Few people understand the life of a screenwriter – sometimes not even screenwriters themselves. Like all artists, writers need to define what constitutes a creative life. What is work? Is reading a book unrelated to your current project considered work? Is feeding the ducks at the park work? What about taking a nap? All of these options are correct… and incorrect.
Writers need to strike a balance between the tangible and non-tangible aspects of building and sustaining a screenwriting career.
To be clear, not all screenwriting is confined to words on a page. That’s sobering. Most screenwriters don’t work typical nine to five hours. Not even staffed TV writers working Monday through Friday. Ten to twelve hour days are common in TV writers’ rooms – especially during production. We don’t really take days off even if we kid ourselves that we do.
Screenwriting work includes activities like watching films and TV shows, reading scripts, thinking about, or pitching their own screenplays. Writers could be taking coffee meetings to research story ideas, or simply to network and get their names known. Either way, screenwriters don’t just clock out at the end of each day.
Writers, and all creatives for that matter, should understand that this lack of definition improves productivity. How do you know if you’ve reached the right balance? Is that even the right question to be asking? Only you can be the arbiter of that.
Screenwriters need to think about writing as a reason to get up every morning. They need to think about their purpose beyond typing in “The End.” The driving force behind the words can be more important than the words themselves.
Consider these four tenets of having a successful career in any profession:
- Doing what you love
- Doing what you are good at
- Doing what the marketplace needs, and
- Doing what you can be paid for
These aren’t distinct compartments. There is a central overlap between these four elements that isn’t ever as sharp as the Venn diagram shown.
These elements are also in a constant state of flux depending on your situation at a given point in time.
Passion is probably the most important aspect to consider when aiming for success. What story ideas excite you the most? These are the burning stories that demand to be written. They hijack your mind and won’t let you go until you type “The End.”
Passion is what you can control the most. Do what you love. This has the most value in your screenwriting life and provides the most happiness. People will either follow… or not.
Script readers will sense your intense passion, even if they don’t like your screenplay. They describe this feeling as “a spark” or “a certain something.” Rejection is small comfort when they’ve passed on a script you’ve poured your heart and soul into. This is your life. Your essence. This means everything to you. And all you get after a read is a four-letter word – PASS. Even if a reader passes, a well-written screenplay will always be appreciated – and get you noticed.
This bipolarity is both infuriating, yet essential to achieving screenwriting enlightenment.
The alternative is to focus solely on the market place. Writing a screenplay entirely for this purpose is ill-advised. A producer will smell a “commercial” screenplay a mile away and dismiss it as derivative, or even reductive. Find that sweet spot in the middle where commerce meets art. That should be your (moving) target.
The other elements in the Venn diagram have a greater chance of falling into place if you love your story, even if things aren’t looking so good right now. You have created something that didn’t exist before. You are putting your story out in the world. That has intrinsic value. And potential.
Take a moment to look into the future and visualize how your screenwriting career might look. Many A-list screenwriters don’t have a screenwriting plan because they are aware that the majority of their success lies outside their control. They’re fine with that. They are often not even part of the decision-making process. Their breakout success is the film or TV show that producers made and resonated with audiences. There is no secret sauce because you are constantly changing the ingredients. You are the stirrer of the pot…. assuming there is a pot.
Don’t try to make the metaphysical physical.
Don’t try to add form to the formless.
Don’t try to add meaning to the meaningless.
Just be writing until the story is finished.
Relish the small day to day moments in being creative. It is these smaller joys that bring us great happiness.
Go back to the Venn diagram above (the oracle) and see how your personal values fit into what you’re writing. Consider how your screenwriting is changing and informing people’s lives. Think about how your story is enriching humanity. What perceptions are you challenging about life? If if you’re not challenging anything, where are you shining your story spotlight?
If you’re gripped by fear and self-doubt, watch a video of a successful screenwriter you admire – especially the uncannily common stories of them struggling for years before they finally broke through with an incident that could easily be dismissed as happenstance, luck, or fate. Observe their career trajectory and how you can incorporate it into your life. One common story is that many screenwriters were on the verge of quitting before they got a call… or an email… or a text message… It’s always darkest just before dawn.
Divide your sacred writing time into measurable and immeasurable efforts.
Thinking small can yield the biggest big results. There is wisdom in this apparent contradiction. Write in shorter bursts. A screenwriter who claims to write ten hours a day may not necessarily be more productive than the one who writes for a fifty-minute burst. Apparently, that’s how long humans can sustain their attention before needing a break. A few of these writing sprints in a day may yield more “usable pages” than a ten-hour marathon with a break for lunch and dinner.
Write screenplays that you’re most likely to finish. Write smarter. Screenwriters sometimes need to rein in their “muse” with actual pages someone can read.
Use your emotional state to your writing advantage. Screenwriters can be known for riding an emotional rollercoaster they can’t get off of. This is a good thing because it activates different areas in your brain. Try to write in opposing emotional states – anger vs peace, frustration vs satisfaction. You will notice the difference in tone, rhythm, and intention in your writing, even if the words are exactly the same.
If this becomes overwhelming, learn to detach. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and remind yourself why you chose to become a storyteller in the first place. These are comforting thoughts.
Develop a sense of community with other screenwriters. Isolation has its place, but so does socialization. Community is more than exchanging feedback with other film and TV writers. Use this time to discuss current film and TV trends. The zeitgeist. Which TV shows should have done better, or which were vastly over-rated? Community is also about personal development and finding a sense of belonging and harmony. It’s both cathartic and fulfilling.
Not only will these concepts bring you purpose and happiness, but they will also contribute to your longevity and well-being.
You have now reached screenwriting nirvana. Back to your keyboards.