The screenwriting lesson it took me years to learn

I want to share a little tip for the screenwriters out there. This is something I learnt the hard way, after years of very slow progress.

I’ve been writing for a really long time now and I’ve had lots of ups and downs along the way. When I started out, all I really wanted to do was write film scripts. Pretty ambitious, I know, but I loved films and couldn’t be persuaded that it might be a difficult career path.

Writing films is hard

There are lots of things about forging a career as a writer that make it really hard. It’s hard to develop the discipline to write on a regular basis, it’s hard to write well, it’s hard to sell your work and when you do sell your work, it’s hard to make enough money to make a living at it. Ugh!

But one of the hardest things of all is not having an obvious career path to follow. It’s not like becoming a doctor or a lawyer where the steps to success are clearly mapped out. If you want to become a writer, there is no road map and there are endless possible routes you could take. So how do you possibly choose the right one?  

The route I took was to concentrate on writing feature film scripts because that’s where my passion lay. But it’s taken me a long time to become a professional writer. I’ve no regrets as I love writing, but I want it to be easier for you.

Build your network

Let’s say, like me, you want to write film scripts. Alongside honing your writing craft, equally important is developing relationships. I know everyone talks about it, but it’s true. I’ve written about networking before – I’ll include a link to those articles at the end of this email, in case you haven’t read them.

Networking is one thing, but let’s say you’ve made a few contacts, how do you actually get them to read your work?

It’s actually harder than it might sound.

People will promise to read your work and never get back to you. Even people you know. It’s devastating, after putting your heart and soul into a piece of writing.

But there’s a reason for it.

Reading films is hard

Reading an unknown writer’s feature film script is a big job. It requires time and attention and it might turn out to be rubbish! Then they’d have to find a way to share some tactful feedback. People who work in the industry have dozens of other more important scripts to read. And feature films are looonnnng. So the unknown writer’s script keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the pile.

Now you might be thinking, that’s OK, I can wait, as long as they discover me eventually. But the thing is, by the time they eventually get back to you, you might well have done another draft or two and the script will have moved on considerably. So whatever feedback they have may no longer be relevant. Or you’ll wait so long that you forget who you’ve sent it to. Or you’ll just assume they didn’t like it and that’s why they haven’t got back to you.

So how do you increase your odds of getting a producer to read your work and fast?

My advice? Write short films alongside your feature films.

Like I said at the start, this is a lesson it took me a very long time to learn. I had absolutely no interest in short films, and perhaps you don’t either, but hear me out.

Here are 6 reasons to write a short film.

  1. Short films are, well, short. You can write them pretty quickly – in days or weeks rather than months or years. This is incredibly satisfying.
  2. You can have a lot of fun with a short film because there are far fewer rules to adhere to. So go crazy and write something you wouldn’t normally write. You might find it liberating.
  3. It’s an amazing way to hone your craft by trying to tell a story in just a few minutes.
  4. They’re quick to read – and this is the really key point. Fifteen minutes and you’re done. Everyone can spare 15 minutes to read your short film.
  5. If you’re a new writer, you should be approaching producers who are just a couple of steps ahead of you on the career ladder – ones who have most likely recently been making short films. They may or may not want to make another short film, but the chances are they’ll be more than happy to read one. If they like it, they’ll read your feature too, and bingo you’re through the door.
  6. Finally, let’s say you’re lucky enough to get your feature film optioned, as I was, it will then take literally years for the film to get off the ground. So what do you do while you’re waiting? Write a short film or two (as well as your next feature), and keep making useful contacts!

What happened to me

I spent a long time very slowly writing and developing feature films. I made progress along the way: I got optioned, had work produced, got an agent, I even pitched in Cannes and LA! But it was very slow progress, and I needed a regular job to pay the bills as I was earning so little.

It was only when I suddenly found myself short of time that with great reluctance I decided to put my feature film ideas to one side and write a couple of shorts instead.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I had so many meetings and made so many contacts because of those shorts. Best of all, it quite unexpectedly led me to an animation producer. I’d never written animation in my life, but this is what I’m concentrating on now and I love it! I’m earning my living as a writer, I have an animation series in development, I’ve had an animated film on TV and the cinema. And it was all because I decided to write some short films.

So if you want to think strategically about your career, write something short as well as something long. If you still need convincing that short films can actually be rather fabulous, here’s a link to a stunning Oscar winning Pixar short film, check it out, it’s only 3 minutes long.

If there’s anything in your writing that you’re struggling with, get in touch, as I might be able to address your issue in a future blog post.

And if you’re interested in reading those articles about networking that I mentioned earlier, take a look here and here.  

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3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This is a great blog. Thank you. I completely agree with your advice in fact, I’d almost go further and say cut your teeth on shorts. If you can write a compelling original and well structured short you can do the same in a feature. Cutting your teeth on a feature is the route to madness.

  2. Katy
    Thanks for that wonderful insight. It was as if reading my mind and answering those.
    I have few other questions too, will definitely mail you.

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