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.
Here’s what I did right, and wrong …
I started wrong and badly
I 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.
I rewrote it over and over and over and…
So, 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
In 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
I 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.
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.
I 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
For 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
I 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.
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.