"Do you HAVE to do this?"
This is the question my father asks each of his trumpet students when they begin studying with him. There are SO few jobs for a classical or jazz trumpet player out there - alarmingly few ways for even the most talented musicians to make a living or to find creative satisfaction.
"I'm not asking if you like it, or if you think its fun, or if you think you have talent, or even if you happen to be a genius. If there is ANYTHING you can do besides this, you should go do it. Please."
If the trumpet student says, "No, I HAVE to do this. I can't imagine doing anything else," then my father tells him or her, "Okay. My condolences...now, lets get to work."
So, if you have to write screenplays, my condolences, and here's what I would advise:
- Read Screenplays - there is no better way to learn the craft than to read both the works of master screenwriters, and the failed attempts of aspiring screenwriters. A list of scripts to read can be found here: Which screenplays should aspiring screenwriters read?
- Watch and analyze films. Two useful books that can help an aspiring scribe learn how to analyze a movie from a screenwriter's perspective are: The Tools of Screenwriting, by David Howard, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, by Joseph Gulino.
- Learn about resources available online. Check out: What are the best resources for script writers on Internet?
- Join screenwriting groups, classes and workshops. Los Angeles and New York are filled with groups, classes and workshops. And many are available online. The point is not that some teacher or guru with teach "the secrets of screenwriting" but rather that the classroom environment allows you to collaborate with other aspiring screenwriters, to read and exchange feedback on each other's work, and to become part of a creative community. See: What social tools do independent filmmakers use the most, and what do they use them for?
- Make "digital films." Begin with short films. Screenwriters are filmmakers, and anyone with a digital camera and a laptop can make a "film." A good screenwriter can often showcase his or her talent by making an entertaining and provocative short film or a micro-budget feature.
- Study something passionately other than film. Many screenwriters went to film school, but its important to have life experience outside of the craft. See: Screenwriting: What did most screenwriters do or study before they became screenwriters?
- Network and collaborate with aspiring filmmakers. Go to film festivals and screenings and talk to directors, producers and other filmmakers about their movies. If you are in Los Angeles, a great place to start is Filmmakers Alliance, run by Filmmakers Life blogger Jacques Thelemaque. See also: What tools help geographically distributed teams collaborate on filmmaking?
- Enter screenwriting contests and fellowships. Anything that can get you noticed is to your advantage. See: Which are the best screenwriting competitions?
- Look to new paradigms. Remember that you are a storyteller, and the the craft of storytelling is likely to change as new technologies create radically new mediums. See: Storytelling: How will the craft of storytelling change in the future?
- Take advice from screenwriters on Quora. See Mark Hughes' answer to Screenwriting: What are some basic tips for writing a screenplay for the first time? Take any job or opportunity to write. Think you are too good to write some straight to video clunker? Check out Why YOU should write Stigmata 3.
- Learn about story structure, but don't take "theory" too seriously. See:What is the best theory of story structure for screenwriting, and why?
- Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Write one screenplay, get feedback from peers, do revisions, get more feedback peers, and repeat. Then begin the process anew. See What is the most important tool in the screenwriter's toolkit? I teach a class at USC's School of Cinematic Arts called "Advanced Rewriting the Feature Script," and I teach that...