We all know what it takes to ‘live the dream’ if you want to be a successful writer. Give up the day job, focus exclusively on writing, sell your scripts, and live the dream. Or give up the day job, do some part-time work to help pay the bills but spend most of your time writing which will pay off sooner rather than later. The latter is the more popular and practical choice, and the guarantee of basic income while you write is a feasible and enjoyable pursuit.
But what happens when the “sooner rather than later” becomes the “always unattainable”? What happens when you can’t take one more single rejection? What if no agent in town will represent you or your work, but you’ve knocked on all their doors? What happens then? Is it time to call it a day? Do you give up the dream?
‘Giving up’ conjures up negative connotations and a sense of failure when in reality it could mean the opposite, especially if the writing venture has been taken on with professional and focused application. In truth, there is no basic answer to the question of ‘when do you give up the dream?’ as there’s only one person who can make that decision: you. Nevertheless, it’s important to assess the practical, emotional and physical implications of pursuing a writing career.
If you love writing as a hobby, then no-one can tell you to stop, and you won’t want to no matter what happens in your life. However, many choose screenwriting as a lucrative step towards their careers yet the reality of breaking in and sustaining a livelihood is something that is not properly considered by new and eager scribes. A good few will read the books and attend the courses and think: “yes, I can do that” but then get frustrated with the system or the process: “that producer doesn’t know anything” or “writing a script is hard work”.
Those who are more obsessed with screenwriting (like, say, bloggers and the readers of those blogs, hello there) know that it takes a bit more time and hard work to get their work to the required standard. But this too can be demoralising and frustrating, especially when there is no valuable income being earned. It is all too easy to feel like you might be wasting your time or that you simply can not cut it in the industry. And then there are those who are just so stubborn about themselves and their talent that they simply won’t give up, and will keep going until, some day, they get their break.
It’s all down to you and your personal situation. However, there are a few ways to gauge whether you’re ready to call it a day, or if you have what it takes to go further. It involves asking yourself some uncomfortable questions and being completely honest with the answers. Screenwriting, and a screenwriting career, takes time and effort. So much time and so much effort that however hard you think you’ve worked up until this point, you need to double or treble it to be a cut above the rest. It’s demanding and exhausting, and will test your character and talent to the limit.
Many of us have naturally good storytelling instincts but this doesn’t necessarily translate into successful writing. Here are the questions and considerations to take on board which will either reassure you about what lies ahead or make you doubt whether it’s worth sticking at it for a little while longer:
I’m good with story but my scripts haven’t made an impact anywhere yet. Does this mean I’d be a better script editor rather than a writer? Should I consider this type of career instead of potentially wasting my time with my spec scripts?
They say it takes ‘ten years to make it’ as a writer, and it’s a good average, but some positive steps need to occur along the way. In the first five years of pursuing a career as a writer:
Have I optioned one of my scripts with a reputable producer?
Have I won or placed in any script awards?
Have I got an agent?
Have I written or directed a short film?
A radio play?
Something along those lines that suggest other people value my work and indicates that I’m on the right track…?
Am I reading other people’s scripts and learning more about technique?
Can I genuinely see an improvement in my style of craft and story?
Do I tell stories with commercial potential or are they more personal stories with limited appeal?
Do I know the market/industry well enough to understand how my scripts will be received?
Do I make broad assumptions about the industry and then complain about the system when really I have no first-hand knowledge of what’s going on?
Am I getting tired of it all?
Am I making enough money?
Is it worth it?
Can I do it?
No easy answers to these questions and even the ones that generate a negative response won’t necessarily mean it’s time to jack it all in. It will be a good indicator though on how you’re progressing and what needs to be done to make your writing a more viable choice of career. There are absolutely no guarantees. Talk is not only cheap, it’s free. You can only go so far on encouragement and half-promised deals. Until you’re standing next to a camera and someone’s shouting ‘Action’ on one of your scripts, that’s when you’ve done it, but hopefully have something else lined up.
TV offers a more reliable source of income but breaking in there is just as unreliable and tricky as the world of features. It’s all down to your talent, stamina, determination, luck and commitment. Everyone says they want it more than anything else in the world but if you’re not making any progress, it’s time to ask a few of those questions, and more besides.
It’s not easy, we know this, but I daresay a lot of you will read this and think: “nope, I’m still good to go”. Whether it’s been a few months or a few years, the level of application and talent that’s required needs to be continually held in check to ensure that you’re not slipping into a rut of exhaustion and rejection when your time could be better spent elsewhere.
Close your eyes. Imagine (the new) Wembley Football Ground full to capacity. Say, 100,000 people. Now imagine that the crowd are all screenwriters. These represent the people who were allowed into the ground, the rest are at home watching on TV wishing they were there, or just missed out on getting a ticket. But they plan on being there, somehow, soon, because they know they’ve got the same nous and talent as the others. Don’t they?