Create a winning writing career: Barri Evins’ coaches you on how the power of “swinging through the ball” – not at it – to reach your target for success.
A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
I’m far from a serious sports player, but I do know it’s no coincidence that many sporting metaphors are applied to the notion of achieving success in a wide variety of fields. They often revolve around hard work, persistence and determination – all key ingredients for a building a strong writing career. The one that’s been resonating with me lately is from the world of golf:
“Swing through the ball.”
While “keep your eye on the ball” is one of those time-worn adages considered a fundamental in many sports, golf instructors advise “swing through the ball” to get you to focus on completing the full swing for maximum success. The goal is to override our natural inclination to prioritize hitting the damn ball above all else.
According to golf guru, Ken Lee, in his article, “Swing Through the Ball Not At It: Golf Tips For More Distance”:
Golfers who see the ball as the ultimate destination will undoubtedly start to decelerate shortly before impact. This happens because your mind has been trained to coordinate – more or less – the end of your swing with the wrongly defined final act – the ball. This kind of swing will result in slapping the ball, instead of striking the ball with the full force generated by your body.
It is counterintuitive for us to not focus on hitting the ball. When your attention is on the great swing rather than on the ball, you inevitably hit the ball in the process, but with more power, making it travel a greater distance toward its ultimate destination.
As a screenwriter, it’s easy to fixate on “hitting the ball,” but the path to career success lies in focusing on the swing to achieve the force and distance necessary to get where you ultimately want to go. It’s not about hitting the small ball on the wooden tee, but traversing that huge fairway that lies between where you are now and where you want to end up – landing on the green, as near to the flag as possible, and getting the ball into that little hole as efficiently as you can. Then doing it again. And again. That’s the path to building a career.
See how those nifty sports metaphors aptly apply to other endeavors?
The Contest Win
For many writers, contests are the first and most accessible path to getting a foot in the door – and your career off the ground. But if you’re focused solely on hitting the ball – becoming one of the few winners out of hundreds or thousands of players – you’re not making the most of your swing.
With many contests announcing who did and did not make the cut at this time of year, I’ve noticed writer friends on Facebook bemoaning placing high, but not winning. I’ve also known writer friends who have won, yet failed to receive a career bump.
It’s easy to imagine that winning a prestigious contest is a surefire path down the fairway to career success but, like hitting the ball, the win should not be your target.
Writers choose contests for a variety of reasons: prestige, prizes, feedback, exposure, and measuring improvement from draft to draft, but remember – they are only a steppingstone to getting where you want to go.
The win is not the target. Think past that as your goal. Whether you score the championship or just come close, your focus should be on how to parlay your accomplishment:
Contests are validating in the eyes of the industry. Doing well in a contest is a significant boost toward introducing yourself to someone in the business, from query letters to pitches. It declares that someone else – judges, readers, or industry pros – thinks you write well, and that makes people working in the industry astronomically more likely to believe that as well.
Contests may bring requests to read your scripts from industry professionals. This is an exciting step forward, but again, not the be all and end all. The odds are very high that you will get a pass. Even more likely? No reply at all. But a pass is actually an opportunity to establish a relationship – if you see it as a door peeking open rather than a door being slammed in your face. Chances are, your pass – if you get one – will be an industry standard, polite, “thanks, but not for us.” But if, by chance, you also get some positive feedback on your writing, ask if you can get in touch again when you have new material. Inquire as to what they are looking for. You’re gathering valuable information and just might have what they need. Thank them for replying, showing that you’re polite and professional, rather than pouting about a pass. These responses pave the way for ongoing dialogue – a very worthy career target.
A contest win, place, or show, makes solid material for updates with insiders. You now have some legit news to share with the industry pros you’ve met along the way. This enables you to further develop existing relationships by dropping them an email, reminding them of how you know them, and underscoring your career progress.
These are concrete ways that contests can boost careers when you don’t see the win as the final destination.
Representation: The Career Holy Grail… Sorta
The happy ending that dominates the fantasies of most aspiring writers is representation – agent, manager, or even lawyer. While there is some good info out there on “How To Get An Agent,” again, you’ve got to swing through the ball. While “Representationland” may be the happiest place on Earth, it’s what you do when you get there that counts.
While arriving in Representationland is a big step forward, reps are not gonna caddy for you. Your career is still in your hands. It’s up to you to fill up your bag with clubs and lug it down the course.
Provide reps with the tools to do their job – that means generating a steady flow of compelling new ideas and creating well-written, marketable material. Relentlessly continue working to find new opportunities by building relationships, and keeping your ear to the ground for ways to move your career forward. If you have an industry connection that could pay off – such as a fellow writer who is now staffed on a show or an assistant who is a fan of your work and has been promoted – pass it along to your agent. Don’t wait for them to take all the shots. Help them help you build your career.
A proactive client is a desirable client.
Empower your rep to be a partner on your path to career success.
First Sale: The Finish Line! Not.
You’ve been a consistently great player and finally won a tournament! Time to hit the clubhouse for drinks and merriment, right? Nope. Here’s where the real work on your career as a writer begins.
The hazards of the course are far from behind you. Now you’re “in development,” with a whole new 18 holes ahead and far more challenging hazards to negotiate. Expect to encounter daunting sand traps and navigate perilous water hazards. They may look pretty, but they’re bound to make your journey tough. That’s why it’s called “Development Hell.”
The big secret to making it through this round so you can play again?
Be good to work with.
Sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s not.
You will be interacting with development executives, producers, studio execs and, hopefully, directors and actors. Suddenly there’s a boatload of people in the room, along with their opinions and agendas, and it’s up to you to keep rowing.
Your job as a writer getting paid to write is to be an interpreter, a therapist, a contortionist, and, oh yeah, the visionary that keeps the story on track too.
Often execs are great at pointing out problems, but coming up with solutions is solidly in your court. Or perhaps something’s not working but it’s hard for them to articulate the problem. They just want it to be better. It’s your job to figure out what’s bothering them below the surface, how to fix it, and then implement those changes without wrecking the story. All the while ensuring that everyone feels heard, and taking their opinions into account.
Hang onto your balls, kiddo. Because as if that isn’t enough, if you’re hoping to have a long and productive career, be prepared to be “a good sport” when you get fired from your own project.
Yup. You can’t get teed off. Damn sports metaphors.
Being a good sport may sound impossible under these circumstances but, if you can achieve it, you will prove you’re good to work with. And you leave tons of good will in your wake, enough so that you might even have a chance to be brought back onto your own project. I’ve seen it happen.
If You Want A Career, Swing For The Fences
While aiming for a career in writing, always remember that the ball is not the target. That’s short run thinking. You need to play the long game where merely being “up to par” is not good enough.
Swinging through the ball creates momentum that goes past mere impact. Career success is all about going the distance. The power that carries you through the swing is the same momentum you’ll need for a successful writing career.
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