SE2 D52: 10 Things I Learned on My Year-Long Screenwriting Journey
In September of 2015, I launched the website TheScreenwritersJourney.com to chronicle my efforts in writing and selling a screenplay. It was intended as a one-year immersion in the craft of writing for Hollywood, but I did not give much consideration to what would happen at the end of that one-year journey, particularly if I didn’t sell a script.
While it would have been the perfect Hollywood ending if I had made a sale, that, unfortunately, did not happen. Now I’m left pondering what that year accomplished in terms of advancing my writing career. As it turns out, quite a lot.
It’s taken about two months of soul searching, assessing and re-evaluating to truly appreciate what I learned over the course of those 12 months I dedicated to the Journey. I came into the process with a fair amount of industry experience having written and produced DVD Bonus Features for Disney, Warner Bros., Fox and others. I have Story Produced and Field Produced for a number of Reality TV series, and I even managed to produce one of my own screenplays, but despite my contacts in the industry, transitioning into screenwriting remained elusive. Simply working in the industry did not provide the right contacts to get my scripts seen.
So I needed to change things up, find a new way of approaching the marketing of my scripts. That was the impetus for TheScreenwritersJourney.com.
"Hollywood actively seeks to say
“No” to your script."
While I dangled the prospect of selling a screenplay as my primary goal for the Journey, what I really wanted was to figure out how the industry worked and break down the walls that prevented me – and thousands of other screenwriters – from achieving success in Hollywood. In that sense, my Journey was a huge achievement.
I not only became a better writer, but I became more intimately aware of the process Hollywood uses to keep writers out despite their talent. That’s right, Hollywood actively seeks to say “No” to your script. That may sound harsh or negative, but it’s a necessity rooted in reality.
There are approximately 50,000 new screenplays registered with the WGA every year.(1) The Hollywood studios and their subsidiary companies or producing partners only produce about 150 films each year.(2) Of those 50,000 new screenplays, the vast majority are spec scripts from screenwriter hopefuls. According to Scott Myers of Go Into the Story, as of October 16, 2016, only 55 of those spec scripts have been purchased.(3)
"There are approximately 50,000 new screenplays
registered with the WGA every year."
With that many available scripts floating around each year, studio readers, agents and producers have to cull the herd, so to speak, and simply eliminate as many scripts as possible. As a result, a set of arbitrary rules has come into play that can move your script from the slush pile to the circular file without a single word of your script being read.
These arbitrary decisions are based on things like:
• Too much ink, not enough white space
• Page count is too high or too low
• Use of camera directions
• Incorrect formatting
And that’s if you’re lucky enough to get a script into the slush pile. Most writers will have their query letters deleted unopened or rejected because they lack credits or representation. And that’s the reality of the situation. There are simply too many scripts to be read in too short a time frame. Industry professionals have to literally cut down the forest to find the one tree.
And that’s the landscape into which I launched my screenwriting journey. 12 months later I have emerged battered, worn and wiser for the effort, but if ignorance is bliss, I may have been happier not making the trek. I would also be a lot further from that goal of selling a screenplay.
"Industry professionals have to literally
cut down the forest to find the one tree."
How much closer am I? Well, that’s a question the leaves as much up to chance as it does to knowledge. However, after much reflection, I came up with a list of 10 things I learned that will radically alter the way in which I will write and approach the industry. You may agree with some of these or you may not; each writer has to undertake his own journey. Hopefully, this list will give you some guidance and help smooth out the bumps along the way.
The 10 Things I Learned on My Year-Long Screenwriting Journey
1) The Rules Don’t Count Except When They Do
Everyone has rules. Everyone. And they love to tell you about them. More importantly, they love to tell you what you did wrong. It’s often a way for other writers to reaffirm to themselves that they know what they are doing. It makes them feel superior in an industry where everyone has insecurities.
The thing about rules though is they don’t really matter if you’ve written a really good screenplay. In fact, you’ll be lauded for breaking the rules, doing something different, something unique. The problem is, if you break the rules, your original and brilliant script may not get read because, well, you broke the rules.
It’s one of those Catch-22s that is maddening and infuriating. So what is a writer to do? Write the best screenplay you can and let the chips fall where they may. It’s all you can do. The industry tries to make rating screenplays objective, but it will always be subjective.
"The thing about rules though
is they don’t really matter
if you’ve written a really good screenplay."
Understand the rules and follow them when you must, but if you need to break the rules to make your story more compelling, then break away. A good script reader will know the difference.
2) You Don’t Need to be in Los Angeles to Sell a Screenplay
I often see new screenwriters being advised to move to Los Angeles so they can take meetings with studios. I’ve been in Los Angeles for 6 years and have never taken a meeting at a studio.
I did option a screenplay to a company in Austin, TX two years ago. We handled everything over the phone and by email. The funding for the movie I produced several years ago came from a company in upstate New York.
A writer in one my online forums has sold 4 screenplays from Baton Rouge, LA and has a fifth under consideration. Three of those scripts have been produced.
The fact of the matter is if you are an unproduced writer looking sell a screenplay, you’re not going to get a meeting at a studio simply because you live here. More than likely, they aren’t even going to know you exist. If they do become interested in your script, LA is just a plane flight away.
Living in LA does have some advantages, however. You’re closer to the action and you have a better chance of networking, but even that is not nearly as easy to do as some would have you believe. Trust me, I’ve been trying to network for years.
3) Screenplay Formulas are the Best Tool Create an Engaging, Compelling Script--Unless You’re Trying to Create an Engaging, Compelling Script
Nothing will pit screenwriter against screenwriter faster than condemning or endorsing a ‘screenplay writing system’ like Save the Cat. The only thing that may spark more controversy among writers is which software to use.
The thing about a system or formula is that it has been developed after the fact. It’s an analytical tool developed by looking at successful screenplays and finding a pattern. The problem with that is there are plenty of unsuccessful screenplays that employ the same system or formula.
Following a formula is not a guarantee of success. What it does provide is an understanding of structure. Whether it’s Save The Cat or The Mini-Movie Method or any number of other systems being peddled to screenwriters, they are all basically the same thing with different terminology. And they are almost always based on Syd Feld’sScreenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which, in turn, he based on Aristotle’s Poetics.
Formulas are a great place to learn structure, but once you know it, manipulate it to the needs of your story.
Your story is everything, not the formula.
4) Screenwriting Software Doesn’t Really Matter
If you think the arguments over formulas are bad, dive into a discussion of screenplay formatting software. I’ve known friends who have stopped speaking to each other because one prefers Final Draft over Movie Magic.
The big argument is always that Final Draft is the industry standard and you aren’t professional if you don’t use it. Studios will not read your screenplay if you don’t send it to them as a Final Draft file.
Except, you don’t send your script in a scriptwriting format; you’ll forward it as a .pdf file. The studio, agent, producer or whoever will have no idea what you wrote it in. And they won’t care if your script is great.
If they want your script and need to convert it to Final Draft, it ain’t that big of a deal. Buy what you can afford (or check out a free software like WriterDuet) and write a great script. If they want your script, you can buy Final Draft against your first check and convert it for them. Seriously, it’s not an argument you need to have. It’s just one of those rules people use to impress you with something they think they know that you don’t.
5) Screenwriting Contests Aren’t All They Claim to Be
I’ve never won a screenplay contest, but I have placed very high in a number of them. I’ve also had really good scripts that didn’t place at all. Scoring a win in one of these contests is very subjective, and I was okay with that until recently.
I had a script place highly in one contest, but the same script failed to advance at all in another, albeit, higher tier competition. I was disappointed, but figured I needed to work on the script some more. Curious as to how the winning scripts compared with my own, I did an online search and found a number of them.
They were awful.
I mean they were downright unreadable. Plot holes, no forward action, two-dimensional characters, non-existent format and some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever read.
I was shocked, to say the least. So, I went a step further. I found winning scripts from online friends who often tout their achievements only to discover their scripts weren’t any better. And these were scripts that won in some big time competitions.
It caused a bit of doubt in my own abilities until I realized that none of these scripts had been produced. If they are the best out there, why weren’t any of them being picked up?
I had some trusted friends read these scripts without telling them why. Every one of them came back with really negative comments and questions as to why I was having them read such questionable material. One person said they made it as far as page 6 on one script and put it down. It simply wasn’t worth their time.
"It caused a bit of doubt in my own abilities
until I realized that none of these scripts had been produced."
I felt a little better, but only a little. What did winning a screenplay competition really mean if this was the best they could do? What did it mean for my own work that had placed highly in different competitions? And what does a winner really get for winning?
Then I received a list of 250 scripts from the Nicholl Fellowship competitions. I haven’t read all 250 of them – not even close – but everyone of that I have read. . .is really, really GOOD! I hate to say it, but they may even be better than some of mine.
So what’s the deal with contests? I don’t know. I’m afraid that many of them – even the larger well-known competitions – are in it for the money. There may just be too many submissions and they have to thin the herd to a more manageable level, not unlike the industry in general.
I don’t really know. What I do know is that you can spend a lot of money entering contests and should you win, about all you get is bragging rights.
6) Online Forums can be Your Worst Frenemy
There are dozens, probably hundreds, of online forums dedicated to screenwriting. These should be places to exchange ideas and seek support for your work even as you support others.
Unfortunately, they often devolve into online shouting matches with one writer trashing another over a logline, software, formulas – you name it. I have been trolled with some very vitriolic language that was meant to do nothing more than demean me and my accomplishments. I have seen other writers treated the same way.
Moderators work tirelessly to weed out the trolls, but they pop up constantly. They enter a group and immediately begin soliciting others for money for their own projects, not seeming to realize - or not caring - that everyone else has a project that they would like funding for.
These people will ask a question of the group and when they don’t get the answer they want, the gloves come off and the vitriol flies. And no one knows as much as they do and they have no – count ‘em. . .zero – credits.
I seriously don’t know how the moderators keep up with it all. They spend so much time policing the forum they can’t possibly have time for their own writing.
And that’s not to say there aren’t good, knowledgeable people in the forums willing to offer solid advice; there are. But there are also plenty of people who have no idea what they are talking about. The whole thing can become tiresome and bring you down.
If you are in a forum, my best advice is to find a few people with credits who aren’t flamers and friend them on the side. Any questions you have, private message them. Stay out of the fray as much as possible. It really does become a distraction.
7) Keep Your Mouth Shut at Workshops and Listen to the Comments
It’s not easy to take criticism, but it is how we learn. If you’re just looking for an echo chamber to tell you how good your writing is, you’re not growing as a writer. Too often I’ve been involved in writer’s groups where even the mildest of critiques results in defensive responses from writers trying to explain what they meant.
If you have to explain something after the reading,
it’s most likely not in the writing to begin with.
Simply accept the comments, make notes and examine your work later. The problem may be a result of a misreading by an actor or a misinterpretation on the part of the listener. If you’re not sure, ask yourself how many people brought up the same point. If it’s just one, you may be able to ignore it. If several people have the same problem, the issue is likely on your end.
Whatever the case, listen politely and say thank you afterward. Becoming defensive wastes time and engenders frustration within the group as a whole.
8) If Someone Takes the Time to Read Your Script and Offer Notes, Thank Them
To follow up on the above item, if someone takes the time to read your whole script and provide notes. . .Thank them! And don’t tell them you are going to ignore everything they said. That's the quickest way to piss somebody off and start your reputation on a downhill slide.
Reading someone’s script takes time. Making notes is even more time consuming. If you’re not going to consider the reader’s notes, you’ve not only wasted their time, but you’ve wasted a connection. They’re not going to want to help you again.
I recently spent a considerable amount of time trying to help a young lady looking to get a start in the business. I provided a fair amount of notes only to be told afterward that she didn’t plan on addressing any of them. The script was fine the way it was, and she was going forward with it as it was.
So what was the point of having me read the script? Did she just want a pat on the back? Getting feedback on your work is not about receiving accolades; it’s to help you improve your writing. You're welcome!
9) Screenwriting Conferences and Pitch Festivals are a Toss Up
One of the great money-making schemes perpetrated on screenwriters is the myth of the Writers Conference. A lot of promises are made, most notably industry access.
The truth is whatever access you gain is negligible and comes at a huge cost. There are various levels of access including special lunches, private cocktail parties; you name it, they offer it for a price. A conference can literally cost you thousands of dollars, and you’ll end up waiting in line with hundreds of other desperate writers hoping for a few minutes with a manager or an agent.
Plus, there is usually a pitch festival that costs even more money. Occasionally you hear of someone making a sale through a pitch festival and that puts everybody into a frenzy. The truth is you’re just as likely to receive interest in your script by sending email queries for free.
The pitch festival does, however, provide an opportunity to practice your elevator pitch, and who knows, you may luck out. And you just might make that all important contact, but it's gonna cost ya. A lot!
There are also numerous seminars at these events, but for the most part, they are watered down sales pitches for the speaker’s books, software or online classes. There is very little information offered in these seminars that is of much use except to the very newest of screenwriters. But it’s information you can find online for free if you’re willing to do a quick search. And if you think you’re going to have access to the speakers following their seminar, think again. In most cases, they are out the door and gone before the room empties out.
In terms of access, I went with the cheapest package and was able to speak with everyone multiple times throughout the event. Speakers, including well-known screenwriters and studio executives, hung out all day at the conference and were completely open to anyone who approached them to talk. The pitch fest was also a little different than what I expected. Yes, you got to pitch your script in the hopes that someone would pick it up, but it was also an educational event. The pitchees helped craft your pitch and gave advice on how to improve it. Of all the conferences I’ve attended, Screencraft’s Nashville Writer’s Conference stands head and shoulders above the others. It’s one I would attend again.
10) Everyone Wants Your Money, but Not Necessarily Your Script
And finally, an entire cottage industry has grown up catering to the screenwriter. From online webinars to outlining software to creative directories, if there is a way to part you from your money, someone has thought of it. And every purchase comes with the promise of taking you one step closer to making that elusive sale.
Every week there is a new and improved something that will help you break through and get noticed, or someone has finally cracked the code to writing the perfect Hollywood screenplay. But if someone has the secret to writing million-dollar screenplays, why are they trying to sell you a $29.95 book?
As always, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. All you need to get started is a good book on screenplay structure like Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, a book on formatting (Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible) and a decent screenwriting software. If you can’t afford Final Draft, check out WriterDuet, which has an all-inclusive low priced version and slightly restricted free version.(4) If possible, find a writer’s group where you can hear your work read out loud.
From there, you just have to sit down and start writing. My next script is under way. Is yours?
(1) Scott Meslow, The Atlantic, http://theatln.tc/2ev7urJ
(2) Scott Meslow, The Atlantic, http://theatln.tc/2ev7urJ
(3) Scott Myers, Go Into The Story, http://bit.ly/2e2oh6d
(4) As a note of disclosure on screenwriting software, I personally use Movie Magic Screenwriter.