As part of our continuing series on screenwriting advice from Career Coach Lee Jessup, here are some easy steps that you can start taking today to charge of your career. Many decisions are out of our control, but screenwriters have more power to engineer their relationships than we think.
So here goes. I turn the keyboard over to Lee Jessup.
(slide keyboard to Lee. She starts typing)
There are screenwriters out there who HATE career advice. Don’t ask me why, but they do. I don’t mean all writers, but more than one have come out and proclaimed before me and anyone else who would listen that advice, input and guidance can only be destructive.
Here are some reasons I’ve heard: I don’t watch movies because I don’t want them to taint my fragile mind, I don’t read scripts because that would make me a conformist, I won’t pick a genre or solidify my brand because I don’t want to limit myself, I don’t read industry news because I don’t want it to influence my work.
If you are one of those screenwriters, read no further. This blog post is not for you, and will likely do little more than upset you. I am serious. Click off and walk away. You will likely only get frustrated by this. I get that there is a gross difference of opinion here. I am not setting out to upset anyone, nor am I aiming to change your mind if you’re set on not having it changed; Instead, I am aiming to inform those who are interested in this sort of input by sharing some of the insights I’ve gathered in all the years I’ve bee working in the film industry, and specifically with aspiring writers trying (and occasionally succeeding) to break in.
Still reading? Great. Let’s keep going.
Here is what I believe: You will only do yourself and your screenwriting career a big favor by becoming as informed as you can be. This industry is a living, breathing, ever changing beast, and it’s on you to stay on top of things. You are the champion of your own career. It’s up to you to give yourself the best shot you can at a screenwriting career.
Because of this, I’ve put together a list of the most important, career-driven things you can do for yourself on a regular and ongoing basis when aiming to build your screenwriting career.
1) PICK YOUR GENRE
This is not a life-long commitment you’re making here, just one on the shoulders of which you will have a significantly improved chance of making a go of a screenwriting career. Sure, it keeps you from writing in every given genre known to man, but that is a good thing. A chosen genre gives you an identity. Tells people who you are as a screenwriter.
Right off the bat, it’s not going to be your name they’re going to remember. It’s going to be the work. So make the work, and the brand behind it, clear and consistent. You’re not going to be Bill from Chicago with that great movie script; rather, you will be that comedy scriptwriter with that great Christmas comedy. If you want to get working, that’s how you want people to think of you.
There’s a saying I heard a few months ago that really drives this home for me: If you’re good (or think you are) at lots of different things, that means you’re likely not great at any one thing. Remember the adage A Jack (or Jill) Of All Trades And A Master Of None?
In order to make it in this industry, you need to be great. Not good, but GREAT.
And especially starting out, you’re not going to be great at every genre and in every script. If your third script will be better than your first and your fifth better than your third. It’s in your best interest to pick a genre and get to be as strong as you can writing it.
2) READ INDUSTRY NEWS EVERY DAY
This is soooo important. When I told super-manager, my old friend Dallas Sonnier of ever-growing management company Caliber Media that I was working on a business of screenwriting book he said “Tell your readers that reading industry news every day is the most important thing they can do for their career.” Dallas is serious about this, and it’s not a new thing for him: He started subscribing to the Hollywood Reporter with the money from his allowance when he was just 13. If you can’t afford a subscription, visit your local library. That’s what they’re there for.
As the champion of your screenwriting career, it’s of utmost importance that you position yourself professionally. While you don’t have to know every player and their entire movie credit list, client roster or employment history, it is important that you understand in broad strokes what’s happening in and around the industry.
What’s pilot season looking like this year? What’s the story on a particular comic book franchise? And what’s the relevance of some new agency and the impact it might have had on the slow churn of the spec market this year?
If you want to work within the industry, to sell material to the people who are making decisions within it, it’s important that you know what’s making it tick. There is no two ways about it: knowledge is king, despite what the nay-sayers think. And there are plenty of resources through which to get industry news coming to you for free.
Sign up for breaking news alerts from deadline.com, and the daily news roundup from StudioSystemNews.com or TheWrap.com
Spec and pitch sale info can be sources from industry staple The Tracking Board. Professionals like working with other professionals, so be in the know if you want people to take you seriously. Knowing the business helps emerging screenwriters get read and represented. And eventually produced.
3) READ INDUSTRY SCRIPTS
This one always seems to set many a writer on the warpath: Reading other scripts makes you conform. It limits your imagination. You’re only going to dumb down your own script to make it fit with others getting traction in the industry.
Hopefully, your writer’s voice and identity is strong enough to avoid all of this. Just like chefs are encouraged to try other restaurants and musicians listen to other music regularly, aspiring screenwriters should be reading other screenplays. Not so you could mimic, cow-tow or steal. But so that you understand what is selling in the industry and what you’re up against.
Sure, once in a while you’ll read a script that you just can’t get through, which others raved about. Don’t forget, this is all subjective. Not everyone is going to agree on everything. But it is what’s happening, and (to repeat an earlier phrase) as the champion of your own career, you should know what other works are getting attention in the industry. Someone once told me that making it in screenwriting is like winning a race, and he was just running forward, not looking back.
Here’s the key: You are racing against others who are just as eager. And not only that, you’re racing to break records set in the race that ended just before yours kicked off. Shouldn’t you gather as much information as you can, know what you’re up against and what is expected in order to give yourself the very best chance to win?
Read unproduced film scripts and contest winners too. They help you gauge what’s hot in the industry and what industry professionals are responding to.
4) LEARN FROM THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE YOU
There’s a lot of value in looking at those who have managed to build themselves a screenwriting career in recent years, and contemplating the milestone that aided their trajectory. While no two screenwriting career paths are ever the same, it would only benefit you to look at others you respect and admire, and consider how they got there.
If you are similar in voice to a particular screenwriter, look at their trajectory, and see if something that worked for them could be effective for you as well. Did they start in a single genre and expand from there? Is there a particular festival or contest that helped put them on the map?
Now, I’m not talking Joe Eszterhas, Ted Tally or John August. While they are still very much relevant, the industry has changed rapidly since they broke in, even in just the eighteen years since John August’s Now and Then first premiered.
Look at writers who broke over the last ten years, how they’ve established themselves, and what proved to be of benefit. You will never travel the same road exactly, but you can always gain valuable insight from the journeys that lead to their prolific careers.
5) KEEP WRITING. KEEP LEARNING
No matter how good your last script is, it’s the next one you should now be thinking of. It’s a screenwriter’s job to write, and the ones who make it are the ones who do it consistently, be it an hour a day or forty hours a week. Set clear, specific, achievable goals for yourself, put deadlines in place and do all you can to meet them, so that you are putting out great work consistently.
Sooner or later someone will notice, so long as you’re making the right efforts to get your work out there and seen. Get notes. Get feedback, and plenty of it. Making a project come to life is highly collaborative, and the notes stage is where it begins. Don’t rest on your laurels or see how far you can get on the movie script you wrote four years ago; it’s what you’re working on now that people are going to be interested in.
A working screenwriter is expected to turn out a new script every 4-6 months at least. No time like the present getting on top of that practice. And if you’ve never taken a screenwriting class…. Time to change that. Screenwriting is a craft. Sure, you can make it look like a script (with the generous help of Final Draft), but can you talk midpoint, reversals, character arcs and Dark Night of the Soul/All is Lost with any authority? Even if you have gone through a screenwriting course or majored in screenwriting while you were in university, keep reading material that will challenge and potentially grow your creative writing muscle. In the long run, it will pay dividents!
Remember, you are trying to build a screenwriting career here. And like with any other profession you could prepare for out there, there are steps, like the ones mentioned above, that can only make the challenging and trying journey ahead easier…
BONUS: Fake it until you make it. Assume you’re a working screenwriter and behave l like one. This isn’t to say that you should be arrogant and demand six figure deals before your first produced credit. I mean prime your mind for your future success.
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Check out Writer Duet, one of the best online screenwriting tools around.