Many years ago, in the quasi-rebellious suburbs of Los Angeles, I read somewhere that the first thing you should do before starting a screenplay is write your Oscar acceptance speech. It was the opening paragraph in one of the six billion books on screenwriting. I figured it had to be good advice.
And you know what? I did it. I wrote my Oscar speech, I wrote the script, and would later win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Twice.
. . . please. I thought that recommendation was just as ridiculous when I was 17 as I do now.
The intent is genuine, though. By many counts admirable. The point, of course, is to motivate you to keep writing, to have something bigger to aim for. To not give up. Like that lame cat poster: if you “hang in there,” great things will happen. And it’s more or less true. But the problem isn’t that writing an Oscar speech sets an unattainable goal, it’s that it sets a goal entirely dependent on the extremely subjective opinions of other people. This means you could write an incredible script for a $2 billion critically acclaimed masterpiece, but if it falls short in the Oscars, you are, based on the standards you’ve set, a “failure.” Because that little speech you taped to your Packard Bell monitor in 1998 will go unread.
See that? How deranged that sounds?
Even creating an objective consisting of quantitative, math-based criteria can cause long-term frustration. Example: let’s say you’re a baseball player (I know, it’s a baseball reference, but it’s the only one I’ll make). Before the season, you set the specific goal of winning a batting title and end the year with an absurd .475 average, destroying records. And then another schlub bats .479. Heartbreak city. While you would no doubt take pride in the rather historic feat, the fact you missed your initial goal will inevitably leave you incomplete. Probably how Sammy Sosa felt from 1998-1999. Probably how he still feels.
Or if you’re a screenwriter, and your goal is to get your film produced. You write a fantastic script, it gets sold, financed, things sort of fall apart in pre-production, six months later a similar film is released, and you’re sunk. Or the extraordinary teacher who dreams of becoming a university professor, never gets a chance, and hates his life because he’s “stuck” at a high school; a profitable restaurateur who can’t expand her unique restaurant idea into a chain because some other chain beat her to it. . . .
In any of those scenarios, you haven’t failed at anything–and in actuality may have accomplished far more than you realize–but you’ll feel like a failure regardless if your goals are set too high. No matter how good you are at something, or how great your product, be it a restaurant or a film, you’ll have to rely on external factors outside your control. It’s the same in sports and business as it is in the entertainment industry. Perhaps especially in the entertainment industry, since trends so often change. And if you fail, then what? Well, you. . . “hang in there,” actually (stupid antiquated posters always right about stuff). Patience and “maintenance” in the face of failure is infinitely more important than the ambiguity of changing what might already be working, knowing full well you can only control the process. Not the results.
Here’s the solution, a piece of brutally candid advice no one will ever tell you because they want to sell more books:
Really low. As low as you can without delving into minutiae. Think big long-term–think small short-term. No businessperson (or not the industrious ones I know) started their career with the one and only goal of retiring as a billionaire, banking on the idea that it would “just happen” eventually. They’re focused on the steps they must take to become successful, a single objective at a time. Goal one, come up with a great idea for a company; goal two, execute that idea in the most cost-effective way possible; goal three, establish a foundation before expanding. . . . You get the gist. In the end, if they make it halfway and eek out a net worth of $500 million, I wouldn’t consider it settling for second best.
So for screenwriting, maybe your initial goal is to finish a draft of your script–something you can control without necessarily relying on others. Next step could be professional feedback and revising the script to the best of your ability so you have a chance in the spec market, or against other scripts in competitions. Also within your control, albeit at the expense of time and money. If you land a manager right away, or win or place in a prestigious contest, great, that’s a huge step forward. But it’s icing. Consider those side-effects of methodical planning, a commitment to continual education and a sustainable sense of self-determination. I’ve seen tremendous writers rejected by managers and production companies for years, but because they had already reached their goal of compiling a well-written project, and usually several worthwhile scripts, they didn’t let that discourage them, and it paid off. An Oscar or subjective award, a manufactured conversation piece for when you retire, is left beyond the radar as an “icing effect,” nothing more than a potential bonus for achievement.
In the last 15 years, the six billion books on screenwriting has since doubled to roughly 12-14 billion, so there’s a lot of opinionated noise out there. I’m not saying they dole out poor guidance (most of them, anyway). Quite the contrary. Go ahead and read as much as you can, or want, and decide what makes the most sense to you. But don’t lean on some writing guru, some blurb in a self-help book, to tell you how to get motivated and where you should target your intentions. Motivation and goal-setting are the two most personal, most particular, components of any career, and while it’s important to see how others succeeded in whatever they were trying to accomplish, there is no single road to take, nor a single mode of transportation. Stop shooting for home run titles, start thinking about how to get on base.
I know. . . I lied about not using another baseball reference. I feel pretty damn rebellious about it.
For 13 years, Matt Misetich has worked in development as a script analyst and story consultant for production companies, managers, top writing competitions, and filmmakers. He has been a core executive at Script Pipeline since 2008 and helped a number of writers break into the industry, including contest-winners Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman, Divergent) and Tripper Clancy (Stranded, Hacker Camp, The Ambassadors). Besides instinctively quoting The Simpsons in everyday conversation and posting generic observations on Twitter, he’s writing literary fiction and developing feature and TV content that will probably not win many awards.