Ten Ways You’re Killing Your Screenwriting Career Before It’s Even Started | Script Revolution

Ten Ways You’re Killing Your Screenwriting Career Before It’s Even Started

Where I find myself right now is straddling both sides of that wall we all face with the amateur scene on one side and the industry world on the other. From this perspective, I have a great vantage point to see what is and isn’t working for screenwriters who want their passion to eventually bring in paycheques. So, after nearly seven years, countless scripts, and endless chit-chat with everyone from first-time writers to long-time producers, here goes - CJ

1) You’re Giving up Too Easily.

You’ve written one or two features, maybe some shorts. You’ve been trying for maybe a year and you want to give up. Perhaps you’ve entered some competitions and not advanced, suffered poor Black List/WeScreenPlay scores, not seen any responses to query letters, or someone simply told you you suck. Maybe you feel like you live in the wrong place to ever succeed.

Why it’s killing your chances: The film business is a marathon, a life-long-one, and even a decade, especially when trying to break-in, is a relatively short amount of time. Rejection is part of the routine and often comes after an initial period of apathy. Motivation constantly needs to be nurtured. If screenwriting‘s your purpose then giving up isn’t really an option and talking about it demoralising to those around you. Worse still, talking about giving up after a relative short amount of time can appear lazy. Nobody wants to invest in someone who may flake out at any moment and disappear tomorrow.

A better approach: Know that life is long and that you are your own champion. Only you can give up on yourself. Realise that, if you are truly passionate about this, walking away isn’t an option. Take comfort in the fact opinions are not truths. Reframe expectations to more workable goals and know that you are ultimately responsible for your actions and reactions. Work at nurturing yourself to the point you motivate others and assure industry members that you’re sticking around. People will invest more into you, hoping to either partner up or cross paths and catch up with you in the future.

Anecdotal: While I’ve know countless writers who’ve given up on what they said was their dream within a year, I once watched a writer make post after post for nearly a year asking if it was okay to write about certain things in a certain way before admitting they hadn’t even started their first draft and promptly giving up because it was already too difficult.

2) You’re Too Impatient and Pestering.

You are seen to have an anxious need to get results now and hound the people you connect with to help make that happen. You demand unreasonable time from others and perhaps compound this with unreasonable time constraints. You want to see your script turned into a movie next year and worry about things happening too late for it to remain relevant. You literally walk around with a script in your hand, trying to shove it in the faces of others, and hound those who do take time to read it to give you constructive feedback.

Why it’s killing your chances: You should know that getting a script into the development phase can take decades and, even then, be stuck in development hell for the rest of eternity. Chances are, any industry member you talk to has or knows of a script they’ve been wanted to see go into production for a long-long time. While often fuelled by innocent naivety and passion, an unrealistic attitude also shows ignorance to the process and potentially a lack of respect for those who are showing perseverance and patience. Worse still, pestering those around you to make things happen for you shows even less respect.

A better approach: Show that passion as a long-term commitment to making things happen during your lifetime via your own efforts and without the need for short-term results to stay motivated. Be very wary of time-stealing from industry members who already given up some to connect with you. Know that a healthy relationship started today might see mutual benefits years ahead. Look to build long-term friendships rather than acting like each person you meet is a means to get to the next. Know that not asking for favours tends to stand out to those who are asked for them regularly.

Anecdotal: Back when Amazon Studios were taking submissions from amateurs, I watched a screenwriter send the then studio head a string of over thirty tweets asking him to read the script they’d just uploaded while ignoring the fact he was clearly preparing for a conference. At least twice during the fifteen minute tirade, the screenwriter demanded he read an updated draft due to them only then spotting their own spelling errors.

3) You Don’t Appear to Have a Professional Mindset.

You write under various pseudonyms, have no bio on offer, and have no online profile. You appear to be hiding your identity in an industry that values personality. When it comes to your work, it appears that you are not prolific and, what little work you have in your portfolio, clearly falls outside the standards the industry expects to see.

Why it’s killing your chances: Industry members aren’t just looking for commodities, they are looking for team-members. Chances are, any relationship with a writer is going to be intimate and long-term. A writer who refuses to put themselves out there, who refuses to deliver around the accepted norms looks like a hobbyist at best and a liability at worst.

A better approach: Accept that you probably are an interesting and likeable person with colourful character and a compelling backstory. Own your work and be prepared to stand beside it. Know that you’re a potentially valuable part of the package on offer. Write a personal bio that pulls people in and offer a headshot that puts a face to the name. Demonstrate that you have a lot of energy behind your passion and show that you can jump through hoops with unique style when you need to.

Anecdotal: In a forum thread about maximum script page-count, a screenwriter asked if a 150pp script was too long. When I pointed out it was a hard question to answer, they asked me privately to read the script in question and then admitted it was actually more like 180pp. They then emailed me from an email account using a different name and attached a script written by a third name that was around 250pp – one character had a seven page monologue. They felt the script couldn’t be cut down.

4) You’re Clearly Only in This for Yourself.

You operate with one clear goal; personal gain. The success you talk about hinges on your feet treading red carpet and your hands either shaking those of celebrities or clutching awards. You quote yourself, only really talk about yourself, and orientate the industry around your work. You’ve created a Facebook fan page for yourself and push other writers to follow your journey.

Why it’s killing your chances: Filmmaking is all about community and, while every team needs its leaders, none need a megalomaniac. The fear is you‘ll always come to the table with nothing to offer and every intention to take what you can. Rather than earning everyone’s attention and good-will, you are dominating the conversation and expecting unconditional support. No industry member wants invest in someone who’s only invested in themselves and can smell a big ego a mile away, even if it’s presented as shy and humble.

A better approach: Know that success isn’t a zero-sum-game and succeeding as a team can feel greater than taking all the glory as an individual. Also see that watching your connections go on to do great things is all the more rewarding the more you have invested in them and their dreams. Realise that you can be a bold and brash personality without being a narcissist. Ask industry members what you can do for them, or even better, approach the table with something you think they’ll find highly valuable even if there’s nothing in it for you.

Anecdotal: I once met a writer at a networking event in London who talked at me about their (rather dull) life-story and autobiographical script for what must have been ten minutes straight. Their claim to fame was being a member of band I’d never heard of. If I said anything, they simply talked over me mid-sentence. I said I had to leave, walked over to other side of the room, and stood by myself.

5) You’re Hedging All Your Bets on Lotteries and Casinos.

You’re living and dying by entering as many screenwriting competitions and buying as many Black List/WeScreenPlay reads as you can afford. You believe that winning a high-profile competition, getting a high enough Black List average, or boosting your CoverFly Industry Score means success and validation you have what it takes to make it.

Why it’s killing your chances: These mostly parasitic services are a subculture of the industry and only a tiny, mostly inconsequential part of it. Industry members don’t take them as seriously as many claim and few of them work as any form of barometer when it comes to talent due to their flawed systems and woefully low-rate readers. Their success rates even for winners or those at the top of their lists tend to be poor to the point of embarrassing, especially when the high-cost to customers and sheer number of submissions are taken into account.

A better approach: Networking is still, by far, the most positively reported way screenwriters find alignment with the right industry members. This isn’t just about schmoozing in fancy bars but many other forms of networking including connecting and chatting online. If you have the money, there’s no harm in betting the horse on entering Nicholl or a competition run by Stage 32 in addition to getting out there and making yourself known. Also know that there are free directories such as Simply Scripts or my own site Script Revolution that allow you to upload your material for free.

Anecdotal: When I first got into screenwriting in 2012, a writer was getting to the finals of all the competitions and making sure everyone within the break-in community knew about it. They then got a 9/10 for one of their western scripts on the Black List and this sent their arrogance into overdrive. They were so obnoxious that even industry members were publicly calling out their bad attitude and shameless self promotion. They got next to nothing out of the competitions or the Black List and last I saw of them were unsuccessfully soliciting amateurs on forums for cheap consultancy work.

6) You Don’t Appear to Care Enough About the Art.

You think that the term artist doesn’t apply to you and even see it as a negative way to present yourself. You’ve read one book on craft and force its teachings down other people’s throats. You’re willing to write within any genre for any audience and see your work as generically appealing. You have no voice and don’t know what that means.

Why it’s killing your chances: Apathetic mediocrity is the antithesis to standout filmmaking and nobody wants to make art that blends into the background. Even the most crowd-pleasingly orientated blockbusters have edge and integrity to their story structure. Regardless, a screenwriter should own their craft and be keen to always be learning. Industry members don’t want to connect with someone who claims this is their dream but still phones it in when given an opportunity.

A better approach: Embrace the art form and take ownership of your role within it. You are worthy of calling yourself an artist and, to truly be one, you must bravely behave as one. See learning not as a challenge or a hardship but part of the pleasure of the journey. Know you’ll always be a student even when others see you as a master. Find your voice and embrace it and stand passionately for your genre, however small and quirky it might be.

Anecdotal: I know of a screenwriter who responds somewhat angrily to every online post about maintaining artistic merit that this is “show business” while every-time completely missing the fact the first word in that pairing is “show”.

7) You Don’t Appear to Care Enough About the Business.

You talk money but not economics. You want to dominate the marketplace but don’t know what’s commercial. If someone asks you about your favourite movie, you cant tell them how it got made. In terms of industry history, you can neither explain the auteur period of the 70’s, the creation of the modern blockbuster of the 80’s, nor the rise and death of long-tail video profits before and after the turn of the millennium.

Why it’s killing your chances: Everyone in the industry is talking business and making references. If you are staring back like a dog watching a card trick, it shows you’ve not been reading up on cinema history and that’s most likely because you feel it would be a chore. The industry has a long tapestry of fascinating stories and they often link in to how business is done today. In a world of filmmaking, making films is always going to be the most common topic of conversation.

A better approach: Indulge yourself with the many books and documentaries that cover parts of cinematic history. It’s all sex, money, drugs, and gossip – how can that be anything but fascinating? When it comes to business, consider writing short scripts which are a lot easier to find filmmakers for and get a taste of what it’s like beyond writing.

Anecdotal: On a dreadful little Facebook group ironically titled Screenwriters Who Can Actually Write, I saw a post by a writer announcing that they thought Jaws had what they claimed to be the most perfect screenplay ever. Anyone who knows the development of Jaws knows full well that the screenplay was written on the fly during shooting, that the leads mocked how dreadful the script was in interviews, and that it was very much a movie saved by editing. Great film or not, to state it had the most perfect screenplay in history suggests ignorance.

8) You’re Being Guided by Those Who Are Failing.

You tour screenwriting communities hanging on the words of every member, taking every comment to heart, believing every word and applying all the advice you can take in. You feel you must be moving forward and getting ahead because you’ve done everything everyone ever said you should. You have solicited peer feedback and done your best to address every note.

Why it’s killing your chances: There’s an absurd tendency in screenwriting communities for those who are going nowhere to talk in absolutes. Axioms are rampant despite rarely being proven to be fact. There is a strong tendency for members to try and hierarchy build. You are at an all-you-can-eat buffet of bad advice with a perpetually empty stomach. You’re being gullible.

A better approach: Try to stick to screenwriting communities where the members use (or at least share) their real names. Anyone telling you they have a career should be able to prove it. Those who refuse to are either lying or will be embarrassed by what you find. Better yet, bolster your crowd of influencers by bringing in blogs by working screenwriters and books by those with substantial experience.

Anecdotal: I know of a writer who frequents a forum where everyone bar them uses their real names and posts real bios. Despite their blatantly fake account, many take heed of their advice because they believe the writer’s claims they can help people get to places (they never have delivered on this). Given advice that was bordering on sabotage, this writer advised another to send a working executive (and community member) an unsolicited script, completely ignoring the legal predicament this put the executive in and not only destroying the relationship between the executive and the victim of this bad advice but also causing said executive to leave the community entirely.

9) You’re Still Stuck in a High School Mindset.

You work your socks off, churn out pages, and love to boast about your word-count. When it comes to technical writing and formatting, you run a tight ship and proudly follow as many of the often touted rules as you can. You feel you know your place in the system, willing to ask how high when you’re told to jump, and make sure to try and please everyone.

Why it’s killing your chances: Academia and artistry have a difficult relationship and high schools are rarely places that artists thrive. You want to please the teacher to get good grades so your compliancy comes across as cowardly in an industry that favours bravery. Due to your focus on technical writing skills and formatting rules, you’re dropping the ball on the more abstract elements that really matter such as emotional impact. Simply put, you are not gritty and exciting enough to stand out.

A better approach: Embrace the fact you are out of a system that tries to objectively rank everything and nurture conformists. Now you get to breakout of being a drone and flourish into your authentic self. Practice writing what you want to see over what you think industry members want to make and make no apologies for what you love. Realise that your value is in your artist integrity and not in being a producer’s typist.

Anecdotal: Every year the scripts of major competition winners are shared, screenwriters collectively lose their shit that formatting rules are broken and spelling mistakes are rampant. The conclusion every time is that these scripts come from the one-in-million writers who break the rules rather than accept the rules themselves don’t exist in a world where entertainment is all that matters.

10) You’re Blatantly a Toxic Person.

You’re not here to make friends and boy do you want people to know it. When it comes to giving advice, you see yourself as blunt and the bringer of harsh truths. You love giving feedback on the first three pages of scripts and tearing into every detail you can find to criticise. Everyone else is wrong unless they’re on your side. You’ve no qualms with calling someone a bad writer and attacking their career. It’s been ten years and you’ve nothing to show for it.

Why it’s killing your chances: Your closed mindedness means you aren’t aware of where your skills are lacking. By knocking others down to build yourself up, you can’t see you’re just standing still. Nobody wants to work with someone who sees the bad in everything, attacks other artists, and may turn on their friends if they don’t get their own way. You are not fit to promote and, worse still, may be on a path of self-destruction via drug or alcohol addiction.

A better approach: Know that the person you are today doesn’t have to be the person you are tomorrow. There is most likely a kind, caring, and lovable person within you that needs nurturing. The fears that cause you to act in such an unlikeable way can be faced so you are running to something rather than away from it. Learn from this. Realise that other people aren’t the enemy and putting out positivity will most likely invite more back.

Anecdotal: There is an infamous writer who tours various screenwriting communities boasting about being screened at Cannes Film Festival. I say tours, they are routinely kicked out of various communities because they survive by attacking others in long-winded rants all day long. In fact, their Cannes claim is so played out, many will know who I’m referring to just by mentioning that (their screening was put on by themselves and took place in a campsite 7 miles outside of the festival, by the way). Their ego is so out of control, they credit themselves on IMDB with every role on the production of their short films from Director to Runner. Worse still, they lie profusely about knowing high-profile industry members as personal friends and being a producer on tent-pole productions. While their work is objectively dreadful, they have boundless energy and clear potential to gain the skills needed. However, nobody in their right mind wants to work with them and, at this time of writing and completely unknown to them, are considered a laughing stock throughout a large portion of the industry.

About The Author

CJ Walley's picture
Real name: 

I’m here for the gritty movies, the rebellious movies, the b-movies, and the hangout movies, those features that dare to be good old fashioned entertainment and pack a punch harder than their budgets would suggest.

I love pulp and exploitation, car chases and gunplay, but also depth and...Read more

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Comments

Fiona Faith Ross's picture

Great post.

Christopher Chance's picture

Good advice - read it again.

John Hunter's picture

Great title for your article...I just couldn't resist reading it.

Jerry Edmund's picture

I read this article ago and it made my day. I hold it in deep appreciation and agreement as it speaks volumes to me.

Liam Cairns's picture

Excellent article. Very strong advice.

Chukwuma Amobi's picture

Awesome. So so true.