Is It Harder to Be a Novelist or a Screenwriter? (Plus a Brief Meditation on How Being a Writer Should be Like Smoking Cigars.)


Lately, my novelist friends and I have been talking about finding other jobs because the publishing business is so rocky. Usually this list of possibilities is short, since we're not really qualified to do much other than write. Waiting tables, maybe, or working in retail.

"Maybe we should just write other things that pay better," one of my friends suggested. "Like screenplays!"

She has always been an optimist. Still, that conversation led me to wonder whether it's easier to be a screenwriter than a novelist these days, so I asked Toronto-based screenwriter, Shane Weisfeld, who wrote the screenplay for the 2014 thriller, "Freezer," starring Dylan McDermott, to tell me about his career path. It turns out that selling a script and actually getting it made into a movie might not be any easier than selling a novel and seeing it in bookstores...darn it.

Q. I love the cobbled-together word you use, "sacriverance," to describe the combination of sacrifice and perseverance it takes to make it as a writer. When did you first set out to become a screenwriter, and why? And what feeds your "sacriverance" when the going gets tough?

A. I've been a writer since day one. It chose me. I was born with a pad and pen in my hand (not a laptop). Also, from the beginning I was a huge film lover. In my last year of high school I realized I wanted to seriously be in the film industry in a creative capacity. It was during this year that I first started reading about the script-to-screen process and the role above-the-line talent plays in getting a film made. So writing + film = screenwriting, and I jumped off the ledge into the fire, building my wings on the way down.

As to why I became a screenwriter, I come from the world of hip hop, which completely shaped and molded who I am. In that world, it's all about proving yourself lyrically, which stems from the writing; and being able to paint a picture and tell a compelling story from your writing, and then being able to do it live and move the crowd is a whole other story. Screenwriting was basically a natural extension of that. I owe everything to hip hop - it's the foundation of all my creativity.

My sacriverance is fed from one key thing: hardcore, relentless, unwavering, blue-collar perseverance. I'm a fiend for this. I have an obsessive, burning desire to make a go at it. It's not just a hope and a dream. I knew I'd never be okay on the sidelines. I had to take action. Writing goes beyond being a passion or love of mine. I get in where I fit in, and when the going gets tough, I just know that quitting has been - and never will be - an option. I'm programmed to do this. Don't know anything else, don't wanna do anything else.

Q. I know you wrote a lot of sceenplays before selling "Freezer." Why do you think "Freezer" was the one that made it? Is it really better than anything else you had written to that point, or was there some combo of luck and connections involved?

A. No luck or connections. Those are myths. Well, having connections is not a myth, it certainly helps to know people, but I only know people and made connections because of what you mentioned - I wrote a lot of scripts and spent years at it, and in that time I built up my network. So that's part of why I was able to sell a script after so many years. "Freezer" was not necessarily better than anything I had written at the time, it just happened to be really good timing in terms of the concept and genre and people (producers, execs, actors, directors) who were looking for something like that. I have to give credit to my former manager in L.A., because he took a chance on me and was able to get "Freezer" set up with a great company who went to bat for it and were serious about getting it made the right way.

Q. You're one of the rare writers who has actually managed to have a film made into a major motion picture with "Freezer." Do you think of yourself as a "success?" Where there any really low points along your journey to selling a script--times where you thought you might run out of "sacriverance?"

A. I think of myself as a success because I've persevered in my journey. Perseverance, in my opinion, is what separates the adults from the children. Success for me is not money or material things or any position I'm in. This is a crazy, polarizing, back-breaking, lip-zipping, confidence-shattering business, and just to get representation and an option, or to sell a script is a success, let alone have something produced and have it picked up for distribution or included in film festivals or whatever. I've succeeded because a number of goals were reached not necessarily from hard work, focus and determination, but from pure tenacity, persistence and personal resilience. You can be the most talented, driven individual, but even talented people quit. Perseverance is the name of the game. Of course there were low points; it's been so frustrating I can't even begin to tell you. I've had many boiling points, believe me. It's still, and will always be, a struggle. However, I will never run out of the sacriverance. I'm built for the kill.

Q. I know that you've kept every rejection you've received since 1997. When you look at that growing pile, what makes you think the journey is worth it?

A. Taking action and never quitting something you're so passionate about, have a burning desire for it and feeling you were meant to do it is always worth it. I started writing (short) scripts in '94, but December of 1997 (when I wrote my first feature) is when I started actively pursuing the business, sending out scripts and thus facing rejection; so it's been a 19-year journey for me, one of ups and downs, highs and lows and every nitty-gritty thing in between. I asked myself early on if it's worth it, and I only needed to ask myself that one time. I've never questioned my talent, ability or mental stamina. However, that rejection pile of mine is definitely a reminder of the journey and its worth.

Q. How has the film industry changed in the twenty years or so that you've been trying to realize your goals as a writer?

A. I've seen firsthand how things have changed, from a writing perspective, and then on a broad level just from following the business on a regular basis. Three main things have changed. One is content. People are viewing films and TV in ways nobody thought was possible 10 or 20 years ago. So many different companies offer consumers many ways to buy what they're selling, and non-traditional has become traditional. Number two is the amount of fully integrated companies that have stepped up to the plate to produce, finance, sell and distribute films in the low-to-mid-budget range that the studios wouldn't normally touch. So a lot of these companies have become their own studios, but work outside of the studio system. The third thing that has changed is the TV landscape, from a writing perspective, genre perspective and IP perspective. The envelope keeps pushing when it comes to television content, in terms of form, genre, subject matter and character portrayal. In terms of my goals specifically as a writer, there are certainly more ways to get your material out there and get noticed, especially with the plethora of writing competitions now, and sites and forums that host scripts and provide feedback coverage (for a price of course). But one thing remains constant: it will never, ever become easier to break into this business... Never.

Q. What words of advice do you have for other writers out there who are struggling to find an agent/manager and sell their screenplays?

A. Figure this out for yourselves. I had to. I will tell you this though - and it can be for anybody who wants to perfect their craft and artistry and make a name for themselves... it's what I call the cigarette versus cigar scenario of advice:

A cigarette is made on a conveyor belt, pumped out the exact same way as millions of other cigarettes, mass produced, in a very short time. Whereas a cigar is carefully hand-rolled, each one unique, quality-controlled, only after the different kinds tobacco (leaf, wrapper, filler) have been carefully grown and fermented over time in the right conditions. A cigarette gets smoked in minutes, usually rushed, then stomped out, whereas a cigar is properly cut, smoked slowly, enjoyed with great conversation, especially paired with a good meal. Which do you want your craft to be - a cigar or a cigarette? Always focus on quality, authenticity, uniqueness and originality. That will set you apart from the rest.