10 Years, 10 Lessons; My Decade Long Journey Becoming a Professional Screenwriter and What It’s Taught Me | Script Revolution

10 Years, 10 Lessons; My Decade Long Journey Becoming a Professional Screenwriter and What It’s Taught Me

Introduction: 

Today marks my ten year anniversary in screenwriting. I like to think I have quite a bit to show for it now I’m a writer-producer with a few feature films, my own production company, a book on craft, and a script hosting platform to my name. That said, I’ve lost a lot too in a bid to survive long enough to break in. It’s been a hell of a journey that’s tested the fortitude of my mental health to its limits. Something I’m sure many of you can relate to. Let’s take a look back down memory lane and see what lessons have been learned - CJ

I keep a lot of notes and thus have been able to trawl back through the years and revisit the achievements I’ve made and the frustrations I’ve struggled with during that time. What follows is a brutal and honest reflection of each year with nothing sanitised to turn it into a fairytale. What you learn here may surprise and even upset you. You’ve been warned.

I don’t share all this in an effort to pat myself on the back, although I am very proud of what I’ve achieved. I share this because I feel the journey is all too often grossly misrepresented by both our peers and those trying to exploit our hope for easy money. I also share this because I know many of you will be some years into chasing your own dream and facing a feeling of bleakness along with the added worry that you are all alone. You’re not. The struggle for the average person outside of Hollywood, with no connections into the industry, trying to break into one of the most hyper-competitive jobs that exists should not be under-estimated. Screenwriting is in no way the get rich quick scheme it’s often made out to be and it is so much more than selling scripts to big studios. We need to stop allowing this profession to be misrepresented and help others see a typical career for what it is so that those yet to break-in themselves can plan realistically for how they are going to tackle the next ten years facing them.

Year 1 (2012)

Started writing fiction for the first time in my life after a mental breakdown brought on by my previous career. Poured all my energy into two screenplays but didn’t know what to do with the them or how to even start building a career in screenwriting. Ended up turning to self-publishing instead because I could at least see a route to making an income. Wrote a novella then a novel and ended up depressed with chronic insomnia which I hid from my family who were really impressed and supportive that I was trying to become a writer. Listened to ScriptNotes for advice and read Save the Cat while completing my third script. The Black List launched and I thought it was going to be the magic bullet I needed. Started strong with high ratings on my material but then got a couple of evaluations so negative they tanked my average scores. Ended up on suicide watch during Christmas.

Lessons Learned

While writing can be our spiritual saviour, trying to turn it into a career can quickly become living hell. All that positive creative energy pushes against a wall of frustration fuelled by the fact we simply don’t know where to start when it comes to getting eyes on our material. Our reaction can be to either stick our head in the sand and keep writing or put all our hope into the services out there which seem to provide a relatively easy route to breaking in. Either way, that’s dangerous for our wellbeing, especially when we have to face the difficult reality of subjectivity.

Year 2 (2013)

Wrote a fun comedy script to cheer me up since writing was my main form of happiness and I now hated normal work. Had one of my previous scripts picked as a Notable Project by Amazon Studios (they only picked 50 out of 9,000) and was retweeted to their 28K Twitter followers to little response. Found friends standoffish about my dream to become a working screenwriter so kept a lot of what I was going through to myself. Frantically re-wrote existing scripts based on feedback and peer reviews while writing new features in the hope of catching the trends at the time. Got told by a peer that I desperately needed to pay her for her “professional” notes as she claimed my work looked amateurish. Created my own personal website with a strong bio to help promote myself. Tried InkTip with no luck. Read a lot of books on screenwriting and filmmaking and saw a dramatic improvement in craft but was still rewriting based mainly on feedback from peers. Went back to the Black List and saw even more polarisation with scores as low as two overall. Realised how insane it is to try and sell a feature spec in today’s marketplace which is focused on IP and turned to writing short scripts which led to me getting my first read request, my first option, and having a short film produced which was so touching to some it made them cry. I was elated but peers seemed angry at my success rather than happy for me. Told my family about depression and suicidal thoughts which was hard for them to hear but they understood and supported me. Finished the year writing shorts with one really hitting home in terms of my artistic voice.

Lessons Learned

Living or dying based on one or two opinions is foolish because someone much more influential might love our scripts despite others hating them. That said, influential in the world of film often isn’t what we think it is as even the large entities can struggle to move the needle in areas such as social media. While the reactions of industry members can mess with our heads, it pays to be more wary of our peers who can give us detrimental advice, resent our success, and even try to exploit us as a source of income. Ultimately though, we have to accept just how high the bar we are trying to clear is set and if we realistically stand a chance of clearing it.

Year 3 (2014)

Went into the year with a view of investing in myself via competitions and querying since that’s what other writers kept advising was the best route to breaking in. Entered Page and Austin but didn’t get past the quarterfinals/second-rounds. Purchased contact lists and queried like crazy to a load of email addresses that turned out to be dead. Did get my first read request however with a low ranking manager… which went nowhere. A writer on the DoneDealPro forum that I’d befriended convinced me I didn’t have what it takes to break in on the basis I couldn’t get an 8 on the Black List or make the semi-finals of a competition. Tried to quit but couldn’t as I was obsessed with writing. Ended up joining Stage 32 to share what I’d learnt in a much friendlier forum and was invited to guest blog which went down really well. Proactively networked there and via social media while constantly tweaking my bio and offering to look as professional as possible. Got approached to write a web series for a model that went nowhere but taught me a lot about meeting and collaborating remotely. Started writing treatments before drafting features but lost track of my artistic voice as I was continuing to chase trends. Depression, suicidal thoughts, and insomnia returned as progress waned along with money problems meaning I could only write at weekends. Got promoted by Amazon Studios again, this time on Facebook, and again to little response. Started doing peer reviews and really questioning my own ability due to the damning tone of the feedback I was sometimes getting but also still writing and optioning short scripts to filmmakers which led to my first IMDb credit. Ended the year disillusioned with Hollywood and keen to work my way up from the bottom into the global indie world.

Lessons Learned

Being an amateur writer within the break-in scene is an incredibly tough place to be and we often have to learn the hard way that many of the people around us do not have our best interests at heart. Most of what’s available to us to purchase is ineffective and it’s a huge mistake to think any lack of success from it is necessarily a reflection on our ability. It’s a jagged pill to swallow, especially when we’re excited at the prospect of making blockbuster feature films and see it as a path to a better life, but we have to be prepared to start at the very bottom and slowly work our way up, which has the double benefit of giving us more time to focus on honing our craft and voice.

Year 4 (2015)

Became obsessed with the craft of storytelling to the point I’d developed my own story structure model called Turn & Burn. Optioned short scripts like crazy. Continued to guest blog for Stage 32 while also networking and was able to engage and learn from working industry members on their platform. Still didn’t feel validated as a writer and got so close to suicide I was rushed into therapy. Came to realise a lot of my anxiety and negative thoughts were stemming from the opinions of other amateur writers while feeling the industry was closed off behind a dysfunctional pay-wall. Decided to stop seeking out feedback and focus on what I’d learned from all the books I’d read, despite it going against the advice typically given within screenwriting communities. Put all my scripts on my website so they could be read by visitors at their leisure. Started to get approached by producers and directors and had name passed around. Got my first positive fan comments from people aware of my work. Had an actress recommend the management agency and production company that repped her read my script… but they passed. Continued to focus on the short film world where I was writing new stories weekly, getting a lot of options, and learning a lot about working with directors and producers. Attended my first in person meet-up at Raindance during the Stage 32 drinks meet and felt I had finally found my tribe. Wrote my first treatment for a director who’d optioned a short and went on to request I expanded it into a feature.

Lessons Learned

We’re almost certainly not going to find a personal mentor who can guide us through the industry and explain everything to us on a daily basis. The next best thing are the books written by successful people and the sporadic advice from working screenwriters that may occasionally cross our path. The answers are absolutely not within the people around us who are just as lost as we are. Very few aspiring screenwriters study the craft in much depth which means their feedback isn’t going to be much use when it comes to taking material to the next level. We are actually better off keeping the opinions of those are failing out of our heads as they often want to paint over our work in attempt to turn it into their own.

Year 5 (2016)

The short I expanded into a feature went nowhere while most of the options I had on my short scripts (over thirty!) kept expiring with next to nothing made, and what little was made was either terrible, nothing close to the script, or did nothing at the festivals. While my mental health was improving thanks to therapy, medication, and exercise, I did a lot of reflecting and rebuilding. Revamped my website into something more sophisticated with posters for all my scripts to help communicate the content and tone. I took my energy away from answering basic repetitive forum questions and put that into expanding my Turn & Burn model into an online screenwriting guide which detailed my writing process. Got approached by yet another time waster with no money or credits and resigned to the assumption I’d probably never sell a feature script since it had already been five years now. Got sick and tired of seeing so many other screenwriters in the same position who were with giving up so I built Script Revolution to give everyone a free place to host their portfolio. Kinda quit through sheer exhaustion and went back to watching a ton of old movies and reading books. This awakened something with me and I become inspired to go back to writing features, but this time doubling down on my pulpy artistic voice unapologetically while focusing on low-budget single location concepts and sticking to my new self-developed process which involved a lot of pre-writing to help focus creativity and avoid the need for redrafting. Had some of most indulgent fun I’d had writing since the year I first started.

Lessons Learned

If the opinions of other people don’t gradually get us down, the reality of getting scripts made, even at a short film level can do the same. The feeling of futility is palpable and few in power want to make meaningful change as selling hope is far more profitable. If we’re not careful, we can lose faith in ourselves, especially if we’ve made the mistake of deviating significantly from our true voice and calling. Taking a break to reflect and revisit the very films that caused us to fall in love with cinema in the first place is incredibly powerful and can rekindle that dying flame.

Year 6 (2017)

Completed one of the best scripts I’ve ever written yet also one of the cheapest to produce. Didn’t go seeking feedback on it. Didn’t enter it in any competitions or go querying. Didn’t go back to the Black List. Simply uploaded it to my own site and Script Revolution and got back to writing another feature with the same mentality and process. Script Revolution itself grew slowly and consistently in size to over 1,000 members and 2,000 scripts. Any new methods I established on craft I added to my Turn & Burn guide which was now helping other writers rethink their writing process and approach to career building. Got married, kept blogging on Medium and my own platform while growing my social media following to over 30K followers. Stuck by my convictions about craft and artistry even when it pissed people off. The response to my pulpy single location script was amazing and I got my first request to option one of my feature scripts from a credited producer in Vancouver who felt it was the best script they’d ever read. Really started enjoying writing again and no longer cared what anybody thought about my work. Wrote the most powerful blog post I’d ever written.

Lessons Learned

We can’t plant those marketing seeds early enough as they can grow to some surprising numbers over time. Blogging also needs to be seen as an effective form of networking, providing we are talking about the craft, the industry, and what we’ve learned rather than using it as a shameless self-promotional tool to hawk our scripts. The ultimate validation is always going to be industry members wanting to produce our work so it’s their opinion that matters above all else. Sticking to our guns despite all the fear and doubt that’s pushed onto us can be a real test of nerves that eventually pays off in dividends when we align with people on the same wavelength.

Year 7 (2018)

Signed the paperwork on my first ever feature option and got on with writing another pulpy single location script while continuing to lean heavily into my artistic voice. Was approached by Shane Stanley, an Emmy award winning director and executive producer of the global box office #1 hit, Gridiron Gang. Shane had gotten into my blogs after being tipped off about them and, wondering if my writing lived up to my opinions, went to my website, found a poster that drew him in, and checked out some of my work. He loved it so much it rekindled his own love of film and asked me if I wanted a paid assignment - I jumped at the chance. Later that year, drafts of Break Even circulated with the likes of Dylan Penn, Kim Basinger, and Charlie Sheen. I got involved with casting and pitching for the first time and, come December, we got our go ahead to make the film from our financier. Sadly, while everything came together in my life in terms of filmmaking, everything fell apart in terms of my marriage. The struggle had simply become too much for my partner who did not like the world of film at all.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes years of work all comes together things suddenly start moving fast. Those blog posts get in front of the right people because of those shares on social media, they follow your links to your portfolio, they read your material there and then, while still excited, your true artist voice is there confidently on the page and an powerful connection is made. Now all that work on craft, studying of filmmaking history, and practice working with amateur short film makers comes into its own as we’re able to hit the floor running with a highly professional approach and development process. When it comes to the good times however, those fleeting moments of success, they are rarely pure and often tainted which can make them hard to enjoy fully when we finally get there. Enjoying the journey is far more import and far more achievable.

Year 8 (2019)

Got my first IMDb credit for a feature film along with my first payment for writing which felt like a King’s ransom given I was earning less than living wage. News of my new film generated a lot of interest in my other features. We attached Steve Guttenberg. Flew out to LA to be a guest on set and watch my script come to life. Also took the opportunity to visit the Stage 32 offices to close the loop from aspiring writer 5,000 miles away in England to working screenwriter in town making a movie. Returned home to divorce, moving back in with my parents, and directors asking for rewrites who had no money or credits. Despite worrying I’d become yet another screenwriter with only one film to their name, Shane resurfaced from editing with a new assignment and the offer of a co-producer credit given my level of involvement on Break Even which now had a trailer, a poster, was at the film markets and making it on to the front page of Business of Film magazine. Started working closely with Shane to write features we could get funded, realistically make, and suited the market. Still putting a lot of time and energy into Script Revolution which was now up to 5,000 members and 6,000 scripts.

Lessons Learned

When you’re hot, you’re hot. Success begets more success. That said, Hollywood isn’t likely to come knocking at our door because we made one low-budget indie film. It’s best if we’re prepared to get our hands dirty by going outside of our role of writer to help where needed as this can mean a promotion comes later. Writing to suit the market tends to be a core strategy of producers but we rarely adopt the same mindset as writers. This shouldn’t mean compromising our voices or jumping on fads and should mean writing with budget, logistics, and market demand in mind so the vast majority of filmmakers can realistically produce something that will sell to distributors.

Year 9 (2020)

In the midst of a lot of podcast interviews about my career and Script Revolution, Shane and I got the green-light for a small festival type script I’d written in just three days based on a loose idea he’d given to me. We had an Oscar nominee and an actress I’ve loved for years about to attach when Covid hit and there was no way we were putting an older actor at risk. Nearly got pulled into the world of family friendly Christian dramas because producers liked what we were doing on a budget but I knew it was an absurd diversion artistically. Poured time into Script Revolution during lockdown and formed various high-profile partnerships. Break Even found a distributor and got a big DVD deal with Walmart. Looked like we weren’t going to make a movie that year but a chance meeting with actress and stunt performer Daniel C Ryan and her manager at the time led to a rapid collaboration where we funded, developed, and shot our new feature Double Threat in record time despite the pandemic. I was now working and talking with Shane on a daily basis and a producing partner on our new projects. Still blogging heavily, still writing when I could. Finally paid something for Final Draft - an upgrade to the copy I’d been gifted prior! Formed my own production company Rebelle Rouser and, while news of Double Threat was circulating in Deadline, Break Even released in North America with an online launch party, coverage in US Weekly, and with Steve Guttenberg promoting the film on KTLA Morning News. Script Revolution got a mention in a Film Courage YouTube interview that drove so much new traffic it crashed the server.

Lessons Learned

Much like the way scripts are eventually discovered due to the right people connecting, the world of getting film projects off the ground is much the same. Chance connections make all the difference and we have to make sure we’re putting ourselves out there authentically while also not getting sucked into diversions that don’t sit right with us. Again, after a very painful and frustrating wait, things can suddenly move at light-speed, so we need to be prepared to keep up when needed. Even if we don’t intend to become producers, that expansion of our remit is likely to occur naturally when we care passionately about making movies that matter.

Year 10 (2021)

More and more interviews along with things like a twitter Q&A for Pipeline Writers UK while lockdown is continued. I had a tough time with the polarised reviews that come with releasing a low budget film and that, combined with the loneliness of lockdown, not being able to travel out to be on the set of Double Threat, and the stress of running Script Revolution nearly caused my mental health to falter. Being closely involved with the post-production of Double Threat, including the editing process which moved incredibly fast, really perked me up. Moved quickly with Shane to setup our next project and, since nothing we had on file suited our logistical situation, I turned a concept I’d been toying with into a new script called Night Train on which I was a producing partner once again. Rather than make our lives any harder than they needed to be, we made the choice to cast a lot of old friends from previous projects who all jumped at the chance. Script Revolution got it’s first mention in a mainstream publication (Movie Maker Magazine) and reached 10,000 members just before its fifth anniversary with success stories for writers now flowing in. Couldn’t attend the shoot of Night Train due, once again, to the pandemic travel ban but, due to being approached by a book publisher, I was able to put my energy into expanding my online guide into a fully fledged book on craft and career building Turn & Burn: The Scriptwriter’s Guide to Writing Better Screenplays Faster which went to #1 in hottest new releases in screenwriting. Now being invited and paid to attend events as an industry member with Script Revolution listed in Script Reader Pro’s top screenwriting websites. Finished the decade with three features to name, a production company, a published book on craft, and a well respected script hosting platform.

Lessons Learned

It never rains, it pours and Rome wasn’t built in a day. The little things we are doing now can become big things in time as the cumulative effect of all the efforts comes to fruition. All that self-doubt we felt for years can seem ridiculous in hindsight and we can eventually become vindicated despite a lot of hate and criticism being thrown at us. Much like the characters in our stories, we are on our own journey with our own developmental arc that requires us to go through our own pain before we can see our own flaws, overcome them, and go on to succeed.

Decoding The Decade

It’s important you know something here; nobody in the industry really knows I exist. While I may have a few feature films under my belt and an IMDb presence that’s put me as high as in the top 50k of most popular industry members over (which includes actors, directors, and everybody else), things feel very much as they did before I started making movies. Producers reach out to me very infrequently and now tend to have less producing experience than I have. Reps in the form of agents and managers don’t approach me and have never done so in ten years. Nobody who’s attached themselves to my work have read any of my spec scripts and few even follow me back on social media. Neither of the local filmmaking schools respond to my emails asking if there are ways I can help and inspire their students. I'm not allowed any blue ticks on the likes of Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. This idea that an aspiring screenwriter will get their Cinderella moment when, much like a Fairy Godmother, a rep materialises out of nowhere to whisk them off to Hollywood needs to be put to bed. It just doesn’t seem to happen and those that force it, by bombarding low status reps until they get signed, never seem to go anywhere afterwards. The fact is, selling scripts and getting work as a screenwriter is so damn hard even those whose profession is to make that happen struggle to get meaningful results. The struggle itself doesn’t really end.

What’s needed with us is a remarkable about of self-sufficiency, stamina, artistic integrity, and a willingness to swerve into the dirt to go around the roadblocks. Aspiring screenwriters don’t just face the seemingly insurmountable task of getting noticed within one of the most competitive fields in the world but also a quagmire of misinformation and false opportunity perpetuated by deluded peers, entitled gurus, and predatory opportunists. Navigating through all this is a brutal mental battle for even the most resilient of souls made all the more maddening for those yet to fully appreciate that this is ultimately a form of art and thus comes with all the associated fickleness and subjectivity. Those chasing some sort of logic, perhaps in the form of writing rules, feedback, and ranked scoring are only going to exhaust themselves going in circles while potentially losing track of the very things that makes them unique and thus valuable.

The smart writers are the ones who sidestep the stupidity of crowds and put their precious life energy into their learning, their networking, and of course, their passion for writing something authentic and meaningful, all while maintaining a level of humility that means they see no shame in starting right at the bottom and working their way up slowly over a protracted period time.

My ten year story might not be the stuff that Hollywood dreams are made of but I’ve witnessed so many other aspiring writers stories become the stuff of nightmares. When I first started, I saw writers who were placing highly in all the competitions, scoring highly on the Black List, and talking highly about themselves in the process and, like them, I assumed they were going straight into the big league. I watched some of those same names crop up over and over again over the years, not in the industry press, not on IMDb, not in the credit lists of films, but on those same forums where they went from thinking they were better than everyone else, to telling newbies like myself I needed to pay for their advice, to bitterly trolling every thread in the hope of knocking vulnerable writers down so they can build themselves up. It’s frankly bizarre to have the same people who were telling you that you wrote like an amateur one year begging you to read and produce their script the next.

My hope is that you read this and, even if it causes you to realise you have completely lost track, it does at least give you a sense of reassurance that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for those willing to treat this as a marathon toward regular work rather a sprint toward glitz, glamour, and Oscar award speeches. Ultimately though, I want you to take some solace in that, while a very miserable and tormenting place can easily be found within the darkness of trying to break into a professional screenwriting career, a very happy and fulfilling place is probably much closer to your grasp than you think. I know it’s incredibly hard but please try to be as patient, indifferent, and methodical as possible when it comes to the process career building while being as playful, indulgent, and care free as possible when it comes to the act of writing.

As for me, I simply hope to keep the momentum going for the next decade and will continue to remind myself that passion and ambition will always create a degree of torture that’s worth enduring for the long-term results. There are films I want to make that feel so far out of my reach right now but everything I’ve achieved thus far felt out of my reach at one point.

About The Author

CJ Walley's picture
Real name: 

I’m here for the gritty movies, the rebellious movies, those films that pack a punch far harder than their budgets would suggest.

As a spec script writer, I love to create pulpy thrillers, mostly with female leads, that feature strong themes, brutal action, witty dialogue, and twisting scenes that have characters vying for power or falling for one another.

As a producer and writer-for-hire, I’m production savvy, budget conscious, and market orientated, able to write in a...Read more

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Comments

Jim Boston's picture

CJ, thanks for posting this!

I'm at the point right now where my paying job (machine operator at a plastics factory) is a drag (sure doesn't help when company executives don't know what they're doing...especially when it comes to the parking hassles these leaders have created for rank-and-file employees).

Can't wait to retire from that plant (I turned 66 on 11-11-2021)...but the time isn't right for me yet to tell 'em: "Take this job and shove it!"

Screenwriting's the one thing that currently puts a smile on my face...and I'm going to continue to fight to write more, network more, and send out queries when I can.

Thanks so doggone much for everything you're doing for screenwriters and TV writers...lots and lots of great stories that NEED to hit the big screen and/or the small screen.

John Hunter's picture

Congratulations CJ! Ten years is a very good point to review your accomplishments and make course corrections, if needed. All the best.

Robert Bruinewoud's picture

thanks for writing this – I hope it gets shared far and wide across all the screenwriting groups out there

Gen Vardo's picture

Great write-up CJ. Certainly alot for us all to think about. Particularly blogging and writing shorts. I've got a list of around forty that I haven't been motivated to write so far, been working solely on my feature scripts. Will now have to look up how to write shorts, I guess it's different somehow in format to features?

Lee Greenhough's picture

Wow what an inspirational diary, everything you have said resonates! They say you need thick skin to do this and you have it in spades. I think new writers need to understand they will need the desire no matter how many rejections they get and that mentally it can be a real bastard, but when you do get the little wins it makes it all worth while. Brilliantly said x