A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
There is little writers long for more than the elusive script sale. Are you even a real writer without a single sale under your belt?
If you’re still in the “aspiring” category – that ever-so-polite euphemism for writers who are working away, wishing and hoping for a tangible sign of their progress toward becoming a professional – how do you become a "real" writer?
Take a hard look at the three reasons why you haven’t sold anything yet, and get to work!
The Three Reasons You Haven’t Sold Anything
#1 Reason You Haven’t Sold A Script: Your Ideas
The Number One reason you haven’t sold anything is:
You are not writing stories that buyers want to buy.
What do buyers want to buy?
Great story ideas. That people will want to see.
Ideas are the single most powerful factor in drawing human beings to stories.
Great ideas are concept-driven. They are high concept. The concept has a unique hook that grabs us. They are both fresh and familiar at the same time. They feel inventive. They spark our imagination.
When a great idea is conveyed, it demonstrates that it is a complete and complex story and implies that we are in for solid storytelling.
That means the very first decision you make as a writer – what story to tell – is the most important decision you will ever make.
Is it easy to find a great idea? Nope. I just read a great article by Charles Chu, who writes about how to engineer success. In his piece, “Isaac Asimov: How to Never Run Out of Ideas Again,” I found this gem:
A struggling writer friend of Asimov’s once asked him, “Where do you get your ideas?”
Asimov replied, “By thinking and thinking and thinking till I’m ready to kill myself. […] Did you ever think it was easy to get a good idea?”
Great ideas for stories are like shooting stars. There might not be a lot of them in the sky, but if you’re not looking up, you’ll never see one.
I consider ideas my specialty, and stories are my passion, so I could go on and on here. But rather than attempt to convince you of the importance of high concept ideas in launching careers, I’d rather convince you to generate more ideas:
- More ideas strengthens your Idea-Generating Muscle.
- More ideas mean more choices of “What To Write Next.”
- More ideas gives you the chance to test drive your concepts for market appeal before you sit down to devote your blood, sweat, and tears to writing.
- More ideas will ultimately yield better, more compelling, more marketable Hooky Ideas.
Here’s how I discovered the power of having a big, fat Idea File early in my career that led to a sale. The most valuable lesson I may ever have learned about success in the industry.
If you haven't sold a script, you haven't harnessed the power of ideas.
#2 Reason You Haven’t Sold A Script: Your Networking
Does this reason for not having sold a script surprise you?
Networking and becoming a sold writer are inextricably linked. How are you going to get anyone to read your work if you don't have relationships? Networking is how you get to the sellers who know what the buyers want to buy. That's the sellers' job. And they do it by building relationships with buyers.
Networking often receives the least amount of focus from writers. As if an agent is just going to appear when you ring a bell, like an angel, and "Ding!" you will be a sold writer.
It’s not going to happen that way.
Networking lays the foundation for a career and becoming a writer who has sold a script.
What? You claim you are networking and reaping no benefits?
Really? I don’t think you’re telling yourself the truth. Because if you were taking networking seriously, you would be moving forward in your path to becoming a sold writer.
Networking is not a part-time occupation. It requires a concentrated effort. Consider building industry relationships an invaluable tool in your arsenal of career skills, every bit as fundamental as a good scriptwriting program in becoming a professional writer.
Strategic networking is essential to achieving the success of having a sale. It merits your time and attention. Create a networking action plan as specific as a detailed script outline.
Remember: Relationships lead to relationships.
A solid networking plan includes Horizontal Networking – peer-to-peer, people on your level, as well as Vertical Networking – people who are already where you want to be and working industry pros who can help you get there.
Frankly, many writers, well, um, suck at networking. It’s as if the part of the brain that makes and builds connections with new people is pushed aside by the part of the brain that comes up with compelling characters and crisp dialogue. I’ve known plenty of professional writers who – fresh off meeting with an important studio or production exec – couldn’t recall their name. “Mike or Mark something.” There happen to be a great many of “Mike/Mark Somethings” in this business. But if I knew where the writer was meeting, I could generally nail it in a single guess.
Because that’s my job as a producer. As a writer, you should realize that it’s part of your job too.
Make a habit of writing everything down, something writers should be good at. It’s as simple as journalism’s five W’s and an H. Who you met with, when, where and why. Plus what was discussed. How it went. All in a searchable document on your computer.
As a development executive, I was a relationship-building machine. I had a vast contacts document that I constantly updated with notes on every conversation, from a first meeting and all I had learned about the agent or exec and what material they wanted to find, to the many calls discussing scripts submitted, writer’s meetings, and spec tracking. A wealth of information and more details than anyone could hold in their head. I called it the “F/U” file. For Follow Up, of course!
If the entire idea of networking leaves you baffled or nauseous, force yourself to take the first steps, because it gets easier. Honest.
Keep in mind these networking fundamentals:
- Relationships lead to relationships. The people you network with are the best source for meeting new people. When I was in “Industry Relationship Building Mode,” I never left a get-to-know-you-meeting without learning two things:
1) What type of material the person was looking for – be they an agent, studio exec, or production company exec.
2) Who they liked in the business and thought was smart that I should meet. When I cold called that person, do you think they ever turned me down when I opened with the line, “So-and-so said that you were really smart and that I should know you.” I almost hate to give this one away, but it works – every single time.
- Everyone you meet is “network worthy.” Don’t ignore other writers, assuming they’re in the same boat and can’t help. Horizontal Networking lays an important foundation. You need these relationships, to get feedback on your work, industry advice and, yes, a hand up.
- The power of “who you know knows” is immeasurable. The top way to connect with representation is a personal recommendation. When your writer friend lands “in the boat” someday, they might be happy to lend you a hand, if they know your work, and if it’s truly worthy of recommending. And who knows? It might just work the other way around. Build as many relationships as you can. Relationships lead to relationships.
- You are worth knowing. While social situations make some folks' skin crawl, I believe that the biggest stumbling block to networking is the secret fear that you are not worthy. You have nothing to offer, so why would anyone want to add you to their list of contacts? All right, if you’re trying to network with Spielberg, yes, he probably doesn’t need a thing you have to offer. But as a creator of material – that which feeds the insatiable beast – you have intrinsic value. When Vertical Networking don’t loose sight of this.
To paraphrase Stuart Smalley (If you just said, “Who?” watch here.), “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, people will like you.” Read aloud. Repeat. Ready. Set. Go network:
- Put yourself in a ripe environment. A pitchfest, a writers’ group meeting, a meet up, an industry conference or film festival.
- Rather than bulldozing your way into a circled up group engaged in banter – a challenging situation for the best of us – try striking up a tête-à-têtewith someone else who is going solo. Chances are, they’ll be eager to chat.
- An easy go-to topic is the event itself. Ask the other guy about their experience. Have they pitched anyone, if so, how did it go? What did they think of the speaker? Which panel or class did they enjoy the most and why? Remember, avoid “yes or no” questions as they don’t really spark conversation.
- My secret success tip for the most reticent networkers: It’s right under your nose! Glance around and find something interesting. It doesn’t have to be the Rockettes, and it shouldn’t be controversial, just something intriguing enough to catch your eye. I’ve started conversations by bringing up a tenuously towering stack of bagels.
- When trying to network vertically: Be Specific. “Help me, please!” is every bit as painful a plea as it sounds. And pointless. Vagueness is guaranteed to get you nowhere. Here are some real life examples of networking missteps to avoid and successful paths to take.
- When trying to network vertically: Be Sincere. Fawning isn’t as fun for the other guy as you might imagine. But if you admired a pro’s talk or panel, a recent project, or read in the trades about their new project, there’s your opening. Honest, specific compliments are a good way to get the ball rolling. They can actually make you stand out from the sycophantic hordes. Avoid vague plaudits. Make it personal – articulate what particularly excited or intrigued you. More tips on Vertical Networking here.
- Networking via social media works. While it is considerably more challenging to build relationships in cyberspace, it is possible. As above, sincere and specific are key.
- Essential Advice: Ask not what the other guy can do for you, but what you can do for the other guy. This goes for professional, as well as personal relationships, right?
Networking – both horizontal and vertical – must be a two-way street. Ultimately, you’ll be rewarded in spades and make real advances toward becoming a writer who has sold a script. What you give in relationships will come back to you. But not if you start out looking solely for what’s in it for you.
#3 Reason You Haven’t Sold A Script: Your Execution
It’s no coincidence I ranked execution dead last. I know many of you think that getting a project sold is all about execution.
But it’s not.
Stop thinking: “If you write it, they will come.” Just stop.
Great writing won’t bring Hollywood knocking at your door. This is an insidious myth. Won't happen without Reason Number One and Reason Number Two under your belt.
The truth is that plenty of mediocre and even badly written screenplays have sold because they were a great idea for a movie.
I’m not saying that knowing your craft doesn’t count. It does.
I’m not saying that quality doesn’t count. It does.
Having relationships counts more. See Reason Number Two.
I’m saying marketability countsmost. See Reason Number One.
If your idea is Execution Dependent versus High Concept then yes, your execution had better be nothing short of stellar. And buckle up because it’s still going to be a long and bumpy ride to move this project forward.
Honestly, if your idea isn’t concept-driven, it had damn well better be Little Miss Sunshine. (100 drafts, my friends! The talented and determined Michael Arndt wrote 100 drafts before he sent that script out into the world.)
Stellar execution of an Execution Dependent idea is no magic bullet. It requires mad skills, endless rewrites, and sheer luck because it remains a crapshoot, especially compared to the superpower of a High Concept idea. Want to improve your odds? See Reason Number Two – relationships, relationships, relationships.
Let’s say your stellar execution of an Execution Dependent idea lands you at the top of the heap of a prestigious writing competition. That is the perfect opportunity to “share your news” with your network – both horizontal and vertical – and let the groundwork you’ve laid do its part. See Reason Number Two.
Say your contest recognition gets you the attention of industry big wigs. Given your stellar execution, chances are they may want to meet you. Now they’re trying to add you to their network. Nice. You might possibly get considered for an open writing assignment. Guaranteed question you will be asked in the meeting: “What else do you have?” And that question is in search of a project they can sell. Ideas make the industry world go round. See Reason Number One.
Are you – and your career – suffering from Execution Dependence? Find out here and learn what to do about it.
Whether you are plagued by people callously questioning your career progress or listening to the nagging doubts in your own mind, worrying that you might not be “a real writer” keeps you from focusing on the steps required to get you there.
You should be pushing forward on all three of these fronts – ideas, networking and execution.
Whenever you make progress in these three areas, you are that much closer to becoming a real writer with a sold project.
Get more tips from Barri Evins with her on-demand webinar
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