One glance at Michael Raymond’s screenwriting credentials, and you’d be tempted to hitch a ride to his star.
A Nicholl Fellowship finalist, Michael’s short and feature scripts have also won the ScreamFest Award (ScreamFest LA Film Festival), the Feature Award (Hollywood International Family Film Festival), and most recently, the Dark Hero Sci-Fi Award (Austin Film Festival).
He is also a Page Awards Finalist and was a semi-finalist for the (now-defunct) Disney/ABC Feature Writer’s Fellowship.
Despite all that, he hasn’t sold a script yet.
But when I spoke with Michael by phone from the Seattle, WA, office where he works for Disney Interactive as a technical writer, he didn’t sound discouraged. Or really even phased.
“If you’re doing this for the money, stop right now,” he says. “Period. End of story. [The odds of selling a screenplay are] a little better than the odds of winning the lottery. You have to do it because you love it.”
From that statement, you might be tempted to think Michael is laissez faire about his writing. Quite the opposite. He actively studies industry trends, strategizes new projects with his manager, networks widely and takes pitch meetings. His ultimate goal, of course, is to see his work produced on the big screen.
But if his twenty-year screenwriting odyssey has taught him anything, it’s that the sale alone isn’t what keeps him writing.
So how does he continue to produce award-winning work—and pursue professional opportunities—without getting cynical?
Ah, now there’s the story.
Screenwriting wasn’t Michael’s first career choice. He had always been good with words, but when he graduated from Kent State University, creative writing wasn’t even on his radar. Instead he found himself technical writing for McDonnell Douglas’s Tomahawk missile program.
Then one day, the creative bug bit. Hard.
Michael decided to take a short story class on the side. That experience led to experimentation with other forms of creative writing. At some point, he realized he had always responded more emotionally to “moving pictures in the dark,” rather than fiction.
Screenwriting was a natural next step.
Back then, writing for film hadn’t yet become a “fad.” The form was rarely read or appreciated outside the industry. Michael started with Syd Field’s book Screenplay (one of the few available at the time), then took classes at the UCLA extension.
There, he bought his first computer and “stated living my dream as an aspiring screenwriter.” He even took a class from story guru Chris Vogler—before his beloved text The Writer’s Journey was published.
During this time, Michael “cranked out a few bad scripts,” as he says, and eagerly handed out his work. “Looking back, I wish I’d kept it in the drawer,” he chuckles.
You might be thinking the rest is history.
However, several years into his technical writing career—plus screenwriting on the side—Michael had an epiphany. The work of Jack Kerouac, particularly his comment to “Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry,” got Michael thinking he hadn’t seen enough of the world yet to write well.
Not long after, he announced to his coworkers that he would sell everything and backpack around the globe. They laughed at him.
He silenced them by making good on his promise.
“The day I left, the first Gulf War started,” he recalls. “I guess I knew how to pick my dates.” Unphased by world events, Michael launched his odyssey from Scandinavia, working his way down to the Baltic Sea, then backtracking from Eastern Europe to Western.
From there he wended his way through the Mediterranean, spinning records as a beach bar DJ before ultimately ending up in Asia. In Turkey, he met his future wife, a native of New Zealand. They later taught English together in Hong Kong.
Though Michael’s writing pace slowed somewhat during his travels, he still found time to work his craft—and even finagled a pitch at China’s Golden Harvest Studios. The producer he dealt with, Chua Lam, went on to oversee several Jackie Chan blockbusters.
Overall, does Michael regret this two-year interlude? “I try to live without regrets,” he says. “I appreciated those moments through a different prism.”
And just as he’d hoped, his global odyssey transformed his outlook and continues to inform his work. Many of his screenplay protagonists struggle with the same inner restlessness that still plagues him all these years later.
“Wanderlust is like being an alcoholic,” he chuckles. “When I hear people say, ‘I’m going here or there for a few weeks,’ for me, I get the same urge an alcoholic does, outside a bar.”
Soon after marriage, Michael and his wife moved to New Zealand, then to Australia. There Michael resumed writing seriously for screen. This time, he was “more mindful of the canvas,” realizing that truly producible work would have to be smaller in scope (and budget).
In addition to writing intimate Down Under dramas, he built industry relationships had “a few near misses” on getting a film produced there.
He returned to the States with a new appreciation for character-driven stories. But by then, it was time for another hiatus, this time for a different kind of experience: parenthood.
“I didn’t know how to reinvent myself as a parent,” he says. “But when I finally came back [to writing], it was with a vengeance. That’s when I hit my stride with the craft.”
Around the time Michael returned to writing again, he discovered—and started entering—screenplay competitions. These had barely existed during his UCLA years, but now they were cropping up everywhere.
One of his early competition scripts, a time-travel piece, did well at Austin. “Of course, the Austin Film Festival didn’t have as many entries then,” he admits.
Over the next few years, he went on to win awards at the Nicholl Fellowship, the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Hollywood International Film Festival.
But during those years, he also discovered the dark side of the competition scene: its penchant for shifting a writer’s focus from chasing craft to chasing the “carrot”—money and fame.
Contest wins earned Michael phone calls, pitch meetings, and brushes with potential production. But the necessary time he spent redrafting scripts and chasing leads took away from writing. It was—and remains—a tough balance to strike.
These days, Michael says, “I’m less about validation and more about buzz. Less about networking and more about building relationships. I also realize that the term ‘high concept’ doesn’t have to be a four-letter word.” Rather, Michael pursues what he calls “a perfect balance” of rich characters and compelling stories—packaged for both universal and commercial appeal.
Does he ever get lured into entering a competition just for the prize money? “Every once in awhile,” he admits. (In fact, this year he returned to the Austin Film Festival winners circle, collecting the Dark Hero Sci Fi Award.) “But whenever I get seduced by the carrot, [I find again that] it’s the worst thing to chase.”
The competition scene, he says, can also tempt a writer to damaging cynicism. But he also quickly adds “you acquire a certain wisdom over time. You get better at reading people, and reading yourself, knowing when to go for it and when to step back.”
In the end, he cautions young writers, “It can all lead to heartbreak.”
Michael observes that young writers are often unaware that their chances of getting produced—even with a contest-winning script—are pretty slim. He chuckles good-naturedly over the disappointment many a “wide-eyed neophyte” expresses, upon learning that a Nicholl finalist and multi-festival winner has yet to see his work on screen.
So has Michael given up?
His daily writing schedule answers with a resounding “no.”
Each morning of the workweek, he drives to a café near his downtown Seattle office. “I’m like a potted plant in the corner,” he jokes. “If I’m not there, people notice.” Between 6:30 and 8:00 am, he plugs his iPod in (to avoid distractions) and works steadily on his latest script project.
And then he goes to work at Disney, where, he says, he keeps the lines firmly drawn between personal scribing and technical writing on the clock.
What about writing at night? Michael says for him, personally, he doesn’t do his best work then. Occasionally, when beating a deadline, he will burn the midnight oil. But almost without exception, he reserves evening hours for family time.
When it comes to gauging progress, Michael says he doesn’t judge his daily output by quantity. He simply works. And “if that means I stare at the screen for an hour and a half one day, it doesn’t bother me.”
On average, he finishes one feature screenplay at a time, every four to six months.
Among writers seeking advice, the topic of “writer’s block” always surfaces. But Michael says he doesn’t really think this phenomenon is truly a “thing. “Writer’s block is just time spent thinking,” he says, adding that his father taught him this principle of creative work early in his life.
“Expect to do a lot of thinking,” he tells young writers.
He also has learned not to panic midway through a project. It’s natural for writers to doubt projects about halfway through their completion. “Just don’t panic,” he assures them, “and keep working anyway.”
To develop one’s craft, he recommends all writers read the screenplays of working pro writers. In the same breath, he cautions against spending too much time with those same screenplays, for fear of adopting someone else’s style.
He also cautions writers not to take advice unequivocally. A close confidante urged him against writing Abilene, the “intimate little drama” that went on to final in the Nicholl Fellowship.
While Michael notes that one cannot turn a blind eye to industry trends or advice from veterans, he also admits there are moments when following personal passion yields unexpected rewards.
Now he asks himself first, if the advice resonates with him. If it does, he takes it.
In recent years, too, his purview of success has broadened considerably. In addition to pursuing Hollywood opportunities, Michael has begun exploring indie options right in his hometown of Seattle.
Above all, he repeats his cardinal mantra: “If you’re doing this for the money, stop right now.”
For some, Michael’s story might seem discouraging. Years spent practicing his craft, decades of diligence, and still no golden Hollywood carrot?
But set against a larger picture, his experience isn’t that unusual.
It’s also highly inspirational.
Many writers would have given up long ago. Yet Michael’s love for the craft, not merely accolades, has kept him writing through every up and down. His perseverance, passion for the industry, and optimism are a wonderful example for all those still hard on the trail.
After all—produced or not—his work has reached an incredibly high level of craft. That craft has been vetted by some of the top minds in a very tough industry. It has brought him personal meaning and joy, and has allowed him to pursue a serious second career in his area of passion, while still holding his day job.
That’s an adventure more than worth the risk, if you ask me.
And after all, Michael’s adventure isn’t over yet.
I suspect it’s just beginning.