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The Screenwriter's Coach: Clarity is the Secret to Success

May 24, 2019
4 min read time

Admit it, you already hate me after reading that headline. How dare I limit you to being and talking about only one thing?!  If five-years-ago-me had read that headline, I would have punched it. I thought that the more willing I was to write and be anything that another person asked for, the more writing jobs I would get.

I was incorrect.

I got zero jobs until I wrote one script that reflected exactly who I wanted to be as a writer — and then talked about it for the next 12 months straight.

There are two parts to breaking in as a screenwriter today, and each requires 50% of your time and effort: writing your Authentic Lens script — which contains 100% of your DNA, so no one else could have written it — and acting like a Startup Business.

Startups that succeed have one core thing in common: they do only one thing, and they do it really, really well! E.g., getting your package to you in 48hrs for free. And then once they’re successful at shipping your package in 48hrs for free, they branch into other areas (streaming, grocery delivery, makeup, I’m guessing transportation is next?).

But if Amazon had launched doing all of those things, would it have succeeded? Probably not. Because awareness of a new brand and service requires repeatedly stating who you are and what you do, and then backing that up with positive action.

I am now in the happy position of speaking to screenwriters daily on Strategy Calls, so we can decide whether coaching would be a good fit for both of us. One of the first questions I ask is, “If we were talking on this day 12 months from now, and you were living your creative dream, what does that look like?” I don’t ask it to get people starry-eyed, I ask to see how clear they are on their immediate goals. Because guess what? It is a lot easier to help people who have clarity on their goals.

Clear Writing Goals for Success

“I’ve sold my first half-hour pilot and I’m pitching the next half-hour pilot.”

“I’m staffed on a one-hour cable or streaming show.”

“I’m in production on the independent horror film that I wrote.”

Writing Goals That Need Focus

“I’m making a living as a screenwriter.”

“I’m staffed on a TV show.”

“I’ve sold a pilot, I’m writing and directing my first feature, I’m publishing my graphic novel, and I’m doing a stand-up special.”

The first batch of goals is specific and clear. I hear those and instantly know how to help. My wheels are turning and I’m onto the next step.

The second batch requires additional questioning before I know how to help. Now, I’m in the business of finding that out, so I will ask you those follow-up questions. But in a networking interaction on or offline, at an event, or in a quick meeting? You’ll need to be more specific to get the results you want.

Trying to be everything for everybody has the opposite effect that you’re hoping for. Instead of making you a “writer they can call for any project!” It makes you a writer nobody will call, because you didn’t label yourself in a memorable way. Or if you did get the “who are you?” label clear, you listed too many disparate projects and they got confused.

In my experience, industry people do want to help. But you have to make it easy. The way to do that is to have clarity on your one thing; that one project.

For example, I’ve had a writer tell me he’s “a horror writer/director whose short film sold for distribution.” I don’t write horror. So, when a buyer asks me if I have any horror writers to recommend? That guy is top of my list. And he got extra lucky because I had a horror query in my inbox that I hadn’t responded to yet, because I was sure I must know someone…  I can give you a dozen examples of genres and projects that I’m not right for, where I will recommend a peer if I know that they do that one thing really well, have proof to back it up, and I know them to be a reliable, professional person.

I’m not unique. In my previous article on networking, I stated that every job I’ve had since I was 21 has come via referral from someone in my network. The more people who know who you are and what you are known for, the more jobs you will get. The more clarity you give people about both of those things, the easier it is for them to help.  

So, here’s my challenge: Can you commit to being one thing and talking one script for 12 months? And when I say “talk,” let’s be clear on what that means. In every in-person interaction, you introduce yourself as one thing and talk about your one project. In every phone, email, or text interaction, you introduce yourself as one thing and talk about your one project.

On socials you introduce yourself as one thing and talk about your one project — every single day. Or at least 4 times/week. I know that sounds vomitous, but here’s the reality — most people are not on socials all day every day. And even for those super active social lovers, awareness requires multiple views (four to seven) of the same “product” by the same person.

Okay, but really, only one thing? Does this mean you turn into a mute if someone specifically asks you, “What else are you working on?” Of course not! Have three more projects at your fingertips that you would love to talk about. But don’t lead with those projects. Lead with your one thing.

And those other three projects? They need to co-exist with your one thing (i.e., be the same genre, format, or other cohesive factor) or else you will have diluted your message and left your potential business partner with an unclear picture of who you are and what you stand for.

I know as screenwriters breaking in we want every opportunity to count, but honestly, it’s like dating. Most buyers aren’t going to be your buyer. And that is fine. I’m not a horror writer and I don’t write WWII action films (two queries I got recently.) So, I’ll pay those opportunities forward and let the buyer know who I am and what I do better than anyone. That way, when their buyer colleague is looking for my thing, they “just met a writer who does exactly that.” You only need one person to love you and your script to make a sale. You need many people to hear about it — and you — to get to that one person.

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