I just finished my first script. Now how do I sell it?
New writers ask me this question all the time, and it's an important one. If you're an aspiring screenwriter living outside L.A., it can be especially tough to figure out the next steps to take. And you've probably found lots of conflicting advice in online forums, articles, etc.
As a screenwriter and script consultant who's rewritten, edited, and advised on hundreds of productions around the world—helping many writers make their first sale—I've developed a simple, straightforward approach to what works. These steps have been effective for many successful clients of mine, so I suspect they'll help you too!
- Reward yourself. Finishing your first TV pilot, feature screenplay, short film script, or web series is a serious achievement. So drink some champagne, eat a bunch of cupcakes, treat yourself to a movie, go mini-golfing, or binge-watch Gilmore Girls again! Completing such a major undertaking is a huge deal, and you deserve to reward yourself—most prospective writers don't even make it that far. Then, once you're ready, let's move on to Step 2 and unpack that initial question.
- Don't worry about selling your script. Wait, what? Isn't this article about selling your script? Yes, but to get to that point, you must first make your screenplay amazing. A half-assed script won't make it anywhere in this business; even worse, it could burn various bridges you've built up in the industry. There are so many people attempting to break into the movie/TV field that it takes something really polished, multidimensional, and memorable to break through the clutter. So don't even think about trying to sell your script or find an agent before your script reaches that standard! How do you do that? Read on....
- Get feedback. This doesn't mean only looking for praise, nor does it mean bringing your script to that writing group where everyone seems to hate everything. Neither step is helpful! It's usually best to get feedback from people who are already familiar with screenplays and filmmaking; many others won't really understand screenwriting format or conventions. If there's no one like that in your area, there are plenty of online and offline resources: Meet people at festivals, on message boards, at screenwriting conferences, in Meetups. You might even consider paying for the professional services of an experienced script consultant (ahem), whose unbiased opinion you can trust.
- Hold a staged reading. Listening to your words being read aloud can be unbelievably helpful. Every TV show and many feature scripts do read-throughs with actors before they move to the next stage. You'll immediately see and hear what jokes are landing, what scenes go on too long, what dialogue makes sense, and where people get confused. Use local actors, improvisers, and comedians—or even just friends willing to sit in your living room for a couple hours in exchange for pizza and beer (the common currency of this industry). When you ask for the readers' feedback afterward, you'll get a strong sense of what people did and didn't connect to in your story.
- Rewrite it. You knew we were coming to this part, right? Professional screenwriters go through dozens or hundreds of drafts for each script, which takes months or even years—and that's often before they start receiving notes from the director, studio, and executives. So ask yourself: Am I milking my story's premise for maximum tension, comedy, emotion, and drama? Is each scene as compact and effective as possible? Does every page exploit the main character's flaw and enhance their journey? Do we understand the story's primary conflict within just a few pages, and know what the protagonist's main journey will be by about a quarter of the way in (the end of Act I), if not sooner? If there's comedy in the script, is it based on character, not mere convenience or circumstance? The same goes for big twists, violent moments, action sequences, monologues, etc.—are they there just because they're cool, or because they're cool and character-based (the far stronger choice)?
- Only ask for your top contacts' help when you're ready for it. Many beginning writers make the same mistake: They form a valuable contact in the industry (say, an accomplished filmmaker or producer they met at a screening or festival)—and then they send that contact their very first script! But that's almost always a bad move. Take time away from the screenplay, work on your next project, then come back to this one. Odds are you'll have learned plenty of lessons that will help you make your first script even better. Practice really does make perfect! Van Gogh's first painting wasn't his best—or anything close to it. No one makes a masterpiece their first time out; it's improbable that you're the first exception to this rule.
- Don't give up. Finishing a script is an amazing feeling. But no one deserves a reward just for doing so; plenty of people finished their scripts even as you read this article! You must keep honing your skills for as long as it takes. Would an employee quit if she weren't promoted to CEO her first day? Would a beginning football player give up if he didn't score a touchdown on the first play of his first game? No! So remember: Even if your inaugural script isn't yet connecting with audiences, getting good feedback, or placing in contests, that doesn't necessarily mean anything. If you score a gold medal your first time out, that's great—but highly unlikely. It may take dozens of scripts to get there...but trust me, it's worth it. Never stop learning.
Want more smart, time-tested steps to boost your screenwriting to the next level? Consider downloading my webinar, Building a Successful Screenwriting Career from Outside L.A.. In this practical and informative class, I cover tons of invaluable techniques to hone your craft, build your network, and make your scripts stand out—no matter what your age, economic status, education, or location.
You can also check out my previous webinars. And if you live near New York City, you can even take one of my weekly collaborative writing workshops. Or just get in touch through my website—I love answering my readers' questions.
Get tips in Timothy Cooper's webinar,
Building a Successful Screenwriting Career from Outside L.A.
Is it possible to have a writing career as an outsider? Absolutely!
Get valuable insight by taking Timothy Cooper's exciting new webinar,
Building a Successful Screenwriting Career from Outside L.A.