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Five Things I Wish Non-Screenwriters Understood about Screenwriting

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Hello, neglected blog (and website)! How the hell are ya? I felt called to write an “update” blog of sorts for a number of reasons: 1) I’ve made a pretty major career leap (somewhat recently), and I assume people think I still work at a magazine (?); 2) I miss writing with no goal in mind; 3) Immersing myself in a world of my own making all day every day is so damn isolating, I need a little release from it.

So here goes – let’s start from the very beginning (a very good place to start).

I quit my job at a tech start-up in September 2021 to go to UCLA (remotely) and pursue screenwriting full-time. From what I know about writers, we all share similar polarized viewpoints about our writing: we think we’re the worst writers in the world (classic introverts, most are “quirky”, re: weird), but also, the best (I’m going to write the next ‘Juno’ on my first kick at the can because I’m the exception). It’s a fascinating game of ping pong I play nearly weekly: Jesus Christ, this character is such an overdone trope. What the fuck is wrong with me? CUT TO: I’m brilliant! Oscars 2024, here I come! The tricky part comes from not knowing which oscillatory state is fiction, and which is truth. Enter, my first grievance –

1) Screenwriting is, like, really, really hard

At the risk of sounding like a whiny bitch – let me explain what I mean by “hard”. When I graduated from UCLA, I came out with two completed features (in layman’s terms, two 100-ish page movie scripts). Hooray! Now all I needed to do was get a manager, get an agent, sell both scripts, and have them produced. Boom – superstardom. This sort of embarrassing entitlement isn’t new – but it’s one that often plagues first-time screenwriters. We don’t have a sense for just how cutthroat the industry is – nor do we understand how to develop a rich, complex story that has the ability to resonate with millions (yet). The fact is – you couldn’t pay me to reread my first script. All of my characters were born from clichés, I didn’t understand how to format a page correctly, and most importantly, my story wasn’t fresh nor exciting enough to warrant a second look from industry veterans. This, dear friends, is what’s most difficult to explain to people. You wrote a 100-page script, and you’re just going to… throw it away? It sounds like imposter syndrome. Shyness. Self-doubt masked as humility. No, guys, I assure you: screenwriting is just really, really hard! You need time to “find your voice”, understand story structure, learn how character arcs work, how to write exposition in unique, organic ways, how to write dialogue that rips your readers’ hearts out in a way that’s never been done before. To nail it on your first try à la Diablo Cody just doesn’t happen anymore (more on the “industry” later). But because these type of “exception” stories exist, people assume you’re just being humble (!!!), and need to be expelled from your tightly wound turtle shell by way of solution. But here’s the hard truth: The average lead time to break into the screenwriting industry is ~7-8 years. Now that I’m grinding through it, I completely understand – and have made peace with this statistic, but it’s difficult not to immediately sound defensive when people ask my most dreaded question: “How’s the writing going?” Which leads me to my next point –

2) "Updates" are few and far between I approach most relationships in my life with a glass half-full attitude: anyone asking how my writing is going is coming from a wonderful, loving place. Writing is my work, so it’s the same sort of perfunctory ask most people get when catching up with someone they haven’t seen in awhile. The crappy thing – that again, may read as defensive: When you ask how my writing is going, most of the time, I have no updates for you. Like I mentioned earlier, I came out of UCLA with two features (or, two first drafts). If you’ve ever heard the phrase “writing is rewriting” before, you’ll know – all first drafts are shit. They just are. There’s no getting around it. If finishing is half the battle, then dismantling your entire story and starting from a place of clarity is the other half. When you finish a first draft, you must ask yourself: Is this story worth the time and energy for a holistic rewrite? Or, should I scrap it, start fresh, and chalk it up to another ‘experience feather’ in my cap? A ton of newbie screenwriters will pick the latter. Why? Plenty of reasons. You may realize your idea isn’t quite up to snuff (even though you thought as much at the starting gate, 7-10 months prior). You may hate your protagonist’s story arc. Hell, you may just want to move on. Regardless (for me), the (second?) most painful part about screenwriting is the disconnect that comes with trying to make people understand… writing takes time. Rewriting takes longer. Jordan Peele reportedly quit writing ‘Get Out’ 20 times before he made it perfect. ‘Bridesmaids’ took nearly six years to get made. Phoebe Waller-Bridge spent over a year trying to adapt Fleabag from stage to screen. But all you see is the finished product.

So, here’s my update. After graduating, I wrote another feature. I rewrote it twice. Much to my dismay – it’s still not working. I am 100% confident it needs more work. So, I decided to shelf this feature for now (her name is ‘SILVER’), and instead, adapt my second feature into an hour-long PILOT. I just finished this pilot (her name is ‘QUEEN’) last week. Let’s do a little portfolio math, shall we? As of today, I have zero features I’m happy with, and one pilot (that still needs another polish). A year and a half of writing every single day, and I have one 54-page pilot I’m happy-ish with. I promise you with all my heart – I’m not being humble. This is what it means to work on your “craft” – you have to go through the motions, write, hate your story, and rewrite it again and again and again until you love it. There is no shortcut. Which leads me to my next grievance –

3) It’s tough to know when you’re “ready”

“Ready” in industry speak means releasing your story into the world in an attempt to grab the interest of a manager, agent, or producer (or, jackpot – all three). If you release it into the world, though, it needs to be perfect. This isn’t to say it won’t change (every single industry professional will have an opinion about what you should change about your script), this is to say – it needs to be innovative, core-shaking, earth-shatteringly amazing to get an exec to read past page one. Which leads me to my next grievance –

4) You only get one read

Despite what my Instagram personality may suggest, I’m not a total social recluse. I’ve been networking (albeit slowly) over the past year and a half – and have connected with a number of wonderful screenwriters and producers who have offered to “give me a read” when I’m ready. This is just about the highest favour you can offer a screenwriter free of charge: A professional critique of your work with the unspoken promise that if it’s good – they’ll pass it along to someone who might be able to help your career further. At the very least, it’s a critical eye, and professional notes to take your story to the next level. The catch? If you send a piece of writing out before it’s ready, you’ve just set fire to one of your industry connections who will only ever associate your name with “X” again. This is why most writers tend to stay in their bubbles (arguably) longer than they should: Launching before you’re “ready” can, at best, cross your name off an impenetrably long list of would-be screenwriters, and, at worst, shrink your network back down to zero. That’s why every professional screenwriter will tell you to make friends at “your level” – you need constant feedback on your work before tapping into an industry connection who has the ability to make your career, or keep it stagnant. Finally –

5) It’s not just about your story

It’s about the market. The industry has changed immeasurably since the pandemic. Studios lost billions of dollars over the course of a few years. They had to turn away from theatres, and towards streaming platforms to distribute content – and, years later, they’re still recovering. Now, studios need guaranteed hits. They need big A-listers to get butts in seats again. They need familiar franchises to eliminate risk. They need money.

The “middle budget” darlings that killed it in the 90s (think, the Jerry Macguires of the world) can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because they’re dead. It’s indie or huge ass budget now – there’s no room for in-between stories. And so it goes, according to every single industry professional I’ve spoken to over the past year and a half: There’s never been a more difficult time to break in. Lovely! New writers with no produced credits have to claw their way past countless seasoned professionals patiently waiting in the queue, all in hopes that their script is the next “It Girl” of the season. As in, one in a million. The diamond in the rough. Why take a chance on a new writer when you’ve got Aaron Sorkin a phone call away? Girl – your story better be fucking amazing.

At this stage, you may be wondering: Why the hell are you doing this, then? Screenwriting sounds awful. Well, unfortunately or fortunately – selling a script is my dream. And now that I’m “in it”, I could sooner chop my own hand off than quit. It’s simply too important to me. But – I’m no fool. I recognize I have a very long, very winding road ahead. So –

I guess it’s a good thing I’m enjoying the ride. More "updates" (kill me!) to come!



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