Monday, November 20, 2006

Giving Up the Dream?

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?
Or theatre?
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?

16 comments:

Good Dog said...

There’s a scene early on in Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. The impresario Boris Lermontov asks dancer Vicky Page, “Why do you want to dance?” She hesitates momentarily then replies, “Why do you want to live?” Lermontov tells her it is because must. Page says, “That's my answer too.”

In the televised auditions of The X-Factor they asked the people trying out what their goal is. Most said they want gold discs on the wall or to stand in front of an audience. They wanted a short cut to fame and fortune.

One is the right answer, one is wrong. One is living the dream, the other is knowing what you HAVE to do in life. Not because you want to but because you MUST, even if you don’t manage to make a decent living out of it.

With writing, are you driven by a desire to express yourself in words no matter what, or do you just want to see your name on screen, be interviewed in Empire, and then sit by your pool with a view of the Pacific?

If you want to write you’ll write every damn day. Even if it means missing odd nights in the pub with mates, or whatever other social outings are planned. A friend in the US started his career back in the 1960s writing for the pulp magazines for a cent a word. He wrote day and night, hustling for work, covering every genre for the pay cheques he needed to feed and clothe himself. Looking back he admits the early efforts weren’t very good but what he got was on the job training, getting better and better as the years went on because he ‘practised’ constantly. Even then, he did have the talent to begin with, which gave him the edge.

Some years back, when my day job was in animation with deadline-driven projects, to make sure that I set aside time to write regularly, I signed up for a screenwriting evening course. Can’t remember how many weeks, but it went on for a while. Each week, while I delivered a set number of pages, there were still people talking about what they wanted to do, but never actually doing anything. No pages, no outline, nothing throughout the whole course. They didn’t have the drive. I couldn’t understand what they were doing in the room.

I’d say, if you aren’t making headway as a screenwriter, write something else. Write short stories, magazine articles, pieces for websites – anything that involves assembling words in the right order. Show that you can do something else within the field and then come back around later for another crack at it.

Also, go out and live. Experience life and find something to write about. If you look at the careers and lives of a number of successful writers most did something before rather than go on a screenwriting course – or worse, some fucking media studies course – and appear fully formed and ‘equipped’ to write. Some recent television comedies and dramas seem to have their origins not in life experience but earlier television shows. With two current comedies, one is obviously the UK version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the other so desperately wanted to be Seinfeld that I was waiting for it to curl up in the corner and cry. Inbreeding like that is not a good thing.

It may also help to find someone to write with. If you do, try to get someone with a different background. Believe me, they bring different ideas and make you think in very different ways than you would normally. Also, spitballing ideas gets the words on the page much quicker.

Bang2Write said...

My first gig was writing porno story text message alerts. I kid ye not. No piccies in those days cos there was no WAP (except the waps I was writing about!) I got paid £50 a batch and probably did a squillion per batch (or felt like it). Though I still do more corporate stuff, like I always say - it's about the writing. Even if I do CD Roms and college prospectuses forever, I know I will have given it my best shot. And I won't ever bloody stop.

Porno text, anyone...?

Phillip Barron said...

I answered every advert I could on every screenwriting board on the net until people started replying.

Then I worked, for free, on every half-arsed project people wanted to film. I had no filters, I wrote for and with everyone who would let me, no matter how stupid the idea or the person.

Ultimately, most of those projects didn't get made; but I gained a lot of invaluable experience. Better still, some of them did get made and I now have a small handful of writing credits.

I'm on the bottom rung. It's not a long way off the floor, but it's a start.

People ask me how long I've been writing. I ususally say about ten years, but the truth is I've done more in the last three years than I did in the previous seven.

Hell, I've probably done more in the last month than I did in the previous seven.

I like the X-factor analogy, Good Dog. There's a lot of focus and info on how to apply for the big jobs. To me that's like walking into McDonalds and asking for the Managing Director's job. Probably won't happen unless you can demonstrate a track record.

I prefer to start at the bottom and work my way up. That way, when you get to the top, you know the job inside out.

Good Dog said...

The thing I forgot to mention, regarding The X-Factor, was not one of the candidates in the epsiode I watched said they were there because they wanted to sing or that singing was their life. That's why they're back flipping burgers.

The best place to start is at the bottom and learn how things work.

One of the best animation directors I worked for started out filling the photocopier and doing all the grunt work while his talent as an artist emerged. A lot of the young directors were just ass-clowns and goat-boys who had no idea of the mechanics involved.

I'd also say screw these courses, stuff all the script structure rules -- by page ten this must happen, etc -- and just write something. Then, when it's done go back and see how close to the three-act structure it is. Find out if it's in your bones. But that's just me.

Hey, Lucy, porno text messages, huh? I should be finding out this weekend whether I've got a gig writing erotica.

Bang2Write said...

If you get it Good Dog, I'd be happy to give you some pointers.

Hmmm. That's not as bad as it sounds, honest...

Danny Stack said...

Hey, even if it's porn Christmas cards, and you're getting paid for it, that's professional writing! All good in my book. I started out as a runner, then did film reviews, then worked at Channel 4, a bit of production, and then into script reading/writing... The story of my life in fewer than 25 words. What's yours?

griff said...

Great article Danny. But I'd say it was more like the 100,000 people in the stadium audience are the people who want to be screenwriters, while the 22 people playing on the pitch are the people who actually get to have their movies made. In fact if you can name 22 Brits who had big-budget movies made from their scripts in the last year you'd be doing pretty well, right ?

Dom Carver said...

This is a good post, Danny, and very relevent.

I recently went through a patch were I was seriously considering giving up writing scripts. It doesn't matter how good you are at handling rejection sooner or later it's going to get to you. The ones that got to me were the ones that showed promise, people who sounded really interested, then spent months considering my work only to reject me with a one or two line letter. I've had three of these in the last year and I admit I was really upset over one of them. So in the end I had to sit down and ask myself if I really wanted to carry on. I asked myself a few questions, not too far removed from the ones you've asked in your post.

Why did I want to write screenplays in the first place? Answer: Because I love to write and I love movies. It's what I want to do as a living; to entertain people, to make them laugh, cry, feel and experience what they see on the screen.

How long have I been writing? Five years now since I left university, but only a year full-time.

Do I have a talent? Yes, is the answer everyone keeps giving me, but I know I still need to improve. They know that too.

Have I improved as a writer? Yes, especially over the last year. I wasted a lot of time on the previous four years, but I'm now moving in the right direction and with some speed.

Have I made progress? Yes, Celtic are interested in one of my scripts, but I need to work on it until they are happy to take it forward. They haven't shut the door on it yet, they just weren't happy with the last draft I sent them, and that was my fault. All is not yet lost on this one. I also have another production company who believe I have a talent worth keeping an eye on. If people weren't interested in my work after five years then I'm sensible enough to realize I should pack it in.

So I believe I am making progress and that I do have the chance to make a career out of writing, but it's down to me and how much work I put in.

So I decided I'm not packing it in and that I'm going to keep going. I just need to work harder at improving.

Phillip Barron said...

For what it's worth, Dom, I've read a few of your scripts and I enjoyed them.

I'm glad you're sticking at it.

potdoll said...

i've given up loads of times. it's like an addiction with me - i get a high from writing but it's often followed by a low, especially if i get a rejection. thing is i can't help chasing that next hit.

Dom Carver said...

Thanks Phil, you're a man of taste.

:-)

Film said...

$1000 Spielberg

Interesting post.

The question -- "Have you had an option offer from a reputable producer?" Had me in stitches.

I've turned away three option offers this year, on one script alone, all from UK producers -- simply because they all wanted to acquire the rights to the screenplay on a low level back-end deal.

One of the most sobering facts I've picked up from friends in the industry in LA, is 98% of the spec scripts in circulation in Hollywood are unreadable. They fail to reach even basic levels of competence.

This is a scary figure -- because it means the vast majority of people submitting scripts haven't even taken the time to find out what that base level of competence is.

This flood tide of dross hitting the desks of agents and producers is what makes it so hard to get heard above the noise.

For producers, finding good product is "needle in the haystack" times several thousand.

From a career planning POV, it has become clear to me that to achieve success I need to use a multifaceted approach that cuts through the noise.

Firstly, I made a decision this year not to pitch feature projects to producers in the UK -- the legitimate ones are too thin on the ground and the rewards from selling a script in the UK are negligible in comparison with the US market.

Secondly, running parallel to my "high budget" spec projects, I'm also developing micro-budget digital projects. The idea being to produce viable feature films for under $1000.

This is not as insane as it sounds -- the digital revolution has changed the dynamics of production -- so pretty much anyone can afford to make a film these days.

With script competence amongst indie film makers running at 99.99% unreadable, any writer who CAN create a good micro-budget script has incredible advantages in the market place

Plus, if you're a screenwriter nothing teaches you more than watching the mistakes that you make in your first produced feature.

It's worth £526.88 just to gain that experience.

Rant over for the moment! LOL

$1000 Spielberg

Interesting post.

The question -- "Have you had an option offer from a reputable producer?" Had me in stitches.

I've turned away three option offers this year, on one script alone, all from UK producers -- simply because they all wanted to acquire the rights to the screenplay on a low level back-end deal.

One of the most sobering facts I've picked up from friends in the industry in LA, is 98% of the spec scripts in circulation in Hollywood are unreadable. They fail to reach even basic levels of competence.

This is a scary figure -- because it means the vast majority of people submitting haven't even taken the time to find out what that base level of competence is.

This flood tide of dross hitting the desks of agents and producers is what makes it so hard to get seen above the noise.

For producers, finding good product is needle in the haystack time several thousand.

From a career planning POV, it has become clear to me that to achieve success I need to use a multifaceted approach that cuts through the noise.

Firstly, I made a decision this year not to pitch feature projects to producers in the UK -- the legitimate ones are too thin on the ground and the rewards from selling a script in the UK are negligible in comparison with the US market.

Secondly, running parallel to my "high budget" spec projects, I'm also developing micro-budget digital projects. The idea being to create viable feature films for under $1000.

This is not as insane as it sounds -- the digital revolution has changed the dynamics of production -- so pretty much anyone can afford to make a film can do these days. -- With script competence amongst indie film makers running at 99.99% unreadable, any writer who CAN create a good micro-budget script has incredible advantages.

Plus, if you're a screenwriter nothing teaches you more than watching the mistakes that you make in your first produced feature script.

It's worth £526.88 just to gain that experience.

Rant over for the moment! LOL

$1000 Spielberg

Pillock said...

I'm at a low ebb right now, really questioning my abilities. It's so hard to write when you feel like that. I should be going like the blazes, with a once in a lifetime opportunity dangling just in front of me. But I've gained an appreciation of just how bloody difficult it is to write an excellent script. Good just won't cut it to break in. I can do good. I know that now. But excellent? We'll see.

Far away said...

good post Danny

Fran said...

This is an excellent post and very timely in my case as I've been back writing corporate stuff for the past three months and my scripts have taken a back seat. I came in late tonight, wet, sneezing and cheesed off and had sulky words with my other half about the state of the place. Then I catch Danny's post two days late - and I feel better for it. Things ARE better this year. My technique is better and my work is better. A lot of people like the stuff. Best of all, I live near Wembley!! Cue inspiring music.

Thanks Danny.

Anonymous said...

'$1000 Spielberg' that's pretty interesting - I'd agree with you about not pitching to UK producers - they're a bunch of bullshitters. They have to be - none of them have any money. They're all out there searching for the right project that can bring in the money and then searching for the money... And along the way they have to bullshit themselves into carrying on...

'Good Dog' - I'm not so sure I agree with you. I never really wanted to be a pure writer. I wouldn't be happy writing just anything. I want to write film - cinema. I am a screenwriter. And being a screenwriter is more about story, character and image than about words on paper. I feel that I get more from a days photography or a day learning about people than I do from a day writing down words. One must do that too, but once you have that basic skill and craft there's a lot more to learn away from the page - and that's something that many screenwriters don't have.