An overnight success years in the making

Well, it finally happened.

After countless hours, drafts, contests, emails, queries, coffee chats, and just about everything else I could do to help things work out in my favor, yours truly can now officially be called a professional working writer.

I kid you not.

A trusted colleague referred me to a producer seeking a writer for their microbudget project.

We talked, hit it off, and signed a contract.

(Once again showing the value of networking.)

Work on developing the first draft starts immediately, so the fantasy-comedy rewrite is on hold for the time being, which is fine by me.

And this producer already has a few films already under their belt, so the odds are better than average that this project will end up being a completed film. (As a friend said – always great when you can add a produced title to your resume.)

It’s all a bit overwhelming, but also quite thrilling.

This is what I’ve been working towards all this time. It may not be a huge industry-shattering deal, but it’s still me being hired to write a script for a movie.

Which is what this whole journey has been all about.

Fingers fully crossed that this is the first of what will hopefully be many more finish lines in this ongoing and never-ending race of mine.

I hope you have an excellent and productive weekend. Mine will most likely involve a celebratory piece of pie. Feel free to enjoy one wherever you are with my compliments.

Just missing one component

Over the past few years, as my network of writing associates and contacts has grown, along with my interaction with a lot of these people, more than a few have commented that they consider me a professional screenwriter.

My initial reaction – that’s flattering, and very kind of them to say, but I don’t necessarily consider it true. Like a lot of you, I write scripts, but I don’t get paid to do it. The ongoing plan is to keep at it until that last part changes.

But I was intrigued. What would make somebody say such a thing?

Is it how I present myself? I try to be professional, which includes being polite, respectful, and patient, whether it’s in person or online. But that’s just common sense and good manners.

Side note – do those two things diminish the more a writer works? Most of the pros I’ve met and know have been quite decent folks, but I’ve also heard more than a few anecdotes about a pro writer being a total jerk, but they could also be the exceptions. 

Is it about the scripts? How they’re written and how they look on the page? I’ll be the first to say my writing’s not the shining example everybody else should follow, but I try to present a well-crafted story that paints a picture in your head while also being easy on the eyes while you read it.

But that’s what we’re all striving for, right?

Is it because I keep trying? I love putting my stories together, and want to do it for a living. Why wouldn’t I or anybody else constantly work on anything and everything to help improve the chances of making that happen?

There’s no definitive path. Each writer finds success their own way. For me, it involves entering contests (temporarily on hiatus), sending out queries, networking online (and returning to it in person when that comes back), and what have you. Maybe somebody else films their own script and enters it into a few festivals, or decides to turn it into a book, or a webseries, or serialized chapters on a blog, or a graphic novel. So many options!

Trust me, there are days where I’ll see something great happen for another writer (who’s probably also been working at this just as much as me), and while I’m happy for them, it still feels like fate is twisting the knife in my gut just a little bit more, as if to say “Not a chance, sucker.”

My confidence plummets below sea level and all I can think is “That it. I’m done. D-U-N-N. Done.” It’s SO tempting to give up and walk away, but any and all chances of success immediately drop to zero if I do, and then I get angry at myself for even considering such a thing, so I get back to work.

The only way to make this happen is to keep trying, so no matter what kind of day it’s been, or whatever kind of new obstacle’s been thrown into my path, that’s what I do.

I keep pushing forward.

A really interesting thing I’ve been told is that “I deserve” success. I don’t necessarily agree with that one. Would it be nice to see the results I seek for all the work I’ve done? Of course, but I prefer the idea that I’ve earned it, rather than “I put in all this work, so the universe owes me.” I’ve seen/read a few writers state words very similar to that effect. It’s not attractive – on several levels.

Kids, the universe doesn’t owe me, you, or anybody, shit. This is all on us making that one connection where the other person says “Yes,”, which gets the ball rolling.

Naturally, there’s no guarantee it’ll ever happen for me, but I remain confident and hopeful.  Every day is a new opportunity to try. According to my trusted readers, my skills and my scripts have improved over time, so hopefully something positive will happen, preferably sooner rather than later.

Many years ago, I saw Shane Black on a panel at a writing conference. He told the crowd “Don’t call yourself an aspiring screenwriter. That just means you want to be a screenwriter. You write a script, no matter how it turns out, good or bad, you are a screenwriter.”

I really took that to heart. When I tell people I’m a screenwriter, most of the time the first follow-up question is “Have I seen something you’ve written?” To which I say “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”

-Want to have your TV or feature spec script included in the Maximum Z Script Showcase on 4 June? Click here for all the details.

Knew this wasn’t going to be easy

wile e coyote

Many, many years ago, while attending the Screenwriting Expo in the City of Angels, one of the seminars I went to featured an “industry professional” as a speaker. I put that term in quotes because I couldn’t tell you who it was or what they did. Maybe a writer-producer or something like that. It was good enough for the folks running the Expo.

There were probably 20 or 25 of us in the audience. This guy walked to the front of the room, and the first thing he said was, if you’ll pardon my paraphrasing:

“I don’t know who any of you are, how experienced you are, or how may scripts you’ve written, but I can guarantee that just about all of you will fail at this.”

Well, ain’t that an encouraging lead-in. Everything he said after that is pretty much a blur, because I found it to be…

Shocking? Most definitely.

Disheartening? Pretty much.

Accurate? Maybe. But he was speaking from his experience. No doubt he’d seen an endless stream of writers come through, give it their all, and despite their efforts, subsequently crash and burn.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that this was well before you could make a movie with your phone and a laptop. Resources and DIY filmmaking opportunities were much more limited than they are now.

His comments really struck a nerve. Is this what I, along with everybody else in the room, should think? Were we just wasting our time? Were our chances THAT small? Should we just give up and go home?

I couldn’t speak for anybody else, but I had a little more faith in myself than he did.

Like I said, I forgot everything after his opening – the sooner I got him out of my head the better – and gradually replaced it with a few thoughts of my own:

-Yes, this is a HUGE mountain to climb, let alone get to the top. Is that intimidating? Hell yes. Is it going to stop me from trying? Hell no. Much as it sucks, it’s better to try and fail than to give up entirely, so I’ll keep trying. As long as it takes.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to do so: I really like doing this, and even though I’ve endured my fair share of disappointments, I keep going – because I like the process of writing.

It’s taken me a long time to develop my skills just to get to this level, and I know there’s  room to keep improving. The challenge to myself and my writing abilities is one most welcome.

-Do I have a chance of eventually being able to call myself a professional writer? Hard to say. Some might say I already am, but that might be an individual matter of perspective. For me, until I see my name onscreen accompanied by “Story By…” or “Screenplay By…”, it doesn’t apply. my efforts will continue undaunted, unabated and undeterred.

Count me among the writers who are content to just be working. Sure, a huge paycheck would be great, but I’m also cool with writing a low-budget horror, or taking on an assignment, or doing an uncredited rewrite. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORK. The more I get to do it, the more I’ll enjoy it.

-For a long time, it was always “I need to find that somebody who says ‘yes’; somebody to open that door for me”, and to a certain extent, that still rings true. Getting representation, meeting with REAL industry people, and so forth.

But in the meantime, there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from making my own stuff. For the past few months, I’ve been dabbling with writing short scripts. Five to 10 pages, a handful of characters, one to two locations. Something that presents not only my writing skills, but also that I know how to tell a story in the most visual way possible.

Added bonus – a ridiculously short production time. It could be made over a few days (or a long weekend) with a minimal crew.

Feedback and notes from writing colleagues who’ve also made their own short films have been helpful and encouraging.

All of this, of course, will be a little more feasible once society slowly returns to “normal”. Until then, I’ve got plenty of time to prepare. Why not start creating our own opportunities?

-As much as I dream about all of these great things happening, I’m also a realist. I know that the journey to achieve this kind of success is a very, very long and tortuous one. Disappointment abounds.

I’ve no intention of giving up, no matter how frustrating things get. And there will be A LOT of frustration.

This is what I want to do, and despite all the negatives, I still enjoy doing it.

Thus the soldiering forward continues. Shoulder to the grindstone and all that…

Q & A with Geoffrey Calhoun

Screenwriter/script consultant Geoffrey Calhoun of WeFixYourScript.com has been previously featured on this site. This time around, he’s answering some questions about his new book The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

It was inspired from a class I designed when I was asked to teach screenwriting to film students in Ghana, Africa. Unfortunately that class fell through so I took the materials and broke them into seminars, then hit the road teaching at Film Festivals. Eventually, people attending the classes asked if I’d put this in book form. That’s when I realized I needed to create The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Books on screenwriting tend to be one of two things: overly wordy textbooks or focus on a specific area of screenwriting. What I wanted to do was create a book that’s easy to read and comprises all aspects of screenwriting. Thus, The Guide For Every Screenwriter was born. It covers everything from concepts, character design, formatting, branding yourself as a writer, and beyond. All of it done in an easy to access reference guide which gets straight to the point. I wanted to break down the mysteries of our craft into something that anyone can pick up and understand. This is the book you keep on the shelf next to your desk as you’re writing. After reading this book you’ll be able to confidently write a screenplay, even if you’ve never done it before.

Some screenwriting books are geared more towards covering the basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. How is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I wanted to write a book that even veteran screenwriters could read and walk away with something new or feel refreshed. The Guide covers some really interesting aspects about screenwriting which isn’t really covered in other books. Such as subplots, loglines, how to collaborate with other writers/producers, or even busting myths about queries.

Continuing on that theme – part of the book discusses the basics of formatting. Is this more of an issue than we’d normally expect?

Yes! As a professional screenwriter and consultant, I’m brought in to fix a lot of scripts through my website WeFixYourScript.com. One of the biggest problems I see is a lack of properly using format. Some writers believe it’s optional. Unfortunately, it’s not. So, adding format to the book was a must. I also wanted to delineate between a few of the finer aspects of format, such as montage vs. series of shots. Many writers think they’re interchangeable. The Guide explains exactly how and why they’re used and what makes them different, all with fun examples.

Early on in the book you mention how time, talent and tenacity all play a key role for both the writer and the act of writing. Could you elaborate on that?

The three T’s are my own personal mantra. The funny thing is, I never strung them together until I wrote the book. When it felt like I’d never get a script made I would tell myself I needed more time. Screenwriting is about the long game. Talent was a given. I knew I needed to be the best I could be, which is why I became a lifelong student of this craft. Tenacity is who I am as a person. I don’t quit. I don’t give up. I’m not built that way. I have to see things through. When I sat down to write the Guide, I wanted to create a section that was my own personal truth but also filled with hope and the three T’s were born.

A lot of writing guidelines say “write what you know”, but you’re of a somewhat differing opinion. How so, and how come?

That’s a great question and observation! I break the myth of “write what you know” in The Guide For Every Screenwriter. My hope was to introduce a different perspective to my peers. I believe we as writers need to be two things: experts on what we write about, and chameleons. In order to write about a particular topic or genre we need to master what it is first. Writing is one of the only fields in the world which encourages you to explore all facets of life in order to grow at your craft. The Guide provides a fun way to do that.

We also need to be chameleons. I know many writers scared to work outside of their comfort zones. That’s stifling creatively and also can make it difficult to find work as an indie screenwriter. I love working outside of my comfort zone. It makes me be better at what I do. It pushes me in directions I never expected and thus my skills improve.

I really liked your concept of what you call the “mind map”. Could you explain what that is, and how a writer would use it?

The mind map is a great little trick to get your brain thinking outside of the box. You can do it anywhere. I’ve seen a screenwriter do it at breakfast on a napkin and create their entire concept in ten minutes and it was good! You simply place what you want to develop in the middle of a paper and then branch off wild ideas around it. This isn’t just limited to concept; you can use it on anything including a character or even a story beat. I believe mind mapping in a busy public space can help as well because you’ll find inspiration from the surrounding environment.

There’s a section of the book that deals with a seldom-discussed part of a script: subplots. Why is the subplot important, and how can a writer get the most out of them?

When properly developed, a subplot can add a surprising amount of depth to your story. Subplots also fill out your script. Many writers tend to get lost in the main character’s struggle and end up underutilizing the supporting characters and underdeveloping the antagonist. This can lead to scripts struggling with anything from page count to a meandering script which can’t find its footing. A well developed subplot’s job is to reinforce and prop up the main plot. That’s one of the great keys to creating a killer script. In The Guide For Every Screenwriter, I explain what subplots to use and where they land in the script.

The final section of the book is appropriately called “What Comes Next”, in which you discuss what do after the script’s written – everything from getting feedback to queries. What prompted you to include these topics?

Screenwriting is about more than just writing scripts. If you really want to get out there and start landing writing gigs, then you need a road map of how to do that. I wanted to make sure the Guide can you lead you in the right direction. That’s why it covers topics such as properly protecting your script, a synopsis template, branding, networking, etc…

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was pumpkin with a big dollop of whipped cream. Still the same, or something new?

I don’t know why, but pecan pie has been calling to me.

pecan 3

Resources at your fingertips

kent

Becoming a professional screenwriter is an incredibly difficult goal that takes a very, very long time to achieve.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.

One goal, lots of strategies

The me business – a 24/7 operation

Apart from writing, what are you doing to help yourself get there? There’s only one person who can be the most effective in helping you move forward. And you already know who it is.

A support staff of one

Are you networking? Trying to meet other writers? Offering to give notes or swap scripts?

When a writer meets a writer…

Are you entering contests to see how your script holds up under scrutiny?

The hazardous journey down Contest Road

Are you sending queries? Researching reps and producers?

Quit them or queue them up?

Part of every writer’s journey is the inevitable frustration and disappointment. Some days it will be very powerful, and learning how to survive and endure it is all part of the process.

How low can you go? Quite, apparently.

Expiration date: NEVER!