Balls of Steel: What’s Holding You Back from Becoming a Professional Writer?

The path to being a professional writer can be harder when you become your biggest obstacle. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman dishes out tough-love advice to help you achieve your writing dreams.


I had a conversation recently with someone frustrated with a co-worker, complaining that after two years of training, she still needs his help far too much and resists setting up appointments with clients to close the deal. She’s falling dangerously below her quota, and it’s not only affecting her income, but also his.

He asked my advice. Should he fire her?

I’m a writer, not a HR person, but I do know people. I can smell fear a mile away. This woman doesn’t need to be fired; she needs to figure out what’s holding her back. What is she afraid of?

I advised him to sit her down and kindly speak with her, not in the tone of a scolding manager, but in one of acceptance, validation, and understanding. Ask her, “What scares you about making an appointment with a client? What is it about the process that makes you uncomfortable?” In knowing those answers, she might identify her insecurities better in order to work directly on them instead of sidestepping them… right to the unemployment line.

As I thought about this co-worker, I couldn’t help but relate to her. When I first embarked on a writing career, I was too scared to take a train into New York City by myself, let alone fly to L.A. to pitch a Hollywood executive! But I pushed past those fears, and a few short years later, I was sipping bourbon at a bar with the head honcho of HBO.

What’s holding you back from being a professional writer?

The answer might be… you.

Since most people are resistant to change, we’re often more comfortable sitting with that knot in our stomachs than we are exploring why we have that knot in the first place.

If you’re one of those writers paralyzed by fear, ask yourself how your fears are holding you back from becoming a professional writer. What, specifically, are you afraid of? Writing a first draft? Pitching? Rejection?

Newsflash: In order to be a professional writer, you’re going to have to do all three… a lot… over and over and over again. Gulp.

Now imagine writers who have succeeded. Do you think successful writers were born without fear? Close your eyes and visualize you are one of them, sitting in that pitch meeting. Do you feel the sweat on your palms? The knot in your stomach? I can tell you, without any hesitation, the best of the best have quaked in their boots many a time before they got comfortable writing, pitching and being rejected.

It takes practice to learn how to take a fall and get back up, stronger because of it.

Writing the First Draft

For me, starting that first draft is the hardest part. I don’t get writer’s block (knock on wood). My anxiety comes from fear of not being able to write to the level of my last script. As I typed that, I laughed. What a silly fear. The more you write, the more your voice evolves, and the better your work is. See? Sometimes you simply need to be brutally honest with yourself about why you are stuck in order to see the way out.

The trick to writing is to write.

Yeah, yeah. I hear you. You have a day job. You have a family. So do I. Guess what? It’s okay to carve out time for your dreams. If you need “permission,” consider this me giving you just that. Even if you only have 15 minutes, sit in the damn chair and write! The story and characters will stay with you, meandering in your mind, the rest of the day.

If my permission isn’t enough, maybe Denzel’s is…

“Without commitment, you’ll never start. But, more importantly, without consistency, you’ll never finish.” – Denzel Washington

So, let’s say you finally got that script or novel on the page. It’s been rewritten countless times and examined by a script consultant or editor, getting the seal of approval. Now it’s time to pitch. Oh yes, you’re going to pull your baby out of the shadows!

Side rant: Yes, I believe in getting critique of your work. We’re often too close to our own stories to see clearly. Our work always benefits from another set of eyes. Plus, screenwriting is a collaborative medium. You might as well get used to people telling you to go back and make it better. Are analysts always right? Hell, no. But if you want to be a professional writer, you need to learn how to take notes – what to listen to, and what to ignore. Sure, the hits hurt, but your job is to take those jabs, bandage up the wounds and keep fighting for your dreams. No one is going to hand you the prize without you working hard for it.


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Pitching and Rejection

Pitchfests and pitch slams are an amazing way to not only get practice pitching, but also handling rejection. There’s an endless debate about pitching events being a rip-off (you can read my in-depth thoughts here), but I’m a firm believer that they help prepare you for that bucket-list studio meeting you’ve been working towards. Being comfortable pitching takes practice. A lot of practice. The last thing you want is to blow that big HBO meeting because you had no clue how to effectively pitch.

I’ve been attending pitching events for over 10 years. Despite being a screenwriter, my very first pitch was at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in 2007 in New York City. I went just to see if I could do it. I bombed worse than Ishtar. But pushing myself far past my comfort zone gave me the courage to take the lessons I learned at WDC and try again just a few weeks later at the Great American Pitchfest in Los Angeles.

Getting dozens of execs in the same room at the same time is an invaluable opportunity for any writer. Imagine how much time it would take to get that number of in-person meetings on your own!

Get in line and see what they have to say. Even if all of them say no, you’ll learn a hell of a lot about what the industry is looking for, how to pitch, how to connect with people, and what is working and not working in your projects.

You Have to Want It

Now let’s get back to you and the reason you might be your biggest obstacle.

I want to share something I discussed with my therapist: The difference between “I don’t want to…” and “I can’t…”

“I don’t want to” implies you are making a choice. “I can’t” means you literally cannot do something.

Take anything you are afraid of and ask if it’s an “I don’t want to” or an “I can’t.”

Let’s say you’re afraid of pitching. “I don’t want to go to a pitchfest.”

Now write down a list of reasons why. Here’s some that come to mind:

What if they hate my idea?
What if they steal my idea?
What if they laugh at me?
What if I can’t memorize my pitch and fumble like an idiot?

My response to that list… so what?

Seriously, so what? If they hate it, move onto the next pitch table and try again, or pitch a different idea. Maybe you stop pitching and use the five minutes of time to ask the agent questions about the industry. Remember, you’re there to learn.

You’ve got nothing to lose. All it takes is one yes. You can’t get a yes if you never talk about your stories to the people who can bring them to the masses.

If someone steals your idea, so what? No one can write it the way you can. It’s not just the idea that’s important, it’s the execution.

If they laugh at you, laugh back. And trust me, no one will laugh in our faces… they do that behind our backs. I’m fine with that.

As for fumbling the pitch, no exec likes a memorized pitch that sounds like you’re giving a speech. They want to have a dialogue. They want to like you as well as like your writing. The fact that you can memorize a pitch doesn’t mean squat in terms of the quality of your writing. It just means you have a good memory. So what?

So really, your answer to why you don’t want to go to a pitchfest is solved by putting your big girl panties on and getting your ass in front of those execs. If you are determined to never pitch your work, why are you writing and paying lip service to wanting to be a pro?


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Stop making excuses.

But if you’re answer is “I can’t go to a pitchfest,” then the reasons are different and somewhat out of your control, such as you can’t get time off of work, your child is sick, or you simply can’t afford the expense. Totally understandable.

But

The trick is to not keep using these excuses to continually prevent you from attending a networking event or putting your work out there. At some point, you need to decide how much you want this and then go meet the people who can help you.

Save money, save up vacation time, or find good childcare.

If you want to be a professional writer, then you need to treat it like a job. Would you tell your boss you couldn’t go to that networking event? Would you not bother writing that report because it was too hard? Would you cry if they pointed out areas of improvement in your year-end review?

Well, that would be one way to fail at being a professional.

Take your writing career that seriously. Treat it like a job.

If you continually say, “I can’t,” then you need to reexamine how much you want to be a writer. One thing is guaranteed – you can’t (and won’t) be a professional writer if you never network or pitch.

Money can be saved. Schedules can be changed. Most importantly, fear can be overcome.

In We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon’s character proclaims, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

The first step is wanting it. The second step is writing it. The third step is going after it… even if it’s twenty fearless seconds at a time.

This philosophy applies to more than just becoming a professional screenwriter. It applies to your entire life. Don’t be the one holding yourself back from living the life you want and deserve.

What’s holding you back from being a professional writer?

More Balls of Steel articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

Watch Script’s Editor Share Her Advice on Facing Your Writing Fears

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares her personal story of facing her fears in order to propel her writing and her career. In just eight minutes, you might have a whole new perspective.

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