This week I had the honor of speaking at Upstate Independents, a wonderful group of filmmakers and artists who, for the past 18 years, have been meeting once a month to share their talent and to network. Whenever I address a new audience, it allows me the chance to see my journey into screenwriting through their eyes and to evaluate how those experiences helped me prepare for opportunities to succeed.
A mere nine years ago, I had no published clips. No website. No Twitter account. No scripts. No novels. No speaking engagements. No fans, followers, or even stalkers. I couldn’t pay someone to let me write for them.
What if someone had given me the opportunities I have today back then? Would I have succeeded?
Hell no! I would have fallen flat on my face.
I wasn’t prepared for those writing opportunities any more than I would have been for a space mission.
I believe in fate. I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe in working for what you want. I believe in failure being lined with blessings. And I believe Seneca, a first-century Roman philosopher, was right when he allegedly said, “Luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.”
There’s a reason I am a 49 year-old writer and wasn’t a 29 year-old one. At 29, I had nothing to say about life, either directly or indirectly. I hadn’t lived. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know who I was or even what a decent story was. So if a producer had approached me with a shot at writing a script for hire, I would have failed miserably, burned my bridges and had an even harder time crawling out of the hole of making a bad first impression.
My Chung Do Kwan master always says, “It’s not about becoming a black belt; it’s about the journey.”
The same is true for writing. Yes, we all want to be produced, but the journey we take to production is just as valuable, if not more, as a barometer to predict our chances of success. I’ve always put my journey out as a case study for my readers, so let’s pick apart how I tried to prepare myself for opportunities that popped up along the way.
Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly:
1, Choose the right genre: I started off writing romantic comedies, not because that was what I wanted, but because that’s what the partner I wrote with at the time enjoyed. I didn’t realize I was setting myself up for failure. Sure, I can be funny and write a lighthearted script, but that’s not where my passion was. I’m a drama girl — preferring to write it instead of live it. I didn’t understand if I had success with a rom com, I would be boxed into that genre.
2. Silver linings: Despite rom coms not being my passion, I still learned a lot by writing them and made great connections pitching those scripts. I gained confidence and impressed executives with my writing potential – “potential” being the keyword. The writing at that time wasn’t good enough. Not even close. What I learned was that I still had a lot to learn. I may have gained knowledge of the business side of the industry in pitching (and failing with) those scripts, but I had a long way to go to be a “great writer.” Admitting a flaw is the first step to recovery.
3. Read, write, learn: I started reading a lot of scripts and writing every single day, creating a website, writing blog posts, and dipping my toes into freelance writing. I took classes via Writer’s Digest on freelance writing, copyrighting, creating a synopsis, writing query letters, plot, structure, and anything I thought would help me learn. Why? Because I needed to. I wasn’t a Creative Writing major. I went to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and then owned a motel and restaurant for 15 years. I could fix a toilet better than any plumber I knew, but I couldn’t fix my way out of a story with bad structure. I needed to learn my craft inside and out before I could ever sell my work.
4. Find your voice: Stretching my writing muscles in any way I could was helping me become a better screenwriter. I was finding my writing voice. The first person to educate me on the importance of a writer’s voice was Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer’s Digest. Jane met me on Twitter and read my blog. When she asked me to write a piece on my personal Twitter experience, I sent her what I thought would be a good fit for the magazine. Her response? A virtual slap aside my head, albeit from Ohio, encouraging me to write the piece with my unique writer’s voice… the one I use on my blog. Jane didn’t want a dry, Twitter-101 instruction list; she wanted my Twitter Pimp Angel’s take on social media prowess. A writer’s voice is critical to success. It’s the thing that separates you from any other writer. Finding your voice is a matter of trusting your instincts. Jane gave me that gift of believing in myself as a writer.
5. Stop aspiring and just do: I loathe the expression “aspiring writer.” You either write or you don’t. If you write, then you are a writer. OWN IT! No one will think of you as a writer unless you do. If you only take one thing away from reading this, that should be it. Without owning your writing, you don’t have a prayer in hell of ever being ready for an opportunity that presents itself.
6. Jump off the cliff with reckless abandon: After taking classes and practicing my storytelling abilities, writing everything from blog posts to scripts, I found my writing voice, and my confidence. Now I had the “balls of steel” to go after my dream project – Slavery by Another Name (SBAN). You can read the whole story of how I got the gig in my very first Balls of Steel: Pursuit of the Project. But long story short, since I hadn’t written a drama before, I had to prove myself to the author, Douglas A. Blackmon. I sent him sample scenes, I persisted in writing an outline, and I pretty much made it impossible for him to say no. The opportunity didn’t present itself; I bust the door down on my own. I wouldn’t have had a chance if I hadn’t done the hard work of preparing myself for the battle.
7. Don’t underestimate the importance of passion: Those were the very words Doug said to me when I went after his project with no money to offer him for the rights. I was hungry. I loved his work. I wanted the truth to be told to a broader audience than his book could reach. I’ve worked on this project for over four years now, and I have never tired of it. When you write what you love instead of what you think the industry wants, the quality of your work will come through in a way you never thought possible. Your heart will bleed on the page, and the story and characters will shine because of it. The quality of your writing will raise your script to the top of the slushpile.
8. Find champions: With my social media presence, website, guest blogs posts, published clips, and my work on SBAN narrative adaptation, people were noticing me and believers circled their wagons to help. I am blessed with an incredible network of writers who support me and whom I support and defend in return. Remember the golden rule: Give to receive and always pay it forward.
9. Knock, knock: Opportunities are finally pouring in, but some aren’t always the right fit. It’s important to know when a project isn’t right for you and when to recommend someone else for the gig. I promise you, the success of a project is just as important as your personal success. Sometimes another writer is the one who should be hired. Be selfless and toss their name in the hat instead of yours.
10. Get comfortable being uncomfortable: I’ll now happily contradict tip #9. Don’t turn something down just because you’re afraid. Step outside of your comfort zone. Push yourself. You will never grow as a writer unless you try new things. Writers write. So do it, even if you don’t know anything about the subject. That’s what research is for.
Pimp Tip of the Day: But if those opportunities come and you aren’t ready, don’t burn a bridge by jumping in too soon and under-delivering. Step back and honestly access your skill level. Trust that if you aren’t ready, or if they reject you, it’s simply because the time isn’t right in your world. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Another chance will magically pop up when you least expect it… and you’ll be ready.
In the meantime, do two things:
- Write every single day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.
- Believe in yourself.
If you do, when opportunity and preparation meet, success will happen.
Get query tips in our FREE Download Querying Screenwriting Executives 101
- Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter
- Balls of Steel: Focus, Focus, Focus
- Get a New Story: Make Time for What You Love
- Balls of Steel: How to Grow a Set
- Balls of Steel: No Comfort in the Zone
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