The Screenwriters 5 Stages of Grief


Screenplays are our babies and criticism can feel like you're being told your newborn is ugly. Well... maybe it is

Alright, so we are still deep into the quarantine I am unshaven, unshowered, living in my boxers and writing my tail off. Suffice it to say, I am living my best life ;) I check my emails while eating my fruity pebbles (yes fruity - not cocoa, I'm not a psychopath) and found one of them was a query from a writer in Hunan Province. I had read their work already and unfortunately this was a screenplay in name only. It's not an esl thing at all. I've seen this type of issue before. It's what happens when someone thinks screenwriting is easy and then attempts it with total disregard of the craft. This is a universal issue which unfortunately results in a Frankenstein like monstrosity that is unreadable. That being said, I enjoy helping those writers learn that there is so much more to the depth of this craft.


However, this writer didn't want instruction or mentorship. They instead wanted me to fix their script for them. Well that is what I do, but this would have had to be a page one rewrite. So I quoted them an honest rate. Suffice it to say... they were shook. They couldn't believe it needed work and that it would be expensive to hire a professional to fix it.


I then stood witness as this writer went through the 5 stages. That's when it hit me. We all go through this as screenwriters. Every time one of our scripts is ignored, rejected, or even disliked. No wonder this craft can be so hard on us. We are constantly falling into a state of panic or despair. There's got to be a way through this without the emotional turmoil. Here's the good news. There is. So let's look at the 5 stages and how we can move past them.


Denial:

This screenwriter couldn't believe I'd have to charge them so much to write a screenplay. I mean anyone can do it right? Plus it's good. They know it is. They put their heart and soul into it. How many of us have felt this way? Screenplays are our babies and criticism can feel like you're being told your newborn is ugly. Well... maybe it is. We need to learn to emotionally detach from our work. Accepting criticism from a professional, mentor, or experienced writer is essential to us growing as a craftsman. Now that is not saying all feedback is good. But to deny that we can do no wrong is simply an illusion birthed from our ego.


Anger:

The writer then told me that "You can't be that good if you're not an LA writer. You know what? I don't think you're up to it anyway. You're just an Indie writer." Ok, not gonna lie. That stung for a sec. But the reality is being a successful screenwriter has nothing to do with geography. It has everything to do with skill, your body of work, and honestly your reputation. Lashing out at someone trying to help you only does one thing. It ruins your reputation. You become labeled as difficult to work with which results in your network shrinking and future gigs drying up.


Bargaining:

Here they offered to pay me half my rate and the second half after the script sold. I call this the "Golden Ticket" mentality. Some writers often get blinded by the glitter of riches to be had once they complete a script. They honestly believe that since they've achieved this difficult task of screenwriting that they will be awarded with untold fame and fortunes. The truth is 99% of people don't want to read your script and there is a good chance the other 1% will more than likely hate it. It can be a soul-crushing feeling once you learn this. But, as our skills improve at the craft, those odds begin to change in our favor. Soon you will gain a reputation of being a good if not great writer. Then your name will carry weight. Eventually producers will ask to read your work. That's when you know you have turned the corner. But that can take years full or rejection as you perfect your craft.


Depression:

There was a long gap between emails. Which I have to believe was the writer coming to terms with the reality of the situation. Here's the thing. I don't enjoy this part. I know of a few script doctors who proudly tell stories of how they dashed some hopeful writers' dreams. That's not what this is. I truly want to help this person. But some people have to come to terms and realize the sacrifice this craft requires in order to become successful. Make no mistake to gain traction as a screenwriter you will make sacrifices. More then you realize and they will happen in the most unexpected ways. Time is the biggest sacrifice. Those sacred moments with your friends, family, and even hobbies will be lost. Eventually you will struggle to keep those relationships healthy. It is a difficult balance to learn. This is when you realize in your heart whether screenwriting is a path for you. This writer I believe was beginning to understand that writing a script was not the prize they thought it was. Which can be a blow to the soul.


Acceptance:

The writer eventually writes me back and apologizes for their rude behavior and decided to not proceed. Which I thought was kind of them and a wise decision for them to make. I wished them the best of luck in their endeavors and I truly hope they figure out what they want. This is the goal. To find a sense of peace with the process. So how do we get there? The best advice I can give you is to not have expectations. Just do the work. Write that script to the best of your ability. Then seek out notes without any forethought of what they will say. A professional will give you objective notes on the work. That's what you want. What works what doesn't and ways to course correct. However, if you receive notes that read as subjective then remember this is not a you problem. This a them problem. That is not a professional. That is a critic with an opinion. When you receive notes like that then simply take what makes sense to you and drop the rest.

We must think about our script not as our baby but instead as a work in progress.

As writers, we have all gone through the 5 stages. Especially when we submit to a festival and don't make the cut, query a producer and never hear back, or even have a script optioned that never sees the light of day. That can be dozens if not hundreds of times we go through the 5 stages. Which is insane if you think about it. It can make you feel as if you are living in a constant state of grief. That is why we must think about our script not as our baby but instead as a work in progress. With each set of notes and rewrites we get closer to perfection until one day out of the blue it becomes a masterwork.



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