I received a letter from Kryz, asking Is it worth it? The subtext of the letter expresses doubts about his chances of making it in the industry, about the steps he’s taking, and perhaps ultimately about his own talent.
The question is not new to me. My answer is never the same.
But today I’m giving you the one, definitive answer.
First, a personal story.
Years ago I went through a difficult time, and had just moved to a place that was miserable compared to my previous home.
I was so lonely, broke and distracted, I couldn’t do my work. So I went outside, and sat on my balcony with my eyes closed, feeling miserable.
As I was sitting there, I felt how the sun was burning on my skin.
Then, I had a Ratatouille moment.
Remember when in that Pixar movie, Anton Ego tastes Remi’s ratatouille, and his life flashes back to his childhood?
Suddenly I remembered the happy holidays in the South of France with my parents, brother and sister, and our best friends. Putting my book down after reading by the pool, I would close my eyes, and just enjoy the sun burning on my skin.
Now, 35 years later I realised how most of my life I had been dreaming of living in a warm country, so I could have that experience every day.
At my all-is-lost moment, I realised that I had in fact achieved my number one life goal. I was living in Sydney, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
And I could enjoy its wonderful climate every day of my life.
So I decided to enjoy it.
What does all this have to do with screenwriting?
It #1: Some Success At Some Point In Time
“Is it worth it?”
Did you notice the most important 2 words in the title of this article are it and it? Two placeholders.
Because no two people come to screenwriting from the same background, with the same aspirations, those two words mean different things to different people.
Before we can answer the question, we need to clarify it.
The first it refers to what you are hoping to achieve as a screenwriter. This could be a million different things.
Is your goal to pay off a debt, or improve your lifestyle in the short term from your earnings from creative writing? Quit now. Writing is a long game, with a low average income.
Is your goal to write exclusively for cinematic features? Quit now, unless you are extremely patient, and okay with the thought that this dream may never be fulfilled.
Do you want to earn a living from any kind of writing, be it for film, TV, webisodes, theatre, from copywriting, blogging, technical writing? Persist, and you will succeed. Many of my students are earning from writing for a range of platforms.
There is a fourth option, but I’ll get to that later.
It #2: Lots Of Sacrifices, Now And Forever
The second it is about the effort a screenwriter puts in to get ‘there’.
Again, the type and amount of effort you put in can be anything. Perhaps you read scripts, analyse movies, or network like crazy. Or you may be paying lots of money to screenwriting courses, script editors, and contests.
For some, the cost amounts to thousands of dollars every year. This may seem a lot, but the same people often happily spend even more on their hobbies. And once you start earning from your writing, the expenses become tax deductible.
Screenwriting is not the only area in life where it seems you need to put in an inordinate amount of time and effort to gain anything. But the problem for many is the lack of tangible progress.
Meanwhile, all we get is rejection emails.
The rejection that screenwriters experience is not too different from that of real estate agents making cold-calls or door-knocking. When a real estate agent hits pay dirt, it can be big. When a screenwriter is successful, he can pay last month’s rent.
Sometimes it seems the effort is somewhat out of proportion with the results.
And this brings us back to the original question.
So, Is It Worth It?
Literally, hundreds of thousands of people are writing scripts all over the world. Collectively, in one week they complete more scripts than you can watch movies in a lifetime.
If you do the maths, I think you’ll find that something like 0.0005 will ever be able to make a living as a screenwriter.
Now think about it, while you are not yet earning from it, you are writing. And isn’t this exactly what you wanted to be doing every day in the first place?
This is your fourth, and most important option for the first it.
The ultimate goal for most writers is to be able to write for a living. This means that most of your day will be filled with exactly that: writing.
By the way, if you have a decent paying job now, it is unlikely that you’ll be earning a whole lot more as a writer. You may well have to live (even) more frugally.
So, instead of focusing on the material side of screenwriting, be aware that the biggest change in your life will be that you’ll be writing more.
And when you look at all the so-called sacrifices you are making, how many of those are really procrastination? Perhaps you should just be writing more. Because that’s how you improve. By practising.
In which case, the sacrifice is the same as the goal.
In other words, what you are doing now, is what you’ll be doing when you get there.
You already have what you want.
Ain’t that ironic.
Now close your eyes, and have your Ratatouille-moment.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.