How can you further your knowledge about the craft and business of writing without spending a fortune? The million-dollar question every scribe ponders. Writing should be free, some insist, but others claim we need to attend film school, get our MFAs, move to Los Angeles, and go to writing conferences. Who are you supposed to believe? Everyone and no one. Every writer’s path varies, as does the size of their wallets.
Both WD's site and Script's site offer a lot of free education. I applaud free. While no one wants more student loans, credit card bills, or the stress of debt, if debt guaranteed a successful career, we’d probably dive into it!
Since I don’t like to tell people how to spend their money, let’s explore practical tips I’ve used myself to help elevate my writing career on a shoestring budget.
Free online resources. Beyond the WD website list, YouTube offers countless podcasts, interviews, and screenwriting videos. My favorite is “Film Courage.” Type in the search bar “professional screenwriter” or “screenwriting advice” and the results will keep you engaged for hours. Don’t forget to tweet out the gems you find.
Read screenplays. Many sites host links to screenplays available online, for free. First, read the script, then watch the movie with the screenplay in hand and notice the differences. What scenes got cut? How did the director and actors interpret the story? Car chases, rainy-day scenes, and explosions cost a fortune to shoot. Unless your Aaron Sorkin, consider the expense of shooting whatever you put on the page.
Shoot a short film on your phone. Learn by doing. Filmmaking costs money, but many brands of cell phones boast camera capabilities worthy of filmmakers. Use actors from your local theater, high school, or university. Make sure they perceive value in helping you. Offer to edit clips for their acting reels. The actors, cinematographer and director translate your words into something visual. Don’t be tempted to do it all yourself. Experience what it feels like to have your words interpreted by someone else. Lose control. You don’t have control over anything as a screenwriter. You might as well learn how that feels right up front.
Table read your screenplay. Maybe you can’t find a cast and crew to shoot a film, but you can surely have your script read out loud at table reads by schools, theater groups, or retired actors. Take a video of the session, or at least an audio recording. Ask the actors for feedback, too. Hearing your words spoken out loud, interpreted by someone else, will show you where the dialogue stiffens or where it can be tightened up.
Attend writing conferences. If you’re going to save your pennies to invest in your career, writing conferences should be at the top of your list. Writing advice and networking all under one roof creates a great bang for your buck. Find a conference close to you, saving on airfare and hotel, but put a larger conference on your bucket list. While conferences aren’t free, volunteers often get complimentary badges. Yes, you have to work the event, but if you’re moderating a room, you can listen and learn from the speaker and also have an opportunity to network at the hotel bar later. For those who go to Austin Film Festival (AFF), the bar at the Driskell Hotel bustles with professional screenwriters and attendees. AFF attracts writers from around the world. If you’re shy on cash, skip the more expensive Producer’s pass and just hang out in the large bar area. I promise you’ll see everyone who speaks at the conference, meet tons of writers, and have a blast.
Network like your life depends on it, because your career just might. Whenever you go to a writing event, always try to stay a couple of days after to reconnect with people you met the year before, or connect in person with social media followers who live in the area. Do the same if you travel for your day job or visit out-of-town relatives. Every trip to a new city presents an opportunity to meet writers in that area. Build your tribe. The simplest networking plan: Never eat alone. Every time I go to L.A., I gain five pounds. I meet people for breakfast, someone else for lunch, a third person for afternoon coffee, a different person for dinner, then a group of online friends for drinks.
Pay it forward. Do something nice for someone with no gain for yourself. Don’t make everything about you. Karma will reward you. Plus, being nice never cost anyone a dime. For example, when I meet with groups of online friends on my travels, I always introduce friends who would benefit from knowing each other. Always consider what would make someone else’s life a little easier. You might just know that one person who could turn a friend’s world around. If I know a casting director, I introduce them to an actor. A director to a cinematographer. Be selfless and supportive. Being kind doesn’t cost me anything.
Find a mentor. Talent attracts attention from those farther up the food chain. But talent alone won’t get you a mentor. Many professional writers don’t have time to take an emerging writer under their wing. How you behave as a human being matters (see “pay it forward” above). Find that passion project, one a professional writer believes can sell, and build an organic relationship with them before ever asking them to read your script. If they offer, be humble and grateful, then listen politely to their notes. If you get defensive, they feel their time was wasted. If you aren’t open to embracing feedback, you’ll never be able to take notes from a producer. Screenplays take years to reach the silver screen, so be someone people want to work with for a long time. Finding a champion can turn your world around and open doors you never imagined.
Turn your script into a novel. A screenplay makes a perfect outline for a novel. Hollywood loves adapting intellectual property, so cast a wider net and self-publish. What’s the worst that can happen? You learn a how to write a new medium and might even make some money! Beyond potential financial gain, the exercise of writing a novel might appeal to you more than screenwriting. You’ll never know until you try. Get outside of your comfort zone and push yourself.
MFA or no MFA. No Hollywood executive has ever asked me if I have a college or graduate degree. Not a single one.
Be daring. One could argue being daring has a price, such as risking embarrassment. I’d like to flip that thought. What if you didn’t dare to dream big, to push the boundaries, to reach out to that pro you’d like as a mentor, or query that producer or manager? You’d be right where you are right now, never to move forward in your career.
Your attitude is your choice. Choices are free. Every successful screenwriter dared to reach for the brass ring and have steadfast focus on their career goals. You can do that, too. Choose to put your writing first. Choose to invest in yourself. The cost of postponing your dreams is far worse than any credit-card debt.
For more information on screenwriting, browse our sister site, ScriptMag.com.