SO, YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER
Good news! It is a fantastic way to express yourself, can really be a lot of fun, and you just might be worshipped and adored by society. Bad news. Millions of other people also want and hope for the same. What separates you from the others can be a number of things--raw talent, personality, voice, storytelling.... but, number one is, how serious are you about writing?
You'd better be very serious.
Here are five fundamental rules you'll need to follow if you want to get started... and succeed...
Rule #1: Move to Los Angeles
Can you become a screenwriter from Des Moines, Iowa? Sure. Can you get hammered with a Creative Executive from Warner Bros. there? Nope. Will you ever even meet someone else from the film industry in your quaint little home town? Doubtful. There are good executives and bad executives in the entertainment industry and your ability to connect with all of them is an essential part of success. Your opportunities are simply limited if you are anywhere else (like your parents's basement, or sponging off your girlfriend in Witchita). Television is even more difficult--nearly impossible--because it's essential parts are confined almost exclusively to southern California. I finally moved to LA, living there for eight years, after stubbornly trying to break into the biz from Chicago.
It's already insanely difficult. Why make it harder?
Rule #2: Educate yourself thoroughly
If you wanted to perform surgery, would you just scrub, grab a scalpel, and cut someone open? No. You wouldn't. Because you would go to jail and someone very large and gross would make man love to your secret passage. The same applies to writing--without the unwanted coitus. Watch movies and television shows, surf the web (spend an inordinate amount of time on angrywriter.com clicking on banner ads), buy some highly recommended books--but most importantly--take some classes. It's where you'll meet other writers, form groups, get feed back, and gain collaborative experience. If someone asked me to name my biggest regret about my writing "career" (still a work in progress) I would say that I wish I would have taken more classes and joined more writer groups. Why didn't I? Probably because I thought I didn't need to. You know what?
Rule #3: Find a good job/have a back up plan.
There might be some disagreement here from some of the established writers on the site. I think if you are a screenwriter, getting a job bartending or waiting tables so you can dedicate your life to your new craft isn't necessarily a bad idea. You will need time. It's just not a very good one. Did you get a college degree? What was your degree in? If you're 22 and starting out, you'll have plenty of time to write at night, and on the weekends. You'll have vacation time if important meetings come up. You'll have a computer, a laser printer, envelopes, paper, et al, to write letters of introduction--you'll have a free, after hours base of operations that can be quite expensive otherwise (buying it yourself or using Kinkos).
Nothing kills me more than to hear an accountant with three kids tell me how he's thinking about leaving his cush job at Ernst & Young to pursue screenwriting. Really? Really? Do you want your wife to kill you in your sleep? People in this position are much better off pursuing writing as a serious hobby. I have buddies who do wood working. Their wives love it. They go in some room with a table saw and disappear for three hours. Imagine if those same buddies told their wives they were leaving their stable jobs to make deck chairs.
Imagine yourself 5 or 10 years from now. You still have not broken in and sold a screenplay. You've been bartending the entire time. You've gotten married. You have a child on the way. What do you do? You could teach school, maybe (you'd still have to go back to school for at least a year to get certified), but getting back into what you went to college for is going to be very very difficult. Don't paint yourself in a corner.
Nothing is going to make it more difficult to write than not having some financial stability. Trust me. I did the starving artist thing. It sucked. The constant tug of war and ramen noodle eating was far more tiresome than having to stay up late to get some work done, or spending sundays in front of a computer instead of at the Dodgers game. This is not meant to be a negative assertion, but very few writers make it. Some very successful writers I know are still working in advertising, sales, communications etc., to support their families, and keep consistent income flowing. And, these are folks who have sold multiple scripts to studios over the years. Yet, they still can't do it full time.
Be realistic about your life.
I have a degree in Economics, and when I moved to L.A. (I was in L.A. for a year after college, moved back to Chicago for four years, then moved BACK to LA for eight), in the first three months, I turned down a writer P.A. job on a WB comedy series, a finance job at Disney, and a junior A.E. job at an advertising agency. Was it a mistake? I tend to feel like it was, in hindsight. Believe me, I thought I would have a lot more time, but I actually had to work a lot of hours waiting tables and bartending to pay my rent. L.A. is expensive. It was kind of a wash in that sense. I also gave up thousands of dollars in income and future career stability.
One good thing about waiting tables and bartending, though, that cannot be ignored--I met a lot of actors who wanted an opportunity--any opportunity--to work on their craft. It was very easy to get a group of them together to perform a scene(s), or give feedback from their perspective.
You will meet actors in LA anyway--but restaurants are chock full of them.
Working on a film as a P.A. is not a bad idea--it would be a good experience if you can find the work. You might meet an influential actor or producer. But, by and large, I have found that this type of work is more suited for someone who wants to direct, or produce. It's very time consuming/taxing, in many cases will require you to travel, and is going to lead to a very peak/trough financial scenario. Also, climbing the ladder in film (I don't know one coordinator or location scout who has time to write) does very little for you as a writer, learning your craft (in my opinion).
Television is a bit different. I would strongly recommend trying to get a job in television as a P.A. if you want to write for TV. Why doesn't the same logic apply here (as it does to film)? Simple. TV functions much more like a traditional business and is dependent on writers during production. Lots of them. Films are not. I would never discourage any writer from working on a film, but a TV show is a much better place to befriend writers who can actually hire you. A film may have had twenty writers work on the script at some point, but you're lucky if one of them is on the set. It's just not the same kind of target rich environment.
Also, you can climb a discernable ladder--P.A., Writer's P.A., Writer's/Executive Producer's Assistant--that won't cost you any more time, or remove you from a necessary environment.
Unlike film, I believe it is very difficult to succeed as a writer in television without working in it at some point. I was an Executive Assistant in television for 5 years for a reason. It was because it put me in prime position to meet writers, actors, directors, executives, agents. I doubt I would have had any success in television had I not worked in it. Not impossible, but certainly more difficult. Working as a P.A. for a year or two won't hurt your resume either. The term P.A. and the job description are universally recognized, and people know you busted your ass for a lot less than you deserved.
Before I decided to give TV a try, I held jobs as a Sales Rep, Senior Account Executive at a direct response radio ad firm, and Web Editor. And, I was able to write, take classes, study, meet with people--get plenty accomplished--all while making money and not stressing about my rent.
Rule #4: Write something compelling
This is a very difficult thing to do, so I cannot stress this enough. BE PATIENT. Your first instinct is to bang something out so you can sell it for a million dollars, develop a massive coke habit, and start dating Megan Fox (and buy her implants). That is probably not going to happen. It's certainly not going to happen if you don't take your time.
Come up with a dynamic idea. Maybe it's something that happened to you, maybe it's a story you heard when you were a kid, maybe it'll end up being Nic Cage's next action movie, or Ben Stiller's next comedy. But, for now, just find an idea that you think is interesting, and find a way to make it dynamic. How do you do that? You work with it, alter it, change it--until your idea's core elements are logical and unpredictable. And, by now, after having read books, taken classes, and hung out with some other writers, you should know enough about characters, dialogue, plot points, etc.--to do it.
Always start out small. Take your idea and jot some things down. Outline or expand it. Maybe write a two or three page short story. Then adapt that story into a short script, play,or even a television pilot script. Either way, you need to work you way up to a screenplay, taking logical creative steps. If you want to be a TV writer, watch episodes. Go through episode guides (these are on numerous sites on the internet). Get a feel for what these shows do, and what types of stories they tell with the characters. Think about story ideas, and write some dialogue. See if you can mimmick the voices of the shows. If you can't, certainly don't spend the time to write a spec script. Instead of three pages (say, writing a cold open, talking head, or short scene from The Office), you'll have thirty that don't work.
How do you know you have written something compelling? When someone other than a relative thinks it's fantastic, is in the business, and says, "you should get this to people." (Writing contests are also a great way to get some feedback from industry folks--if your script doesn't even advance one step in a contest, there's a good chance it sucks royally).
I remember when I wrote a Seinfeld spec back in 1994. I watched about 3 episodes, and impatiently sat down to write it. I thought it was great. I gave it to my brother, whom I was living with at the time, and he thought it was "hilarious." I decided to give it to the one employed TV writer I knew (who had gotten me the P.A. job that I turned down so I'd have "more time to write"). He told me it was terrible, and in no uncertain terms, to NOT give it to anyone else in the business. I thought it was great. He thought it sucked like a Hoover vacuum, and didn't want to pass it on to an agent or manager he hated, let alone a decent one. And, you know what? He was right. I re-read it about two years ago when I found it n my attic.
It did suck.
Opportunity to make some headway, ruined.
The benefit of writing short pieces is also that they take less time to read. Don't believe me? Ask a development exec if they'd rather read a 150 page screenplay, or a 15 page short script as an introductory piece. Studios have purchased original short stories and short scripts, too.
Finally, if you can't write an original, engaging short story or short script--a condensed version of what you will eventually pen--you're not going to be able to write an original pilot or screenplay.
The things that have gotten me the most meetings/attention as a writer? A 2 1/2 page short story, and a 15 page film short (that I have yet to shoot). They've opened more doors, by far, than anything else.
What if I'd never written them?
Rule #5: Find an agent, or manager
This is the hardest part about the business, by far. Agents and managers are the key to your success. Why? Well, as the brilliant William Goldman has said, they save you time. And, when I say time, I mean years. They have relationships with the very people you need to meet, and with one phone call or e-mail, can get your material to them.
It could take you three months to get an exec to even return your call (if at all), and an agent or manager can get ahold of them in a few minutes with a simple e-mail (I just signed this new writer--wanna read his short story?).
They are, however, insanely busy people who depend on selling written material to make a living. This goes back to your dynamic idea. If an agent/manager likes your idea, and your writing, he/she might sign you, knowing you are likely to come up with even more well written, good ideas. If they sign you, they might send out your material and try to get you "general" meetings, where you sit down with executives who enjoyed your material and want to keep an eye on you.
While networking and recommendations can certainly help, the best way to introduce yourself to agents and managers is with a queery letter (in my opinion). The WGA has a list of people who are willing to be solicited. Most of these people/agencies are legitimate people/places.
I have had five agents and three managers. Only one of them was ultimately secured with a queery letter, I have had at least 20-30 others read my material (and ultimately "pass") because they received one of my letters. Very few of them have forgotten me because I waited to send them something until I felt the idea and writing were good enough.
A queery letter is simple, and should be kept short. Who you are, where you are from, what college you attended, what you hope to accomplish, and what your idea/material is about. That's it. Close with, would you be willing to read my script? If you don't hear from them, and follow up a few times, the answer is no.
At the time I was disaapointed with the response to my first letter (I sent it to 100 agents and managers). Only ten of them replied yes, and only three actually took a meeting with me after reading my script. None of them wanted to represent me. However, for a first queery letter, and a first "real" script (mine was a romantic comedy I'd worked on for a year about two best friends who hook up, find out they aren't compatible, but get pregnant) those results were actually quite good. Was it the idea of the century? Nope. But, it was interesting and had a compelling twist (they were both married).
The bottom line is, if an agent/manager can't sell the idea (whether it's made up, or based on something factual), they won't sign you.
If they do, though, the sky is the limit.
Read our interview with writer Stephen Susco here...