Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Plan for Your Screenwriting Career – Part 1: Great Writing

Reader Billy Martin sent me the following suggestion for a blog topic he titled “Starting Right Now”:

It's New Year's Resolution time. For many of us part time, wanna be screenwriters we are looking at all of the awards show pomp and realizing another year has passed us by. Or more accurately, we have passed it by. We see some great movies released in the popular Holiday pre-awards season. But, throughout the year we have been reaching to the bottom of the Redbox barrel and saying to ourselves, "How did that movie ever get made?" For me personally, I write small, human stories, that could be made on a budget.

Regardless of how straight-forward and candid you are about the difficulty of making it in the business, I believe there are many of us not willing to give up on the dream. Maybe you could steer us in the right direction.

It’s now well past New Year’s resolution making time, but who says January 1st is the only day you can plan your career? Mr. Martin’s suggestion inspired me to do a series of posts on making a career plan for screenwriting. (And maybe even inspired me to update my own plan! Yes, I consciously plan my career, in writing.)

This isn’t perhaps exactly the same as the suggested “Starting Right Now,” but it encompasses those things. I’ll cover plans for various levels of existing career, from just-getting-into-this to already-a-produced-writer. I’ll discuss both creative and business issues. It’s a big topic – thus the series of posts.

(A note on Mr. Martin’s last paragraph – it is true the business is unbelievably competitive. It’s true that it is difficult to break in and even more difficult to make a living once you’re inside! But that doesn’t mean you should give up your dream. It does mean if you hope to achieve your dream you have to be willing to work extremely hard.)

Planning a screenwriting career, even in the short term, is tough because so much is out of your control. Any “how I made it” story always contains a heapin’ helpin’ of good luck. Of course, remember the saying “luck is opportunity meets preparation.” If you work at this long enough you will get opportunities. Your plan should be about making yourself prepared for when they occur.

The other challenge is that “events on the ground,” to use a military phrase, can change everything. Let’s say you send out a spec script. The outcome of that experience will determine what happens next – if it sells, you’ll likely be hired to rewrite it. Or perhaps it will impress someone enough to offer you a shot at pitching an assignment. Or if it lands with a dull thud, you’ll have to go back to other spec work. So how do you plan beyond sending the spec out?

Let’s start with the most basic thing you need for a screenwriting career: great screenplays. Note that this is plural – one won’t do it. You need to have a selection of material to show. Also note that I said “great” – not good or competent or your Mom likes it.

If you want to be a screenwriter but have not yet written a screenplay, your first goal should be just to finish a script. Finishing the first one is really hard. You don’t want to take forever, but it’s your first one so it will probably take a while. Your plan right now should focus on the process: setting aside time to write every day.

You might also need to learn something about your craft, so taking a screenwriting course or reading books on screenwriting might be part of your plan (and a class can help motivate you to finish). You also may want to find a writers group that can hold you accountable and give you feedback on your work. But you’ll learn the most simply by doing. Until you finish that first draft, it’s hard to even understand what you need to know. Until you have a screenplay, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.

If you’ve written some spec scripts but don’t yet have a body of top quality work, your plan should include more writing and possibly rewriting existing material. Most writers have to write at least five scripts before they turn out anything that’s any good. Of course, you must approach every script as if it will get made, but the reality is you have to practice your craft a lot before you will master it. If this sounds discouraging, remember that you’re in this for the long haul. And becoming a professional screenwriter is not easy.

You might want to work on improving your productivity. Standard professional contracts generally give the writer twelve weeks to do a feature draft. Often this is loosely enforced, but if you’re going to be a professional, you should be capable of this pace. Try making a plan for your year that involves writing a draft of a screenplay every three months. That will help you increase your output. I suggest alternating new, first drafts with rewrites of other scripts.

If you’re interested in writing television, the ability to meet deadlines is critical for a career. Definitely work on turning out spec material in a timely fashion.

(Here are some Tips for Productivity that might help.)

If you have a body of work or are established, then turning out new spec work may not be the most important part of your plan. But you probably already know that it’s critical for your career to keep writing. Any time you don’t have paid work, you should be writing a spec. And possibly you need a new spec to send out so you can expand your network or re-brand yourself or just update your image.

It’s important – no matter what your level – that you choose your spec material carefully. That requires thinking about your passions, the market, and the “brand” you want to establish. Those things will be huge influences on the plan you’re making. Choosing material and planning your brand will be the topic for my next post.


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