I hate, that as screenwriters, we are often told that our first screenplay is rubbish. No one ever says that about a first time novelist. (Although, obviously, there are exceptions to that rule in either case.) It’s an infuriating statement. I’ve been writing something since I was eight, of course, that was all rubbish and I had no idea what I was doing, but when I wrote my first screenplay in college, I was in love. That’s when everything changed.
Now, the premise of that screenplay has sort of remained through subsequent drafts, but it has seen a major overhaul of story and characters a number of times. So yes, that first screenplay was terrible in comparison, and I would never have considered sending it out, but I don’t believe that’s what “they’re” talking about.
Regardless of how many revisions a screenplay has seen, I think “they”, the elusive industry people, believe that a first screenplay is just a starting point. They don’t believe we have found our voice, learned enough about structure and pacing, and all the other technical screenwriting terms we’re supposed to know because writing a screenplay is nothing like writing a novel*.
*I’m currently reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Gracious. If a screenwriter wrote like that, we’d be blacklisted. For those who have read it, you know what I mean, for those who haven’t, eek, it’s a tough read.
As a screenwriter, I have not focused on any other writing styles as part of my portfolio or tried my hand at being a freelancer. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Whenever I tell someone I’m a screenwriter, the next words out of their mouth are almost always in regards to having anything published. Nope. I don’t write the kind of stuff that can easily be published, anywhere. And then I feel like a failure. Although, in all fairness, I’m not going to hone my screenwriting skills writing an article on cats, or what-have-you.
Reading Stephen King’s On Writing didn’t help morale either. (Now, I learned years ago not to compare myself to others, not in writing or in success, but, and this is a BIG “but”, he currently has 50 titles to his credit, in addition to so many other things while I’m sitting proudly behind my 4 1/2 full length features, which I round up to 5 to sound better and the immense TV show floating around in my head. Ugh.) He started writing when he was a kid too, influenced in a completely different way than I was. Where he enjoyed the horror movies of the 50s, I was drawn to princess stories and the fantasy films of the 80s. He was encouraged to create his own stories, but honestly, I don’t remember having that same sort of support. Here’s that discrepant part of my memory. I don’t remember really sharing anything I had written until my senior year in high school when I took a creative writing class. That was the first time I had ever read my words aloud, and although the feedback was positive, I didn’t feel compelled to send my work out. Again, I didn’t even know where to begin.
I continued to write in the privacy of my room, taking a variety of English classes, playwriting, and creative classes along the way, but nothing satisfied the way screenwriting did, and I wouldn’t find that for many years. I remember I wrote this one-act play that my teacher loved. She said I should have it put on by this theater group that performed at a coffee bar across from the university. I never pursued it.
It was these early mistakes that I think stunted my growth as a writer. Without proper encouragement, I was left flailing – never to develop my voice, never to see my work in print or on stage, never to pursue a career with any fervor. Now here I am, all these years later, finally getting it together.
So, here’s the point.
If you truly want to be a writer, you have to work at it. That’s how we develop our voice. We have to read. We have to write. Everyday. This has been reiterated by every writer throughout history. And it is absolutely true. I am not the same writer I was when I was 8, at least I hope not. I’m not even the same writer I was in my 20s, and that is due to exposure. When we are exposed to other voices and styles, we see what we like, what we don’t, what works, what doesn’t (at least for us), and that makes us better writers by adding to our toolbox. Another lesson from On Writing.
It is through trial and error that we develop our writer’s voice. We have to practice everyday. Find new ways to explore our voice. That’s why I started writing the flash fiction pieces, and the fan fiction, for that matter. This blog has helped me tremendously as well. I thought that if it wasn’t screenwriting, it didn’t matter. How wrong I was.
Don’t make my mistakes. Let my errors be a lesson or a cautionary tale. Find avenues to get your work out there. Attain feedback. Find a writers group. Find a beta reader. You can be your own cheerleader, most of the time we have to be anyway, but find someone who will encourage you. You may already have this person in your life, or maybe they’re a friend waiting to be made in a writers group. They don’t have to be a writer, but only other writers understand the life. It’s tough, it’s lonely, and often thankless, but we do it for the love.
We love to tell stories, and hopefully one day, others will love reading them. As for that first screenplay, I’m still going to send it out. I love it…now. It doesn’t remotely resemble the first version all those years ago in Screenwriting 102, and that is in part because I have written and rewritten and written some more, not nearly as much as I should have by now, but I like my current voice and style, and that is reflected in it’s most recent rewrite.
Although in the real world, by which I mean Hollywood, I would not be allowed to keep rewriting my script 10+ years later. Oh my gods, if someone doesn’t buy it soon, I’ll be known as the George Lucas of rewrites. ;)
If you ever need an encouraging word, you know where to find me. Wishing you all the very best!