I started screenwriting in 2005. To say I was clueless would be a dramatic understatement. I was that writer – the one with the Cheshire-cat smile as I walked out of Barnes & Noble, clutching Screenwriting for Dummies , imagining my name in lights.
What I would have given for some guidance back then.
So, it dawned on me. Why not write a letter to my younger self with the advice I wish a seasoned writer had given me, if only I had known one.
Congratulations! Completing your first script is an enormous accomplishment! I remember holding that virgin script in my hand, warm from the printer, smiling at my name on the cover page. This is a moment to cherish. Brava!
Until it gets rejected.
That’s right, a big fat rejection letter ripping apart your baby, from none other than Lionsgate. Yep. You’re going to use your only lead into the industry… a high-level lead, I may add… and blow your shot at a first impression right out of the gate.
Slam! Door closed.
But that’s okay. Don’t worry. You’ll blow another one too. It’s part of learning.
In fact, you’re going to get a lot of rejections before you stop pitching prematurely and realize you need to slow the hell down.
First impressions mean everything! That script you’ve been pitching… I hate to tell you, but it sucks. Stop it. Stop pitching it right now. It’s not ready. You have notes you’re ignoring because you don’t want to dive back in. That’s being an amateur. If you’re not ready to do the dreaded rewrite, you’re not ready to be a professional writer.
I hear you scoff. I know how you loathe rewriting a script, but trust me; you’re going to learn to love it. But be honest with yourself. If you are avoiding a rewrite, it might not be because you aren’t capable of the hard work. It might be because you just don’t like the story. It’s okay to walk away from a script you worked years on if it doesn’t jazz you. You still learned something from writing it. Move on to an idea that thrills every fiber of your being. Besides, you need a stockpile of scripts to get an agent or a manager.
Having said that, you don’t need an agent or a manager for a while. You are going to be the pimp of your own work, but only if you believe in yourself. You’re not there yet. You still have a lot of fear inside you – fear of pitching, fear of failure, and fear of success.
Newsflash: Every single person out there is afraid on some level. The people who have succeeded aren’t better than you are; they just worked at it longer. Some believe it takes eight years to be a great writer. I agree. Guess what? Eight years from now, you’re going to be one of them… as long as you don’t quit.
Go back and read that last paragraph again. It’s going to take you about five years to “get it.”
Another reality: Hollywood is all about “ hurry up and wait .” You will wait… and wait… and wait. Unlike other aspects of life, no news is not always good news. It usually means they passed. But do follow through with an email after four weeks of a script submission, and see if they have notes. But the cold hard fact is, if they wanted your script, they would have picked up the phone and called you.
I know it’s crushing to get one pass after another, but only 2% of scripts ever receive a “recommend,” and even then, only a fraction of those get made. Grow a thick skin. Pronto… and get therapy. It’s going to help your writing. You’ll learn to not only evolve yourself but also your characters. Then take what you learn and open your eyes to the people in your network. Some are just train wrecks with selfish motives.
You don’t need to fix the damaged people in your world. Just fix your writing.
The sooner you can learn to be true to yourself and do what is best for you, the less pain you’ll encounter, and surprisingly, the less people you’ll piss off.
Believe it or not, some people just don’t want you to succeed. Period. Don’t let their disbelief in you seep into your soul. It’s their insecurity talking, and that, my dear, is their problem, not yours. You don’t need anyone else to believe in you. Just believe in yourself.
Steadfast. Strong. Determined.
To help you stay strong, don’t quit karate. You’re going to need those kick-ass skills in Hollywood. You’ll learn more about facing your fears and staying the course by getting the snot beat out of you in your dojo than you ever will by writing scripts.
But both are better. Train and write.
Once you do start meeting industry people, stay in touch with them. You’re going to be surprised who has risen and who has dropped out entirely. Most importantly, learn to trust your bullshititude meter. There are tons of people who call themselves “producers” who don’t have the ability to hail a cab let alone make a film.
Trust no one, not even your writing partners.
I don’t mean to say writing partners aren’t trustworthy. A lot of them are, but you have to assume everyone is out for himself or herself. Selfishness is a natural trait.
What I mean by “don’t trust” is you can’t trust them to know what is best for you . Only you know that. Their career goals may be totally different than yours and not always in your best interest. Pay attention to your Spidey senses. If they want you to do something that makes you undeniably uncomfortable, don’t do it, even if they throw a hissy fit. You’re not responsible for their success, and they aren’t responsible for yours. But one wrong move by either of you could topple the whole beehive and take you years to recover from.
A reputation is harder to rebuild than a storyline.
Be open to notes. Lots of writers know way more than you do. You’re just learning, so don’t be so damned defensive. And don’t bother getting notes from your mama or your best friends. You need someone who will rip your pages apart and shove them down your throat. Honest feedback hurts, but it’s the only way to improve. Put your ego aside, and let people help you become a better writer.
Once you have a script spit-shined and ready… really ready… go to a pitchfest . It’s the best way for a new writer with no connections to get read. But be warned, you’re not going to sell your script at a pitching event, but you will make connections, and more importantly, you’ll learn how to pitch. You’ll need that practice when you finally do get “the” meeting. If you don’t have the money to go to L.A., subscribe to IMDbPro for industry executive contact information.
Email your pitches. People don’t bite. When you get enough courage, pick up the phone and call one. I can hear your heart pounding at the thought. I promise you, they put their pants on one leg at a time too. They aren’t gods. They’re probably struggling writers interning as gatekeepers. Impress the person who picks up the phone, and you might be able to get to the next level up. In fact, that assistant to the assistant might end up running the production company one day. Be classy. Always.
Be yourself. You can be really charming when you aren’t scared to death.
I know you dream of having a feature film produced, winning an Oscar, and being the next Diablo Cody, but don’t limit yourself to feature scripts. It’s not the only way to be a writer. Short films can showcase your writing, your creativity, and get you into film festivals. Lots of careers have been launched that way. Remember that novel you dreamed of writing as a kid? Write it. Hollywood loves buying intellectual property. You can then strike a deal to adapt it yourself. Better yet, write the script first and use it as an outline for the novel. Digital media is another opportunity. The technical side of the industry is changing drastically. Don’t cling to the days of Bogart and Bacall; embrace the chance to explore a different angle.
Do these things every single day:
1. Write, even if it’s only 15 minutes.
2. Floss. Root canals are expensive on a writer’s budget.
3. Learn something new about yourself and/or the industry.
4. Grow your network.
5. Read scripts. Lots and lots of scripts.
Hard lessons will hit you, some feeling like the smash of a 2×4 to the side of your head, but hold onto one thing: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”
You have one life. If you want to be a professional writer, make it happen. Give it everything you have. Take screenwriting classes. Learn your craft inside and out. Do not listen to the naysayers. Funk that. “Can’t” is no longer a part of your vocabulary. From now on, replace it with, “I’ll make it happen.”
Then go make it happen.
Don’t write like Quentin Tarantino or Shane Black. Yes, they are beastly successful, but their writing styles won’t get you in the door. Until you break in, be mindful of the industry standards. But do take from QT and Black the power of a writer’s voice. You don’t need to steal theirs because yours is undeniable. Your voice is your strongest hand and sets you apart from everyone else. Play it well.
Above all, live your life. Don’t let succeeding as a writer define you. Sometimes the best writing is done when you’re out experiencing all life has to offer. Those moments of observing life will inspire you, re-energize you, and get you through the tough days.
One last thing: open a Twitter account . Trust me on that one.
Your Older, Wiser Self
I wonder if I read this as the writer and woman I was in 2005, if the truth would have made me run screaming or inspired me. Maybe ignorance is bliss, but being able to accept the truth is far more empowering.
Please share what advice you wish you knew when you started off. Maybe we can all help the newer writers in our community get to where we are faster!