A few days ago, I received a message from a teenage screenwriter wanting to really dive into the craft of screenwriting without having to wait on adulthood. Quite impressed with his tenacity, I began a response to the great questions he asked. Halfway through, I realized his questions were some of the same as yours. And so, thanks to his proactivity, I offer you the same advice I give to this young screenwriter:
Hi [name withheld],
To answer your questions, I love to write because I’ve learned, over years of hopping through unfulfilling 9-to-5 jobs, that telling great stories and empowering others to tell great stories is my greatest vocational passion.
Regarding tips for you, the best one I can give is to train your brain to write regularly. Not surprisingly, you accomplish this by… writing regularly. Bonus points if you can set aside a place that you’ve specifically designated as your “writing space.” When you sit down in that space–which doesn’t have to be anything fancy or special in and of itself–your brain will know that it’s time to write.
Find joy in writing, too. Don’t limit yourself to any genre or type of writing. There’s nothing that says a screenwriter has to stick solely to screenwriting. In fact, that’s rarely the case. Explore it all while the stakes don’t involve grocery bills or rent money. Scriptwriting, poetry, fiction, journalism: Each one has its merits and its own fulfilling potential for the aspiring screenwriter. After you write a piece, take the time to note what resonates most in that particular story. Celebrate growth as you write.
As writing becomes a scheduled priority, make a habit of purposefully reading, too. Really reading is quite difficult these days, considering how much distracting content is out there to consume instead. Pair that with all the addictive alternatives to purposeful reading (I’m looking at you, Facebook clickbait in the top right corner), and it’s easy to lose focus on great stories.
One thing that’s helped me reclaim reading as a priority is setting aside specific social-media-free nights as my set reading time. It’s so worth the discipline! Read fiction, read self-help, read classics, read best-sellers. Read anything that someone considers great storytelling. After the fact, decide whether you agree with that person’s assessment, and ask yourself “why?” What is it about this work that rings true for so many people? This habit of asking “why” will be key to your education as a storyteller, and as a human.
Exceptional humans ask why.
Regarding my successes as a screenwriter and in other capacities in the film world, I can attribute every one of them to being reliable, being respectful and being genuine. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m always reliable, respectful and genuine, but the times I am (which become more frequent the more I work on it) have brought about results far greater than my previous expectations.
By maintaining my genuine self and not pursuing success at the expense of others, I’ve established trust from many in the film industry and a variety of other sectors. That trust is both rare and priceless, because it’s easily lost if I ever choose to put personal gain over the well-being of others.
Naturally, having this mindset also means I’ve missed out on a few game-changer opportunities, but having my integrity intact has been certainly well worth it in the long run.
Please understand that I haven’t been immune to bad experiences, heartache and embarrassing failures. Those always really stink, regardless of what strategies you take. As you study the best stories, though, you’ll find that all great heroes experience great amounts of pain.
How a real person or made-up character responds to that pain is the difference between legendary heroism, unfathomable villainy or–as is too often the case in real life–underwhelming resignation. Heroes become heroic because of great pain. Remember that.
Treat those around you–whether big stars or lowly production assistants–as if they’re just as valuable as the next guy. Seek opportunities to enrich the people standing around you on any given day, and they’ll seek out chances to work with you (as long as you’re steadily improving your craft and you’ve got finished scripts for them to use).
The business side of the equation is something I’ve reluctantly given into far later than I’d advise. What initially appealed to me about being a screenwriter was its ability to give my creativity free rein without me having to consciously think about real-world money or logistics. Turns out I was very wrong.
At your age, I would encourage you to embrace a thorough knowledge of money–not as the be-all, end-all of why you do what you do, but as a simple tool you can wield like a number-two pencil or a flat-head screwdriver. Learn more about saving, investing, taxes… the whole shebang. The sooner you learn about money, the more equipped you’ll be to make it and have a purpose for it far greater than simply hoarding or spending it all.
In that same regard, learn entrepreneurship. Forget what your peers may be doing and learn what it means to be a self-starter. Those are the skills that translate into a variety of vocations, which makes you incredibly valuable in the eyes of any potential employer.
The thing about being a screenwriter is that, if you choose the traditional Hollywood route, it will always be feast or famine. That’s just the nature of the beast, even if you win an Oscar for what you do. In industrial terms, you’re only as good as your latest script, which means there’s little time for the successful to rest on their laurels, and much less time for the unknowns to sit back and cling to the one unsold script they may’ve written a few years ago.
If you choose the indie route–which technology and connectivity is making a much more viable option these days–you’ll get far less money, but it has the possibility of offering you more steady paychecks should you be able to keep churning out the content.
Regardless of which route you choose (I would recommend a bit of both until you determine the ratio that best suits you), a great understanding of business, finance and entrepreneurship will serve you well. With a developed business sense, the moneymaking side of screenwriting won’t feel as devastating, which allows you to focus more energy on the writing itself. Most screenwriters start out with a steady 9-to-5 day job, and they devote all their free hours to screenwriting until they can afford to quit that job. For many writers, that takes a long, long time.
Because you’re asking all these great questions before the expenses of adulthood set in (a decision I really, really applaud), I’d encourage you to look into income routes that don’t require set office hours. Many online jobs give you the flexibility to do screenwriting when it best suits you, or to take production meetings when you need to do that.
Before applying to online jobs, just make sure you do your research to determine a.) it’s not a scam and b.) the specifics of that time-for-money exchange is something you can realistically do while still finding time and energy to write screenplays.
If you can set up a few passive income streams now (while you don’t have to worry so much about immediate bills), you’ll be far less desperate to pay the bills later. There are tons of great resources online regarding passive income and which routes best fit your passions and abilities. I recommend listening to the Internet Business Mastery podcast and the Smart Passive Income podcast, which are my personal favorites. Also, grab Tim Ferris’ The Four-Hour Work Week. This book provides a great foundation for surviving the modern business landscape while finding time to do what you really want to spend your time doing.
That’s a lot to take in, I know.
The good news is you don’t have to figure it all out now. That’s the exciting thing about life! You’ve got its entire span–however short or long it turns out to be–to try to figure it all out.
But do start learning entrepreneurship and self-propelled decision-making now, which will only free you up to be a better screenwriter with the time you carve out for yourself. Do start reading and writing with purpose, with consistency and with growing pleasure.
That’s my long, from-the-hip answer to your questions, [name withheld]. My short answer would be this:
Write, write, write. Live, live, live. Great results will follow.
I write movies and teach others to write movies because it’s my passion. And I’m really fortunate to realize that while I’ve still got some life to live. It’s because of this passion that I’m converting my screenwriting courses–courses I’ve been teaching for a little more than a decade–into an online, multimedia format. My goal is to take what I’m the most passionate about and offer it to students who are, essentially, past versions of myself–people who want to tell great cinematic stories without having to go into debt over college courses or costly trips to specialty workshops.
If you’re interested in that comprehensive course in screenwriting (its history, its conventions, the business and everything in-between) fill out your information on my Contact Me page. I’d be happy to keep this conversation going with you, to introduce you to my other students who are just as eager to write great stories, and to help you along what appears to be a very promising path toward excellence as a screenwriter.
I applaud you again as you consider practical steps toward success this early in the game. Knock it out of the park, [name withheld]!
All the best,
How to Spot an Acting Scam
Of Hater Blockers & Coal Mines
SWAMP LIFE – Day Five: Resonance
SWAMP LIFE – Day Four: The Ominous Stench of Death
SWAMP LIFE – Day Three: My Wilderness Healthcare Plan
SWAMP LIFE – Day Two: The Power of Vision
SWAMP LIFE – Day One: Trying Out Superhumanity
Interview: Dave Trottier, Screenwriting Guru