BALLS OF STEEL: Working with a Screenwriting Mentor

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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People often make assumptions that if you are lucky enough to find a professional screenwriter who’s willing to take time out of their lives to mentor you, that somehow your job as a writer is easier.

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Remember, she’s probably mentoring more than just you.

WRONG!

It’s actually harder. Having a pro investing his/her time in you should raise the bar for your writing. But too many writers expect the pros to do the heavy lifting. Big mistake.

Your job as the mentee is to soak up the mentor’s lessons and be stronger for the experience.

When someone gives me advice or feedback, I want to prove to them it was worth their time by nailing the rewrite, or pitch meeting, or whatever it was they advised me on. It’s equally important to me to not only improve my skillset but to also show that mentor they invested their time wisely because I will deliver.

Recently, my mentors shared with me some frustrating experiences they’ve had working with aspiring screenwriters in the past.

When first choosing to open their time clock, they felt excited to be paying it forward to another writer. They helped the writer mold their story, polish it to near perfection, and eventually garnering that script placement in prestigious contests and representation for the writer.

Success. Or was it?

The potential problem with helping a writer is they become dependent on you and, on their own, can’t come up with a premise or ideas for hired rewrites. Instead, they keep coming back to said mentor.

Um, back off, Jack. You wanted this career; you have to do the work yourself. No one said being a writer was going to be easy or that getting an agent was the Holy Grail. Getting an agent is just the beginning. Now the real work starts… you have to prove yourself. If you use a mentor as a crutch, your agent might as well give said mentor the gig instead of you.

Let me try to explain how damaging it is for a writer to rely heavily on a mentor. Imagine you want to be a contractor, and you managed to get a highly-qualified general contractor to help you build a spec house. The house came out gorgeous, and now you have scores of clients wanting you to build them homes, just as beautiful. Seems great, right?

Except, you can’t even get the foundation poured without calling the GC for advice. Problem is, the GC has his own houses to build and has no time to help you with yours.

You’re now exposed as a fraud as a contractor and have to either pull a miracle out of your ass or admit to your clients you can’t build their houses. Either way, having the GC do the heavy lifting on that spec house has turned you into the Wizard of Oz… your curtain is going to rip wide open.

It’s one thing to have someone help you get started, but it’s an entirely different thing to continually return to them, time and time again, to keep lifting you up.

Do the hard work! Learn. Practice. If you really paid attention to those lessons, you’ll realize you have what it takes already. Above all, trust your gut. It’s time for you to spread your wings and FLY!

My very first writing mentor; my 87 year-old dad.

My very first writing mentor; my now 87-year-old dad who still writes a weekly column.

Being a mentor is a lot like being a parent. As parents, we teach our kids lessons… hard ones… we give them structure and guidance, but we aren’t entirely in control over whether they take our advice or not. And when things are going great for them, they barely remember our names. But if something goes wrong? We’re the first call they make. We pick up the phone because we love them. We are invested in them. We want them to succeed. But we also want them to be independent.

A mentor wants the same for you. Sure, they expect you to come back to the nest every now and then, but believe me, they are totally ready for you to move the hell out. If you keep flying back, opening your mouth wide like a baby bird, they’re going to shove you out… and should. Remember, they ain’t your Papa.

But don’t panic. You’re more ready than you realize.

Just like a mentor invests time in you, you need to invest time in yourself. You need to believe in yourself. You need to trust your gut. Push the envelope. Have confidence. Dive into your next project and use that mentor-guided spec script as the bar… and then reach above that bar.

The best feeling I’ve ever had as a writer is when a fellow writer I respect reads my work and says, “Damn, I wish I had written that.”

Make your mentors proud and show your appreciation. That’s all they want – to know they raised you well. And when you’re a professional screenwriter yourself? Pay it forward and help someone else rise to their potential.

Side note: It’s not easy to find a mentor, especially if you live outside of L.A., but that’s what Twitter is for. Tons of pro writers are there, more than happy to offer advice. Just the other night I happened to catch a series of tweets from Eric Heisserer @HIGHzurrer (Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing, Final Destination 5, Hours), offering invaluable advice to screenwriters. It’s a MUST READ, so I collected the tweets for you on Storify. Oh yeah, I’ve got your back. I’ll write a future post on who the must-follow writers on Twitter are, but for today, start with Eric Heisserer, Bitter Script Reader, Geoff LaTulippe, Unknown Screenwriter, Jane Espenson, Scott Myers, Doug Richardson, and Erik Bork. BUT… before you inundate them with mentorship requests, read this: Balls of Steel: The Secret to Finding a Screenwriting Mentor.

Related Articles:

The Writers Store has a new mentor series with Oscar-winning producer Ed Saxon (Silence of the Lambs).  I had the honor of meeting Ed at Screenwriters World Conference. I can’t possibly express how critical it is for a writer’s success to learn from people who have achieved it themselves. Plus, Ed is just one funny guy who delivers invaluable lessons every writer needs to know.

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One thought on “BALLS OF STEEL: Working with a Screenwriting Mentor

  1. MonaLiNYC

    “When someone gives me advice or feedback, I want to prove to them it was worth their time by nailing the rewrite, or pitch meeting, or whatever it was they advised me on. It’s equally important to me to not only improve my skillset but to also show that mentor they invested their time wisely because I will deliver.” >>>>>>THIS. SEVERAL TIMES.

    Great Balls as always.

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