Learning to Say ‘No’ to the Wrong Writing Gigs

Scott Myers wrote this helpful article on the importance of knowing when to say no to a writing job:

In the event you break into the business as a screenwriter, you need to be prepared to say this word: “No.”

The  simple fact is if you say yes, you can make a lot of money as a  screenwriter.  You can also end up writing a lot of crap.  And over  time that can kill your soul.  Call it blood money.

As  soon as you say “yes” on a project, the studio in effect owns you.   So in a way, the only true power a screenwriter has — other than their  writing ability — is to say “no.”

Here’s an example:  Let’s say you have a deep, instinctive hatred toward all things related  to horses.  Perhaps you fell off a horse when you were a child and broke  your coccyx.  Maybe your father gambled away the family’s life savings  by betting – and losing everything – on the longshot Snotblossom at  Santa Anita. Maybe you get physically nauseous if you’re channel surfing  and you happen upon My Friend Flicka.  Whatever.  The thing is – you despise horses!

So  one day, you go to a meeting at a studio.  You schmooze, you laugh,  they love your writing, in fact there’s one project they think you would  perfect for: “It’s Mr. Ed as a musical! In 3D!”

You know what your quote is (let’s say it’s $200K).
You know the gig is basically yours.

And yet, you loathe horses.

Are you prepared to say no?
Walk away from over two hundred grand?

Now  there may be circumstances where you could make an argument that you  should say yes.  For example, you haven’t had a gig in 9 months and  you’re deep in debt.   Or your mother’s mother Miami condo was destroyed  by a hurricane – and she’d let her insurance lap – so she’s relying on  you to keep her from living on the streets.

Hell, you’re a writer and you’re creative, so the fact is, if you root around long enough, even if you don’t really need the gig, you can probably dredge up all sorts of plausible reasons to say yes and take the money.

But if you say yes, here’s what will almost assuredly happen:

* You will hate every goddammed minute you work on the project (we’re talking at least 3 months of your life)

* Your inability to immerse your self in the material will be reflected in the lousy script you turn in

* The studio will either hate your script or worse, like it just enough to bug you for endless unpaid rewrites and polishes

*  In order to dull the pain of your life awash with horses, you will  start drinking and taking drugs, staying up until 4AM, gain 20 pounds,  your friends will start complaining about a certain fetid aroma  emanating from your often unwashed body, and your career will devolve to  the point that eventually you’ll find yourself reduced to writing  scripts for movies like Racing Stripes 6.

In  short, you will be well on your way to turning into a slump-shouldered,  pasty-faced, invective-spewing, online-flame-war-starting nub of a  worn-out screenwriter.

And what if you had said no to Mr. Ed: The Musical (in 3D)?

Yes,  you would have been out the money, but you would have earned some  creative karma.    And if you have the good enough sense to reject a  project that is clearly not one you have any business writing,   something good will come your way.  Maybe not enough perhaps to send  Scarlett Johansson or Jude Law mystically scampering your way  proclaiming their undying love to you – but a writing project that is  more interesting and less soul-draining.

You can make a  lot of money saying yes as a screenwriter.  But you can have a lot more  enjoyable – and longer – writing career if you claim the power and  discretion to – some times – say no.

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