to read Creative Screenwriting Magazine to gain an additional perspective.
Intelligence is often a measure of IQ. There are also more subtle forms of intelligence such as social and project intelligence.
These are more difficult to measure objectively. Successful screenwriters have an elevated curiosity of human behavior as well as a deeper understanding of the industry and the world at large. They aren’t necessarily experts, but they know enough to craft a satisfying story from the information at their disposal.
Producer Brian Grazer talks about having “curiosity conversations” with people outside your sphere. People tend to respond positively if you show genuine interest in their work without expecting anything in return other than their time.
Project intelligence relates to how much you devote yourself to a project. Successful screenwriters know when to get fully attached to a project and when to treat it as a gig. Understand the difference between writing a draft of a studio film and pitching your own project. A gig is not a license to write something beneath your ability.
Screenwriters have an idea of how their project might be pitched, produced and distributed as they’re writing it. Think about the “makeability” factor of your screenplay. If a producer asks you how your vision might fit into the current film and TV landscape have an idea – at least in broad strokes.
Develop social intelligence. Appreciate that some producers don’t want to be disturbed for a few weeks or months. Showrunners and TV writers are in writers’ rooms for sometimes over ten hours a day. Give them space. Be someone that people want to work with.
Be a part of a writing community. Your network is your net worth. Understand your community is comprised of writers of different levels. Allocate your time wisely. You can’t read every draft of your new to screenwriting friend’s screenplay let alone give them extensive notes. Be judicious in your asks – especially with higher-level industry folks. Next to their creativity, time is their most valuable asset.
Aspiring millionaires are told to adopt a millionaire’s mindset. Visualize yourself living in that beach house, accepting that Oscar speech, attending the premiere of your film, or writing your screenplay on your terrace. Your growth may be slow or rapid. But it is growth. Thoughts of success will fire up your brain wiring to help you get there.
The world is full of screenwriters in the “middle.” Few are making a decent living and even fewer are exceptional. Make wise choices.
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