Last June, the estimable Lucy Hay published the following piece of hard-won wisdom on her blog, Bang-2-Write: 25 Reasons Why You Haven't Yet Made It as a Writer.
Now, I've had complaints in the past that Lucy comes across as angry, as if that should disbar her from expressing any opinion. My own view is that Lucy probably has excellent reasons for feeling frustrated. I know that she rubs up against new writers/wannabe writers all the time. Amongst them are a percentage of rude, arrogant, ignorant, thoughtless, self-centred, small-minded, entitled, or stupid people. (I used to have dealings with a few such in years gone by, but withdrew from the arena. I don't have the patience.)
My dealings with Lucy, going back to the earliest days of this blog, have been marked by kindness and exceptional generosity on her part. I respect her; I trust her; and I admire her willingness to share.
So, if you're likely to feel unsettled by anything that follows, it would probably be best if you quietly closed your browser now and went back to playing Solitaire.
Making It As A Writer: 25 Reasons You Haven’t Yet
By Lucy V Hay
So, yet again, I’ve run into various writers on various social media sites, forums, bulletins, etc., telling me how they “can’t” advance because of “[insert reason here]”.
Look. No one said this writing stuff was going to be easy. First you sweat blood getting the story and characters on the page, then you find you have another journey ahead of you getting it out there! I know. It’s super industrial-flavoured shit. I was peeved too. It’s like getting to the top of Everest, only to discover God or Mother Nature or Fate fancied a change, so put an extension on it like Madonna’s bra. I get it.
So here are the top “reasons” why some writers apparently “can’t” advance. If none of these apply to you, congratulations. You’re ready for a career in this writing malarkey. Otherwise, read it and weep:
1) You’re writing too little or too much
This is the thing: writers write. We know this. It’s no good just to say it; you gotta do it. And more than that, you have to have shedloads of ideas and be excited about all this, otherwise what’s the point?
On the flipside: spend all your time writing and all you do is end up procrastinating. Your best writing is done by thinking, but more than that: to be a great writer, you have to live life. Do not be too concerned with what Joe Eszterhas calls “reel life”.
2) You think it’s about luck
We all need a little luck, it’s true … though the harder we work, the luckier we get. Of course, sometimes we get totally crappy luck and projects upend through no fault of our own. It’s terrible when that happens, but there’s only one thing to do in that situation. Guess what it is? Yeah, you’re right: Keep going.
3) You think it’s ‘cos you’re poor
Here are the facts. You don’t need to be rich to have writing talent and you definitely don’t have to be rich to be able make contacts! You just have to be Not Weird.
Of course this is an issue for some of us, but that is usually not to do with how much money you have in your bank account, but giving yourself a slap!
4) You think it’s about geography
“There’s no industry where I live!”
Dudes. The industry they speak of is an illusion. You know why? Because this is “The Industry”:
People + people = writing, developing & making stuff
You can do this anywhere. Also, thanks to the internet, you can do this with anyone. Geography is no boundary. You can do what you want, with whomever you want. (Oooh, Matron.) So why are you complaining? There are more opportunities than ever before!
5) You think it’s ‘cos you’re not a middle-aged white dude
There’s no question the media is subject to institutional sexism and racism, but—and there’s always a BUT with me (snarf)—there’s also something else: the industry follows the money, especially Hollywood.
So that means if your concept is red hot, they couldn’t care less who you are or where you’re from.
100% true fact.
So forget about those two things and write the best genre-busting, money-making screenplay ever.
6) You see exploitation everywhere
There’s more free advice, resources and help on the internet about screenwriting and filmmaking than ever before. More is being added all the time. Some of it’s bad. But some of it is good, even great! And yes, you have to sort through it all to get the good stuff (OMG what a problem!). But my point is this: if you don’t like paying for seminars, books, services, script reads, etc, then it’s simple—DON’T. Use what is at your disposal and stop whining.
As for the whole “working for free” argument—can we please put this one to bed, now? Yes, yes, big companies should not expect their writers to work for free. Obviously that is bad. But there is a difference between exploitation and collaboration and if you don’t know what it is, then seriously, you aren’t ready for working with anyone, free or not.
7) You think it’s about art
I love art. It rocks. But mainstream movies and TV are not art first. They are commerce-led. They have to be. That doesn’t mean writers can’t slip in a nod here and there and make them “arty” – why not? – but ultimately, those production companies making the screenplays have to balance the books. Not because they’re evil capitalists, but generally ‘cos like most people, they have mortgages, childcare and psychiatry bills to pay. Duh.
8) You’re a snob
If I had a quid for every time I saw or heard writers dissing a screenwriter, filmmaker, genre or type of work and insisting they’d never do their creative work that way, it’d be too soon. But what these snobs don’t realise is often their own harsh judgements paralyse them and stop them from progressing, as they overthink everything out of fear of people like them dissing the finished project! Shame.
9) You think it’s “who you know”
Let’s get this straight. If you write a brilliant screenplay, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. It is not who you know. But, yes, it does help to know some people, because the media is all about relationships.
So make some!
Again, it’s never been easier, thanks to the internet. Make a team. Make some stuff. Grow together. What have you got to lose?
10) You think it’s just about your craft
Craft is great and, certainly, screenplays look better on the page, format-wise, than they did ten years ago. But unfortunately, most spec screenplays have the same issues they always did with structure and characterisation. Many new writers believe “craft = good format”. It doesn’t.
If you learn what craft really means and how to nail structure and character, you might find yourself catapulted to success.
11) You think it’s ‘cos you don’t write “the usual”
Yes, the gatekeepers don’t want to find derivative stuff, but equally they don’t want stuff that’s totally wack either. This is never more apparent than with characterisation and story. If you’re going to write an unusual character in a story that’s original and fresh, it needs to be left of the middle, not completely out of left field. It’s all about balance! Le duh.
12) You think it’s all “obvious”
Every time I publish an article—especially on screenwriting craft—some Whack-A-Mole pops up somewhere on social media, sneering about how all my points are apparently “obvious”. Yet if that’s the case, how come there’s so many writers out there confused about all this stuff/not doing these things? How come writers can improve on their crafts, their attitudes, their abilities to make contacts by listening to advice from industry pros? I’ll tell you—because there’s knowing it … and there’s actually doing it.
13) You’re writing the wrong thing
This is the thing. There’s a shortage not only of well-written feature length screenplays, but there’s a shortage of feature scriptwriters too. Especially in the UK. Especially genre. Especially women. Especially BAME writers. Plus it’s actually easier to get into feature film writing with a great feature length screenplay, because no one cares if you have credits or not. And TV people will read feature screenplays as samples. In other words: You should be writing feature scripts.
Yet new writers are writing spec TV projects. Constantly, at the expense of everything else. Why? Because apparently TV runs initiatives, schemes, etc., and “feels welcoming”, was a reason I read on Twitter this week.
Okay … Let’s work out how many places on said schemes, initiatives, etc., are available in the UK each year. Let’s say 50 (and that’s being generous). How many writers are going for each of those 50 places do you think? 500? At least, I’d wager. Those are astronomical odds.
Hey, you gotta be in it to win it. I get that. And if you genuinely love TV, then by all means go for it. But if you think that TV is any easier to get into than film, you’re out of your mind! Especially as film is so much easier to get into than TV anyway!
14) You’re telling industry pros how it is
“There must be loads of great screenplays out there not getting made.”
There really aren’t. Do you know how I know this? Because I not only read stacks of screenplays every single year, I also talk to other readers, producers, filmmakers and agents. Absolutely everyone I know says this:
“There are NOT loads of great screenplays out there not getting made.”
Seriously, get it out of your head that there’s this black hole that sucks up great screenplays. There isn’t. What’s more, this is great news. Why? Because it means that if you come up with a fantastic script it will get made, because we are desperate— yes, desperate—to find them! There are far too many derivative scripts out there, written by writers who either 1) have no clue what they’re writing is derivative, or 2) believe that the industry only makes derivative shite.
15) You think you can’t get read
Here’s another one that drives me batshit crazy: “It’s so hard to get read.”
Is it? Let’s break this down. There are more contests, initiatives, schemes, listing sites, querying services, script call sites, film festivals, writing festivals, bulletins, Facebook pages, twitter calls, information sites, podcasts, videoblogs and other resources than there have ever been. More are being added all the time. Some are paid-for, sure; but a huuuuuge amount are 100% FREE.
Now, you’re trying to tell me you can’t get read? Seriously? Because I got read way back when there wasn’t all this stuff, when I didn't have an agent, when I wasn’t @Bang2write and there was hardly anything writing-related on the web. Do you know how I did it? I rang people up from the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook pretending to be “Producer X’s Assistant”.
Guess how many times I got busted? Zero. I still use many of those email addresses I got, all these years later. (Of course, now I’ve busted myself, sorry! #notsorry).
My point is, if you want to get read, figure out how to do it. It can be done. You don’t have to sleep your way to the top (though be my guest if that’s your bag), or even do cheeky phone scams, either.
16) You don’t have a strategy
This is very simple: figure out what you want to do, how you’re going to do it—and by when. Set goals. Revisit them. Your priorities may change and that’s fine; it’s not time wasted. But the scattergun approach does not work (or if it does, you are one lucky sod).
17) You think it’s a “closed shop”
It comes down to this: it’s not a closed shop. I keep telling you all it’s not, but I keep hearing that it is, probably because people believe in the tired myth of being “plucked from obscurity”.
NEWSFLASH: no one is plucked from obscurity.
If The Industry is a bunch of people working together—and it is—then you have to create some relationships. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is the only way forward.
18) You’re not querying
See “No unsolicited submissions” everywhere? Oh boo hoo. Query everyone, regardless. But what is querying?
19) You’re not making your submissions properly
If you get a script request, send them what they want, the way they ask for it. I can’t stress this enough. If they don’t mention a specific way, send PDF files; your script; and a one page pitch. Make your accompanying email short, to the point and pleasant (i.e., not weird, but not too formal either).
Oh, and by the way, you need to submit that script ASAP. Don’t make them wait weeks, or even months for it!
20) You’re crossing your fingers and hoping for the best
So many writers tell me, “This will be the one!” And it’s great that they have so much confidence; they absolutely should, BUT—again, that but (snarf)—but they inevitably find it isn't and then they’re crushed. They’ll come to me later and say, “Why am I not advancing?” And the answer to that is, they’re not doing enough to get themselves out there. So, ask yourselves honestly: Are you doing enough beyond your writing? Do you even know what you’re supposed to be doing beyond writing stuff?
21) You’re not making your own opportunities
This is the thing. All this is in your own hands … if you can just create those all-important relationships. But to do that, you have to meet people. If you help them, they help you. It’s not rocket science.
Networking is a stress many writers don’t like or want to do, but it is necessary. If you can’t afford the big events, then go to the ones with nominal charges or those that are free. If you live outside London, set up your own. In other words: Meet people, however you can.
Also: following writers, agents, producers and filmmakers on Twitter is a great start, but you need to make relationships with them as well. This can be done online, if you can’t make it to real life events. But tread carefully. Remote communication can go hideously wrong very quickly. If you fuck up, apologise. If you get burned, let it go and move on. Don’t crusade "on behalf of all writers" or make weird proclamations.
22) You really want someone else to do it for you
Every day writers ask me questions and that’s cool, I like helping writers. But too often, I’ll find myself stuck in someone else's view of the industry. You know how it goes:
“No one wants to help anyone, least of all you.”
Sounds like me, doesn’t it?
This is the thing: if you want something, then YOU have to go get it. You have to figure it out. If you can’t be bothered, or are too daunted, or too confused (or whatever), then maybe you didn’t want it that much to begin with. All of us start with nothing. If we want something, we have to create it. It’s gruelling and painful and sometimes even boring (really!), but again: it’s the only thing you can do.
23) You think it’s about paying ALL the bills from writing
Get this. Very few professionals writers are able to pay all their bills/living costs from writing alone (especially in film). Even if they could, they might do something else as well because, frankly, writing/freelancing is a lonely business! Most of us want to get out there and/or do other stuff.
Being a professional in this business doesn’t necessarily stack up in terms of money. It’s about attitude and it’s about creating a career.
24) You’re not giving producers or agents what they WANT
What do you mean, you don’t know what they want? It’s never been easier to find out … So find out.
25) You just don’t know how this shit works!
You have to. Doesn’t matter what it is: structure? Make it your bitch. Genre? Know how it all goes. Budgets? Know what it is low, medium, high. Know what a producer does. Know the differences between PASS or CONSIDER or RECOMMEND. Know which are the good production companies or agents; talk to everyone. Know what deals are being done.
And, for Christ’s sake, WATCH THE STUFF YOU WANNA MAKE. I’m so tired of talking to people (who apparently love films as much as I do) who say “I haven’t watched that one”! Sure, I get it, going to the cinema is expensive and maybe your local doesn’t get a great selection; ours doesn’t either. It’s also not possible to watch every single film in the known universe. But if you want to write a Thriller, A Horror, A Drama, A Comedy, you should be immersed in what has gone before—or you just won’t look professional.
So, if you’ve not made it yet, this is the reality: Your screenplay is not good enough.
Of course, “good” is a relative term; yours might be ace and that’s great, but if there is no market for it, then it’s still not good enough. But this is the real point: do you even know if there’s no market for it, or are you just randomly throwing spaghetti at the wall?
If you want to make a sale and/or get serious attention for your writing via an agent or writer for hire opportunity (or similar), you have to invest in concept. It’s non negotiable. If I sound like I’m repeating myself here, it’s because I am. I’m literally boring myself. But not as much as the writers are boring me with the apparent “reasons” listed in this article as to why they haven’t “made it”.
It’s hard for everybody, regardless of background, geography, even start in life. I know a guy whose mother was a famous singer/actress back in the day, but she said to him: “You gotta make it on your own, boyo, you’re not riding on my coattails.” So he’s getting out there with his scripts, alone, same as you.
Yes, she’s harsh, and so am I. But it is out there: you have to wo/man up and get yourself out there regardless, with a great screenplay and a great attitude: “Why not me?” Seriously, why not? If you’ve got the talent and the persistence, it can be done … and I’m assuming you wouldn’t have started if you didn’t think you had the former, so now you gotta focus on the latter!