Writing for the screen is widely thought to be an exciting and glamorous career. Rookie writers can easily get caught up in fantasies of someday driving exotic sports cars, owning homes in the Hollywood hills, and dating beautiful starlets.
While the top screenwriters may enjoy some of these perks, the majority of screenwriters don’t. Most of the working writers today make around $50,000 – $70,000 per script — and that’s when they sell one, which may not happen every year.
Even when screenwriters do sell scripts they often face ridiculous deadlines and write endless drafts to satisfy producers, directors, and actors. If they don’t satisfy these people, other writers are generally brought in to rework their original vision.
Breaking into the business is the hardest part. Generally, rookie writers struggle to write on weekends or early mornings before their day job starts. If they don’t take classes, or get feedback from reliable sources their learning curve can be steep.
Writing an original spec screenplay during this period can drag on for months. The first draft is one thing. The rewrites can go on, too. And there’s no pay for those early efforts. How do writers stay interested and motivated enough to keep writing?
One way for writers to stay motivated is to fully commit to a life-long career as a writer from the start. Don’t treat it as a hobby, or you will definitely lose interest. You should look deep into your heart and ask yourself if you’re willing to work the long hours months and years it takes to succeed.
If you want to be a professional writer –who sells scripts, or gets plays made, or gets novels published, this better be your top priority. If it’s down on your list, behind creating an internet startup, or becoming a lawyer, or a professional wrestler, it’s probably not going to happen.
You need to make writing the first priority to help you carve out time to write. A lot of great things happen when you make that decision. You don’t have to wonder anymore if you really should spend time writing. It’s obvious. You need to write. Not just once in a while. As often as you can.
Whether or not you realize it, this decision is tied into your need to matter as a person. We all want to leave our mark on the world. We all want to express ourselves in a way that will be remembered. Somewhere in our dreams — we all want to leave some kind of legacy.
Some writers –very lucky writers, realize early that they have something to say. I say lucky because they already have a vision or an idea that they want to express. Some people get into writing but don’t know what they want to say, they just want to be entertaining. And that’s okay.
Not all films have a message – nor do they need to. On the other hand, I think writers tend to be observers of human behavior. They generally have something to say about it, too. In my case I was clearly interested in the human condition — I loved psychology and graduated with a degree from Stanford.
I also knew I wanted to be funny. As a kid I had memorized comedy routines written and performed by my one-time hero Bill Cosby. When I was a kid, at camp in Boy Scouts, I’d entertain my friends with those hilarious routines.
I was obsessed with comics and funny movies. I spent a year in college reading and writing about the American comic genius. I studied the funniest people on Earth –Mark Twain, the Marx Brothers, W.C Fields, May West, George S. Kaufman, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen.
I admired those people so much; I started writing short stories, then scripts, and then made short films that were funny. One of those scripts got me into the USC Cinema’s Professional Writing Program. I got some real experience writing screenplays with feedback from veteran screenwriters and Hollywood producers.
At some point (probably around my time at USC) I made a commitment to writing. What else could I do, I was in a writing program. I was writing nonfiction books and screenplays. At some level, I knew that I’d be writing for the rest of my life.
I worked pretty hard trying to write the best, the funniest screenplays I could. Whenever I had free time, I knew I should be writing. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading –The National Lampoon, and studying films like MASH, Lenny and Play It Again, Sam.
Once you commit yourself to immersing yourself in your craft, thinking about writing every day and envisioning yourself writing films or working on a TV staff, you’ll be on the right track. Say to yourself, I’ll be writing (in some form or other – novels, films, poetry, whatever) for the rest of my life. Commit to it. Visualize it. Stick to it.