To become something like a screenwriter, one needs to read how to do it, learn the format, and do it, right?
There is a little more to it than that. Yes, you need to know how to do it, and you need to be able to do it well. But you also have to survive. Allow me to explain.
In May of 2012 it will be three years since I decided to put all my energy outside of my day job into writing, in the effort (and not hope) that I can change my career into something I love doing. I have been working in information technologies for a couple of decades or so, back since about 1986 and I'm ready for a change. I stuck with it, even though I wanted to write for a living, because of the steady paychecks. I made attempts to change over the years, but never could get it to click. It's hard to do raising a family and being the only breadwinner.
Some of this will be rehash to some.
I started out as a mainframe computer operator and worked my way into being a Technical Writer. I eventually tired of that and moved in to web development, network administration, server administration and platform administration. I am now being cross trained in many other technologies. But, I simply want to be a writer, full time, and make a living at it. But not just any kind of writing, fiction writing in particular: short story, novels, screenplays.
Years ago I had read Isaac Asimov's first autobiography, "In Memory, Yet Green", which affected me so much, that the first short story I ever got published, "In Memory, Yet Crystal Clear", was in tribute to his writings, and his attitude toward things like writing, life and being a forward thinker. Yes, I've heard the stories about Isaac's penchant for the ladies and partying.
A friend of mine said she was at a convention once and ended up on an elevator alone with him. She called him a "leech" to me, meaning that he thought she was cute and she didn't appreciate his advances. To be fair, she was in costume. And he was probably drinking. Not that this is any excuse. Other women who knew him have basically said, "That was Isaac and we loved him."
To the point, Isaac had said in his book that all the great original sci fi writers started as tech writers for the military during WWII. It taught you perseverance, extreme attention to detail, finishing what you start and, producing, typically large uninteresting products like manuals for things you probably know or care nothing about. In my experience as a tech writer for some big companies, I found in the end that a lot of it was being a psychologist, a journalist, and a scribe. You sometimes had to pull information from Subject Matter Experts, with a mental pair of pliers.
I finally got tired of it, as I only wanted to write, not interact with people who really weren't interested in talking to me at all and to whom I was only a burden. I wanted to write what entertained me, intrigued me, and entertained others. As I once said (as I was almost blowing a job interview), "there is just no story development in tech writing, and no character development with no fun punch at the end. You had to get all the information out there up front, there was no tension allowed."
There was some research done a few years ago, where they tried to teach children how to play piano. One group were taught traditionally. Another group were taught by teaching the melodies with mistakes in them. These mistakes were obvious, as there would be one note off. The kids would pick up on it and it bothered them. In the end, the researchers found that the children they taught in this defective way, learned the melodies better and faster than those taught in the traditional ways.
And so I feel I have learned fiction writing to a much higher degree, which I had actually already gotten down pat pretty good according to feedback I had in college. But after years of tech writing, I think I had learned so much more.
When I started this process a few years ago of getting back into writing, this time, to actually switch careers, I bought a box full of carefully chosen books on writing. Some specifically on screenwriting, some on peripherals, such as comedy writing, novel writing, even the poetics by Aristotle, a must have book for any writer. I felt that by the time I finished reading all these books, I'd be ready for an agent. So the last books I had purchased were for getting an agent. I've now read all these books, and even picked up some new ones.
The last book I finished just today was Karl Iglesias' "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters - Insider secrets from Hollywood's Top Writers." I found it very enjoyable, enlightening, delusion breaking, and in the end, it gives great hope to a struggling writer. I suggest this book to anyone who is writing their first screenplay, or thinking about it.
One of those books I have bought since, I had found one day browsing through an antique store. It is Lee Server's book, "Screenwriter - Words Become Pictures - Interviews with twelve screenwriters from the golden age of American movies." I'm looking forward to reading this.
My point in all of this is that you need to practice to write, whatever you have decided to write. But you also need to practice writing a wide scope of things. You need to read, a writer, reads. You need to read about the craft, specifically, and examples thereof. So, screenwriters need to read books on screenwriting, but also screenplays (specs, not shooting scripts which are typically sold to the market). You not only need to read books on the technical side of screenwriting, you should also read books about the screenwriters themselves.
The skill is all important. A poorly formatted screenplay won't get you very far. But you have an emotional side to this, too. You need to keep up your energy levels, your emotions, your passion for what you are doing. You also have to love doing it, love the process. Love writing, and love rewriting. Writing is rewriting. Few can write a single draft and be done. They do exist, but mostly with short story writing.
You have to write for the right reasons. Otherwise, you may not maintain the level of dedication you will need to survive. There are lots of barriers to getting anywhere with writing but the biggest is not having a catalog of works. The larger the better. That being said, you shouldn't just write and never get them out there, but try to get a catalog built up and after you have five or so, completed screenplays, start getting them out there. And keep writing new ones.
Also find other writers who you can talk to. Join a group, either in person, or online. To finally get somewhere, you will need to persevere through the years, through multiple drafts, through ten, twenty, even thirty screenplays before you sell one. You will need to pitch, to talk to people in order to sell it. You will need to deal with rejection, repeatedly.
It can be done. Just know that many get into it for the wrong reasons. Or with delusions of grandeur. It's hard work and requires a lot of it, for years. There are a lot of people out there trying to make it as a screenwriter, so there is a lot of competition. In order to make it, you will need to be the best you can be, and then some. But it is possible.
For those who think they can write a single screenplay and make it, yes, it's been done. Just don't expect that to be you without first putting in the work.
All that being said, best of luck. Go out and kick some Hollywood butt!