Monday, March 23, 2015

Aspiring writers asking the wrong questions

I've held onto this email for a while. It's an example of an email or a tweet I get now and then. Sometimes I'll pull out terrible emails as lessons in what not to do, but I tend to reserve that for the writers who are the most obviously entitled and/or belligerent. "Earnestly naive" is a little harder for me to make fun of, and so I'm putting this not to make fun, but to try to enlighten.

However, so as to not embarrass this person, I'm not going to use their name:

I stumbled across your blog and was hoping you could help with my situation.

As the subject line states, I am not a writer, nor do I want to be one. However, I have written a 30 min comedy pilot doing the best I can with formatting and story form and would like to give it the best possible shot of getting made. I don't want to make it. I would damn near give it away if I could, as long as I knew it would make it even somewhat close to air.

I am thinking the best way to proceed is have a script doctor or reader take a shot at it and give notes, then register it and start the query letter, contest, submission route.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on my situation, I would appreciate some guidance. Also, if you have a script doctor/reader that you would recommend, I would be grateful. 

The most succinct reply I can give is probably that if you're not in this to build a career as a writer, I probably don't know how to help you. It is so hard to break in and maintain any kind of ongoing career that I find it hard to pretend that a dilettante will have much success.

Also, I think you'll find that if you're not "all-in" it will be hard to get your connections to go the extra mile for you. People aren't inclined to put their own integrity with agents and managers at risk if the client they tell them to pick up ends up only writing one script.  Going into this with the attitude of "Oh, it would be fun to see a script of mine made" is the wrong tact.

It's not any easier to get a network or studio to make your pilot even if you're "damn near giv[ing] it away." The two big factors you're always going to be facing is: the level of competition, and your own level of talent.

The competition is fierce, and you're up against people who've taken the time to write many scripts, to carve out time to write each week and to consistently rewrite, improve, move on to new stories. The fact that you're still hung up on questions like "How do I get the format right?" tells me that you probably haven't read many TV scripts (red flag) and that you haven't done enough of your own research to find these answers already, because they're out there (double red flag.)

In other words, you're very early in your writing pursuits. Experience tells me that your first script - and especially the first few drafts of your first script - are probably going to need work. Is someone with one foot out the door really committed enough to do that kind of work? My skepticism comes from the fact that a good writer must be driven to improve. They've got to have that hunger for success because that's what's going to push them to spend time getting it right, to not settle for "good enough," to look deep below the surface story and find the depth that'll really make their stories resonate.

The first concern any writer should have is not "How do I get an agent?" It should be "How do I get good enough to get an agent?" It's like asking how to apply for the Olympics when you haven't yet spent years doing two and three practices a day and honed your body into peak physical condition. "Oh, but I don't care about medaling. I just think it would be fun to be an Olympian."

Get good first. And you don't get good unless you're really playing to win.

It's not quite the same thing, but there's a little bit of overlap with the people who approach working writers and say "I've got a great idea for a script. Why don't you write it and we'll split it 50-50?"

Never say anything of this kind to a working writer. The idea is way less than 50% of the value when you're breaking down what goes into a script that sells. You can give a brilliant idea to two different writers (one experienced, one still learning) and you'll likely get scripts of wildly divergent quality. Actually didn't the reality show "The Chair" basically demonstrate this hypothesis?)

Getting your work made starts with giving a damn about how good it is. When you ask me, "How can I get something made with a minimum of effort?" I feel like you're not only wasting my time, you're wasting yours.


  1. As a wannabe writer, it's nice to mark the personal evolution from wondering these types of questions myself to shaking my head right along with you. Been digging (and learning from) the blog for five years now. Thanks, Bitter.

  2. I go to the reddit/screenwriting forum occasionally, but it seems like every third post is "How do I get an agent?"

    I just signed with my first agent in December, and my thoughts are like this.

    1) You shouldn't try to get an agent. That's a waste of effort. All energy should be put into writing and networking. You can get an amazing amount accomplished without an agent, and by the time you need one, they should be coming for you.

    2) Having an agent doesn't change a lot. People seem to think "Oh, once I have an agent, I'll be a professional screenwriter." To that I say "Ha ha haha. Ha ha hahahaha." You could have the greatest agent in the world, but it doesn't change how good of a writer you are.

    The only question aspiring writers should be asking is "How do I make my writing better?"

  3. I'm pretty sure that was me years ago. Thanks for making it anonymous so the person doesn't feel like a schmuck in a few years.