Category Archives: Business of Art
Early on in my self-employed career, I was going through that phase where you seek out a million articles on how to market your work. Fear drives that process more than true learning and pretty soon you’re overwhelmed. Everyone has an opinion about how you should market your work, what you should and shouldn’t do, and the deadly sins to avoid. At that time there was a huge push toward internet information marketing, and at that time, everything in me said: no.
I didn’t want to run an internet information business. I didn’t want to grow a list. I didn’t want to do A, B, & C and get E, F & G. It felt pushy, it felt inauthentic. I still cringe at those long-form web pages that try to convince you of how much you’re getting while you scroll for miles to find the “discounted” price is $299.
Oh, I understood the sales logic behind it all. But it wasn’t me.
And when you’re just starting out, you aren’t sure if it’s okay to be you. What if you do it wrong? What if everyone else is right? I was in that confused state when I ran across the following short blog post by artist Keri Smith, whose message gave me permission to be me and whose words of advice I have kept as my guiding light when seeking clients and promoting my work. I’ll let her speak to you here, because her message is what being an artist is about. Authenticity. Trust. Knowing that you are led. Responding to what moves you.
Without knowing it, I have been giving lectures based on a “do-nothing” approach to illustration and design, employing terms like “don’t promote”, “ignore your audience”, “fuck the money.” A recent interview I did goes into this a little more. This is not to say I “do nothing” to promote my work, you do have to put things out in the world so that others can see and respond to them. But I do feel strongly that all of the techniques, calculating, obsessing, entering contests, trying to get awards (annuals), wanting to be a rock star in your field, trying to land “the” great job, trying to be like someone else who is successful, trying to target your portfolio, trying to be cool, and schmoozing, don’t actually help to move your career forward.
If i look back over the course of my career so far, it is only when I stopped trying to do all of those things and focused on the work that the good stuff started to happen. Only when I relinquished control to some extent and focused on the things that moved me did I start to attract some kind of success. And this method of “doing the opposite” of what I was taught required much less effort in the long run. (Instead of sending out hundreds of mailers, as they tell you to do in art school, I sent out a few here and there to places I really responded to.)
So I guess the questions that I learned to ask myself where, “what the hell makes me want to stay up all night so I can work on it, forgetting entirely about the fact that sleep exists as a possibility?” “what makes you get up in the middle of the night to scribble something down?” “what is in my nature?” (NOT “what should go in my portfolio?”, “how do I target an audience?”, “how do I get more work?”) none of the artist’s whose work I respond to try to ‘target an audience’.” – Keri Smith
When we respond to what moves us, we follow our hearts and the Universe’s guidance for what aligns with us.
It’s okay to be yourself. It’s more than okay, it’s necessary.
Choose Faith Over Fear
When I started out as a full-time freelancer, I had six weeks of savings to go on. As I marketed my services, I soon realized that I made very different choices when I was moving out of faith that the Universe would provide, than I did when I was acting out of fear and desperation. I learned that I had the power to choose faith and to reject fear. This shaped the type of prospective clients I approached and allowed for magic to happen. When you move out of faith, you make smarter, wiser choices that align with your spirit, you’re able to say no to what’s not right for you as you trust that what is right will be provided.
Pick Your Clients
I’m choosy. I know what type of clients I want to work with – and those are clients who value people and improve, inspire or add value to people’s lives. The type of industry those clients are in doesn’t matter to me. I have selectively approached potential clients and have been fortunate enough to choose who I work with. I have also seen the Universe pick ideal clients for me. One of my longest standing clients called me up out of the blue one summer afternoon. We’ve been together for six years. Why does this matter? It creates a synergy in my worklife that allows work to naturally assimilate with my life and who I am. I work with clients that I feel good about and we get along well with each other. It makes sense that as individuals we are suited to certain fields of interest, industries or types of clients. Choosing rather than accepting anyone who comes your way, leads to happier, more satisfying work.
Go Where the Money Is
This is the most important advice I was ever given. It came from one of the most successful American Indian entrepreneurs in the U.S. who founded a multi-million dollar security firm for the Department of Defense. He started as an electrician on a reservation in northern Minnesota. He dreamed of having his own business. He took a risk and opened his own company. He said even when things were tight, as long as he was working for himself, there was the chance that the phone would ring and something wonderful could happen. He knew if he hadn’t taken that chance, the phone would never have been able to ring. He saw potential, he climbed above the expectations others had and he learned that going where the money is just makes sound business sense. Go where the money is. Go to companies who have the resources to pay you you charge. Don’t waste your time on companies who promise much, expect a ton and pay little. This is why I will not work for start-ups, non-profits or anyone who doesn’t already understand the value a copywriter brings to their business. I’m not going to spend my time convincing someone why they need me. If they don’t have the business maturity to already know that, they’re not the right client for me.
They Will Pay You What You Decide You’re Worth
Many freelancers struggle financially because they charge very little, they scrape by and never set their sites higher than a minimal wage income. You can be one of these people, or you can decide to be someone who charges a lot more and gets paid higher rates because you decide that you’re worth it. Go to salary.com and check out what the average salaries are for your type of job in the places your prospective clients operate. Set your standards higher. Go where the money is. You don’t need the headache of working for clients who have tight-purse strings, who don’t understand what it is that you do, or who want you to work your ass off for little or nothing. There are plenty of these type of clients around. There’s also plenty of clients who know your value and are more than willing to budget for it. But here’s the main point: you decide who you’re going to work for. You decide how much money you can make doing what you do.
Provide Value through Great Relationships, Not Just Performance
How you do business is more important than what you do in business. Offer more. Always be generous. Set up expectations of what you will do and for how much, but be there in a pinch when your client needs you, too. Remember, choose faith over fear. This means being confident enough to know that the Universe will support you and confident enough in your own value, to have the capacity to be generous. People work with people more than once because they like how it feels to work with them. Skills are important, but skill sets can be replaced. It’s how easy you are to work with, the value you give, how you make your client’s life better and easier, and the quality of your work that keeps them engaged with you.
Remember Why You Freelance
For me, it’s freedom to control my lifestyle and be home with my kids. My husband is also home with us, so we are together as a family full-time. We like it that way. I work Monday – Thursdays, normal business hours. I’ve found a three-day break is ideal for sustaining a creative profession. We also home educate, adapting that schedule around my work and days off. We spend part of the year in Minnesota and part of the year in Sarajevo. I’ve read that just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean that you are with your kids. I disagree. I’m physically present, interruptible and it’s my and my husband’s energy (and not a daycare provider’s) that they are absorbing and growing up with. They are learning what it is to commit to your dreams, to create your life with your thoughts, that they have the power to create money, and are growing up with an alternative to conventional living. They are the remote workers of the future, the agile, adaptable, trans-global innovators, equipped with the technology and the freedom to value their creativity, to think for themselves and possess the power to do work they love. It’s this I remember when things change, when finances aren’t as steady as a regular paycheck, when I’m tempted to wonder if the courage and resilience of depending solely on oneself to create your world is worth it. It is worth it. It’s priceless.
Two years ago, on a rainy summer afternoon, I just happened to turn on PBS to find Masterpiece Theater coming on. The feature that day was an episode of BBC’s Wallander, a compelling series about a Swedish detective played by Ken Branagh (who has won a BAFTA TV and other awards for his performance in the series).
That afternoon changed how I write.
It was my great joy this fall when screenwriter Peter Harness, the lead writer on Wallander Series 3, graciously agreed to be interviewed. He has some great advice, insight and a story to share.
Peter, tell us your story. How and why did you become a screenwriter?
I don’t know, really. Looking back, I think that I’ve always been in love with television as an art form, and that when I started thinking about writing, it was probably always with the ambition of writing for TV in mind. Along the way, I think I did theatre and (bizarrely) even film as an alternative, but really my love has always been television. To be honest, I feel I was raised by TV, and I owe it a debt. A lot of my education and my view of the outside world came through my TV screen when I was growing up: in factual programming, comedy, children’s television, and drama. When I graduated university, I half – or three-quarters – completed a doctorate about Dennis Potter (pretty much the English TV dramatist of the 60s and 70s), which I abandoned when I coincidentally won something called the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Prize for TV drama. So, I guess I became a screenwriter because I wanted to work in television and to do homage to people like Dennis Potter who had shaped my understanding and my life, watching TV as I grew up. Dennis Potter died in 1994, and did a very poignant final interview, and I took tremendous inspiration from that, and wanted to continue what he had done.
How did you land the job on Wallander Series 3 and what about this project keeps you challenged/inspired?
I landed this job – I don’t know, after several years of working in UK TV and film, doing bits and pieces and seemingly getting not particularly anywhere. This was, in fact, the first job (aside from those odd ones that I’d pitched myself) that I didn’t need to compete or do an interview for. This was the first job that I was actually offered. And that felt fantastic. It was very nice that the producers had read and seen my various efforts and felt that they’d like me to do Wallander. And I was even more delighted to discover that they’d decided to do that before they found out that I actually live in Sweden, where Wallander is set.
What is it that keeps me challenged or inspired? You ask a lot of big questions, you know that? Uch. I don’t know. I wrestle with that character, Wallander. He’s a difficult bugger to pin down and he’s not very cheerful to spend time with. But I guess it’s his honesty and his humanity and his relentless appetite for making the same mistakes which makes me want to see him through. And the fact that I’m going to get rid of him in a year or so.
What have you learned about fear and faith in your creative journey? How do you deal with them?
I think that the fear and faith element of the job falls into two categories. The first is the choice that one makes to become a writer in the first place – if you can call it a choice. For some people it’s a need, it’s a compulsion, a sense of vocation, for others, it just happens by accident when they’re doing other things. But somewhere along the line, you make a choice between being someone who wants to write, or who dabbles a bit, and actually being a writer. Because everyone wants to write. So many people come up to me at parties and say that they really fancy knocking off a novel or a screenplay. But the difference between me, and any professional writer, and them is the commitment. I tend to reply, if I’m drunk or bold enough, that “if you want to write, resign from your job, forget your pension scheme, get rid of your car, fuck your mortgage, and certainly forget all about success.” Because if you’re prepared to do that, if you can live with crippling uncertainty, and the terrible ultimatum that you absolutely have to make it as a writer, because you’ve fucked up every other means of earning a dollar that you can possibly think of, then maybe you can give it a go.
There have been times in my life when I have mourned my prospects and my fortunes very badly. But I’ve never doubted my decision. It was the right choice to make, and I went in with my eyes open. You can fail miserably at this, you can be penniless, you can crash and burn. And you can be a success. But even if you are a success, you’ll probably still have similar doubts and paranoias.
Secondly, and perhaps more optimistically, one of the most important things you need to develop as a writer is an ability to negotiate between self-confidence and self-criticism. It’s very easy to have too much of either one, and you need to keep them balanced if you want to get anything decent done. It can be very hard to keep hold of the good stuff about your work when it’s being rejected and criticised and having dozens of notes thrown at it all the time – it’s a long process to learn which criticism to trust and which to take with a pinch of salt. So, with all the rejection and with all the self-criticising one ends up doing, it’s easy to be too down on yourself. Conversely, however, it’s easy to be too enamored of your own stuff. It’s easy to ignore other people’s input. It’s easy to fall in love with words, phrases, stories or characters that you should be getting rid of. Successful writing is reaching a place where you’re finely balanced between all of these things, and you’re being honest with yourself about your work and how good or bad it is. It’s not an easy place to get to, and most of us are only temporary residents there.
Besides screenwriting, do you write in other formats? Novels, etc.
Not at the moment. I have written plays in the past and would like to do so again, and I’d also like to try and write a novel one day, but screenwriting is where my brain and my talent (such as it may be) is just now.
What is most challenging to you in the creative process?
That’s a difficult question. One of the things I most enjoy about writing is the constant challenges is sets up for you, and the various structural or character-based problems that writing any story forces you to face and to solve. So in a way, the traditional “challenges” of storytelling don’t feel like challenges for me, because (usually) I find them reasonably enjoyable and engaging. I suppose if we’re talking about “challenges” in terms of things that I find difficult or unpleasant, then it would be some of the elements that are inherent in the life of most writers. I find it difficult to discipline myself to write every day; I find the solitariness of it a bit of a pain sometimes; and I find the grind-work of drafting and redrafting (between the joy of starting a new project and the relief of finishing it) hard to handle sometimes. And of course, there’s the nag of self-doubt and the worry about where it’s all going in general. I’m also rubbish at hitting deadlines, and I find that fact very stressful.
What brings you the most joy?
I love being a writer: I’m thankful that I can earn my living doing something that I enjoy, in a job that means I can be my own boss, choose my own projects, and manage my own time. I love being in production on any given project. I like the collaborative aspects of getting something made and shot. I love the exhilaration of starting work on something new; I love the rush you get when you know you’re writing good stuff; I love being on the home stretch of a project, when things are finally starting to drop into place, and it’s clear that it’s going to turn out okay; and I love having finished something that I’m proud of, and holding it in my hand, whether it’s a wad of papers, a book or a DVD. And sometimes, though by no means always, you’ll be doing something that you’re just so immersed in and in love with that you can’t tear yourself away from it, that you can’t wait to get back to, that your mind is always half on it when you’re doing other things. At those times, the exhilaration of writing is unbeatable, like the crazy, consuming passion of first love.
What do you wish other people knew about your work as a screenwriter?
I think a lot of people are baffled as to what a screenwriter actually does: the overriding impression seems to be that the director or maybe the actors make up the story as they go along. People often seem to think that I maybe just write the dialogue or even (in the case of Wallander) just translate the novels into English. I’m never particularly offended by this from people who don’t work in the business – after all, I don’t especially know how a sheet-metal worker or a quantity surveyor goes about their job – but occasionally, the attitude persists in reviews or on sets, and I do find that a bit galling. What I’d like people to know is that the screenwriter tends to write pretty much everything that ends up on screen: structures the story, invents the characters, decides and describes the locations and action, and writes all the dialogue. That they create the world and the story that you see.
What is the most helpful advice you would give other screenwriters?
That’s a very big question. Very tough to boil it down to a couple of pieces of advice, as the tips I might give to those just starting out are very different to those I might offer to someone with more experience. Some vague maxims:
- Don’t be tyrannised by other people’s advice.
- Don’t get in the way of yourself.
- Get stuff finished.
- The best way to write interestingly and to avoid cliché is to be truthful.
- In a screenplay, there’s no place for any line, scene or character that doesn’t have a specific purpose.
I guess that’s what I’ve got. Until I write my book on how to be a screenwriter, which will be longer and probably more explanatory.
How do you know when a script is “done”?
I think you just know. You develop an instinct for it. Often, you think that a script might well be “done” when you’ve added or subtracted this or that specific thing, and then you find that you’ve uncovered a whole new other level of stuff that needs to be addressed. It goes on and on. But I think I feel that a script is done when I’ve exhausted all the other possibilities, and ended up on what I think is the best way to tell the story; when I’ve dotted all the eyes and crossed all the tees and I know why every single word of it is there.
Based on your experience, what do actors need from a writer? What can writers do to make an actor’s job easier, characters more accessible?
I used to do quite a lot of acting, and I think that an understanding of acting and an actor’s process helps in creating actable characters. Actors need to know how and why their characters make their choices. They need to be able to make sense of how their characters behave. I think the best that writers can do is to write truthful characters, who behave in a truthful way, according to their own lights. That gives actors the security they need to work. Also, writers should try their best to write dialogue that any real person would actually say.
Let’s talk about Wallander which is based on Henry Mankell’s novels. The BBC version has a strong reverence for silence, a slower pacing and incorporates a sharp contrast of natural beauty against violence/crime. None of this is written in the novels. Where did this idea come from?
I disagree with the idea that it’s somehow slower paced. I think the scripts that I’ve done for Wallander have much more action and move a lot quicker than anything else I’ve written. They’re very lean and there isn’t room for anything that doesn’t move the story along: and I certainly don’t write silences or brooding moments in just for the sake of it, or just to add flavour. There’s a lot of progression and incident in every ninety minute film. However, I totally appreciate that the series has more silence and maybe feels more thoughtful than a lot of other TV. I think this probably comes from the fact that we try to think as cinematically as possible, so we do cut as much unnecessary dialogue as we can, and we do tend to think strongly in terms of visuals. And so maybe it stands out as unusual in the television landscape. As far as the contrast of natural beauty versus violence, well, I think it’s a visual representation of a theme which is very much there in the novels, i.e., the notion of a “perfect” society (which Sweden, in some ways, sees itself as) somehow being corrupted and blemished by inexplicable violence and degradation.
How, as a writer, do you write “silence” and “slower pace” into a script, yet still keep the tension tight?
By making sure that you earn every single moment of silence and every single pause for breath by making the rest of the story so tight and tense that the viewer needs those little breaks every now and again to bed down what has just happened or to take in the impact what they’ve just seen has on a given character. You have a precious few of those moments to spend on any given script, and they have to justify themselves.
How much collaboration goes into the final script? How much does Branagh and the other actors weigh in on the writing?
It depends. Ken had more suggestions on the earlier scripts because I think I was still getting to know his interpretation of the character. Once I’d gotten comfortable with that, we were very much on the same page, so I think he had fewer notes. Of course, there’s quite a degree of collaboration with the producer and the various directors, and there’s a lot of conversation so that we feel we share a common understanding and vision for each film. The late stages of writing a script, just before you start shooting, when you’re refining it and honing it alongside the other members of the creative team, are some of the times that I enjoy my job most and find it the most fulfilling.
In the past, Mankell has mentioned his surprise with how much was stripped away to tell the Wallander stories in the BBC version. As a writer adapting material, how do you determine what to strip away from the original work and how much to include? How much leeway do you feel to create a new story and veer away from the original? What do you hold sacred and unchangeable?
I think what Henning Mankell likes about the BBC version is that it is so stripped down – at least, that’s what he’s said to me. He likes the economy of the storytelling and the precision of the film-making. That being the case, I feel that I’m trusted by the original writer to honour his work, and so have a lot of leeway to change and create if I think it’s necessary. Also, the three stories for the most recent series of Wallander all necessitated fairly big changes for different reasons. The first was based on a fairly brief short story; the second was very definitely set in a Cold War environment and needed reimagining for the present day; the third didn’t really feature Wallander as a central character. So they were always going to diverge from the originals anyway. Basically, I feel that I can make whatever alterations are necessary to make the story work as a film. I tend to ring-fence the most memorable set-pieces and characters from the books, and work them back into the story in whatever way I can; because what I do hold sacred is the principle that the adaptation should feel like the book. It should be a similar experience for the viewer as it was for the reader. That even if many of the details of the story and the character end up being different, I should always honour the spirit of the book and the original author’s intention, in so far as I can understand them.
Mankell’s Wallander has been done several times by other production companies. Were you focused on making this version fresh? What did you not want to do in this version?
I didn’t watch the other Wallanders because I didn’t want to be influenced by them. I think each of the separate adaptations has carved out its own take on the character and the way to tell his stories. I guess I was focused on making this version fresh, but primarily because it was the third series of this particular Wallander and I wanted to give the character new challenges and journeys and to move him into new territory. I wanted it to feel like progression and not repetition. So I think most of the anxiety of influence came from the BBC series itself.
Wallander gives the viewer time to absorb the emotions that Branagh is so skilled at portraying, and it really is the story of a man first, a detective second. Each episode is a revelation of the character’s inner life as it evolves against the backdrop of a crime. Screenwriters are told to have conflict in every scene, to never have a “slow” scene – but what you have done works and works beautifully. Is that because the audience is most invested in Wallander the man? Why does it work? How do you see it?
I think audiences are invested in Wallander because the films are about him. Because his character and the emotional journey that he goes on is the story, and everything else is tied into that and informs that. If you start from the assumption that character leads plot, and not the other way around, then your audience will invest in your character. The only reason that a scene is ever “slow” is because it doesn’t move the story along in some way. You can have scenes in which a character just sits in a room and doesn’t move, but which are the most compelling in the film because they’re somehow key to the whole story. Similarly, you can have a million dollar action sequence that flags and feels boring because it doesn’t move anything along. I don’t think it’s right that one has to have conflict in every scene, and I don’t think it’s especially good advice. What every scene does need is dramatic purpose and a dramatic progression, and some element of dramatic tension, which doesn’t have to come via traditional “conflict.”
Let’s talk about characters. I recently wrote a blog post on how characters seem to exist whole and know their story long before a writer gets involved. When the writing flows, it seems more like channeling than “creating.” Is this your experience, too?
Yes. In a lot of ways it’s a process of discovering your characters and getting to know them. They almost always take on a life and a voice of their own. And once you get to know them well enough, it does become like channeling. Which can cause problems, because sometimes you really want a character to do or say something which they end up stubbornly resisting. But then they’ll surprise you by doing something you didn’t expect which takes the story in much more interesting directions than you could have imagined before you got to know them.
You have a full cast of characters – ones I’m sure you know well by now. Does that make it easier or harder to write the next episode? Do the characters still surprise you?
I think it makes it easier because as long as the challenges they face are new ones, they’ll continue to react in new and interesting ways. I’m always trying to find situations which might open up a different aspect of their personalities. And yes, like I said, they do surprise me.
What have you learned most from working on Wallander?
I find that I learn a lot from every project I get involved in. And this has been by far the biggest, in terms of time, length and work, so I’ve learnt all sorts of things. I think I can now tell quite a good crime story, which I’d never tried doing before. But I feel I’ve also learned a lot about economy of storytelling, and how to bind character to story as closely as possible.
Will there be more Wallander episodes? What’s next for you?
All being well, yes, there will be another series of three films sometime over the next couple of years. But it’ll be the last, and that’s been the plan all along. Next for me is a new six episode series for BBC1, which is very different to Wallander and which I’m really excited about and really enjoying writing. Can’t give details yet, but it’ll be quite crazy and different and it’s scheduled to start shooting in about nine months. And then hopefully a long rest and some thinking time to dream up something new.
One of the joys of being part of the Twitter community is being introduced to some awesome people. One of these is Mark Sanderson (aka @scriptcat) – whose tweets and My Blank Page blog posts never fail to resonate. Why? Because not only does Mark have some great advice based on his 15 years working in the business, but his professional, caring attitude shines through. No ego, no flagrant self-promotion; but heart and soul and a genuine commitment to helping other writers learn their craft and find their place in the profession.
I hired Mark as a consultant on Restoration and he fully lived up to my expectations. He took the time to get to know the script and characters, he picked up on the nuances of the theme and he provided detailed notes to further its development. All the while making me feel cared for, heard and trusted as a writer. And that’s what you want in a script consultant – someone who will see the big picture of your career while examining the structural, format and details of your writing. Mark is as much a coach in his approach as a consultant, and his humility and professionalism makes him a strong ally to have on your screenwriting team.
Mark is currently teaching a workshops series titled “You’ve Just Finished Your Screenplay, Now What?” at LA Creative Workshops over at Canoga Park in the west valley area of Los Angeles. I asked him if he’d take some time to share more about his experience as a screenwriter and what his workshop is all about.
Mark, thank you for joining us. Let’s start at the beginning. How and why did you become a screenwriter?
It all started when I was twelve years old. My best friend as a child, Matt Reeves (co-creator of Felicity, director of Cloverfield, and director/writer of Let Me In), received a film camera from his grandpa and it’s the event that sparked our passion to become filmmakers. We co-directed our first film, a secret agent adventure that we also starred in, and we eventually became part of a collective group of pre-teen filmmakers who premiered movies at the Nuart Theater here in Los Angeles. The sold-out screenings even garnered a feature article in the LA Times.
We loved movies and knew it was our life’s calling. We were influenced by the movies that we loved and I gravitated toward the comedies of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis and absurd extravaganzas like“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “The Great Race,” and the “Pink Panther” movies. I thrived on the spy/action/martial arts/heist film genre. As a kid, I remember loving the James Bond films and looking forward to the next Bond movie. I was an avid reader of “Martial Arts Movies” and “Kung Fu” magazines and they gave behind the scene stories on the making of the current action films and interviews with their stars. I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, too. I would see every martial arts film I could find try to mimic those films in style of the movies that we produced. We were also very lucky to be living in Los Angeles at the time where the most popular films and television series filmed on the streets of our neighborhood.
I continued making films throughout high school and after I graduated, I was accepted to UCLA Film School where I continued my film studies. I started to write feature screenplays there and it wasn’t until after I graduated that I made some noise as a writer. One of my scripts nearly won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and it took five scripts to finally get a script sold and eventually produced. At the time, I was also the co-founder of a Los Angeles-based live sketch comedy troupe. It was a great creative outlet and we created a new live show once a month. We shot a TV pilot, a music video, and had a hit parody song on syndicated comedy radio. After this I wrote for a popular MTV game show, my sold screenplay worked its way through development and eventual production, I co-produced an indie feature that I also co-wrote, and eventually started to get hired for screenplay assignments and script doctor/consulting jobs.
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned in your creative journey?
If you’re going to be in this business as a screenwriter, you must accept the fact that it’s a business first and a creative art form second. If you can effectively blend the two into your work, you’ll have a much easier time on your journey. If you fight the reality of the important business aspects, you will constantly hit the wall. Screenwriters don’t work in a bubble and if the idea is to work in Hollywood and get your screenplays produced and distributed, you will need to be aware of the way Hollywood works. I’ve learned about compromise, rewriting, and treating my career as a business—it’s one of the biggest real-world lessons that I learned early on in my career.
What role does fear and faith play in your creative process?
I have embraced fear and do my best not to allow it to interfere with my creativity. There have been times when I’ve gone back to my well of creativity and came up dry. It was terrifying and the more I focused on the fear, the more it fed upon itself. When I allowed my anxiety to cloud my ability to create, I become blocked and couldn’t see. This is the true definition of “writer’s block.” Instead, I didn’t avoid the trouble by leaving my desk and procrastinating, I faced the problem head on—even in the face of fear. I know the only way is through it—and not around the problem.
I think from so many years of screenplay assignment work, I’ve trained myself to work effectively under a deadline and at my full creative potential. The fear is still looms, but my faith allows me to work past it, as I know I’ve been in these situations before. I’ve proven ability many times over having written twenty-six screenplays—eleven as assignments. If you’ve been to the rodeo before, you know how to ride that new horse. Every new project is loaded with surprises and pitfalls you may never have expected, but I do my best to stay flexible and adapt to every new situation. I know eventually, I’ll figure it out and see the scene or story solution in my head. There is a wonderful quote from the late Bruce Lee that sums it up, “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
What has been your experience with characters? Do you create them or do they already exist and “channel” their story through you?
I create the characters and write up a page or two of their biography and spend time getting to know them. Once I start a script, I just follow their lead, and at times it feels like they are waiting for me to get back to the page so they can move forward in their journey. I do feel like I’m channeling their story when I follow them through the script. It’s a strange and very cool experience and humbling as well. Like Michelangelo’s statue of David, believed trapped in the block of marble waiting to get out, I feel the stories are out in the ether waiting to be told on the blank page.
What myth about screenwriting would you like to bust?
That it’s a road to fame, fortune and celebrity—it’s not. The myth doesn’t include the years of hard work as you master your craft, the many late nights, sacrifices, constant rewrites, rejection and criticism, magnificent highs, bottom scraping lows, and the constant search for validation and respect. A screenwriter must navigate this Hollywood minefield on the journey to a career as a working screenwriter. I find many aspiring screenwriters decide to write scripts because they believe in the myth of a huge payday. They read articles in Variety or on the Internet about “A-list” screenwriters making huge deals and they want a piece of that action. I’ve heard too many times, “If I just write a good script, I’ll sell it for big money.” It’s a fantasy life with a house in the hills, a pool and three cars in the garage, but very few screenwriters achieve that level of success. I read a WGA statistic for 2011: Only fifty writers in the entire guild made a million dollars or more last year. That’s out of nearly 10,000 guild members—half of those didn’t work at all last year. Any aspiring screenwriter must be in the game because they simply love to write.
Even if you finally do get paid to write or your script is purchased, the money may not be what you expect, and you may have to live on it for a year or more before the film is made—if the film is ever made. Your daily reward must be that you love to write and create the material. Even if you do “make it,” your overnight success will be ten years in the making. Trust me, those will be years of sacrifice, ups and downs, criticism, self-doubt and fear. A constant test of just how badly you want a career as a screenwriter. So, if you want to make big money or get attention in a career, pick another profession besides screenwriting.
What can be taught to screenwriters and what can’t?
I believe format and structure can be taught, but you can’t teach creativity or talent. I believe a writer is born with the basic storytelling tools in his/her DNA and like the professional athlete, you will only reach your full potential by training, discipline, focus, drive, willpower and setting goals. It comes naturally to some writers and it’s difficult work for others. I’ve read scripts from writers who will never get better because they just don’t have “It.” I think “It” is a natural point of view, a unique voice and the ability to channel emotions, creativity, and stories to the page. You can read two different scripts by two writers and one script is a ten and the other is a two.
I also believe you can’t teach passion. You either have it for your craft, or you don’t. If you love what you do, nothing will stand in your way from doing it. You can’t teach courage or commitment either. Sadly, countless splendid dreams have been squashed due to fear or self-doubt on the part of dreamers. You can teach someone how to live without fear—or at least how not to allow fear to cripple splendid plans. But at the moment of truth, writers must step off the cliff themselves into the dark void and believe there is a net below to catch them. This feeling only comes from within the screenwriter and you can’t teach it. It has to be experienced and understood through passion in their dreams.
Both the screenwriter and the athlete need time to study, learn, fail, and succeed while constantly building the endurance it takes to achieve a particular level of success. Over time, the process will become effortless, as both have reached a higher level of performance at the top of their game.
There are so many “How-to Write Screenplay” books out there. Do you have a favorite?
You’re right, I checked on Amazon.com and if you type in “how to write a screenplay” they list 434 results! I still love my signed copy of “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” by Syd Fields. He used to be the guru of the three-act structure for a long time. There have been so many “How to…” books written about screenwriting over the years—some good and others bad. A recent favorite of mine is the late Blake Snyder’s book “Save the Cat.” A fellow screenwriter turned me onto it a few years back and I’ve found it to be a fresh look at the three-act structure. Blake uses specific examples and breaks screenplay structure down into a beat sheet format. His companion book, “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies” is also very good as he breaks down fifty landmark movies of the past thirty years. It’s an extremely valuable and informative tool for learning structure. I also discovered a fantastic book a few years back called “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler. He based his book on the work of Joseph Campbell, so it’s all about the mythic structure of The Hero’s Journey with examples from Hollywood movies. Two fantastic books on screenplay format are “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier and “The Hollywood Standard” by Christopher Riley. Any aspiring screenwriter would be smart to purchase both as a constant reference tool because format separates the amateur from the professional.
In your screenwriting workshops, what topics do you address? Who should attend?
Yes, my new workshop is called “You’ve just finished your screenplay—now what?” I’m very excited to be consulting to a room of aspirants about how to build and establish a career as a working screenwriter in Hollywood. I didn’t want to teach a “How To Write A Script” workshop, but instead teach important disciplines to use before, during, and after you finish your script. The workshop grew out of my screenplay consultation business and my frustration when I consult for aspiring writers and they just don’t understand or respect the mountain they are climbing. I get a feeling sometimes new writers believe they just need to write one script and when they fall out of bed the next morning, they will get an agent and a three picture deal.
There is so much more that goes into the long haul of a screenwriting career. This is why I created my intense, one-day workshop that presents a vivid portrait of what is really needed to go after a screenwriting career. I share practical advice and my real-word disciplines to guide a writer through the minefields of Hollywood. I’ve broken the day into five major topics relating to a screenwriter’s journey and spend an hour and fifteen minutes on each topic with time for questions and handouts. My workshop is geared to the beginning screenwriter to enlighten them about the larger picture of what it really takes to carve out a career in Hollywood. It’s basically a real-world survival guide to weather the storm in the trenches. I hope to save fellow screenwriters precious time from making the same mistakes that I’ve made along the way. If they take away a few choice nuggets from my advice and it helps them on their journey, I’ll be extremely satisfied.
What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter?
Honestly ask yourself, “Do I have the all-encompassing drive and talent it takes to achieve any type of success as a screenwriter?” “Are you willing to put in the work necessary to achieve any level of success?” I don’t mean, can you write and finish a script—I mean can you endure the endless slog over time, maybe five to ten years, working on project after project with many never seeing a frame of film (or video). You need to be a professional in all manner and action.
The great author Steven Pressfield in his book “The War of Art” says, “The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week. The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.” The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real” vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.”
- Ask yourself if you have an artist’s mentality — or the insanity to believe that even as you stare into the dark void of the unknown, your fear won’t cripple you and your burning passion will guide you across yet another hurdle. You’ll need to withstand continued rejection, criticism, failure, ridicule, and times when you make no money. If you’re okay with all of this, you just might have what it takes.
- Be humble or learn humility. Do not consider yourself superior to your craft. Recognize those who went before you and learn from them, but find your unique voice.
- Master format. I find many aspiring writers have a serious lack of knowledge or respect about screenplay format. It’s what separates the professional from the amateur.
- Don’t overwrite. I read too many scripts that are overwritten. Many new screenwriters feel the need to micromanage every scene and will even explain the color of the wallpaper. Producers and executives hate to read—funny in a business where the script is so important, but they like to see a lot of “white” on the page. This means the fewer words the better and it’s the job of the screenwriter to stay the hell out of the way of the story. The death of your screenplay can be from 1,000 little format, story and structure issues. It’s all about the attention to the little details. I can start reading a script and by the first page know it’s from an amateur. The producers and executives will notice too.
- Respect story and structure. I find a lack of respect for the treatment/step outline/beat sheet and how it related to the screenplay structure. This arrogance will get a writer into trouble when they end up in Act 2 and lost on page sixty or with a hundred and fifty-page script and have no idea where to cut.
- Understand and accept this fact: Screenwriting is rewriting. Many believe their first draft is perfect and needs no rewrites. Reality check ahead! After I read someone’s magnum opus and they tell me it took six months to write it without a treatment or even a step outline, I grimace and realize they just don’t understand. A reader or producer will stop reading after the first few pages.
- Take the time to create a viable body of work. Always have a ready a new pitch, synopsis, treatment and script to offer. Hollywood is a business, and agents and managers size you up to see your career potential. Are you a one-script wonder — or a writing workhorse with a pile of material? Are you good in a room pitching your ideas — or are you horrible live? Do you execute notes well and can you meet deadlines — or do you bristle at criticism? This is all part of being a professional screenwriter. Potential reps will look for these traits because your potential employers will as well.
- Find your unique voice and the type of material that attracts you. “Don’t write stuff you can’t handle. If you don’t like romantic comedies, don’t write “Annie Hall.” You have to always write your best, or you’re dead.”— William Goldman
Most of all—please be patient. Overnight success is usually ten years in the making. If you are in this for the long haul, constantly learn and become a better writer. Also enjoy the journey and the little successes along the way.
Thank you, Mark. We appreciate your insight and the opportunity to get to know you more. Follow Mark on Twitter at @scriptcat.
About Mark Sanderson
Mark is a veteran of the screenwriting game with over fifteen years of experience and blessed to be living his childhood dream of being a filmmaker. From his start in sketch comedy writing and performing live with The Amazing Onionheads and writing for MTV, to his eleven writing assignments that have garnered six produced films—the emotionally compelling I’ll Remember April, An Accidental Christmas, and Deck the Halls, the stylish indie noir Stingers, and action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below and Silent Venom—Mark’s films have premiered on Lifetime, SyFy, Fox Family, HereTV, and have received worldwide distribution.
His long association with Hollywood veterans and award-winning filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay, and has since worked with Producer’s Guild of America nominees Paul Colichman (Gods & Monsters) and Mark R. Harris (Academy Award winner Crash) — legendary genre directors Brian Trenchard-Smith, George Mendeluk, Fred Olen Ray, and Bob Clark — and Academy Award acting nominees Seymour Cassel, Pat Morita, Haley Joel Osment, Tom Berenger, and Emmy nominees Mark Harmon and James Hong. Mark’s films have also been recognized around the world and have opened and premiered at major film festivals.
His popular screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE has developed into an internet sensation with over 29,000 readers—in addition to his screenplay consulting services, he’s finishing his first book, shopping two TV pilots, and from his five projects in development comes two comedies Last Christmas and Area 54—his latest script assignments scheduled for production later this year. Visit Mark’s website: Five O’Clock Blue Entertainment.
“Thriving” and “artist” don’t often snap together in most people’s minds.
But they should. If anyone has a reason to thrive it’s those of us who make a living based on creative inspiration. And while many artists in all walks of creativity “struggle” to create a thriving income, when it comes down to it, making money doing what you love for a living is possible. We have no problem understanding that we own the power to create our work, but many of us stumble when it comes to owning that same power to create income.
Thriving as an artist involves more than just making money, of course. It’s a “whole-person” definition that needs the sum of it parts. Spirit, craft, experience, attitude, beliefs, effort. More on those in other posts.
How do you make more money as an artist?
Let’s start out by examining what it is you are being paid for. And for our purposes here, we’re not going to address unions or other “going rates.” Those are a part of many artists’ income guidelines, but that’s not at the core of what I want to discuss today. We need to back up a bit before we get to that aspect.
What are you being paid for? Your time? Your talent? Your marketability? Your experience? Your “you-ness”?
Most likely, it’s going to be a combination of all of the above. What I want to drive home is the fact that behind whatever it is you are doing for your art – acting, painting, writing, set designing – you are the key factor for why someone hires you or buys your creative work.
Your value is you.
But many artists, new and experienced, struggle with valuing the “you” aspect of their work.
Money is energy. Nothing more, nothing less.
We use it as a form of exchange for value. People respond to you based on the beliefs you have in yourself. (Occasionally, “old souls” (not to be confused with age) in the industry may respond to you based on the higher value they see in you and their belief in you – knowing that you’ll grow into these beliefs as you mature spiritually. But while this is a pure blessing if it happens in your artistic career, it’s also pretty rare.)
Let me say it again, people respond to you based on the beliefs you have about yourself. If you do not value yourself appropriately, they will value you at the level you value yourself. You’ll be paid for what you “believe” you are worth. No more. No less. Why? Because…
Money is an exchange in perceived value.
It’s what we are each willing to give and accept in order to receive the value we perceive. So, yes, you do have to be good at what you do, work with integrity, live up to professional standards and give them their perceived value’s worth in exchange. But ultimately, you set the value of “you.”
Believe that you can only earn the “going rate”? That’s all you’ll earn. Believe you can earn more than the going rate? You’ll find opportunities and ways to do so.
We externalize our income and tend to believe that it comes down to “the system,” “that’s just the way it is.” We set the locks on how much we earn by our beliefs.
We unlock how much we can earn by our beliefs as well.
I’m not talking about wishing on a star for a million dollars and it will land in your lap. Your income usually incrementally reflects your expanding beliefs.
Most people never gain consciousness of their money beliefs, let alone change them. But once you do, you take back the power over how much you earn and you create income – you don’t “get paid” by others. (In other words, yes, other people pay you, but you know that you are receiving that money because you created the ability to receive it and you opened your beliefs up to receiving it. The power remains in you. Not outside of you.)
You set the real value of your work and your income will reflect it.
This isn’t about arrogance or ego. You do have to be good at your craft to attract top dollar. But even if you’re not at the top of the league, you have the power to create more money in your life. It starts with your money beliefs. It starts with placing a higher value on you and your work. It starts with realizing that you can earn more. That it’s in your power to generate a flow of income into your life. When you do, you’ll start to create, find and accept opportunities for more income. It may mean raising your prices, your rates, asking for more during negotiations, and it may mean turning down work that doesn’t pay what you have decided you are worth.
This may sound crazy to you if you are still in a place where you are struggling financially. Turning down work? Yes, turning down work.
Remember, people respond to you based on what you believe about yourself. Believe you can only get buy, that you’ll never make a living at this, that you have bad luck, that it’s hard to get work, that the odds are ridiculously impossible – and that’s what you will experience. You’ll attract people who get that you don’t expect more or believe that your work is worth more and you’ll be a good match for them.
But, believe that your work is valuable, back it up with craft and performance to match it, never give luck or odds a second thought because they don’t apply to you, maintain that your work is worth what you are asking, turn down opportunities that don’t match your belief and guess what? You’ll attract people who get that you expect to be paid for what you are worth, see your work as valuable and they’ll have no problem paying you for it.You’ll be a good match for them.
There are jobs and people to match every level of money belief.
You are the one who sets the money beliefs about you and your work. It starts with you. You set that belief in others.
And get this, people leave it up to you to set your value. They meet you where you are.
You are the one who has the power to change it.