Your Script Is Not A Lottery Ticket

Some writers seem to think about their careers and advancement in a rather curious way.

It can be comforting for the writer in his or her ascendancy to think of career advancement as largely luck-related.  That it's a matter of writing script after script - or novel after novel - and firing them into a machine full of other National Lottery balls, which may one day be picked out.

I think this view is, at best, complacent and at worst, dangerous - at least for the writer who holds it.  One thing's for sure: if it really is at all useful to think of a writing career as a lottery, then you are squarely in control of the odds.  There is nothing random here.  When entering a scriptwriting competition, for instance, it can be tempting to find out how many other people are going for it too.  That, however, is the Devil whispering in your ear, reinforcing that whole idea of luck being a big part of this.  If you've sweated blood over the bulletproof script, it shouldn't matter whether there are one or one million other contestants.

People like to talk about the aspects of competitions which seem to make the process more arbitrary - the judges having a bad day, or just not 'getting' you, etc - but I say forget about that stuff.  It doesn't help.  You're just either pre-emptively armouring yourself for a potential failure, or trying to salve wounds which were almost certainly your fault.  Let rejection hurt, but take responsibility for it as you heal, learn and strengthen.  Take the time for a reality check if necessary.  Whatever it takes to ensure that your next script is a decisive step forward.  Don't succumb to that deeply weird Writer Quirk which compels you to sling an imperfect script into a competition "just to get something in".  God knows, I've done it myself over the years and have come to think of it as supremely self-defeating.

A couple of years ago, an 'aspiring' writer publicly contacted a Doctor Who writer on Twitter, asking if he'd like to collaborate.  When Doctor Who Scribe, not impolitely or unreasonably, asked why he would want to do that, the aspiring writer replied that Doctor Who Scribe had been so lucky with his career and it'd be good to give something back, quack quack quack... frankly, I stopped listening after "been so lucky with your career".  Uh, no.  Doctor Who Scribe hadn't been lucky - he'd worked incredibly hard to get where he was, over many, many years.  It felt so insulting and demeaning to what DWS had achieved.  That rather ignorant attitude summed up a blind alley of thought which we must avoid at all costs.

Look, don't get me wrong: of course there's an element of luck involved with building a career.  When it comes to launching projects, for instance, the stars can seemingly align or scatter on a whim.  No doubt about it.  What I'm saying is that it would be a massive mistake to overestimate luck's contribution - or to start talking about how ultimately your fate is in others' hands.  Go down that rabbit hole and, before you know where you are, you'll be whining about the whole "It's not what you know, it's who you know" thing.  And oh sweet lord, that's definitely a whole other blog post.  In short, yes, contacts are really important.  Make them.  You must.  But it's increasingly untenable to complain about being shut out of some imagined 'system' by 'The Man', in a world when you can make direct contact with the vast majority of the TV and film industries via Twitter.

We all have to take responsibility for our careers.  The only armour we need should be our work, as opposed to weird, insidious denial and excuses.  We must write to win.  We must toil away at the furnace until we come away with something amazing.

Your script, your novel, whatever it is, should be the ultimate representation of you.  Your unique brilliance, which no-one else in the world can possibly have.  Your creative DNA, all swabbed up in a PDF.  Even when compared to a winning Lottery ticket, that's priceless.

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Jimbo said...

Bravo! Well said, Sir...

Ben Dutton said...

Some good advice Mr. Arnopp.

As someone toiling at the furnace - a script in the BBC Writersroom offices at the moment, and another one being cooked up - it is easy to feel envious of those that have made it already - and made it seem easy. We should all know it isn't easy, that we never see all those unproduced (and sometimes terrible) scripts that are locked away in the rejection drawer .

I live in the wilds of North Wales, and up here it's tough to make connections with those already in the industry - and connections do matter to a degree. But I agree that it matters more that your script be the best it can be - that each line sizzles, that each scene propels you into the next, that you keep the reader (viewer) hooked. I believe, and I may be wrong, that great writing early on in your career will take you much further than any contact.

I once knew the head of production for MGM Studios (the man commissioned the original Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Man From Atlantis) and he told me he could get me into MGM as a writer but the only thing that would matter was whether my script was well-written. If my scripts were terrible I’d be out on my behind, even though I’d come in on the say-so of a truly important player. It always, always comes down to how good the script is.

And on that note, I must get back to my script.

Robin Bell said...

Great blog post.

On a side note Ben Dutton I am alsoa screenwriter in North Wales, be great to chat to someone nearby that writes scripts. get in touch :)

Cameron said...

Excellent advice, much appreciated. Thank you.

solidprod said...

Luck = preparation + opportunity.

BTW, I have a friend who just sold a script to a major studio, despite hardly ever leaving rural Devon. It took nine years of persistence through lots of ups and downs, but luck...not so much.

amateuradam said...

I like to perpetuate the idea of luck. It means when bitter writers interrogate me as to how the hell I've had things made, I can just say I've been lucky.