The other day I was exchanging e-mails with a writer about a couple of scripts of his I had read, which had some good things about them but ultimately weren’t where they needed to be. He was really upset about it, and after hearing his side, I understood why. He had spent the last two years throwing his heart and soul into this craft and he really thought these scripts were it, that he’d finally figured it out. To hear that he hadn’t was a crushing blow. After that moment comes, where you think you’ve hit your peak only to find out you haven’t, what do you do? Where do you go? It’s a helpless feeling because how do you get better when you’ve already done everything you possibly can to succeed?
Well the truth is, you haven’t done it all. There is always something you can work on or do more of in the craft of screenwriting. So for those folks out there who are frustrated as hell and feel like they’ve hit a wall, here are nine things (sorry, I can’t count to ten) that you should be doing to maximize your potential as a screenwriter and cut down the time it takes to break in. These are not things that I’m thinking up off the top of my head. This is advice I’ve watched many others break through with over the last five years.
Uhhh, wait a minute. Didn’t I just say this was going to be about speeding things up? Yes, it is, but you have to put things in perspective. Did you know that it takes most screenwriters an average of 7-8 years before they break in? That’s right. 7-8 years. If you think you’re ready for the big leagues after 2 years of scribbling, by that same logic you should be able to apply for the lead heart surgeon job at Cedar-Sinai after two years of undergrad. Get real. People think screenwriting is easy cause they’ve seen a lot bad movies. Think again. There are hundreds of things you have to learn, practice, and perfect before your scripts can stand toe-to-toe with the big boys. That takes time. Did you know that Allan Loeb, the screenwriter who’s making more money than any other screenwriter in the business right now, didn’t sell his first script until his 12th year trying? I’m not saying it’ll take you that long. If you have a great hook and solid execution and you’re in the right spot at the right time, you could sell your script tomorrow. But the point is…don’t put unrealistic expectations on this craft. It’s a lot harder than you think it is. Just keep working at it and when it’s your time, it’s your time.
PICK A GOOD IDEA BEFORE YOU START WRITING
Blake Snyder popularized this approach and I wholeheartedly agree with it. Get approval on your logline from others before writing your next screenplay. Good God please do this. There is nothing worse than spending a year of your life on a script only to find out that no one was interested in the idea in the first place. Yet this is one of the biggest mistakes writers make. Over and over and over again. Even if you’re writing a character piece, make sure it has some kind of hook that an audience would want to pay money to see. To find out if your logline stacks up, simply mix it in with nine other loglines from a pool of recent spec sales, dummy ideas, and misc. loglines, then send that list off to ten friends. Ask them to rank the loglines from their favorite to their least favorite. Where your logline consistently finishes should tell you whether that script’s worth writing or not. (Don’t simply ask your friends if they like an idea. Friends lie to be nice).
READ ALL THE BOOKS
You have to read the major screenwriting books. Even if you think they’re bogus and a sham. Read them. Why? Because I read too many scripts where writers don’t even know the basics of the 3-Act structure. And those are always the worst scripts by a mile. Remember, if you’re pursuing this screenwriting thing, I’m presuming you want to make a career out of it. For that reason, study it just like you’d study for any career. Immerse yourself in it. That includes consuming ideas and theories from people you don’t agree with. Warren Buffet may not believe in short-term investing, but you can bet your ass he’s studied the hell out of it. What I’ve found is that sooner or later, every writer finds an author that they understand, that lays out an approach that works for them. You can’t find that person unless you read everyone. For a list of books I recommend, go here (don’t forget to check out the comments section where other Scriptshadow readers offer suggestions).
JOIN AN ONLINE SCREENWRITING COMMUNTIY
There are several screenwriting communities on the web, a couple of the most popular being Triggerstreet and Done Deal. If you haven’t joined them already, do it now. Read the most popular posts. Get to know the people who know what they’re talking about. Read their posts more closely. Don’t be the guy who has to prove he knows everything. Instead, be nice, be courteous, befriend people. What you’ll receive in return for that friendship is way more important than any satisfaction you’ll receive from proving someone wrong. Read that sentence again. It may be the most important sentence you read in your life. Once inside this community, find people who are at your level. START TRADING YOUR MATERIAL WITH THEM. Give each other feedback. Writers groups are invaluable to helping you improve. On Done Deal, I watched as every couple of months another writer would break through. If you were the nice guy, the one who respected and helped people, there’s a good chance that sooner or later, one of those people you helped is going to be the one that breaks through. And that person very well might be the one who passes your script to their agent and starts your career. I’ve seen it happen before.
I used to hate contests. Used to think contests were stupid. Contests are not stupid. They’re invaluable. Why? Not because they give you a chance to win 30,000 dollars. I could care less about that. Because they keep you on track, because they keep you focused, because they give you deadlines, because they chart your progress. The truth is, you’re probably not going to win any of these contests. But when you start getting good, you’ll see your screenplays advance and you’ll start to gain confidence that what you’re doing is working. Some of the best contests include Nicholl, Zoetrope, Austin, Bluecat, Script Pimp, Scriptapalooza, and Amazon. But there are many many more. Check out Moviebytes for a list.
WRITE WITHIN THE GENRES YOU LIKE
If you don’t live and die for movies like Liar Liar and There’s Something About Mary, don’t write goofy high-concept comedies. Your heart won’t be in it. Write the kind of movies you love. Even better, stay within one genre. Live, eat and breathe that genre. Watch every movie in that genre. Read every movie in that genre. Make sure you know it inside out. Then pick an awesome hook, one your friends are excited about, and write it. Sometimes we get great ideas in genres we don’t know very well or aren’t fans of. I’m not saying you should never move outside your comfort zone or experiment, but spend the majority of your time on your meat and potatoes, the genres you know and love. If you ignore this advice, you’re going to find yourself six months down the road with a good idea and a shitty script, desperately trying to work up the enthusiasm to write another scene, mumbling, “Why the hell did I write this thing again? I don’t even like musicals.”
GET YOUR QUERY ON
I see all these writers throwing up their hands claiming that it’s impossible to get their script read. No it isn’t. I know an amateur writer with no contacts who just did an e-mail query blast and got over 30 script requests from bona fide Hollywood agents and managers. How do you do this? Start with the last three Black Lists (you can get them here). After each logline, they list the writer’s manager and agent. Jot down every one of those managers and agents who represent a script similar to your own. Do some good old fashioned googling to get their numbers and e-mails, then contact them with a solid query. Simple as that. If you get no response, it may be that your idea doesn’t have a good hook (see suggestion #2). But it also might mean that you’re aiming too high. Remember, when you’re a minnow, you’re probably not ready to swim with the big fishes. The good news is, there are minnow managers and minnow agents just like there are minnow writers. You’re asking someone to take a chance on you. So you may have to take a chance on someone else. Comb through the names and e-mails of the medium and small-time agencies on http://www.hcdonline.com/ (it comes with a subscription fee) and you’re bound to find people who will read your scripts.
This advice shouldn’t come as a surprise. You’re on a site about reading scripts. Naturally, I want you to read as many scripts as possible. And I mean AS MANY AS POSSIBLE. Hundreds if you can. I would even recommend taking four months off of writing and just reading scripts. I’m serious. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that has come even remotely close to teaching me screenwriting. It’s so helpful it almost seems like cheating. It’s the reason so many professional readers have gone on to sell screenplays. Yet writers STILL avoid it. It baffles me. Now because things have gotten so crazy lately, you’re probably asking, well where the hell do I find these screenplays? All I can say is they’re out there. I’m sure the commenters will list a few places to look. But if you just want to get started, go over to Simply Scripts and read the amateur as well as professional screenplays on their site (yeah – you have to read the bad ones too). Try to read scripts from which you haven’t seen the movie.
LOWER THE DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY
First and foremost, write inside the genres you love and write what moves you. But since this list is written in part to help you cross the finish line sooner, I’m going to give you a tip. If you want to sell a screenplay now, lower your degree of difficulty. A lot of writers I see getting agents and optioning scripts do so with a simple formula: High concept easy-to-understand ideas with a clear objective for the main character. A guy is in a coffin, he needs to get out. A guy is on a train that keeps blowing up, he needs to find the terrorist. A guy is stuck in a building with terrorists, he needs to save his wife. No, this formula doesn’t limit you to thrillers. Your script can be about an over-the-hill fighter who gets a shot at the heavyweight championship (Rocky), a hockey player with anger issues who has to play on the golf tour to save his grandmother’s house (Happy Gilmore) or a college professor who goes on a trek to find the Ark Of The Covenant (Raiders). Simple clean storylines with simple clean objectives that have a strong hook. Don’t try to write Lord of The Rings. Don’t try to write Avatar. Don’t try to write that huge sprawling period epic with fifteen subplots and several main characters (L.A. Confidential). You may love those movies. But those movies are ridiculously hard to pull off and even if you do, execs won’t read them if they’re from an unknown writer. Instead, keep it easy for yourself. You want to write a 1930s period piece? Write about a corrupt 1930s cop who’s got 72 hours to kill his captain. The simplified high concept will get your script way more reads (increasing your chances of selling it) and the simplified plot will provide way less traps for you to fall into. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is that you’ll get to write your weird wily sci-fi fantasy epics once you’re a sold respected screenwriter whose name alone will get your scripts read.