Don’t fall for it, people. Don’t fall for all the ads you see. Stuff like, “Write a blockbuster in 30 days!” “How to write a hit movie in six weeks!” “If you’re not using our software, your scripts won’t sell!” Oh, man, I have to puke. C’mon, finding success as a screenwriter ain’t coming from that bright, shiny software package or that hot new book everyone’s buying. Nope, it has to come from inside you. Sure, I know that sounds kinda goofy, but it’s very true. After all, did William Goldman pick up a “how-to” book one day, then write Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the following week? Um, no. Did David Koepp pick up the latest screenwriting software on a Monday and have Jurassic Park cranked out by Friday? I kinda doubt it. Guys like that are born with their ability (or, more likely, that ability was ingrained in their informative years).
Look, I’m not saying software or books aren’t going to help you at all, because they certainly can, I’m just saying they’re not going be that magic key that will allow you to gain entry into the Hollywood kingdom. It’s like all these weight loss products you see advertised on late-night TV. You’re not going to lose all that fat around your gut by taking a pill. To lose the weight you’re going to have to do some exercise and stop eating Twinkies and Doritos in the middle of the night.
If you want to write screenplays that get optioned and/or sold (or at least get you some notice from the powers that be in Hollywood), you’re going to have to do the work. That means you’re going to have to a) read lots of pro scripts, b) write some scripts of your own, c) get feedback on those scripts, d) rewrite those scripts, e) be prepared to trash those scripts, and f) write some more scripts. You will also need to have to have a burning desire to create and tell stories, a basic knowledge of movies (both past and present), a fundamental handle on grammar and sentence structure, a visual (read: cinematic) sensibility, some knowledge of the business side of filmmaking, intestinal fortitude, a cast iron belief in yourself…and an ability to press forward through a thick barrier of negativity and astounding odds. You don’t get all that from a book.
“But Jim,” you say, “even you have a book out!” Yes, that’s true. And it’s a darn good book, too (at least that’s what people are telling me), but I never say, “Psst, buddy, read my book and become an instant screenwriter!” No, I’ve always made it clear (in fact, I mention this in the Introduction to the book) that Q & A: The Working Screenwriter is merely “an informational hand-up to help get you where you want to be in your screenwriting career.”
To me, how-to books have always been more a source of inspiration that anything else. This is why I decided to do a book containing a compilation of interviews with working screenwriters. David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, said it succinctly in his foreword from my book, writing, “When I began my own writing career, it was a book of interviews that inspired me the most.” I’d certainly agree with that. After all, if I read that Mr. Successful Screenwriter wrote twenty scripts before finally selling one, then I know that maybe I’m not such a dope after all.
So, yes, learn from others who have gone before you. Discover what worked for them and incorporate whatever possible into your own personal style. But also learn from their mistakes, and know that you’ll have to make more than a few of your own mistakes before you can find any kind of success in this wonderful, nutty business.
And always remember, if they try to sell you success in a bottle, a) don’t believe ‘em, and b) change the channel.