You know what made the A-Team great, besides the inherent dysfunction of their dynamic which provided a lot of humorous conflict to entertain us? It was that Hannibal always had a plan and, the second he lit up a cigar and took a few puffs with that trademark grin, we knew they were going to win. It’s time for you to win too and, while I certainly don’t want you to form a habit of smoking Cubans, I do want you to have a plan to succeed in 2020.
So, 2019 has been a pretty incredible year for me. I got to travel to Hollywood and make a movie. Like, an actual shooty-shooty, cars jumping in the air, cheesy one liners movie. A movie that was featured on the front page of The Business of Film while at AFM and will premier at Berlin International Film Festival (aka The Berlinale) in February. Meanwhile, I’ve attached myself to three upcoming feature projects and 2020 is shaping up to be another breathtaking rollercoaster. In the background, my free hosting site Script Revolution has helped other writers sell scripts and get assignments that may just start life-long screenwriting careers.
Why do I tell you this, because I want you to have it too and, through my experiences, I’m starting to get a good grasp on what works for people. Therefore, in the lengthy blog post below, I’ve detailed a lot on what I feel is a good plan to break into this industry as a screenwriter.
Take a Breather
Let’s start by hitting the brakes and coming to a stop. It’s time to reflect, reset, and rebuild.
I’m going to ask you to do something that’s important; I want you to question if screenwriting really is your big dream. I don’t care how sure you feel about it, I need you to consider it for a moment. If you have any moment of doubt, it’s time to investigate that. I ask this because we are talking about life goals here. Your life goals. Is this what you absolutely love and think about all the time? Is this something you are prepared to go through hell for? To lose almost everything you have to pursue? Very very few people make it in screenwriting and it’s time to get real about becoming one of those 0.0001% of people who break in. It’s a tough, emotional journey and you don’t want to waste years of your life chasing the wrong dream. If you are feeling a little lost about what you truly want to do for a career, I suggest looking at Agiaki as a source of direction and inspiration.
Find a cosy corner and read these books; Writing for Emotional Impact, Art & Fear, and Tales from the Script. These are three of the most powerful books I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot) that cover screenwriting craft, finding fulfilment through art, and the nature of a career in film. In terms of knowledge, these are the three pillars we always need to building; how to write better stories, how to produce meaningful art, and how to find work that pays the bills.
Rewatch some of your favourite films, assuming you know what they are. If you don’t, it’s time to put a list together. Watch them in a way that does them justice. Create the best viewing experience you can muster with no distractions. Turn those lights off. Wear some headphones. Do what you can to try to create a movie theatre experience. Seek out what you can on the making of these films and look up material that analyses them.
While reflecting what you’ve watched and learned, look for patterns that may exist such as genre, tone, content, and influence. Where does your work fit among this? Where do your aspirations fit among this?
Check out the original reviews for those films you love. Are they universally admired? Are they polarised? Where they hated when released? What was the box office performance like? Did they sellout from day one or did they go by unnoticed only to find cult status in time?
Now go to the movie theatre and watch a new release. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Just take in what the industry is currently delivering and how a modern movie feels. How have things changed? Could your old favourites compete in today’s marketplace? Do their stories and characters still resound?
Create two logs if you don’t have these already. These can just be text documents. Create one which lists all your successes with dates. List every win you’ve had never mind how minor. Yes, completing a script is a huge success. Yes, getting a read request from a query is a huge success. For your other list, start logging any positive comments you have received for your work. You are going to keep these logs updated and close to you. When you have absolutely nothing else, these will be on file ready to remind you that you are progressing and are appreciated.
On the topic of logs, how are you taking notes? If you’re doing it by hand, make sure to photograph all the pages and keep those photos safe. If you’re doing it digitally, make sure you have an easy to use, reliable system. I like to use Evernote on my phone, tablet, and computer and then I compile everything into a Scrivener document every month or so.
Now is a good time to review your whole software strategy from what you are using to write to how you are backing up your data and see if it’s the best and most cost effective solution for your needs.
Take a walk, it doesn’t matter where and ask yourself what makes your voice special and what weaknesses do you need to tackle. Don’t come home until you have an answer.
Make the clear choice in your head to no longer live in fear of rejection.
Personal story; I found the first five years of trying to break in some of the hardest of my life and I tried to quit a couple of times. When I did this, I actually ended up coming back stronger as it forced me to take the break I needed and rediscover myself and what I loved. I was lucky in that my passion and motivation to keep going overrode my disillusion and apathy. Since then, I’ve made sure to take a breather each year to ground myself. During this time, I’ve watched countless other writers give up for good because they’ve simply exhausted themselves, forgotten where their love for film lies, and become lost. Something I’ve come to learn about myself is that I love trashy exploitation movies and so do millions of others. Something I’ve come to accept is that trashy exploitation movies rarely make it into the cinema.
Build Your Tribe
If you don’t have a network around you, it’s time to build one. If you already have a network, it’s time to cut the wheat from the chaff. You need to shake free from what’s holding you back.
Start by cutting ties with intrusions. Unsubscribe from email subscriptions that bother you. Leave communities that make you feel bad about yourself. Remove forums from your favourites that treat you like an outcast. Walk away from companies hounding you for money.
Connect with people on LinkedIn, Stage 32, and Twitter. It’s easier than ever and most people are more than happy to build connections. Just reach out. This will grow into your support group. These are the people who will champion you and cheer you on when you need it. Do the same for them.
Do your due diligence. This is critical. Identify working professionals who charitably share their real world experiences and advice. You are one search on IMDb away from checking someone’s credentials. This is a world rife with imposters, bullshitters, and hucksters surrounded by bitter and deluded amateurs. There are people who want you to believe the sky isn’t blue because it benefits them in some way. You absolutely must know this.
Search out your heroes and dare to connect with them. No, that current A-lister isn’t likely to even be within reach but there will be countless others who helped make your favourite films happen out there. You may be surprised who you link hands with.
Look at potential events you can attend within the next year. If you can afford the time and the travel costs, consider going along to a social meet up at a film festival or a film group. Attend with the intent to bond with people on your wavelength and not to get reads or make a hard sell.
Most importantly, diversify your tribe. Do not surround yourself with a chorus of other screenwriters, especially peers currently at your level. You need to build links with filmmakers working in all roles, particularly producers and particularly people one step higher up the mountain.
Personal story; I was originally uncomfortable with being the outspoken oddball of screenwriting forums until I came to realise the opinions of successful writers often contradicted those of amateurs. This was a turning point in my personal development and even now, as a working writer, I often find my experiences are dismissed by those failing to break in. These days, my own tribe is large and consists of a wonderful spectrum of people who are there to share mutual support through the good times and the bad times.
Review Your Presence
I’ve spoken about the importance of presenting yourself as an artist with a strong voice before and this is an ideal opportunity to review how you are projecting your offering. Does it represent you accurately? Is it appealing to those you’d like to work with? Look at everything from your bio (you do have a bio, right?) to your profile pic. Run your name through Google to see where and how you are appearing and try to keep it all in sync.
Now for a tougher question; does your portfolio truly represent you? Does it contain your best work? Does it represent your voice? Is it concise?
While you’re looking at your portfolio, are all the loglines and synopsises free of typos and grammatical errors? Are you losing people before they’ve even gotten to page one?
Also know that you are welcome to join Script Revolution and add your bio and portfolio there for free. It’s a site I created for this very purpose.
Personal story; It took me far too long to get my bio in order but it’s proven to be incredibly powerful in netting me important contacts and firing up relationships with people of a similar mindset. It’s something I consider to be organic and I regularly revisit it to keep it updated and on message. I know of writers who’ve been trying to break in for over ten years who still don’t have any kind of personal bio online — as writers looking to show off our talents, there’s really no excuse. If you can’t find the energy and enthusiasm to write twenty-five words trying to sell yourself and make your dreams come true, how is somebody supposed to believe you can put together ninety pages of entertaining material that stands out from the rest?
Plan What You Can
You cannot predict what the year will bring or how you are going to feel during any period of it so try to hold back from setting out an overly rigorous writing routine. Instead, focus more on how you can best facilitate your ability to write. That means making the act of writing as easy and enjoyable as possible. Do not conflate making work hard and making work worthwhile. Artists need to be comfortable and empowered to perform at their best.
Your tools and your workspace should be a priority as these are extensions of yourself, no different to a musician’s instruments or painter’s studio. You need to be using screenwriting software that really enables you to write within a space that has the right vibe. Don’t get too precious about it but address issues such as having software you find clumsy, an operating system that crashes, or a workspace that’s full of distractions.
List the scripts you absolutely have to write in your lifetime. The ones that really stick with you and mean something. Is it the right time to tackle any of these or start doing some research first? There’s nothing wrong with concluding now isn’t the right time but making that decision is important because you need to shed any guilt you have about not writing them just yet.
Based on the weaknesses you’ve identified (we all have them), make a list of craft related techniques you would like to trial. This could be anything from writing better prose and dialogue to getting your head round scene and story structure.
List what you really feel like doing. Now list what you feel you should be doing but what you really want to do. What you would choose to do if you had a completely free day and no obligations? This is harder to do than it seems as so take your time and be honest with yourself.
Establish where you are on your journey and be realistic about it. It can take a long time to break in, a lifetime in some cases, so don’t feel negative about your situation. Now establish where you want to be in three years and be realistic about that. How do you connect the dots? If you don’t know, the first step is to try to find out.
Personal story; I’ve always found having some sort of plan, never mind how vague, has really helped with my mental health. Anxiety and stress is all too often a by-product of feeling lost so direction of any kind is a powerful antidote. When it comes to tackling weaknesses, story structure was my Everest. However, before long, I had gotten my head around it and went on to develop my own structure system called Turn & Burn. Sometimes, I just feel this need to try something new out or look at something that’s bugging me. I’ve learned to listen to that and act on it. At worst, I learn something isn’t that useful to me after all and I’m not missing out. At best, I become enlightened and empowered.
Broadcast Your Wares
Now you have a better idea of your offering, you can identify and target your corner of the market. This is laborious and certainly not something you can do overnight. It can take years to zone in on where you need to be and find the people you need to be working with. Therefore, this is an ongoing task you need to begin early and can start as simply watching the kind of films you love and taking note of who’s making them happen. Keep in mind that IMDb Pro has a tracking feature so, if you’re a member, consider following the people who have stood out to you.
Once you have an idea of who you want to reach out to, and this again is an ongoing activity, it’s time to start swallowing frogs. It can be really hard to make contact with a filmmaker but you need to get on people’s radar. It’s time to reach out. How formally or informally you do this is up to you but don’t ever send scripts without first asking if someone wants to read them and don’t spam every contact you can find with a generic message. Be selective, professional, and considerate.
Consider that industry members, particularly those in the earlier stages of their career, often search the internet for new material. There are a few sites you can upload your material to for free. These include; Script Revolution, Simply Scripts, Stage 32, Reddit, and the ISA. Personally, based on my own experience, I do not recommend paying for script hosting unless you have money to throw away.
Keep in mind that blogging is a powerful way to talk to a wide audience. You are a story writer so you have the upper hand here, not just in terms of being able to string together some prose but also in terms of tapping into deep thoughts and expressing them with an emotional edge. Blogging is where you can go to broadcast who you are and encompass a wide spectrum of your views from your motivations behind writing, to views on the craft, to feelings about the industry. Plus, you can of course send the elevator back down to share your reflections on your experiences and advice for others facing your earlier hurdles.
Ultimately you need to break out of the comfortable little bubble a lot of amateur screenwriters live in where they constantly beg for feedback, enter competitions, buy evaluations, and pay for consultancy. A lot of it is designed to trap you within it and extract as much money as possible while you hope to get the validation you crave and a boost up the system. Spoiler alert: there is no system and they are mostly just emptying your pockets because they themselves can’t make a career out of writing.
Personal story; I’ve watched so many writers sit and wait for the world to come to them while they live or die based on the fickle tastes of meaningless competitions and ranking lists while sharing their material only with peers and receiving mostly bad advice. In some cases, I’ve watched writers I know sit in this comfort zone for nearly ten years, never even leaving the confines of a single writing forum, growing increasingly frustrated day-by-day that they haven’t been catapulted into Hollywood. In some ways, by only lurking on a dark corner of the Internet, often with no bio or shared material, they are effectively doing their best to stay undiscovered.
Indulge in Your Passion
As mentioned earlier, do not try to plan your year out too specifically. You don’t want to turn your passion into a chore but then you don’t want to get lazy either.
The more indulgent you are, the more motivated you will stay for a longer period. You want to stick at this, right? So you understand it needs to be enjoyable to make that happen? You need to have fun learning and allow your curiosity to explore and make exciting discoveries.
The more fun you have writing, the more fun will make it onto the page. Fun is entertaining and entertainment is what you are trying to create. Even if you are writing the most hard-hitting and tragic material your mind can manifest, you still need to be going into that with an intense passion and positive intent.
Self inflicted misery is just going to hold you back. Drop the mindset that good results only come from doing tough work. You’re not at school anymore. There’s no teacher to try and impress with your exhaustion and word-count.
Your biggest enemy is distraction so try to reduce that during the day and get into the writing by breaking it all down into chunks. Tell yourself to work on your latest project for thirty minutes and see where it leads. If you feel worse after thirty minutes, walk away and recharge. If you find yourself engrossed and lose track of the time, run with it until you feel your mind is tiring out.
There’s also nothing wrong with structuring your day to achieve a healthy work/life balance. If you want to finish by 6pm so you can nurture other areas of your life, permit yourself to do that without any guilt.
The critical thing is that, when you write, you write without fear. Save your doubts and criticisms for the downtime and reflective periods. Write while feeling reassured that you are the best writer you’ll ever be right now giving yourself all the opportunities you can offer right now.
If you only write one short script in 2020, that’s not failure providing you write with absolute passion and come out of the other side feeling proud and fulfilled in your artistry. Writing six features that feel like a slog, lack any energy, and don’t represent you is not the goal and has little worth.
So avoid turning your dreams of breaking in into an unpaid office job from hell where you are your own nightmare boss and write while knowing that every keystroke is progress and an investment in your future.
Personal story; The best writing I’ve ever done has been by far the easiest writing I’ve ever done. I’ve come to learn that, if I aren’t looking forward to writing, something is amis with the situation and that needs addressing so I can get back to a positive and motivated place. That fix is almost always a case of taking stress, obligation, and expectation away from the task at hand. Yes, procrastination will always be a battle but only because big dreams bring big fears along with them.
It’s essential that you love and nurture yourself along this mammoth journey. Completing the first draft of a script can often be a significant task taking weeks or even months to achieve while working on it full time. This is a lot to put ourselves through and it’s important we have something to look forward to once we cross the finish line. While writing can mostly be all the reward we need, it’s still nice to have something there which acknowledges that we’ve completed something we set out to do.
Plan out a bunch of rewards. It doesn’t matter how small they are as it’s the principal behind them that really matters. They do need to be outside of normal activity however as to be relatively special. This could be getting a takeaway, going for a meal, taking a trip out to the cinema, or buying yourself something that would make you happy.
If these rewards combine an opportunity to spend time with others then all the better. Bring them into your world and use it as a good opportunity to reflect on the time you’ve been writing.
If you have a major achievement, like optioning a script or winning an assignment, then make sure to go the extra mile with the reward and really mark the occasion.
Personal story; It took me six years to get that first feature option, six and a half years to get that first paid assignment, and seven years to get that first green light on a movie. I celebrated a lot during those first six years even though I didn’t earn a dime for the duration. I barely remember the moments I hit Fade Out or received good news but I do remember a beautifully vivid montage of sitting in restaurants opposite my partner at the time or sitting beside them in the movie theatre thinking about how far I had come.
The key to success in 2020 isn’t necessarily working harder or even working smarter, both of those benefits will come as a bi-product of throwing the concept of work out the window and replacing it with absolute creative indulgence that’s driven by passion and empowered by freedom.
This is about riding the the wave of curiosity and playfulness that got us into film and subsequently screenwriting in the first place.
Here’s the deal; your heroes are succeeding because they are choosing to do what they love and choosing not to feel guilty about that. They are grabbing the things they want to do most with both hands and embracing them rather than choosing to live in a world of obligation, frustration, and denial.
Making this coming year the one you choose to write like your heroes.