Writers on the Verge: How To Succeed In Screenwriting – The Do List

Every day, I work with both working and aspiring screenwriters to help push their screenwriting careers forward. While every writer takes their own, unique path to success, I have seen some commonalities emerge, i.e. things that are often done by those who do find success along their path. In my previous column, I wrote about what NOT to do as you’re working to build your screenwriting career. This time, let’s focus on the things that you SHOULD do in order to move your screenwriting career from pure aspiration to one that is effectively and consistently building.

To Do ListDO get in the habit of generating lots of ideas.

Ideas are every screenwriters’ life blood. They are the seeds of every script, every television pilot, and rarely are they just stumbled onto. Many managers get their writers in the practice of generating a set number of ideas on a regular basis, in the hopes that, in time, a winning, marketable one which capitalized on the writer’s strengths will present itself. So, get in the habit of cultivating and collecting strong cinematic ideas early. As your career progresses, this will serve you well.

DO continue to improve your craft.

Whether you’re taking a weekend workshop, opening a new screenwriting book or signing up for a screenwriting class, continue to challenge yourself to improve your craft. Working writers consistently look for new ways to access the work and for new angles into screenwriting. Similarly, writers on the verge should respect that screenwriting is, indeed, a craft, and therefore understand the necessity to continue to educate themselves.

DO work to improve velocity.

While early in your writing career you should be writing for quality and not for speed since it will take some time to get from draft to draft. As you progress from script to script, your velocity should improve as well. If writing consistently, by your third or fourth script, you should be seeing the time it takes to get from outline to final draft become significantly shorter. Once you become a working writer, expectations will be high: Pro feature writers are expected to generate a new feature spec every 4-6 months, while TV staff writers who are “in the room” often have 1 week to generate an episode.

DO get ample notes from known sources on your script.

Film is a highly collaborative medium in which many people will have to “buy into” your script and your vision in order for it come to life. Getting notes on your screenplay or pilot from reputable sources such as working producers or directors with a strong analytical eye, other writers, or reputable, paid analysts is the best way to vet the work. See where it succeeds or fails, and make any necessary adjustments in order to ensure that it’s received as you intended by the industry. Becoming a working screenwriter often means being merciless with your work. It’s the writers who are willing to sacrifice a little ego for a better screenplay who often make it to the top.

DO conduct research about your subject matter.

It’s your job to be an expert about whatever makes it into your script. No matter how big or small a detail, make sure that it’s authentic. Industry executives look for you to be an authority on the subject matter; don’t allow them to dismiss you for getting a technical detail wrong. A writer once sent me a script in which the protagonist’s cell phone was stolen, after which she promptly got in the car and made a call. When I called the screenwriter on this error – a car can not make a call without a phone in tact – the writer retorted that “well, I don’t drive, so it’s not for me to know.” If it’s in your script, you better be sure about it.

DO network regularly.

Your network is not going to be there, ready and waiting, when you emerge with your next screenplay without you putting some work into it. Therefore, while you’re writing, be sure to connect with the people in your network for coffee, or just touch base over email. Be sure to share your wins with your network – if you’ve won a screenwriting contest, launched into a working relationship with a production company, or secured representation – to continuously remind everyone in your network that you are a vetted, valid source of original content.

DO keep abreast of industry news and trends.

As an aspiring professional, it’s your responsibility to keep informed about what’s happening (in broad strokes) in the industry space. With all the great free content out there, there really is no excuse not to do your homework: Subscribe to breaking news alerts and news roundups from such sources as Studio System News and Deadline.com, and keep up with what’s happening in the spec market with Jason Scoggins’ super informative Scoggins Report, which covers both pitch and spec sales on a monthly and annual basis.

DO follow up on the work.

Once you send your work out there, don’t abandon it! Whether requested as part of a pitch event, introduced through a friend, or requested through a service like Virtual Pitch Fest, be sure to follow up professionally and consistently to ensure that the work arrived safely, and that you are available for feedback. Start by checking in with the executive on the receiving end every 2-3 weeks, to see if he had a chance to review the work. If 10 weeks pass and you’ve yet to receive an answer, then all indications are that the material is not of interest.

DO join a writers’ group.

Research is now showing what many of us in the industry have believed to be true for a long time: Writers who participate in a writers’ group on a regular basis significantly increase their chances for industry success. Writers’ groups allow the writer a safe environment to expose her work; by starting to receive notes on ideas, outlines and even pages from early on in the process, you will become a better writer faster, learn how to take notes, and develop your ability to work collaboratively.

DO build a clear and concise brand.

In an industry where everyone sells something to someone, how will you be positioned for success? The Apple Computers example is one that I often find works best: For nearly 20 years, Apple Computers focused on creating the best, sleekest, sexiest personal computer. Only after the overwhelming success of the iMac and the Think Different campaign, was the brand able to begin its long road into diversification with the launch of the iPod, and many other products that came after it, which myself and many of my colleagues use every day. It is in the best interest of the writer to create a clear, convincing and compelling brand. Don’t believe me? Check out my Give The Banana to the Monkey column which I wrote for Script Mag a few months back.

DO adhere to industry standards.

Industry standards – from page count to formatting to story beats – have been used by the industry for years; in order to become a go-to content creator, you first have to prove that these are rules you can, indeed, play by. While it’s easy to determine whether you’ve kept to such standards as page count, font type and size and, of course, pagination with just a quick glance, executives will be reading your work to determine whether you understand cinematic structure and all of its nuances, regardless of whose terminology (Save the Cat!, Chris Vogler, Michael Hauge, etc.) you utilize when constructing the work.

DO set achievable goals.

The industry can be a tough place to succeed – don’t make it harder on yourself by setting unrealistic goals that fall outside of your control. While short of generating great content and showing up to play you have no control over whether you will succeed or fail, setting consistent, ambitious achievable goals for yourself can take you a long way. Never set a goal of getting signed by representation, getting an option for one of your scripts, or even, for that matter, winning an Oscar or an Emmy. Those outcomes are not ones that are within your control, and therefore likely to set you up for failure and frustration. Instead, set goals that may take some effort, but can be attained: Instead of setting a goal to get an agent, set a goal of pitching your script to x number of representation executives in a given year, or meeting representation executives who could ultimately become fans of your work through screenwriting conferences and networking events.

DO set realistic expectations.

A screenwriting career doesn’t happen over night. No one (except for my client Scotty) shows up to the industry and lands a writing assignment that goes into production in less than 12 months. Before you pack your bags, move to Los Angeles and make a go of a screenwriting career, be sure to understand the basic “what it takes” timelines. For writers who are continuously writing, networking, building relationships and getting their work out there, it usually takes 3 to 10 years to build their screenwriting career, if it happens at all. That’s 3 to 10 years of countless near-misses, consistent hard work, ongoing dedication, and resilience in the face of doubt and disappointment.

Building a screenwriting career is not easy by any account, but it can be done. I see it happen all the time. Just this morning I spoke to one client who is developing his script with a prominent NYC producer, while another is on a tech scout for his feature film that will be in production by the time this column publishes. Just in the last few months, my clients got signed by managers at Benderspink, Caliber and Silent R, got their material optioned, and saw their careers make real strides. They’ve worked hard. They’ve stayed on it. They were consistent, and deliberate and smart. And now, finally, their careers, each in its own unique way, are starting to materialize. There are no guarantees in this industry. But if you start following some of the DO’s above and the DON’T's I published in another column last month, you will give yourself a real, bonafide fighting chance.

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