My cousin wrote me through Facebook to tell me that her daughter had decided that she wanted to be a writer. Not just a writer, though: a screenwriter.
“What do I tell her? Do you have any advice?” she asked.
I hesitated to say anything at all. People tend to smirk when someone with little to no accomplishment attempts to give advice.
“Who does she think she is and what right does she have to say anything on the subject at all?”
To be honest, they’re mostly right. I’m not much of a working writer – though I would like to add “yet.” I get freelance gigs here and there. I have been lucky enough to get some of my plays into a couple of playwriting festivals. Some very nice people read a script that I wrote and decided to make me a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab (along with a bunch of other talented people.) I have never sold a screenplay and I have never worked in a professional writing room. That’s not to say that I won’t. But in terms of giving advice, I feel as though I have learned more about I should have done. She’s still young and who knows if she will want to be a writer in a few years, but I’m going to assume that she’s got the bug in a bad way. To say that it’s tough to be a working writer is a huge understatement, but she can help herself by writing and developing her tastes and talents in the meantime. Therefore I’ll attack my answer from that perspective.
In addition to the given, which is write all the time, here’s what I have to offer. I’m about to use words like “her” and “you” interchangeably. Look at me, already being a bad writer. Here we go:
1. Encourage her to watch films. All kinds of films. A person cannot be a great playwright if they don’t see theatre and, similarly, they cannot be a great screenwriter if they do not watch films. I actually considered myself a cinephile, except then I met a real cinephile and they could discuss themes, plot, structure, and characters on a level that I had never dreamed of. She should love film and be able to engage in intelligent and passionate discussion about it.
2. Encourage her to read film scripts. She needs to get a feel for flow and formatting and the earlier, the better. You can find drafts of films online for free. I encourage her to read them like books and then watch the film with the script in hand to compare.
2a. Download Celtx and encourage her to start writing scripts! It’s free scriptwriting software. It’s what I use and I love it.
3. Encourage her not only to write every day, but also to draft. You can’t just write one draft of a script and call it done. Scripts go through multiple drafts before they are anywhere near ready for production. I haven’t gone through this program personally, but I have heard nothing but wonderful things about Writers Bootcamp. It may be a worthwhile investment down the road.
4. Encourage her to COLLABORATE, especially if she wants to write for television. Get her into a sketch writing class if one is available. Get her into activities that require her to utilize her creative and critical thinking skills in the context of a group. If she wants to write for television then she must be able to sit at a table with at least five other writers to complete a project. She needs to learn to take criticism and notes from others. I’m awful at collaborating. Trust me when I say that it’s incredibly important.
5. Encourage her to start a blog and put her writing out there. Tumblr is what the cool kids use these days, but Blogger and WordPress are great as well. I don’t know how big social media is in your house, but Twitter is great. It’s an exercise in cleverness and prioritizing to get a great line or joke across in 140 characters. Twitter isn’t just for weird fankids that use “u” instead of “you.” Get her to follow other writers on Twitter. I’ve only recently started doing this and I find it to be incredibly motivating. (I’m kind of obsessed with Katie Dippold right now. Her twitter is here: https://twitter.com/katiedippold .)
6. The only reason that it would be advantageous to go to college for screenwriting is if she got into a good school in New York or Los Angeles. You go to college for the connections and the network of alums. Otherwise she should move to LA or New York at some point or another and start working. Find a mentor. Get an internship or work in an agency mail room. Just get something that can lead to introductions or possibly a gig as a writer’s assistant. Who knows, that “something” just might be college. It’s just an expensive route to get some contacts that you could make without racking up some serious debt that you may never be able to pay off.
That said, it’s not a bad idea to go to college; it’s just that the expense outweighs the necessity. Most film programs don’t teach you about the actual business. They teach you how to make a film. If you choose to go to college for film or screenwriting, then try to go to a school in LA or close to LA. For those of us who don’t know as much as we should, being out here in the environment is the best place to learn. Learning, establishing contacts, making friends, and working your way up the ladder takes time. So the sooner you get out here and start grinding, the better. That’s just my opinion, though.
7. It would be advantageous for her to start reading publications like Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline.com at some point. It’s important to be knowledgeable about current events in entertainment. She needs to know the names of prominent and up and coming writers, producers, directors, production companies, etc. I can say, from mortifying personal experience, that it is embarrassing to lack that kind of knowledge in a conversation with someone who knows way more than you do. You are only giving yourself an edge by staying knowledgeable. If anything, then it’s simply nice to know what the hell people are talking about.
8. Professionally speaking, her own progress and success should be her #1 priority. One of my flaws is I get this weird “mother bird” instinct and I keep a lookout for opportunities for friends. I love them and I want them to do well! Yeah, well. I have been in positions where I solicited advice for others instead of myself – when I should have been worried about myself. Your friends will find their own way and if you can help them then definitely help them, but always make sure you can stand on your own two feet first. You get what you need and you learn what you need to know.
9. Be careful of the negative things you say. Once you get here and you start shopping yourself around, you don’t get to complain about shows or films or people anymore. Didn’t like that new sitcom on the fall line up? Sorry. Gone are the days where one can say, “Yuck, I hated that show.” Instead you must think of a classy way to hint at your true feelings. Better yet, try to avoid saying negative things. They get in you. They affect you. They affect the way that you affect others. Always, always ere on the side of positivity. Try to avoid saying anything bad about another person. Not just because everyone here talks and no one can keep a secret – but because it will help you be better.
10. Learn to cultivate healthy, working relationships with people in the industry. Don’t act like a fool or speak of your problems or mental flaws in front of agents, managers, producers, etc. Don’t let them even suspect that you have nothing less than a fire under your ass at all times.
They should see you like this:
Not like this:
They should never know that you do this. Ever. My personal experiences have made me a HUGE advocate of the philosophy, “Never show them anything less than your best self.”
10. Encourage her to submit to play writing festivals, screenwriting labs, and various grant and scholarship programs. Summer writing programs are amazing places to go out, connect with other artists, learn from amazing teachers, and get collaborative and life experience. And tell her not to be afraid of those rejection letters. Everyone will get rejection letters. You will read fellowship winning scripts that have three typos on the first page and you’ll think, “HOW?”
And that’s how it goes. Sometimes things don’t make sense and they aren’t fair. That is why you should take each rejection with a grain of salt and continue to hone your skills – because you know who didn’t get rejection letters? The one or two people who won and the countless individuals who didn’t even try.
These are the things that I wish I had known to do early on. I think I was ridiculously ignorant to this industry. Even now I tend to look at the business like it’s a great big zoo and I’m on a school field trip, trying to figure out how the guerrillas get their movie made. The problem is I can’t get up to the glass to interact with and learn from them, so I make due by reading the Animal Facts! boards outside the Guerrilla house. Tourists with disposable income and children whose parents bought them Fast Passes, however, can get as close to the guerrillas as they like. Actually, that’s a fantastic metaphor for Hollywood. It’s a crowded zoo in June and unless your dad works there or your parents purchase endless Fast Passes, you must figure out an alternative way to overcome the disadvantage of being nobody in particular. It’s possible, but you have to work harder than everyone else, be extremely lucky, and/or find some way to squeeze gaps the system without making people hate you.
And that’s all I’ve got (as of right now.) Be nice. Be kind. Be classy. Have opinions, but don’t be hateful. Be a good person. Be knowledgeable. Be social. Be resourceful. Know how to prioritize. Know how to see through the bullshit, but become good at recognizing when you have to put up with it. Put up with it gracefully, but not for any longer than you must. That’s what you can be doing to cultivate yourself as an artist and as an individual.
And once she’s old enough to start running toward a career, if that is what she chooses to do, then THIS article will prove to be extremely helpful.