Quick bio; I’m a screenwriter based in an old rural market town in the UK who’s recently gotten back from LA where I got to see a feature film I’d written go through principle photography. After nearly seven years of screenwriting, I’ve had my first feature script option and feature script assignment happen within the last twelve months.
And now everybody’s asking me how to break in.
I can’t really answer that question for everybody but I can say this; I was discovered due to a combination of blogging and having my scripts uploaded to a free script hosting website. In many ways, it was as simple as that. An Emmy award winning producer with a ton of credits and a box office number one under his belt was tipped off about my blogs by another industry member, ended up reading one of my scripts, and loved it. The rest is is history. I’m now living my dream as a working screenwriter.
But I can’t help but feel it’s nowhere near as simple as that when I consider every step that got me here. Steps that felt right to me when I was taking them even though so many told me they were wrong.
You see, what I’ve come to notice over the past few years is a distinct difference in attitude between those who eventually break in and those who never seem to make it. I feel like I can easily place amateur screenwriters into one of two groups and predict their destiny.
Look, I’ve been at this full time since 2012 and been present in nearly every screenwriting community there is at some point. I’ve personally watched hundreds upon hundreds of writers go nowhere — and I mean nowhere. I’m not talking only about writers who started writing fiction for the first time, like I did, seven years ago. I’m talking about writers who’d already been at this for over a decade before I started and seemed to be, certainly by their own standards, the cream of the crop within the amateur scene.
This makes me sad. I want more artists in this World and I want more art. To be frank, I feel the problem is either an infectious stupidity or an inherent laziness. Those a harsh statement I know — an arrogant one too — but we’re talking about building careers and creating art here so I’m no going to mince my words.
This isn’t going to be an easy read for many of you but, believe me, it comes from a loving place.
If you want to know how to break in, you deserve to read what I believe is the answer even if it deeply upsets you, because that day of realisation, however hard hitting it is, is the first day of sanity and steering yourself back on course.
So, let’s get onto those two groups I see.
Group 1; Reading Scripts, Sharing Bullshit, and Buying Hope.
This is currently seems to be the vast majority of amateur screenwriters. This is mostly likely the writer you are conversing with on a forum. Worse still, this is probably someone who expects you to look up to them and follow their advice. These are writers who, despite claiming to be incredibly busy, can find an extraordinary amount of time to read other people’s scripts, be it amateur or professional, and genuinely believe it’s how you develop craft.
I’ve watched this preoccupation with reading become borderline obsessive over the past few years and seen “read as many scripts as you can” tossed out as a catch-all answer to developing screenwriting skills over and over again.
This might be you. Be honest with yourself.
You can’t learn craft by osmosis. You cannot learn to paint portraits by walking around galleries or learn to play guitar by listening to tracks. Sure, you may become inspired, you may pick up a knack for certain elements, but it’s ultimately an incredibly lazy way to develop your skills in this medium you claim to be so dedicated to.
This tends to come along with a remarkable degree of ignorance toward how the industry works with opinions formed around parroting, navel-gazing, and emotional bias. Educations are gained via the echo chambers of forums, meeting groups, perhaps one or two screenwriting books, and taking the opinions of self appointed gurus as gospel. This is effectively learning via gossip while being positioned right at the end of a line of Chinese whispers. Compounding the matter is a tribal mentality with a need to pick a side of every argument and stick with it. I’m now at the point where I can barely spend five minutes browsing a screenwriting forum because everything is so absurdly backward with the popular thinking. The lack of awareness would be amusing if it were not so destructive to people’s careers.
And when it comes to career building, things are just as poorly applied and left to chance with a timid mentality that relies on mailing lists, competitions, rating services, and other pay-to-play services that are believed to be the key into Hollywood should you write the perfect Goldilocks script. Industry members are met with a sycophantic and servile attitude with no edge and nothing new to say with a very defensive response to anything that involves reads and money. Basically the message sent out by these writers is “I’m here to please you and do what you say but I sure as hell don’t trust you”.
Basically, what I’m witnessing is this strategy at play where every part of the process from learning to creating to marketing is completely ineffective because the methodology behind it is to play around and hope something comes of it via circumstance. The delusion in the process is sadly solidified by the fact there are tangible goals such a having read a certain number of scripts, written a certain number of words, or received a certain number of awards. It looks like work and it looks like practice because it consumes time, produces quantifiable results, and seems to generate successes. It sounds romantic on the surface but it’s hollow.
This isn’t something exclusive to screenwriting or even writing in general. It’s common in every field from art, to sport, to business. There’s plenty of amateur photographers aimlessly hitting the shutter, wannabe golfers hitting balls, and hopeful entrepreneurs pitching ideas in the hope a miracle will eventually happen if they repeat the easiest bits enough times. This results in people who are years into practicing something they continue to appear amateurish at in all but a few areas.
These are a group of people who are choosing to live in a very comforting place where craft development is passive, facts are a matter of opinion, and success is simply a case of buying the right lottery ticket. This is where you find hacks with highly derivative material and no idea how the industry works trying to pay their way into Hollywood. This is why so many are failing to break in even after a decade of sustained effort. This is a trap of cult think that’s very easy to get sucked into when you’re new and possibly never escape from until you give up.
Group 2; Honing Craft, Creating Art, and Investing Passion.
The other group have a very different attitude and, oddly enough, although they do speak out, despite their methodology working for them, seem to represent a minority view, perhaps because they tend to break in and disappear into the industry or maybe because they’re identifying truths many don’t want to hear and thus don’t get shared.
These writers are truly honing their craft via a tried and tested method — deliberate practice. They identify their weaknesses, accept them, and put their effort into overcoming them. This is a tough way to spend such a significant amount of time but the satisfaction is huge with a clear line of progression that bolsters wider technical skills and understanding.
Then comes the next important element, developing those technical skills while appreciating the nature of art. Artistry is a woefully under-appreciated part of screenwriting, often misunderstood and discarded to the point it’s rarely ever discussed. These writers are finding their voice, separating the subjective from the objective, communicating life truths, and pursuing emotion in their work. They are nurturing both sides of the brain the same way a great composer knows both how to generate a certain sound and the feeling it should provoke in their audience.
Along with a growth mindset that projects into he future, they’re looking back at history too, specifically film history to better prepare themselves for what’s likely to come. They’re expanding their horizons as well by learning other disciplines and experiencing new cultures. Their minds are always open to new ideas, concepts, and thinking because they know it fuels both their knowledge and creativity.
These writers consider as many sides of each argument as they can and value them all but that’s not to say they aren’t opinionated, they simply reserve their energy for where it matters. They are not afraid to be iconoclastic and challenge the status-quo because what they believe in is more important than being liked. That’s why they do so via public platforms like blogs, vlogs, and podcasts with their names plastered all over them rather than bark anonymously into the chasm of some private Facebook group.
They give back too by sharing knowledge, motivating others, and connecting people together because they live within an abundance of new discoveries, personal growth, and opportunities.
They are networking and marketing by reaching out to the people they admire and demonstrating their unusually high levels of passion. Industry members want to work with them not just because they are great writers but because they are addictive people to be around. Rather than buying chips and rolling dice they are making investments and letting the returns come to them. They seem lucky because they aren’t afraid to publicly fail over and over again without shame or embarrassment and with the energy to pick themselves up and try again in a slightly different way.
This is where you find artists who are patient, prolific, and persevering knowing full well this is all a game of alignment and aware alignment takes time, often lots of time. These are a group of people who derive their fulfilment from writing material that pleases them first and validate themselves on how authentically they express their voice. Ultimately, they advance one tiny step at a time, learning something new, trying something new, meeting someone new, and gaining something new on a daily basis.
What I’m seeing are two groups of people expending massive amounts effort but one is failing to focus that energy effectively because of a fundamentally timid mentality.
It’s easy to stick with what you find easy. It’s fun to hang out on forums repeating what we want to believe in. It’s indulgent to sit around getting your workspace perfect rather than actually writing. It’s safe to wait to be told to jump and then ask how high. It’s comforting to believe success is a matter of revising the material until we get a good grade. However, it ultimately holds you back because you’re systematically avoiding what really works, the hard stuff, the scary stuff, the demanding stuff.
If you identify with Group A, stop thinking you need the right chair to sit in before you can write, that you need to find the right guru before you can excel, or that you need to write the perfect script to break in. Stop thinking it now. This is your life goal and the clock’s ticking. If the thought of changing your approach fills you with dread, that’s the point. Embrace that fear and turn it into excitement because this is where you start steering the ship in the right direction. Have you lost time, yes, maybe years but that’s all the more reason to correct your course rather than running further adrift.
If you identify with Group B, then well done for not getting sucked into the group think and congratulations for getting to this place because it will pay off for you. However, you have to be wary that it’s easy to fall off the wagon and slip into a routine where you’re no longer challenging yourself on a daily basis. You’ve chosen the harder path and you’re going to become exhausted from the effort while being highly critical of yourself. Try to apply the same sound thinking to how you go about nurturing your wellbeing and know that all those tiny steps you have been making and all those seeds you’ve been planting are all adding up and will eventually blossom into something special.