Balls of Steel: Becoming a Professional Screenwriter – What’s Holding You Back?

By Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

I had a conversation recently with someone who was frustrated with a co-worker, complaining that after two years of training, she still needs his help far too much and resists setting up appointments with clients to close the deal. She’s falling far below her quota, and it’s not only affecting her income, but also his.

He asked my advice. Should he fire her?

I’m a writer, not an HR person, but I do know people. I can smell fear a mile away. This woman doesn’t need to be fired; she needs to figure out what’s holding her back. What is she afraid of?

I advised him to sit her down and kindly speak with her, not in the tone of a scolding manager, but in one of acceptance, validation, and understanding. Ask her, “What scares you about making an appointment with a client? What is it about the process of sitting down with a client that makes you uncomfortable?” In knowing those answers, she might see her insecurities better in order to work directly on them instead of sidestepping them… right to the unemployment line.

courtesy of freelancefolder.com

courtesy of freelancefolder.com

As humans, we often are more comfortable sitting with that knot in our stomachs than we are exploring why we have that knot in the first place.

If you’re one of those writers paralyzed by fear, ask yourself how your fears are holding you back from becoming a professional screenwriter. What, specifically, are you afraid of? Pitching? Writing a first draft? Rejection?

Now imagine writers who have succeeded. Do you think that successful writer was born without fear? Close your eyes and visualize you are one of them, sitting in that pitch meeting. Do you feel the sweat on your palms? The knot in your stomach? I can tell you, without any hesitation, the best of the best have quaked in their boots many a time before they got comfortable pitching, writing, and being rejected.

It takes practice to learn how to take a fall and get back up, stronger because of it.

Pitchfests are an amazing way to get that practice. I’ve seen people pitch as many as 17 to 20 execs in a day. Imagine how much time it would take to get that number of studio meetings! Getting dozens of execs in the same room at the same time is an invaluable opportunity for a writer. Even if all of them say no, you’ll learn a hell of a lot about what the industry is looking for, how to pitch, how to connect with people, and what is working and not working in your projects.

I want to share something I discussed with my therapist the other day: The difference between “I don’t want to…” and “I cant…”

“I don’t want to” implies you are making a choice. “I can’t” means you literally cannot do something.

Take anything you are afraid of and ask if it’s an “I don’t want to” or an “I can’t.”

Let’s say you’re afraid of pitching. “I don’t want to go to a pitchfest.”

Now write down a list of reasons why. Here’s some that come to mind:

What if they hate my idea?
What if they steal my idea?
What if they laugh at me?
What if I can’t memorize my pitch and fumble like an idiot?

My response to that list… so what?

Seriously, so what? If they hate it, move onto the next pitch table and try again, or pitch a different idea. Pull one out of your ass. Toss ideas out. You’ve got nothing to lose. All it takes is one yes. If they steal the idea, no one can write it the way you can. It’s not just the idea that’s important, it’s the execution. If they laugh at you, laugh back. And trust me, no one will laugh in our faces… they do that behind our backs. I’m fine with that. As for fumbling the pitch, no exec likes a memorized pitch that sounds like you’re giving a speech. They want to have a dialogue. They want to like who you are as well as like your writing. The fact that you can memorize a pitch doesn’t mean squat in terms of your script’s quality.

So really, your answer to why you don’t want to go to a pitchfest is solved by putting your big girl panties on and getting your ass in front of those execs. If you aren’t going to ever pitch your work, why the hell are you writing and paying lip service to wanting to be a pro? Stop making excuses.

But if you’re answer is “I can’t go to a pitchfest,” then the reasons are different and out of your control, such as you can’t get time off of work, your child is sick, or you simply can’t afford the expense. Totally understandable.

But

The trick is to not keep using these excuses to continually prevent you from attending a networking event or putting your work out there. At some point, you need to decide how much you want this and get yourself to L.A. to meet people.

Save money, save up vacation time, or find good childcare.

If you continually say, “I can’t,” then you need to reexamine how much you want to be a writer. One thing is guaranteed – you can’t (and won’t) be a professional screenwriter if you never network or pitch.

Money can be saved. Schedules can be changed. Most importantly, fear can be overcome.

In We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon’s character proclaims, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

The next pitchfest I’m attending is Screenwriters World Conference in L.A. the end of this month. I’ll be the one inside and outside the Pitch Slam, cheering on the writers and giving words of encouragement. Nothing thrills me more than seeing people going after what they want in life. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

The first step is wanting it. The second step is writing it. The third step is going after it… even if it’s twenty fearless seconds at a time.

This philosophy applies to more than just becoming a professional screenwriter. It applies to your entire life. Don’t be the one holding yourself back from living the life you want and deserve.

Related Articles:

Watch ScriptMag Editor Share Her Advice on Facing Your Writing Fears

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares her personal story of facing her fears in order to propel her writing and her career. Click on the image below to watch Jeanne’s advice. In just eight minutes, you might have a whole new perspective.

get-my-free-download-blue

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Meet Jeanne at Screenwriters World Conference West September 27 – 29th

Use our editor’s discount code JEANNE913 for $50 off registration for the
All Access OR Individual Full Conference packages! 

REGISTER NOW

If you’re serious about your screenwriting career, this is an event that’s not to be missed.

screenwriters-world-banner-for-info-site

4 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Becoming a Professional Screenwriter – What’s Holding You Back?

  1. Leona Heraty

    Thanks for another wonderful article, Jeanne.

    I agree with you, we’ve got to get out there and circulate with people in the industry, and the pitch fests help us do just that. I’ve always felt that you write with integrity, from your screenwriter’s point of view, and you’re not endorsing things just because you want to promote events for Script magazine. I believe you’re endorsing pitch fests because you’ve attended them too they’ve really helped your career a lot and can help us too.

    Like you said, the more people we meet in the industry, the better. Every pitch we do is great practice for us writers, even if the outcomes aren’t always great, because we’re getting out there, circulating, and facing our fears and doing them anyway! 🙂

  2. chipstreet

    Nailed it, Jeanne. Great advice anyone can use.

    The only thing I might add is that the choice is usually really between “I can’t” and “I’m afraid to” … because the answer to “Why don’t you want to” might be voiced as “What if” but that’s usually code for “I’m afraid”. And if the fear is strong enough, it doesn’t feel like a choice. It’s hard to know, and believe, that you can choose not to be afraid. “The only thing we have to fear” and all that.

    This article isn’t just about pitch fests. It’s about taking responsibility for your fears, making a decision to overcome them, and committing to being a real writer in spite of the “I’m afraids”. In fact, probably because of them.

    I’m certain that even if John and Craig haven’t been to a pitchfest (and I suspect they haven’t) they’ve had to wrestle with the difference between “I can’t” and “I don’t want to”.

    Thanks for this!

  3. gm91606

    Jeanne, I really liked what you have to say about fear and tackling it head-on in this article, and I’ve been very impressed with your columns overall–supportive, and tough-minded at the same time. I have to disagree with the Pitchfest advice, though: John August and Craig Mazin have come out strongly against them (I think it was in this episode johnaugust.com/2013/scriptnotes-the-100th-episode), as have a lot of other professional screenwriters. August & Mazin say that there’s no point–paying money to pitchfest organizations is not productive. To the extent that companies and agencies have a presence there, they send only lowest-level interns. If you want to practice pitching, you can get that practice one-on-one–in real life, it’s something you’re specifically *invited* to do in meetings with professionals who can actually give your project a greenlight. And, unless I’m mistaken, no movie or TV series has ever been bought at a pitchfest.

    Are there any pro screenwriters not tied to Scriptmag who recommend or support attending pitchfests? If not, is it something you’d consider rethinking? As a semi-pro writer, I’m sensitive to newcomers getting sucked in to spending unnecessary money, since I see it happen a lot.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Thanks for reading it and for the link and comments. I appreciate your candor. I just want to clarify something: When I give advice about pitchfests, or anything for that matter, it’s never as an employee of ScriptMag, it’s ALWAYS as myself… a screenwriter who has spent years attending pitchfests, building my network, and developing my skills as a writer and a professional. With all due respect to Craig and John, I highly doubt they’ve ever personally attended a pitching event to be able to understand what the values are. One shouldn’t go to an event like this to sell a script. The purpose is to build relationships, get your work read, learn how to pitch, and get your feet wet.

      I’ve written before about my love of pitching events and conferences. I’ve created an incredible network of friends in the industry who are not the “underlings” you assume they are. Sure, some people listening to pitches are assistants, but guess what? Many of today’s assistants become tomorrow’s studio heads. The money is worth it. It has been for me, and I stand by my advice.

COMMENT