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Notes from the Margins: A Writer's Greatest Enemy

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Much like an innocent, wide-eyed gazelle prancing along the African plains, the amateur writer has many natural enemies lurking, waiting to pounce. But I bet you don’t know what their greatest natural enemy is.

It’s not the cold-hearted agent, not the cynical gatekeeper, not the bitter reader, not the unscrupulous producer, nor the greedy manager. It’s not even your fellow amateur writers who will claw your eyes out for a 5 minute pitch session to CAA.

No. A writer’s greatest enemy is their own blinding desperation.


And Hollywood can smell it a mile away. We’re like dogs with bacon.

Desperation is what leads new writers to make very bad career decisions, to rush the process or submit a script that isn’t ready, to get bilked for thousands of dollars by scam artists promising them the world, or leads them to working with those unscrupulous producers or reps (or shady consultants) who will take advantage or cause you to lose rights to your own story for years.

Desperation leads to writers believing – NEEDING to believe – whatever anyone who seems slightly professional says. Someone dangles the carrot of access or money or getting produced and all of a sudden, you’re swallowing and regurgitating every word they say and inadvertently ruining your own writing.

Just over the last year, I’ve met or worked with over a dozen writers who previously lost THOUSANDS of dollars to shady producers, reps or bullshit programs that promised access, producer credit, publishing, representation, distribution, a major sale, etc.

One of my clients paid an E-book service over $20K to polish and publish her book (which she didn’t realize also gave them full rights to her story!). Another paid $8K to a producer with no theatrical credits who attached himself to the project because he promised he was an “expert in distribution.” And another client was offered the chance to be signed by a literary agency (that is not in LA or NY) and all she had to do was pay $3,800 for COVERAGE!

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. And each story I hear drives me crazy and breaks my heart. But you know what - they all could have been avoided if the writer just did a little due diligence and wasn’t so DESPERATE.

There are always going to be people out there looking to take advantage. It’s up to YOU to not let your big dreams get in the way of your common sense. If it sounds too good to be true – it usually is. It’s not that there aren’t any short cuts - it’s that if you could buy them for a couple thousand dollars, EVERYONE would have done so and become successful already. It’s not supposed to be easy!

If you were in your first year of Medical School to one day become a surgeon and someone approached you and said, “Hey, if you just give me $10,000, you can skip school and I will let you perform surgery RIGHT NOW,” would that sound like a good idea that would HELP your career in the long run or destroy it?

I understand feeling the need to RUSH everything and wanting to get it out there and on the screen NOW! Life is short. You started late. You have bills to pay. There’s so much competition. You just met a guy who knows a woman whose daughter is an assistant at a management company so you HAVE to get him your script by Friday or else the world will end and you will never have another shot!!

I get it! …But slow it the fuck down. Take your time and do it right. You finished your first draft. That’s great. Now you’re only 5-10 drafts away from being ready to show it to anyone.

The number ONE mistake desperate writers make is submitting, querying or pitching a project that is nowhere near ready yet. And this mistake can kill a career before it ever starts.

Again, it’s great that you just finished your first draft of your first script. It’s an accomplishment and you should be REALLY proud of yourself. But other than your friends, your writer’s group, or a professional consultant – no one else should ever read it.

They shouldn’t read your second draft either.

Do you know why screenwriting contests like Nicholls, Page, Final Draft Big Break and Austin Film Festival have upwards of 6500-8000 submissions every year? Because 3500 of them are scripts that should never be submitted! Now of course without those 3500 writers paying their entry fees, these contests wouldn’t be able to exist. But you have to know that submitting your first draft of ANYTHING is just a waste of fucking money. And worse – a waste of a reader’s time. Just because a contest deadline arrives doesn’t mean you send what you’ve got and hope for the best.

Now imagine submitting that script to actual reps or producers! You all know you only have one chance with a script or query. There are no do-overs. And I guarantee if you asked the WINNERS of those prestigious contests what number draft of their script they actually submitted that won, none of them would give you a number under five.

Once you’ve rewritten and polished and gotten feedback and it is really as good as it’s going to get -- THAT is when you submit to contests. But it’s STILL not when you submit to agents. You submit to agents when you have TWO MORE scripts in the same shape. It’s not a sprint or a marathon – it’s a career. Treat it like one.

Desperation also leads to believing every word every professional screenwriter or blogger says, which can be just as damaging.

“A-List screenwriter said THIS, so THIS must be true and I must do it!”

There are some great pro screenwriters out there giving some great advice. There are also some really shitty pro screenwriters out there giving some really shitty advice. Just because they’ve made a lot of money as a screenwriter doesn’t mean they’re great. It means their AGENT is!

I’m not saying don’t listen – you should always listen. But many pro-screenwriters give advice based on what THEY do and what studios want from THEM. But as A-List screenwriters with big-time agents and managers, they get to follow a different set of rules than the unrep’d first timer does, so their advice might actually be hurting your chances of getting past the reader.

Don’t be a groupie or a suck-up. Just because you like some lessons a professional screenwriter gives on a podcast or blog or Twitter account, doesn’t mean they’re a damn prophet spouting gospel that must be ingested like it’s the Blood of the Gods. Because let me tell you – they’re not invested in helping you succeed. They’re just killing time between their own writing gigs. Know the “rules,” but develop your own opinions and style. And don’t dismiss other’s opinions or notes just because they are contrary to your chosen Screenwriting God.

The funny thing about desperation is that often the writer can’t tell they’re putting that vibe out there. They think they’re being passionate about their work, when really everyone else in the room is taking two steps backward.

So here are a few sure signs you might be a desperate writer –

- You enter every contest under the sun. If you’re spending $500 a year on screenwriting contests, and you’re not seeing a return in your investment and have not won or been approached by a producer or rep – then STOP SUBMITTING and GET BETTER! Either your writing isn’t ready yet or you’re writing the wrong material.

- You attend every pitchfest and pitch the SAME projects year after year. Execs will remember you. At some point, you have to recognize it’s not them, it’s you.

- You finished your first draft of your first script and you’re asking about query letters. Stop! You’re nowhere near the query letter stage yet.

- You cling to the two positive things someone says about your script or idea and dismiss the 200 negative things. You’re not just desperate, you’re delusional.

- You have written over 20 scripts in the last 3 years. Screenwriting is a LITTLE about quantity, but much more about quality. And if you’re writing that much, I guarantee you the quality is poor. GUARANTEE IT. It tells me that you are great at getting words on a page, but you are not taking the time to fix and finesse them once they’re there. Plus, if you tell a rep that you have written 15 scripts and NOTHING has happened with them – no contest wins, no options, no nothing? – it’s a huge red flag that tells them either you don’t know anything about the business or you’re not a good writer.

- You have done one of the 3 B’s - Begging, Bribing or Blowing Smoke. It’s not attractive.

- You attend a party or networking event and the first words out of your mouth to everyone you meet is “I just finished this script about…” or “If you have a second, I’d love to pitch you my idea…”

- For every rejection letter you get, you send a nasty email back to the executive. Sounds crazy, but we’ve all gotten them! Desperation often does one more thing to a writer – it makes them lose their social graces and tact. You may NEED to sell your script right now, but that’s no one else’s problem but yours. And if you can’t take rejection properly, you are only defeating yourself and making it all the more likely you will never get a foot in the door.

There are many things a writer can do to give themselves a better shot at breaking in and having a screenwriting career. But much like with love, it often happens when you’re not even looking that hard for it. And if you can keep your desperation from getting the best of you, I promise it will increase your chances.

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