I’ve finally optioned a feature script. It’s taken six years to get to this point and it’s been tough, really tough. How does it feel? It feels amazing. It’s a whole new level of validation. It feels like the start of something rather than living in purgatory. But I don’t want to make this about myself. I know many of you are finding it tough too, so I wanted to put something together explaining how I think I got here and what really matters when it comes to screenwriting.
I want to do that because I feel it may help others who have become lost and stuck in a cycle of rewrites, reviews, and rejection.
This isn’t a definitive guide. It isn’t a guarantee. A lot of what I talk about may be circumstantial or insightful, and you can decide that for yourselves. Either way, this is the best I can do to send the elevator back down right now and inspire my fellow screenwriters to keep fighting the good fight.
I guess, in a way, this is a heartfelt letter to the writer I was a few years ago, the guy who got a 2 on the Black List, who couldn’t advance in competitions, who was told he couldn’t do it by his peers, and very nearly gave up, not just on writing but on life entirely.
Ignore the Haters, Cherish the Believers
Seek out the real believers. The people who genuinely get what you are doing and want to scream about it from the rooftops. They care about your work being better. They care about you being better. They care about you being happier. This is validation. Validation equals motivation.
Beware the fence sitters and pacifiers — they will tell you your work is “interesting” or that you are “experimenting”. They do not see it. They are just being polite. If you detect insincerity, trust your gut. Take their advice with a pinch of salt as they probably aren’t picking up on your voice. The middle ground of acceptance is not where the good stuff happens. Dare to be polarising and wear it as a badge of honour.
The haters will insist it’s their harsh truths that you need to improve. They won’t be happy until they’ve sucked out your energy and destroyed you. They do not see your art, they do not see your voice. They see someone who isn’t like them. That makes them feel scared. That makes them lash out. To them, your success invalidates their worth. Their narrow-mindedness blinds them to a World where artists can be different and art is subjective.
Those that believe in you can still inspire you to learn and improve. Your mum still counts, even as unconditional as her support might seem.
I’ve been told I’m a bad writer over and over. I’ve never had a bonafide success story to validate my ability. I used to take it to heart. I don’t believe any artist should have a thick skin, I think real artists are exposed and vulnerable. I think mean people just like to believe they have purpose behind their negativity.
Getting past that Black List two was hard, along with the venom filled paragraphs that came with it that caused spiteful soundbites to ring in my ears. Not long later, I was fast tracked through my country’s wonderful national health service as a imminent suicide threat. I thought I was good at this. I thought I could write. The thought of being quite so bad at something I loved so much destroyed me. I survived because there were people in my corner, who saw something even I could not longer see.
Seek out your champions for those are the believers. Take their positivity and cherish it. Reference it when you are down. Use it to empower you. The stronger you are, the more willing you will be to improve yourself on the terms that really matter.
Write for the Love of Writing Alone
Are you prepared to write short scripts, knowing full well they’ll earn you no money or recognition? I’ve found this is the real deciding factor between artists, workers, and megalomaniacs. Artists write because getting those words on paper means everything. Workers write because they see it as a means to get paid. Megalomaniacs write because they see it as road to fame and fortune.
Shorts teach you a lot about writing and even more about yourself. Having to execute concept after concept from initial idea to polished script builds all over craft. On top of this, since shorts are a lot easier to get optioned, sold, and made, you get to learn a great deal about what comes after. You get to experience what it’s like to hand something over, knowing it may be produced and could be released to that very audience you crave. That’s a big deal because you become faced with the possibility that what you’ve written isn’t actually something you want out there playing on screens. That sounds like a crazy thing to suggest, but I faced it and learnt from it. I stopped writing features and focused on shorts. I wrote around thirty of them. I offered them for free. I got a lot of options. Sometimes I regretted who I optioned them too. Sometimes I regretted putting them on the market at all. So many filmmakers let me down. Some ruined my work. A tiny few did it justice.
The same principal goes for sharing the craft, sending the elevator back down, and genuinely helping fellow writers. Writers in a more passionate and fulfilled place want others to get there too. They want to share the love. Try to see the real reasons behind someone’s actions when they try to help you. Their advice may go against the norm, but the norm is a cult of delusion.
Treat each screenplay as an independent piece of literature that you’re willing to stand proudly behind. Once I knew all that mattered was that final screenplay being able to stand alone, I got it. Some hate this idea, because to them a screenplay is nothing more than a means to something they care far more about. To these people, screenplays are just blueprints or instruction sheets — that’s a tragic way to see one’s own art form. The pages are our domain and it is our role to do them justice. The screenplay is the soul of a film and its creator must be prepared to own it.
Hone Your Craft & Focus on Your Voice
It’s easy to pay lip-service to this. This isn’t about reading Save The Cat. This isn’t about being able to format correctly. This is about becoming consumed with the mechanics of storytelling, the emotions behind entertainment, and the poetry within prose. This is about being prepared to consume everything you can and have your own views challenged. This is about being able to sit at a table of screenwriters and appreciate every craft argument there is from every side. Craft is never a team sport. It takes a foolish artist to wilfully deny themselves further exploration of the art.
This did not come easily for me. I grew up a terrible academic. I struggled with spelling and grammar (still do). I thought I would never understand story structure. I studied hard. I read one person’s argument and another person’s counter argument. I broke down my old material to analyse it. Now I have my own story building system. Now I find the craft conversations too shallow and conclusive. Now I find my craft has become instinctive.
That said, introspection can be the death of commerciality. Never do something for the sake of craft alone unless you only want to be admired by other screenwriters. It’s easy to get pretentious and forget our role within the world of entertainment. We must write for our audience foremost and its essential we’re aware of who those people are.
Voice is execution. This is was a monumental realisation for me. It seems so obvious now. Voice isn’t just dialogue, it’s how you tell a story. It’s the emotions you chose to highlight. It’s the words you put on the page. It’s everything from where you first start developing your concept to how the script looks once it’s a pdf. Hell, it’s the synopsis, longline, and pitch too. It’s you. It should be you. What’s critical more than anything is that our voice is authentic. If you’re searching for a pot of gold here then this is it; authenticity is where everything comes together and makes sense. There is no point doing this unless we are authentic. More often than not, this means getting out of our own way. This is about being able to make creative decisions that we feel alone are fulfilled by. It is not about making creative decisions that others should approve on. We have to trust our gut just as much as our minds. Our writing sucks, in our eyes, when it fails to represent who we are, because it doesn’t stem from deep within. No amount of praise for inauthentic work will fulfil, it only causes us to feel like frauds.
And you know what? Some of our voices sound mainstream and others sound weird. Both are a fine and much needed medicine by the World.
Ignore the Fucking Rules & Ignore the Fucking Hacks Who Tout Them
Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Listen. Don’t. Drink. The. Fucking. Kool-Aid. Go to any writing forum right now and you’ll probably see half of the latest ten posts are pathetic individuals asking if they have permission to do X, Y, or Z. Writing is our domain. If you’re asking for permission then why the fuck do you think you’re worth anything, you hack? Seriously, if you want this to be your dream career, yet you lack the courage to stand by your creative decisions, you are a non-starter. Why would anybody pay you for your creativity if the first thing you do is stop and ask for directions?
This is why self belief is crucial and that self belief has to extend to being prepared to stand up and state we’re artists without flinching and with zero doubt. Don’t call it “knowing when to breaking the rules”, don’t call it “bending the rules”, because that’s so fucking weak. There are no rules when it comes to art.
There are however rules in the world of competitions and any other analytical method that tries to objectify the subjective. There’s knowing how to beat the system and then there’s becoming a slave to the system. I can’t get past the quarterfinals of competitions, or get an 8 on the Black List. Yet I can option a script. What does that tell you? What does that tell you about yourself?
I’ve spent years screaming into the chasm that the professionals keep telling us to stop listening to the consultants yet the lambs keep willingly crowding into the slaughterhouse. I’ve watching working screenwriter after producer after executive hounded out of communities like heretics because they dare point out that using “we see” doesn’t matter and nor does using bold slug-lines. I’ve seen writers chose to die on the hill of never using flashbacks or voiceovers. All that matters is being entertaining and putting confidence on the page.
The script I’ve optioned wasn’t written in Final Draft, it was written in Scrivener. It’s dialogue heavy, packed with monologues, and has the acts titled. It’s pretty much everything we’re told not to write, yet it’s by far my most popular feature script and the only that’s been picked up by a production company.
Turn Down Ego Distractions
It doesn’t take much to be seen as a leader in this industry and that’s dangerous. It’s easy to get sucked into competition judging. It’s easy to become a consultant, a lecturer, a guru. You can easily get your crafting methods into literature. If you speak out, people will come to you and wilfully request to be the soapbox you stand upon. They want a piece of you to sell.
People will want you to write for them too, but they’ll demonstrate no real commitment. They’ll offer a credit and profit sharing because they have fuck all else to put on the table. It sounds like opportunity. It absolutely is not. It’s a trap set to snag you by the ego. Tell them “not today” and see if they’re still there tomorrow. They won’t be.
What little energy we have available outside of our careers, our families, and our friends must be reserved for our art and nothing else. I turned down so much to pursue this passion as doggedly as I can. It was hard to say no sometimes, but I did not walk into this dreaming of becoming a consultant, a moderator, a judge, or lecturer, so why would I take that seat? Money? Money’s cheap and so is glory.
There Is Little Budget for an Unknown Writer
On the topic of glory, here’s another thing. If you can’t put together a riveting 100pp story with nothing but a room and two people then you don’t know what drama is yet. Don’t give me that “I can only write blockbusters” bullshit or “this story absolutely needs to be a franchise”. You’re compensating with conspicuous consumption. It’s easy to throw a party with fireworks and fanfare. That’s not to say we shouldn’t all let lose now and then, but here’s the thing; The industry is polarised to a ridiculous degree. We’re living in an age of $1m or $100m budgets. Take your pick. Guess which one has the longest line at the door and the fewest seats at the table. Guess which one favours writers already in good standing, with relationships and credits to boot.
We have to be realistic. The lower the budget, the higher the odds, especially for those unproven and unheard of. We also have to see a shoestring budget as a badge of honour, not a blot on our record. We get to be David against Goliath. We get to prove our worth by taking the bare minimum of ingredients and serving up a feast. This is what good writing is all about.
I set myself a lot of limits with the script I optioned. I kept things to one location and the cast to a minimum. I had to do a lot of work on the concept side to merge characters and physically contain the plot. I had to hold back on ideas that were expensive, as exciting as they may have been in my mind.
The Feedback You Crave May Be Poison
All I seem to see is a frenzy for feedback. Here’s something to consider. The screenplay I’ve just optioned is a first draft. I didn’t seek feedback on it. I didn’t change anything based on the unsolicited feedback I got. I stopped caring about feedback after my Black List experience. Nobody knows anything.
I pre-write a lot, and my first draft is often my final draft and all it needs is polishing. I’ll tell you why. It’s because I know what I want to fucking write and know how I want to fucking write it. That’s not as simple as it sounds. It’s taken me years to get to this place where I can trust myself to do that, and it was a combination of all the above that got me here.
I learned the hard way and lost a lot of time as a result. I used to seek out feedback and saw what I got back as a challenge to overcome. I thought I had to address it all. I assumed the faults picked out were glaring, unacceptable, and objectively bad. I was a fool obsessed with pacifying my critics — I never stopped and considered my critics may be full of shit. I ruined scripts because of this and failed to realise it because I lacked the craft, voice, and confidence to see through it all. I still have scripts I need to go back and change. Scripts I loved and performed well, yet I still hacked them up because someone who’s failing at this told me I needed to listen to them or I would fail harder.
I used to upload my shorts to various sites to promote them to filmmakers and it proved impossible to avoid other writers feeling their opinions on my work needed to be heard. In one case, someone tore into one of my scripts so much and with such venom, I desperately rewrote it. During this time, someone optioned the original, and, in a blind panic, I sent them the rewrite with an explanation of the previous faults — they vastly preferred the original.
I pre-write and I polish. That’s it. Pre-writing is the opposite of the “just write” axiom. I don’t believe in the principle of fixing things later. The words do not flow through me. I do not ad-lib and analyse. To me, that method is madness. I ponder every word and plan out every beat. I can tell you exactly what every moment is doing from a storytelling perspective. I’m multiple drafts ahead before I really start writing. Once you get to this point, you realise how petty and superficial most feedback is; not just from other amateurs but from most consultants and many professional readers. Stop listening to the people who can’t sell scripts and start listening to those who can because, more often than not, it’s like chalk and cheese.
Yes, many of those people are blocking our way into the business and that’s why we have to go around them. They are curmudgeons, hucksters, and menials, bottom-feeding for whatever plankton they can get — be it making you subservient or making you a customer.
I chose to listen to those successful writers even when the communities hounded them out like witches. Those writers never made it about script feedback, they made it about craft feedback. That’s the thing about craft. It applies to everything universally.
Do I listen to feedback sometimes? Absolutely, when it comes from someone I can learn from, and especially when it comes from my team or employer. Once ownership of the result is shared, things are different, and when someone’s the better artist, it’s time to listen.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as good and bad and very little to be gained from seeing things in such a close-minded way. We have to become our own critics and gain the introspection needed to know when we‘re failing to be as authentic as we can.
I’m so glad I didn’t seek out feedback for the script I’ve optioned. It’s me at my most authentic. Just like my earliest scripts were.
Put The Script Out There & Get On With Life
This is a hard one to write because I have survivorship bias. Luck is on my side. Serendipity came my way.
I don’t believe in all the gambling, pestering, and spamming we’re pushed toward as screenwriters. I think that almost all of it is a con-artistry and a destructive place for creatives, especially those with few funds.
I also don’t believe in having expectations. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming and it would be disingenuous for me to say I don’t. However, a goal is something to aim for and not something to feel entitled to. There’s nothing wrong with wanted to be financially secure, to be appreciated, and to enjoy contributing something to the World. Beyond that though, that’s playing with fire in my opinion. Ultimately, our goals need to result in something that’s positive for both us and those we hope to team up with in the future — and no, that’s not about following each other down the red carpet together, that’s about helping each other up the mountain.
A successful writer is one who is fulfilled by the act of writing. A successful writer may never share a page of their work. I stopped looking at this like a career a few years ago but kept the door open should the opportunity be there to reach out to my audience. I stopped needing validation to survive. I also started living life, which meant less time marketing my wares and more time making the most of experiences.
When it comes to that step beyond writing for writing’s sake, we are at the mercy of alignment. All we can hope for is that the right person feels something in our words that resounds with them and they’re in a position to help make sure it resounds with others.
In my case, I uploaded my script to a couple of free hosting sites and left it at that. That was twelve months ago. I got on with connecting with old friends, marrying my girlfriend, going vegetarian, exercising, reducing my cholesterol, podcasting, exploring new places, fighting my depression, learning new things, and gaining as much introspection as I could. Suddenly, in what feels like the blink of an eye, a dream has been realised, and since I’m in such a good place already, it’s icing on the cake rather than a reason to live.
Choose to be an artist now, because you at your most authentic, present, and without ego, is the utopia you seek, and, with enough time, the stars should align at what feels like the perfect moment.