Two Roads Diverged in a Wood or Some Such Shit: Screenwriting vs. Publishing

A Working Hack’s Take on Choosing Your Career Path as a Writer.


Last week on Twitter I inadvertently sparked a discussion between authors Chuck Wendig and Kameron Hurley about the manic springs and jagged gears of Hollywood versus the publishing industry.

It began with this brief discourse about the rigors of writing as a full-time career.

Writers like money. Because without money they won’t let you buy stuff. We’ve tried.

I missed the conversation that followed entirely as I was, at the time, in my backyard slathering myself with sesame oil for what I maintain were purely medicinal reasons.

Anyway. The following is what I missed.

Chuck Wendig, author of THE CORMORANT, and Kameron Hurley, author of GOD’S WAR, discuss via Twitter the strange and savage land that is Hollywood.

Now, I dig Wendig and Hurley a ton. I became a big fan of Wendig’s novels last year (The Blue Blazes being probably my favorite overall novel of 2013), and I recently started getting into Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha series. It’s dynamite hack. Really, just fantastic stuff. They each maintain two of my favorite writing blogs about prose out there right now. And although I don’t know either of them well enough to call them friends, our social media exchanges are always pleasant and productive.

They’re two humans I wouldn’t liquidate with the rest were I to overthrow Earth’s major governments and subjugate all people everywhere (not that I’m planning such a coup).

And yet their conversation really kind of annoyed the piss out of me when I read it.

Which struck me as odd. My reaction, not their conversation.

The fact is nothing they contend about screenwriting or Hollywood is incorrect. It’s dead-on. Most movies that are written (scripts that are sold or commissioned by a studio or a producer) are never made. If the figure wasn’t 99.9% I’d be truly amazed.

The corporate structure? Its walls are high and gleaming. Hurley’s “mad CEO’s?” Oh, they exist.

Nothing they tweeted was inaccurate or ill-informed. Neither was it ill-intended towards me or any screenwriter, really.

But they primarily write and publish fiction. They are professional novelists.

I primarily write for the screen. That’s how I make my living.

A part of me deeply resented what I perceived as an indictment of what I do by two people who don’t/can’t do what I do.

That was a knee-jerk reaction, of course. And untrue, particularly in Wendig’s case, as he’s also an experienced screenwriter with projects in development. When I thought about it for a minute I tried to convey to them both (while realizing right away the thoughts/experiences I have on the subject can’t be shared in 140 characters) that my encounters with the level of crazy prevalent in both the publishing and film industry are not as disproportionate as they made it out to be.

I would put forth Hollywood just isn’t the flavor of crazy they’re used to tasting every single day.

And that’s fine. That’s everybody. I bang on publishing harder because I’ve personally had worse experiences there, and the publishing industry is not how I make my nut.

But the broader issue for me was I’d brought up “screenwriting” in my original reply to Hurley and they’d both interpreted that immediately as meaning Hollywood.

Most people view screenwriting through that rather narrow funnel. Screenwriting = Movies = Hollywood. That equation seems to them alien math incapable of human solution. Screenwriting always seems far more bizarre and complicated and daunting than writing prose, both the craft of it and the business of it. You have access to literary agents and publishers (their slush piles, at least). Writing for the screen? Who the hell knows where to begin? I didn’t.

But the truth, and this is especially important for those who desperately want to make a living practicing the increasingly arcane and devalued craft of writing, is that screenwriting is a much bigger, simpler, more easily accessed world than that.

So here we are, and I want to crack open that world and pour some of its funky juices out for you to examine. If you’re an aspiring writer trying to decide what professional path to pursue, I offer the following for your consideration.

Here’s the Premise

This is not a post about artistic or creative fulfillment. It’s not about which art form is superior, worthier, or more satisfying. That’s not what we’re talking about here. That type of achievement/fulfillment/choice has nothing to do with a career or money or an audience. That type of fulfillment comes from creating exactly the work you set out to create and expressing it as fully and personally as possible in the medium in which you most prefer to work.

That type of fulfillment happens in one room and it’s between you and your art.

“But art has to be appreciated to blah-blah-my-ego-blah-blah,” you say.

Dude, get the fuck out of my post. Seriously. Go. Now. The rest of us are trying to have a profession here.

This post is about making your living as a writer and the best way to do that, short of landing a fat life-changing contract.

It’s important to understand the difference before we proceed.

This is a post for those prepared to grind it out. This is a post for those prepared to treat writing like the blue collar job it most often is.

This is a post for workers.

Artists can have a Coke and a smile and go console themselves in a corner with a towel moistened by their own sad, sad genital tears.

Here’s a Story

I wrote my first screenplay in 2007. At the time I was very much pursuing a career as a novelist. I used podcasting as a vehicle for my fiction. I submitted religiously. I sold to magazines and anthologies. I edited magazines and anthologies. I went to all the conventions. I did the panels. I did the readings. I hocked the books at the publisher’s table in the dealer room.

By 2010 I had more or less given up pursuing prose as a career. I stopped podcasting. I stopped submitting. I moved to Los Angeles. I put my novel on hold to focus on screenwriting solely. I was dropped by my lit agent because of that. I didn’t put up a fight.

Every now and then an editor would solicit a short story from me. If they were paying I was more than happy to comply.

But I stopped the chase as far as the publishing industry went.

My first book was published in 2008. It was a short story collection. Even for a short story collection by a mostly (MY EGO DEMANDS THAT ADJECTIVE) unknown author it didn’t sell well. It wasn’t a great book. It wasn’t a bad book. It was filled with a lot of my earlier stuff and most critics rightly pointed out a lot of it read more like abbreviated novels than complete short stories.

I could write a holy litany about how its release might’ve been handled a great deal better or how my expectations weren’t met, but that’s all sour grape bullshit.

The long and the short of it is the book’s performance didn’t change anyone’s life.

However, it contained two stories that were optioned for film around the same time, both of which I adapted into screenplays. Neither movie has, as of yet, been produced, but I was paid for both the options and writing the scripts.

A year later the exact same material had yielded twelve times the profit in the film industry than it ever did or would in publishing.

That fact, that realization, sat heavily with me.

It weighed on me particularly when negotiating contracts for my first novel. Between 2007 and 2009 I entered into prolonged and failed negotiations with four different publishers (one major, one midrange, one small press, and one malformed construct of some ass-hat’s imagination) for that novel.

They all inevitably deteriorated for one of two reasons: 1) The money they were offering me bordered on offensive. 2) To get to an unoffensive offer I would have to spend months or a year doing work based on editorial notes I found insane.

While all of this is going on my first screenplays circulated among other producers and I began to get work writing other scripts based on a variety of new material I didn’t originate.

I never found those offers offensive.

None of those movies happened, but the working experiences I had were fantastic, educational, rewarding, and I was making real grown folk money doing it.

By 2010 I had reached an inescapable conclusion: Fiction wasn’t worth my time or effort.

It’s worth noting here that I’m not talking about writing. I’m talking about publishing. I love writing fiction. I never stopped writing fiction, particularly short stories, and I never will. But publishing them… the time and energy it takes to query and deal with editors and prolonged schedules and the bullshit money you make and the endless, monotonous, thankless pimping of yourself and your work to readers to maintain your fucking “brand” as an author and the dysfunctional if not outright broken machine that is the publishing industry… I mean, goddamn, how long a life do you think you have?

So I chucked the whole mixed bag. It didn’t miss me, and I didn’t miss it.

But I will cop to this: I felt what I believe is one of the things that so mortifies Wendig and Hurley about Hollywood and the ecology of unfinished, unreleased product.

I felt the lack of an audience.

It’s not strictly an ego thing. As a fiction writer building and maintaining your audience is absolutely, positively vital. And it falls almost entirely to you, especially these days. Your publisher isn’t going to do it for you.

In the age of social media you interact directly with your audience. They motivate and inspire you. They feed you. They drive you. They can even make you a better writer.

Telling a fiction writer an audience is irrelevant is like telling a chef to just toss out all the food they’ve labored to prepare.

But an audience is irrelevant.

I take pleasure in it, but it’s something I can live without, especially if I have to choose between a large captive audience and making a living practicing my craft.

Ideally you want both, right?

Well, once again, we’re not talking about pristine, ideal circumstances here.

We’re talking about working for a living.

Realizing that will liberate you a great deal as a working writer, especially as a screenwriter. Your ego is always the first obstacle. You’ll have moments where you consider some novelist with a book deal and an unrelated day job and your ego rages, “I can make a living writing what I write and they can’t, so why do they have more Twitter followers than me?”

It’s a tin badge, man. It’s a wholly useless perception you can do without.

Trust me.

As far as missing the finished product… yeah, I did. I do. There’s something deeply compelling about holding that finished, bound book you wrote in your hands for the first time, or going to a book store and seeing it on the shelf and the first time you spy some random pedestrian reading it on a train or a bus whatever.

Just as there’s something deeply compelling in following the path of your heroes. I wrote my manuscript alone in a corner. I sent it out into the big bad indifferent world. Somehow it rose through the slush and an editor saw the light. I signed a contract with a real, like-you-see-on-TV book publisher. There were signings and tours and interviews and it’s in a brick-and-mortar store.

I DID WHAT STEPHEN KING DID WITH CARRIE.

It’s cool shit. I get it. I missed it. I lament the half-dozen movies I’ve written that have yet to be made, probably never will be.

But I’ve also sat in a packed room while hundreds of people watched and dug something I wrote play on a big screen for the first time and applauded at the end.

It’s the same feeling. It’s the same odds at the end of the day. I’d rather chase it longer, be paid better in the interim, and reach more people when it finally crosses the finish line.

But that’s me.

Here’s Some Stats

I was paid $15.00 for the first piece of fiction I ever sold, a short story bought by a webzine.

I was paid $3,000.00 to write my first screenplay.

Does it seem unfair to compare those two scenarios? Well, it’s not. Those were utterly comparable levels of each industry. Anything less than 30k for a feature-length screenplay is the equivalent of a web-only fiction ‘zine paying a flat fifteen-dollar rate.

Receiving that storied five grand advance for your first book? That’s a six-figure spec sale in Hollywood.

In terms of sheer income, screenwriting trounces publishing every day, all day, twice on Sunday. A really wealthy author is such a rare thing that you know all of their names. The writer who doctored the screenplay of the movie you didn’t go see and who received no credit for it makes more than most of those authors combined.

Let’s talk about your investment of time. I’ll be generous. Let’s say it takes you three-to-six months to write that novel. My standard screenwriting contract when I started out called for the first draft in four weeks, then a second draft in two weeks after I received notes.

If further drafts were required? Well, that’s more money.

You will never be paid more to edit your novel.

Here’s the Difference

Versatility.

For me that’s what it comes down to as a professional choice. Screenwriting is a more versatile medium than fiction publishing for a working writer.

Not if your definition of screenwriting is relegated solely to movies, of course. The difference between me and most aspiring screenwriters is this: I’m willing to work. Most screenwriters have their MFA and their holy spec movie script they spent so much time on and their entire perception of screenwriting is based on selling that script for a million dollars and getting Spielberg to direct it and they’re going to starve if they don’t have a day job.

If your entire perception of a screenwriting career is selling film scripts to a studio that will be turned into movies you might as well play the fucking lottery. I mean, it happens. I’m still actively chasing that every day of my life in Los Angeles. But it’s not what I was banking on in terms of working for a living.

We live in an increasingly content filled and driven world, and the visual utterly dwarfs the printed page. You can argue its merits, its cultural detriment, its whatever-the-fuck, but you can’t argue that it’s there.

And more of it needs to be written than you can possibly imagine.

I’ve scripted feature films. I’ve also scripted television. I’ve scripted animated webisodes based on toy and game lines. I’ve scripted instructional on-line videos. I’ve scripted advertising. I’ve scripted narration for documentaries. Video games are a tall field for screenwriters, although I’ve yet to work in it.

It is a vast and varied medium that is only going to expand and add more avenues.

Fiction writing does have bend, too. I have friends who make their living writing media tie-ins (novelizations of movies, television shows, and games). There’s ghostwriting. There’s RPG writing. There’s manuscript doctoring.

Fiction writing is also more versatile than you probably think.

But it’s extremely limited compared to screenwriting and, more importantly, the return is severely lower.

It’s a simple equation: More Work + More Money = Not Having to Waiter or Waitress During the Day.

And I’m no one’s fucking waiter.

Here’s the Thing

Anyone who preaches the One True Career Path for writers is an asshole. Anyone who tells you which career path you should follow as a writer is an asshole. Anyone who tells you traditional publishing is dead and self-publishing is a golden ticket is an asshole. Anyone who tells you you’ll never make a dime self-publishing and traditional publishing is the only legitimate route is an asshole.

And guess what? Anyone who tells you there’s no money in fiction publishing and screenwriting is the only way to make a living as a writer?

That’s right. Asshole.

All anyone can or should do is offer you data. It’s up to you to assimilate, process, de-frag, and analyze that data so you can make up your own goddamn mind.

I chose screenwriting because after crunching the available data at the time it equaled my personal best bet for a full-time writing career.

If you were to ask me now I’d tell you that screenwriting is an option every fiction writer should explore, even the ones making their nut as novelists. There’s a reason virtually every great novelist of the early 20th century also wrote for Hollywood at some point.

And if your attitude is you want to be an artist and not a freelance writer, remember that no author anywhere lists “artist” as their occupation on a tax return.