So I’ve been at this screenwriting (#amwriting) thing for a little over a year now. It’s been a very interesting time, very informative, and, honestly, very difficult. Not because writing a script is hard (it is, or can be) but because I’m not sure how far along the ultimate goal I really am.
There’s a common saying about screenwriting that you need to write at least three scripts to understand the process and learn the basics. These are three scripts which when you write them originally you think are brilliant and will make your career (woo-hoo!). In reality they’re probably three of the worst things you’ll ever read and they should probably never be touched again.
Another adage about making it in Hollywood is that you need at least three high-quality scripts to get representation. One of the most, if not the most, common questions in Hollywood is “What else do you have?” That first script, which got in front a producer or player because of a networking connection or contest placement or something, is the foot in the door. That shows you know how to write. But you’d better be able to back it up with something else. You can’t be just a one-hit wonder. So you need that second script to show that you have more than just one idea. The third script, though, shows that you might just have not only the writing chops to make it in Hollywood, but the drive, flexibility, passion, and speed.
So, basically, you need to have written at least six scripts to even think about making a career of it. Which of course takes time, skill, dedication, persistence, and a really good support network.
For however talented you are as a writer your first draft of something will not be good. This is just a plain, cold, hard fact. Like Ringo being the butt of every Beatles joke. Many people I know call the first draft the “vomit draft” because they just “vomit” the words onto the page. Having something to edit is better than nothing. From that vomit draft you can clean up language, change the structure around, add important details, cut (probably lots of cutting) the extraneous crap, and generally make it something presentable. That’s where the support network comes in, and when the real reviews and revisions come in.
Once you have a draft of something you can send it out to a group of people for review who (hopefully) won’t skewer you like Ned Stark’s head in King’s Landing (spoiler alert! It was season one people, watch it already.) They’ll point out confusing scenes, bad dialogue — if everyone sounds the same, it’s bad dialogue — typos (there’s always typos), structural problems, and other things you missed because you know where you’re going and don’t think you need to explain every little thing. So once you have your comments you can really get into the business of screenwriting. A third common saying is “Writing is rewriting.”
Which is currently where I am now. I’ve written some pretty bad scripts (they were good at the time!) and learned the process. Now I’m working on rewriting a project I have a lot of faith in. I like the concept, the characters, and the potential. I just need to make it a little better (or, in some places, a lot better). Once I’ve done that then maybe another quick round of reviews and contests.
Here’s the thing about contests. Some are good. Some aren’t. But they’re all kind of expensive (as an aggregate, not necessarily individually). You need to save money to enter contests, but it can be hard to do. With little to no guarantee of return on your investment — maybe some feedback if you pay (often extra) for it — the contests fees can add up quickly. I want to enter contests, and I will. But I also want to have a few more good scripts in hand before that happens.
I don’t want to be the guy who wins (thinking big here) a contest only to have a producer reach out and say “What else do you have?” and not have anything good. There’s probably not a better way of killing a career before it starts. I mean, I’m working on a bunch of other projects, but they’re all in various states of needing writing or rewrites. I could pitch a few ideas to said producer (and pitching is another skill I’ll need to work on at some point) but it’s not really the same as having the script.
So I’m not really sure where I am in the process at the moment. I’m a year further along than last year. I’ve joined a writing group — networking, yay! — that seems pretty solid. I’m a regular contributor (and by that I mean I ask questions) on a Twitter group chat. I talk to a few other screenwriters fairly regularly about stuff, so that’s good. I don’t have a mentor yet (or perhaps I have lots of mentors with my Twitter and fellow screenwriting people). It would be nice to have that one extra person in my corner. A work colleague recently posted about getting a mentor in her field and it seems a great opportunity for her. I truly hope it leads to great things for her.
What I do know is that screenwriting is in some ways very similar to academic writing. Someone will comment on how to make the work better (hopefully better, not just their idea of better) and you’ve got to take that critique, criticism, comments, and notes and make it work. In screenwriting it could be your writing group, contest readers, the production company, or (if you’re lucky enough) a network. In academia it could be friends, peer reviewers, or your advisor. That, at least, isn’t dissimilar. Everyone has an opinion. Some matter more than others. The hard part is figuring out which is which.