How I sold the very first screenplay I ever wrote – and how you can avoid the same fate

write a lot of screenplays

They say you’ll never sell your very first screenplay. Hear how I sold mine, step by step, and learn why you probably shouldn’t do exactly what I did.

They say you won’t sell your first screenplay.

Or your second.

Or third, or fourth, or fifth… that it’ll take years of practice to arrive at a screenplay that’s worth reading, much less worth buying.

But I did… I sold the very first screenplay I ever wrote.

Sort of.

Here’s what I did right, and wrong …

I started wrong and badly

rocket summer movie posterI started writing Rocket Summer in 2002. I’d never written a screenplay… not a short, a trailer, nothing. All my previous writing experience was Literary… short stories, poetry, a few one act plays. None of which had ever been published or produced.

That’s fine. Everyone has a first screenplay.

The first version of Rocket Summer was terrible. I know that now… filled with too many parentheticals, too much expository dialogue, and over-written left margin (description), right down to the shoes characters wore, and the colors of their shirts. Every (pause) (smile) (angry) (happy). And it was too long (partly because it had too many parentheticals, too much dialogue, and way too much description).

Again, that’s fine. Everyone’s first screenplay sucks – even if they don’t know it.

I rewrote it

So I rewrote it. The more I learned about what goes into a great screenplay, the more I realized I had to change. I cut scenes. I conflated characters. I stripped my description to the bare minimum.

That’s good. Everyone should rewrite their bad first screenplay, so they can see how their changes make things better.

I didn’t get notes

Not from anyone that mattered. Friends are okay. Family is okay. Even other aspiring screenwriters are okay. But none of them know what a real reader knows… none of them can give you the hard truth from a professional point of view that you really, really need.

That’s bad.

I rewrote it over and over and over and…

screenplay writingSo, IN THE ABSENCE OF PROFESSIONAL FEEDBACK OR GUIDANCE, I rewrote it again. And again. And again. Not because anybody was paying me to. Not because I’d gotten great advice.

Because I couldn’t move on. I wanted to make this story perfect. I didn’t want to find another story that needed telling.

Maybe, just maybe, I was afraid that if I couldn’t get this story right, I shouldn’t waste my time on any other screenplays. That failure with Rocket Summer meant failure as a writer.

I rewrote it a dozen times or more. I wasted YEARS making changes that became more minor, more minuscule  and less important, when I should have been honing my skills on new stories and growing a bigger portfolio and finding my voice and genre.

And that, likewise, is just bad.

I wrote, produced and directed a short

making moviesIn the midst of all this, I co-wrote, produced and directed a short, Whatever It Takes. I even did the storyboards, and handled props and wardrobe. I had zero experience on set, and had no idea what I was doing. But I learned — fast and hard — how overly-specific description and story problems at the script stage can make it hard on the art department, the actors, and the director, to find the good story buried in the badness.

Getting real production experience, at any level, will open your eyes to the relationship between what you write and how that turns into a movie. And how, really, at the point of production, your anguished choice between “sits” and “sat” doesn’t really matter.

This is good.

I worked on a feature

fatroseI parlayed that experience into a gig working under a production designer friend. I art directed a feature length film, Fat Rose and Squeaky.

I worked my ass off, 12 hours a day, six days a week.

I watched how lighting worked. I watched how directors work. I chatted with the scripty, and wardrobe, and observed everything and anyone I could. My learning curve was a straight line pointing up and to the right.

I did whatever anyone asked me to do, and I did it with a smile.

Because half of working in movies is being reliable. The other half is being a team player.

The third half is building relationships.

And that’s all good.

(See Fat Rose and Squeaky on Amazon)

I said yes

Somewhere along the line my production designer friend had mentioned to the producer that I had a script.

The producer asked for the script.

I gladly handed it over.

Right now, some of you are saying “See! It’s who you know! You got your script to a producer because you had an inside track!”

And you’re kind of right.

I paved my own inside track

But understand this: I paved that inside track.

how to interpret screenplay reader feedbackI said yes to producing that short, even though I didn’t know what I was doing.

I said yes to the art direction job, even though it was way over my head.

I said yes whenever anyone needed anything from me.

I said yes to whatever I needed to do to make that little film look as fantastic as I possibly could.

I made my friend look good to the producer, so the producer trusted him when he recommended my script.

And this is good.

I didn’t bug the producer

The producer was busy putting his movie to bed, setting up distribution, and all the other stuff a producer does.

And he didn’t get back to me right away.

I didn’t follow up, I didn’t ask if he’d read my screenplay yet.

I waited patiently.

And that’s good.

I let go of my story

The producer eventually got back to me.

And here’s what he said.

“I love your story. But I think I can sell it better if the kids are younger, and it’s aimed at a tween audience. Can you make them 13 instead of 19?”

I said yes again.

I worked for free

I don’t always recommend this part, but I agreed to rewrite the screenplay with younger kids (and all that it entailed, from concerned parents to figuring out transportation issues when they can’t drive).

Before the option was signed.

But he liked what he saw, and he optioned the screenplay for a year.

I did more free rewrites while under option, to appease his various potential investors.

And he extended the option another 6 months.

Then I said NO … and worse

fireFor whatever reason, he let the option run out.

When he finally offered to buy the screenplay, he wanted to pay me less than the option agreement had stipulated; the economy had tanked, and he couldn’t raise the budget he wanted to raise. But he still wanted my screenplay.

By then I’d gotten exhausted with the free rewrites, and felt like my story deserved better.

I thought that maybe, if I’d stuck to my original story vision, we’d have had better luck.

So I said no.

In fact, I also let him know how irritated I’d gotten with the constant edits, and kind of burned my bridge.

This is bad.

Even if I’d wanted to hang on to the screenplay, there was no reason to burn the bridge. Because, as I’d learned earlier, maintaining good professional relationships leads to trust and referrals.

But I did it anyway.

I killed my momentum

But nothing happened with Rocket Summer. Lots of people looked at it, but nobody wanted to option it. It had become too specific to that one producer’s vision, and I didn’t have the energy to continue to work on it any more.

So instead of a sale, I had a stale property that I wasn’t motivated or inspired by any more.

And that’s bad.

I wrote more screenplays

faeries feature horror movie screenplayI finally got around to writing more screenplays, along with doing more production work.

Grampa Was A Superhero was optioned via InkTip, and in development for two years (I’ve got it back now).

Faeries was a finalist in the Shriekfest Screenplay Competition, and is now under option and in development.

I learned a lot more about writing, and built more relationships.

This is good.

I said yes again

One day, years later, that same producer called me.

He asked if Rocket Summer was still available, and explained that he’d since had success funding, producing, and distributing a number of small titles, and was confident that he could finally pull Rocket Summer together.

We had a frank conversation, and healed our wounds, and talked about how the story had been on his mind all these years, and how badly he wanted to make it the way it should be made.

If I would just make one change.

Make all the boy characters girls, and all the girl characters boys. Because he was sure a female tween hero would be an easier sell.

Crazy, right?

I said yes.

Why I said yes

Firstly, after ten years, it was time to let this story go. I have many more screenplays, stories, and books to write, and Rocket Summer had sublet space in my head (and co-opted my creative energy) for long enough.

Plus, although I’d since added multiple options and a number of other production credits to my resume, it’s important to have a sale.

And lastly, saying YES, in my experience, leads to more good things than saying NO.

So I rewrote the story one last time. He gave me a great deal of creative freedom.

And I sold the very first screenplay I ever wrote.

It wasn’t really my first screenplay

So here’s the thing.

Technically, although I can say I sold the first screenplay I ever wrote, I’d rewritten it so many times that it was no longer really the first screenplay I ever wrote.

I’d done all that “write a second, third, and fourth screenplay” business, ALL ON THE SAME SCREENPLAY.

It took me ten years and two dozen rewrites to sell my first screenplay, the equivalent of writing a half dozen or more screenplays, and I only had one screenplay to show for it.

I could have quite a few more screenplays in my portfolio now, had I done things differently.

And maybe, just maybe, I’d have sold a different screenplay years earlier, had I done things differently, and not let Rocket Summer become an obsession.

I’m happy I sold Rocket Summer. The producers are awesome people, they really love the story, and I hope you get to see it sometime soon.

But I might do things differently if I had it to do again.

Where things are now

After all that, the producer, Stan Harris, sadly passed away in a terrible motorcycle accident just months later.

But his producing partners are still committed to the project, and are working on raising the funds.

In the meantime, as I’d negotiated retaining the Literary rights, I’ve written a novelization of Rocket Summer which is now selling well on Amazon, BN, and elsewhere.

So what should you get from all this?

You do not have time to write everything you want to write. Life is always shorter than you want it to be. If you have many stories in you, don’t hesitate. Pick one, and get started.

Know when to quit. Don’t let one screenplay take over your life. You really do need lots of them, both to become a better writer, and to prove to others that you’re capable of doing it more than once. And there truly is a point of diminishing return on your investment of time. Put it away, and come back to it another time. Do not leave your other stories untried.

You’re not as good as you think you are yet. You will be blind to your screenplay’s shortcomings. That’s a fact. Your friends and family will not be honest with you. And other wannabe screenwriters know as little as you do. So when you think it’s as good as you can make it, show it to someone else who actually knows what they’re talking about so they can show you how it’s not. You will be a better writer for it.

Worry about writing more, and writing better will come. You can’t write more good stuff if you don’t write more.

Pave your own inside track. Yes, it’s who you know. But you determine who you know, and how good those relationships are. If you don’t have the connections you need, find a way to make them. You can start with:

Always have your yes ready. Say yes to opportunity, say yes to things that challenge you, say yes to people who need your help. Even if you’re not sure what you have to offer. It will make you a better person, and probably a better writer.

Screenwriting is not filmmaking. Your screenplay is just a piece of a complicated process. Get any production experience you can. It will make you a better writer, and help you with paving your inside track. And it’s a crapload of fun.

 

27 thoughts on “How I sold the very first screenplay I ever wrote – and how you can avoid the same fate

  1. Thank you for the info. I’m sure it will be very helpful once I graduate from college and move to California.

  2. Very insightful and good information! Do you have any suggestions for doing the opposite of what you did with Rocket Summer, and that is to take an established written story and turn it into a screenplay. Just dive in?

    1. Hi Maria — I’ve not yet adapted a novel to a screenplay. I know many people who have, and I know this: It’s hard. Choosing what to lose from the novel has to be so tough, and you simply have to lose things. A lot of things.

      In my opinion, what’s more important than matching the book point for point is to not destroy the core thematic intent and character motivations in favor of dramatic brevity.

      See this article on Percy Jackson for more on that (it’s long).

      http://chipstreet.com/2010/02/19/percy-jackson-the-lightning-thief-story-script-book/

      1. Thanks so much Chip. I will continue to read as much on this as possible, maybe even take a class on it. I know at some point I just need to jump in. I am hungry to start this…love to write. Might hit you up with more questions later. 🙂 Thank you again for taking the time to reply.

    1. Happy you got something from it. And it’s true, most important lessons are so simple that they’re easy to miss.

    1. Aleskandr – There are always small productions going on. Local colleges have student film productions, small indie filmmakers often look for PAs and other help… you can find your way onto a production in some capacity, just to see how sets run and how scripts get changed on the fly to meet production demands “on the day”. You don’t have to be on set in the capacity of screenwriter, or art director. Be a PA. Carry heavy things. Deliver coffee.

      1. Good call, Chip. Going to scope it out and see what I can find here in town for starters. Many of my acting friends believe the same thing, learn every aspect of the craft, directing, sets, props, stage managing (theatre) to become a better actor. Stoked now!

  3. Very interesting and positive article. I write for radio and stage in the UK but am about to dip my toe into screenwriting and am terrified. The thing is, it’s a meritocracy. Anyone can do it – you don’t have to join a special club. But I also think like anything that ends up looking easy, structure, storyline, inciting incident, narrrative arc need to be invisible and worked on and worked on. So those who don’t succeed tell themselves all sorts of myths (the kinds of myths I would hear when I worked in publishing such as) They only publish people they know or They don’t recognise what I’m trying to do (if it isn’t on the page it isn’t there) or They can’t appreciate my maverick genius, because it’s easier to tell yourself this stuff than to get to grips with the fact that your work just isn’t good enough yet.

  4. Hi Chip, first time screenplay writer here. I am just working on storyboard ideas now. Do you have any advice on writing biographies ? (mine is about a long since deceased actor).

    Thanks.

    1. Hi, Brad —

      I don’t have any real advice (no direct experience) other than to say I’d consult a lawyer about story rights. While the actor may be deceased, his legacy may be protected by his or her Estate. That wouldn’t necessarily prevent ALL representations. But it’s muddy water so I’d look into it before investing lots of time in a project I might not have the rights to sell.

      It is true that the screenplay could serve you as a writing sample regardless … but for me personally, for the same reason I don’t do fan fiction… what if I come up with something outstanding, and I can’t sell it? That sucks.

      Now with fanfic, you can alter the story enough to remove all the borrowed traits and make it your own… as in 50 Shades of Gray (originally fanfic based on Twilight).

      You could make your story “inspired by” … whatever it is about that actor that you think is a great story, could that just serve as the inspiration for a great story that doesn’t explicitly follow this person’s life?

      Also curious why you’re doing storyboards. Do you plan to produce this yourself? Or are the boards just to add to the look book?

      Good luck…

      1. Thanks, that’s probably good advice about consulting a lawyer. I hadn’t thought of that before, since I thought anyone can write an unauthorized biography about anyone as long as it’s true. The same would hold for a movie. Which is the whole reason I wanted to write this screenplay, because this actor’s life story has never been told truthfully and faithfully before. So, I really wouldn’t want to alter the story.

        I storyboard because I think best visually.

        1. Better safe than sorry.

          Funny, right after leaving you that note I happened to run across this article. It’s a few years old I think, and not all of it applies. But you may find some value in it… http://schleimerlaw.com/ELF2Synthespians.htm

          Storyboarding is great for your own visualization of a scene — I do it sometimes too … but remember, unless you’re directing, you don’t include any references to how you would frame a shot or any other directorial information in the script.

  5. I like this…i mean your style in writing, thanks
    But wondering does it really need all that effort and years in rewrite x rewrite x etc. just to impress 1 guy!
    i mean why a lot of writers want to make a perfect or epic screenplay which could take 1 year or more while they can just send their idea and an understandable script in a couple of months!

    1. If you’re hitting on all cylinders, you can write a great screenplay in a month. But unless you’re already an established working pro, producing the project yourself, or otherwise *know* you’ll be working with people for whom the details don’t matter, trust me… the details matter. There are hundreds of articles out there written by contest judges, prodco readers, producers, etc, and they’ll all tell you that spelling and formatting matter. A lot. Enough to get you tossed if the first 10 pages aren’t flawless. Remember, these people read hundreds of screenplays – several a day sometimes – and any little sign of imperfection gives them the excuse to say “next” so they can check yours off their list and move on.

      1. I am sitting in front of the PC now, on page 60 of my very first script. I thought to myself “let me search for a few ideas on how to sell my first script” then I come across this article.
        Very insightful and honest, honesty is painful and I must admit… I feel drained and I feel like letting go.
        But I’m not going to give up.
        I started a month ago and I’m already exhausted but I am keeping up, especially after your article.
        I am in South Africa, is it possible to sell in Hollywood?

  6. Hi,

    I’ve been working with an accomplished screenwriter as my consultant on an adaption of a short story in one of my anthologies. I did not want to have anything to do with screenwriting, nothing. When he contacted me after reading the short story on one of his friend’s suggestions, I said “No.” I wasn’t interested. A few hours later, my phone rang and it was him. After two hours of saying no, I finally said I’d give it a try. He sent me forty screenplays and a template and said “Go. Do this.”

    My first draft was not good, especially since I’d written, essentially, a shooting script (with too many parentheticals, direction, POV, etc.). When we spoke again, he cleared that up and I went through–as of now–seventeen re-writes. All the while eradicating anything unnecessary for a spec script.

    He loves it. His agent loves it.

    More importantly, my wife, the English teacher and voracious reader, loves it. If it never gets optioned or made, I don’t care anymore, because people I trust and respect love it.

    The next step now is a table read, and I’ve gathered a number of local actors for that. There will be at least one more revision, of that I’m sure.

    But I also started working on another adaptation of one of my novels, and I agree with your advice above; you have to find the theme and omit scenes and characters that simply won’t help the screenplay–and will probably kill any momentum. And I agree that one must move on…

    I’m thankful you posted this; it’s good advice and I love the transparency.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever sell a screenplay. But I will still think of myself as successful.

    Thanks again,

    Wendell

    1. Congratulations, Wendell. Since you’re originally a literary prose writer, have you considered also taking the feature script, and adapting it into a novel length version of your original short story? I imagine you’ve added a lot of material and background that could support that. Food for thought. Congrats again — terrific that you had the guidance of a pro. 🙂

  7. Hi Chip, great info here! Do you have any experience writing in the horror genre? I’m currently writing my first screenplay (a horror script)….and using Celtx to help me through the process… Just wondering if in your experience it is worth it to enter scripts into screenplay contests? And if so, which ones would you recommend? Thanks!

    1. Hi Kevin — glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I cowrote a creature feature called “Faeries” which you can read about here: http://chipstreet.com/faeries

      We blogged the entire writing process. All those posts are here (sadly in reverse order – thanks, WordPress): http://chipstreet.com/topics/screenwriting/writing-faeries/

      Yes on contests, if you want genre specific be sure to check out ShriekFest — run by the fantastic Denise Gossett. The horror community in general is a great community, and super supportive. But of course Nicholl is cream of the crop, and BlueCat gives lots of good feedback for the price. Page is supposed to be quite good. There are a few current lists on the interweb listing top recommended contests… check ’em out.

      And good luck with your project!

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