The Business of Your Writing Career: 10 Things You Need to Succeed as a Writer

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With thousands of screenwriters vying for their name in lights, Michele Wallerstein answers what qualities does it take to succeed as a writer?

1.  Ammunition

Some time ago, when I was an agent, I represented a young and very successful writer who said, “I’d never ask my troops to go out without ammunition.” By that he meant that he didn’t expect me to get him work or sell scripts without him having supplied me with those new screenplays and/or pitching ideas. He took responsibility for giving me what I needed so I could do my job well. Transversely, I also represented another writer who angrily demanded, in November, that I find a job for him prior to Christmas. This particular client had not written a new spec in many years, hadn’t worked in ages, had no new ideas to pitch and wasn’t socially active in the Hollywood community. Needless to say, I told him to find another agent.

A writer’s job is to have product for his/her agent/manager. You must always be working on the next project. You must always be ready to go out and pitch 3 to 5 new movie ideas. This is how the system works. Once you are lucky enough to have an agent, you don’t call them constantly to ask, “What’s happening?” You call them to say, “I’ve got some new ideas for scripts that I want to run past you.” That’s when you’ll get their attention. That is also when you will get some action. It will solidify your relationship, and it will most certainly get you work.

2.  Courage

No one ever said that becoming a star writer was easy. You must tell yourself to be brave and be actively involved in moving your own career forward. That means making cold calls to people you don’t think will talk to you. It also means forcing yourself to talk to strangers at Film Festivals, screenings, parties and anywhere that you might find someone in the film industry. I firmly believe anyone over the age of 21 has no excuse for being shy. Remember that everyone loves to talk about themselves. Everyone loves to tell the story of how they got into the “business”.  Ask questions, share a little about yourself. The more often you do these things, the easier it gets. Hollywood works on relationships so you have to build these for yourself.

3.  Self-Confidence

Now I know this might be a tough one for you. You will be facing an unknown future, amongst all those strange creatures, like producers, agents, managers, lawyers, development executives and studio moguls. Here’s a hint to help you…..”Act as if…” This means that you put on a front and pretend to be self-confident. I promise you after awhile you will really feel confident. People usually believe what you tell them. If you say you are a terrific writer and you have lots of great ideas, they want to believe you. Take note that everyone is looking for the next great talent. The film business gets bored with writers very quickly. You want to be the next new “find” for them.

4.  Thick Skin

Have you heard that you need the skin of a rhinoceros to be in show business? It is true. You will have people turn down your ideas and scripts by the score. You will have meetings cancelled at the last minute without the courtesy of telling you why. You will have meetings where you are ignored and summarily dismissed. You will have people much younger than you who will talk to you like you are an idiot. You will have to cool your heels in a reception room for an hour or more past your meeting time. Remember that most of it is about who they are… not about who you are. Keep your cool. Don’t take rudeness. When I was an agent I sat in a reception room for 30 minutes while overhearing the producer talk on the phone, in the next room, about his quitting smoking. I got up and walked out. He called me later to apologize and never kept me waiting again.

5.  Determination

This business absolutely does not happen overnight. Becoming a professional writer takes a very long time. It takes the tenacity to write script after script after script to become a decent writer. It takes dozens of meetings to sell an idea. It takes years and years to see your first movie get produced and distributed. Following your dream is a wonderful thing, but you need to have a great deal of determination to see you through the lean years. Even if you get one script optioned, you may not set up another one immediately. Hang in there because there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

6.  Willingness to Listen

This is a tough one. There you are, sitting in a plush office, having a meeting with a famous producer of many of your favorite films. Alongside him there sits a young, smartly dressed, Vice-President of development. You are all ready to hear how great your script is and how much they want to make it. Then, it happens. The bomb drops, and they begin to pick apart your perfect script. They want you to change the hero to a heroine. They want the picture to take place in Guatemala, not Paris. They don’t feel the plot really works. Try, try, try not to jump up and scream at them. This is what happens in script meetings. Listen to their comments, or at least look like you are listening. Try very hard to see if you can make some of their changes. You cannot get huffy, angry or hurt. Be a professional and bite the bullet. You may disagree with them, but don’t do it in an emotional way. Hollywood is a small town, and you will want them to want to work with you again.

7.  Ability to Grow/Change

Being open to change is a hard thing for most grownups. We’ve reached a stage where we like who we are and how we behave feels right to us. We might feel that all of our scripts are golden. Oops, not so fast folks. You must be open to criticism and constructive advice from people who have been there and done that. Look into the veracity of the comments of others. Learn to dress up a little for meetings, keep your voice modulated, not shrill. Learn to cut your scripts down from 150 pages. Accept that there will be a myriad of rewrites.

8.  Time

As I mentioned above, becoming a success or even a relative success in Hollywood takes a great deal of time. You need to know that you are willing to invest your life, interest, enthusiasm, money and desire for an unknown result in an unknown amount of months and years. Be honest with yourself about this.

9.  Action

In the early part of your writing career everything is up to you. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true. You must take action by constantly taking classes screenwriting classes, coming up with new projects, rewriting your material, getting feedback from a professional, going to film festivals, seminars and pitch fests. You have to make positive decisions and move forward on your own. You need to find the right pros in the business and email them, then follow-up with them two or three times. You’ll need to rewrite your query letters over and over again. You’ll need to pick up the phone and call strangers. You’ll need to make friends and socialize and network. You will need to do much of this even after you’ve finally found a good agent or manager.

10.  Patience

Here is my final advice. Be calm and be patient. Not only with the slow progress of your writing but with people too. Wait for them to finish their sentences. Wait for them to re-schedule that lunch or drinks meeting. Wait for them to read your material. You can follow-up with little reminders to them, but accept the fact that millions and millions of dollars are spent on films, so it takes a lot of patience to see you movies get made.

Now, go out there and get ‘em.

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6 thoughts on “The Business of Your Writing Career: 10 Things You Need to Succeed as a Writer

  1. Marian Priestley

    That was very helpful with a little sting. I’ve been writing for four years now and several screenplays and stageplays later, I’m haunted daily that I’m American and I live in London.
    Is it really time to move back to L.A.? Can it please be New York?
    Many thanks.

  2. Brian Shell

    Thanks for the article Michelle…

    Myself, I began my writing career in 1994 in LA and now live in my hometown of Detroit with 23 Kindle eBooks published, and as I looked back on one of my old screenplays, I was amazed at how atrocious some of the writing was… but at the time, I thought it was excellent.

    The point is… if we persist, we learn to hone our craft, we grow, we continue to mature, and voila! Open doors do eventually arrive.

    As my drumming teacher told me: “It’s only the conductor at the helm who can keep a train from coming down the tracks.” So true.

    So I think having a positive attitude helps tremendously. People pick up on a “can do” attitude vs. a “can’t do” one. They just sense it when confidence and ambition are oozing out of you… the same way we all know when someone is off their rocker too.

    Yet I firmly believe that learning to shake a lot of hands and knowing that best sellers are made one reader/viewer at a time are invaluable. We miss 100% of the shots we don’t take, right?

    Best regards,
    Brian Shell
    PassionHero.com
    Be a Passion Hero… at times, use words.

  3. Daniel Delago

    Michelle, thanks for those tips. Always write and work at your craft. Common sense advice we sometimes forget because writers are in such a hurry to reach the summit. Every writer (even optioned ones) can take steps to improve their writing skills.

  4. Script Quack

    Great post, especially number 7 on the list. It can be hard to realize when you need to grow, both as a screenwriter and otherwise. Great writers are always trying to improve their work, and that’s a big part of what makes them great.

    It can be hard not to use arrogance as a shield against the rejection in screenwriting when in reality rejection should fuel self-reflection and development as a writer.

  5. Arealist

    Thank you, Elliott!! I have to jump on board and say I know of a few writers who got into the world of television off of horrible specs and have created….No surprise to anyone…horrible television. Hollywood is a very nepotistic business and if you know people you’re more likely to get in with horrible/mediocre work than if you don’t know anyone and have an amazing script. Unfortunately, the lie of “good work always gets noticed” is constantly perpetuated. But Wallerstein did mention a few things that rung true about staying the course.

  6. Elliott

    I’m going to have to disagree. I specifically know people who wrote a horrible draft of a pretty mundane concept. His friend handed it to her producer boss. Since they knew some of the same people, he had it rewritten and produced. People make it for all sorts of reasons and typically, having new ideas to pitch gets you nowhere, unless of course you are already established or have a little nepotism on your side.

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