Every writer has a voice. But whose voice are they listening to? The voice that tells them they can sell a script, get it produced, and win an Oscar in 30 days or less or the one that’s outlining tried-and-true steps of hard work to achieve attainable goals?
Lee Jessup’s book, “Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career” is a voice that any writer with any aspiration of being any kind of writer needs to listen to. It is a frank and sometimes, in-your-face voice–though not as brutal as William Akers in his astonishing and similarly “OMG, I so needed to hear this” book, “Your Screenplay Sucks.” Jessup tells it how it is, and both in her book and at appearances at events such as StoryExpo, she is up-front when offering non-stop advice.
Jessup is a Career Coach, essentially filling the void left behind as managers became more agent-centric than Career Guider. And if you’re not ready for hard work, you don’t need to talk to her. Jessup deals with what you can do, not what you think will be sprinkled down when you wish upon a star.
After reading her book, I knew I had to meet her. I took at least 30 photo-notes while reading “Getting It Write.” To say it breaks new ground in offering information is an understatement.
Jessup took the time to answer some questions about attainable goals. I had to narrow the focus or else, my questions would amount to the length of a feature screenplay. The book is that good.
Your book broke new ground in sharing info not addressed previously. One section I found profound was where you advised setting actionable, tangible goals. How can setting lofty goals be a pitfall and why are daily, completable tasks important for a writer’s routine?
Jessup: Many writers mistake goals [for] aspirations. Aspirations are great, and can include securing representation, winning a competition or even getting a screenplay produced, but unfortunately are entirely outside of the writer’s control and bring little more than disappointment and frustration. Actionable goals for writers should be specific, and ones that are within the writer’s control: A writing schedule broken down not only to a draft, but to weekly and even daily goals, material submission, pitching, etc. When setting effective goals for himself, the writer will find that he continues to challenge and surprise himself, which has positive lasting effects.
Many writers have dreamboards with those lofty goals. Should they rip them down and replace them with those attainable goals?
Big dreams are important – it’s priceless to be inspired by what you are working towards. But much more important is focusing on the road ahead rather than the destination, and understanding what each step is going to require when you’re getting from here to there. One of my clients calls this “goal porn” – the indulgent behavior one partakes in when fantasizing about what it will feel and look like when those big dreams come true. However, dreams don’t come true without hard work in this industry, so that’s where I want to see the ongoing attention of my writers invested.
The attainable goals should be something substantial however, correct? Not like getting out of bed and going to Starbucks?
Absolutely – come up with goals for both your writing and your marketing efforts. If you don’t want to create page goals on a daily basis, set goals for the completion of each act, for getting notes, submitting to contests, putting the work up on listing services, pitching the work, and ask someone to hold you accountable for it. This is a CRITICAL part of the deal – someone has to hold you to it, or else you will just watch deadlines as they go by without a great deal of meaning and consequence. Writing groups can be great for this too – set deadlines with the group members, and make sure that you are accountable if dates are missed. Of course life can get in the way and none of these dates are set in stone, but if you miss a deadline, you want to be conscious of it and make sure this doesn’t become the norm as it certainly won’t help you to move things forward in any sort of steady clip.
Attendees of your presentations and readers of your book are appreciative of your frankness. Do you think coddling has led to emerging writers ignoring tried-and-true advice and doing it their own way?
This is – in many ways – a chicken-and-egg situation. What came first? Were executives getting writers in the habit of being coddled, or did writers display an inability to handle all that’s tried-and-true? In my experience, writers are a lot more willing to hear the truth, to learn what it is that the industry requires of them than most give them credit for. Of course, there will always be the newbie writer out there who thinks they can do it all their own in three months or less (and by that I mean finish a script, sell it for a million bucks and get it produced), but most of the writers who have been at this for any period of time want it given to them straight: What do they have to do next? What is it going to take? What are industry expectations? Don’t get me wrong – some will still rally against it on occasion, develop frustrations and even the feeling that they’re being shorted somehow because their careers haven’t developed as they had hoped, but for the most part I find that writers out there are really eager to find out the hard truth, which very much contributed to the success I’ve had working with writers.
You’ve carved out a niche but it was based on years of experience. Can you discuss your career coaching–how you decide to take on a client and what you provide them?
The decision to take on a client for ongoing coaching usually follows my initial session – the career coaching intake. This is where I will recommend next steps to the writer, and if those are steps that I can support the writer in executing then an ongoing relationship can be explored. In the rare case when a writer has to work on their craft, I will send the writer to a screenwriting consultant or a writing program. I get involved when we can really start moving the career forward. Here there are always two sides to the coin: one is creative development, then there is career development. On the creative side, we will identify the writer’s brand, sift through ideas to define next project, and create a writing schedule. On the career front, we will explore such elements as pedigree and identity then seek a variety of ways to get new material out while building and enhancing the writer’s network. Other elements with which I help my writers often involve the management of representation, business decisions, and long-term career strategy.
Your book is invaluable because it focuses the responsibility of success on the writer and not on the outcome of a myriad of happenstance. Why does the industry attract more who live in the dream rather than work toward the dream? And how frustrating is it when you encounter them?
Listen, the whole medium is based on fantasy and make-believe. A glorified game of pretend, in the very best way. So it’s no surprise that many who come to Hollywood with dreams of screenwriting success envision it happening like it did “in the movies”. Of course, few of them recognize that the movies they are basing their fantasies about are often of a different time and a different place, one that is in no way shape or form related to the working industry. Luckily for me, I find that these writers don’t approach me for coaching – coaching demands that one 1) acknowledge that something’s not working as they had hoped, and 2) put in some serious work. I find that very few people who are pursuing the dream rather than the writing are willing to buckle down and do the hard work. Those who come to me are usually those who want to put in the hard work, who recognize it’s not always going to be fun but will hopefully be rewarding and that it is, at the end of the day, a job, ones that comes with highs and lows and challenges and a few triumphs. I can tell you that none of my writers are chasing that million Dollar paycheck, or that wave of the wand that will turn them from emerging writer to Hollywood power player in the flick of the wrist. Luckily for me, they all know that this is going to require a lot of hard work, but that hard work is the best way to get there.
Besides not being one of those people, what’s the Top 3 things an emerging writer must do to advance in the industry?
Oh that’s easy (though there’s probably 20 things I can easily come up with):
1. Expose the work early and often – get copious notes, and never be precious about the work. Ultimately success will require getting a lot of people to get behind the work, so getting as many experienced eyes on the work early and often will help transform it to something that others can buy into.
2. Read industry news – regularly and diligently. You gotta know as much as you can about the working industry into which you’re trying to break.
3. Treat this like a profession or a second job, NOT a hobby.