I’ve been exchanging e-mails with an aspiring writer that I don’t know. He queried an old e-mail address of mine that is apparently still listed in a few places from my development executive days. I haven’t been an exec for about nine years, and the company I worked for has been defunct for about that long, but it can be difficult to run down all the places where these listings still exist, especially since companies out there probably sell each other information which they then “monetize” by selling hope of access to aspiring writers. 200 accurate listings doesn’t look as sexy as 1,000 listings.
I think one of the most frustrating mysteries for writers outside the system is: how did the people who “made it” get their material read? Those stories tend not to get told in detail, and I understand why – they tend to be so convoluted, coincidental, and ultimately dependent on “who you know” that none of them seem to have any connection to the writer’s ability. And while it is true that a great writer who never talks to anyone might find themselves trumped in earnings by a merely good writer who markets the crap out of themselves, the real flaw, I think, is in seeing “who you know” as some immutable fact, or some bequest of fortune that can’t be changed.
If one of the most frustrating arts in writing is how to get read, then one of the secret truths you have to embrace in mastering that art is you can get to know more people. And it can actually be fun.
For the purposes of this entry, I am counting myself as someone who “made it”, to the extent that I have sold and optioned material, earned membership in the WGA, and have ongoing interests with some producers and directors and executives out there. Trust me when I say that neither my bank account nor my own ambitions are satisfied that I’ve “made it”, but I know that there are a lot of people out there who would dearly love to just have made it this far.
I was fortunate in that I successfully used a Trojan Horse method – I worked my way into town as a script-reading intern, platformed that into a development executive job, and then, by the time my screenwriting had progressed to the point that I thought I had something of good enough quality to circulate, I was already regularly in conversations with execs and literary agents, some of whom owed me favors. That’s how I got read, that’s how I got my first agent, and my first agent got me my first sale.
Obviously, not everyone can replicate this approach. There could be a whole book about how you build your network to the point where you material is organically circulating to where you want it. Hell, probably just start with reading Dale Carnegie. But the idea is to stop viewing yourself as Over Here and the people you need to reach as Over There behind some unbreachable stone wall. You spend a lot of ineffectual time with catapults in that metaphor.
What you must remember is that by writing, you are already part of a community: the community of people who Do Things. Just by finishing a script, you beat out 98% of the people who ever mused to themselves “I bet I’d be a good writer”. Now, of course, once you’ve beat out that 98%, you have to beat out the 98% of the survivors who finish one script and then say “well, this is so perfect, I obviously don’t need to re-write it, or learn anything else about writing, or even bother starting a second script”. There are a LOT of rounds of culling to this game, and the numbers are brutal.
But that’s for later. Right now, you’re someone who Does Things. That means you need to put yourself around other people who Do Things. You’ll find that you love their company – they inspire and encourage you to work, and set a great example by being their own brilliant selves. You want to be better just because they’re so damned good. They are a vast improvement over the company of people who Talk About Things.
So writing communities are great, but just being in one is not enough. Critique each other, share wisdom, hold each others’ feet to the fire. And in that process, don’t just improve yourself, get to know the people who are serious and have direction – they are a very minor subset even within the group of people who Do Things.
Inevitably, you’re going to need help – an introduction, a read, a recommendation. The best way to get someone to help you is to help them, and a good writer can definitely help someone. Craigslist is full of listings from aspiring filmmakers looking for short scripts to shoot. Hey, maybe they don’t need a script, but they do need crew. There’s a director I am now developing a horror movie with – we met when I answered an ad to be his 1st A.D. for a short film. It went to festival, his stock rose, we got along well and he loved my writing. So now when people with money are starting to look at him for feature film work, I’m near the top of his list to bring in if there’s a need for a writer.
Build alliances with good people, and you could find yourself at a film festival and someone with money is asking YOU to please send them a script. That’s the secret, really – the best way to get someone to read your script is to get them to want to ask you for it.
This film festival example is just one way to go about it – but the trick is to see past this mentality where you’re on the outside trying to lob your script in. Trust me – if you wrote something, you’re inside already. You just have to learn the landscape.
A Read is a precious currency in Hollywood, and is not spent lightly; there are just too many bad scripts to be foolhardy with your reading time. And a Recommendation is even more dear. And I’m a writer, trust me I know the deep-down desire for the material itself to render all such equations moot. But writing quality is not a fixed value – everyone has different needs, and the creative partners you seek out are going to have different tastes (and if you don’t see directors and producers as creative partners then you need to adjust your mentality). Then there’s the etiquette that comes with these reads and recommendations – far from a perfect system, but it does keep a great deal of the worst stuff off our desks.
I know very few people get into writing because of an overabundance of social skills, and fewer still pursue it with the thought that growing their social skills is going to be a job requirement. But the latter part is true and – although this is for a different entry – it can even make you a better writer.
Good writing is good writing, but that is not the same as matching the right script to the right opportunity. Not even close. By building your network you can really forge the kind of connections that allow you to do that sort of matchmaking and build enough credibility to start getting those reads and recommendations. Personally, I think it works better than endlessly pursuing the impossible goal of The Perfect Query Letter. As my example proves, a lot of the time the person you’re querying might not even be looking anymore.