Today’s questions come from Dani, who recently responded to my February 18th post, “Should I Go To College To Become a Screenwriter?”
Dani writes …
I’m in middle school and I want to be a scriptwriter/author. Here are some questions for you:
- How do you become a scriptwriter? Does someone come and pick you right off of the streets? No.
- Do you have to live in Hollywood or New York?
- Do you have to be famous?
- Is it hard to think of anything you didn’t say to the people?
- Do you have other jobs?
Well, Dani, that’s a lot of questions, so let’s take them one at a time.
(Also, since I write mostly for television, I’m going to answer these from the perspective of a TV writer. I’ve never really worked in movies, and TV and film are two totally separate worlds. So, while much of this answer may also pertain to being a movie writer, I can really only answer from the perspective of a TV writer.)
How do you become a scriptwriter? Does someone come and pick you right off of the streets? No.
You’re right — someone does NOT come and pick you right off the streets … although sometimes I think that might be a better way of finding writers!
To be fair, I think there are actually two answers to this question … or rather: there are two questions.
The first is:
What’s the path to becoming a professional screenwriter?
Well, Dani, as somebody in middle school, the next several years of your life are mapped out for you … and that’s okay, because you’re going to be on the same path most screenwriters follow. You’ll finish middle school … you’ll finish high school … and then you’ll probably go to college and finish college.
Most screenwriters, whether for TV or film, have some kind of college education. Not all, but most. Some screenwriters have gone to a top-20 school; some screenwriters have gone to community college. Some screenwriters have gone to a state school; some have gone to the Ivy League. It’s important to discover the college that’s right for you, because college is — for many writer s— where you’ll first begin to discover your “voice.” You’ll read a huge variety of writers you’ve never before read; you’ll experiment with different writing styles, techniques, and mediums; you’ll encounter new kinds of people and experiences that will stock the shelves of your inner library, which is what you’ll draw from throughout your life as you continue to tell stories.
After college, the path to becoming a professional screenwriter can take different directions. Some people go to grad school; they may go to film school to learn filmmaking or screenwriting or directing or producing. They may go to a different kind of writing or artistic program to learn painting, or dance, or music, or journalism. Many go to grad school to learn a discipline that has nothing to do with their eventual screenwriting career! I know screenwriters who went to law school, med school, even divinity school and studied to be ministers or priests.
In fact, I know many successful writers who had whole other careers before they became professional writers! I know former lawyers, teachers, investment bankers, even a super-successful TV producer who started as a speechwriter for politicians and presidential candidates, including John McCain!
However, whenever you finally decide, “Okay, I’m ready to make the leap into professional TV writing” — whether that’s right after high school, college, grad school, or years in a totally unrelated field — most people eventually move to Los Angeles, the home base of the television industry. (Some people also go to New York, but most TV and film development and production is in L.A.) This is because it’s important to be in the city where the industry lives, where you can find entry-level jobs in the industry, network with other writers and professionals, and learn the business side of how screenwriting works. Most smart people who are serious about becoming a professional writer recognize this and make the move to Los Angeles.
Many writers begin by getting an entry-level job in the industry, usually working as some kind of assistant at a production company, agency, TV show, or studio. Here, for instance, is a fairly traditional path one might take:
1) AGENCY MAIL ROOM – This is a common entry-level gig. In a talent or literary agency mail room, you will be sorting and delivering packages, answering phones, filing scripts, running errands. You then get promoted to …
2) AGENT ASSISTANT – Working as an agent assistant, you will be supporting one specific person: answering his phone, maintaining his schedule, reading scripts and writing coverage, and — most importantly — building a strong relationship with your boss and his clients. Clients who are, hopefully, writers and producers who will help you get your next job. You will also be building relationships with other assistants, both in and outside the agency … and these people will help you get your next job, too. So from being an agent’s assistant, you might go to …
3) PRODUCTION ASSISTANT, ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER’S ASSISTANT, or WRITERS’ P.A. – Production assistants, or P.A.’s, are the bottom of the production office food chain. (A production office is the headquarters for the production of an individual TV show or movie. Every show or movie, from Vampire Diaries to The Muppets, has its own production office, where the staff oversees everything from the budget to casting to set design to writing and re-writing.) A P.A.’s job is to make copies, run errands, pick up lunch, fetch people’s coffee … basic grunt work. But the P.A. also gets to know, and form valuable relationships with, almost everybody working on the production.
As a “writers’ P.A.,” you will be doing all these same things, but you’ll be doing them exclusively for the writing staff of a specific TV show like Bones or iCarly.
As an administrative assistant, or the assistant to an executive producer, you’ll be working for an executive or producer, and your job is to answer phones, maintain your boss’s schedule, read scripts, and other duties as assigned.
So, if you don’t begin as a writers’ P.A., hopefully you can transition from being a production assistant, or administrative assistant, to being a writers’ P.A.
From any of those three positions, you hopefully, eventually, land a job as …
4) WRITERS’ ASSISTANT – As a writers assistant, your job is to support the writing staff of an actual TV show, like Once or Whitney, in everything it does. One of the biggest parts of your job is to sit in the writers room, with the writers, and take notes on everything they talk about. You’re basically a court stenographer, scribbling down every joke, every story idea, every character pitch. Anything that comes out of the writers’ mouths is captured by the writers’ assistant. This is so the writers can refer back to these notes later when they’re outlining stories, crafting scenes, developing season-long arcs. Even though, as a writers’ assistant, you’re not quite an actual writer (at least not professionally), you are a valuable member of the writing staff, and you get to learn and observe what goes in an a professional TV “writers room.” Many people — after working three, four, five, six years as writers’ assistant — are eventually promoted onto the staff as a full-fledged “staff writer.”
Of course, in order to get promoted or hired as an actual staff writer, you need more than just that first job and some solid relationships.
You also need to be a FANTASTIC WRITER.
Which leads to Part Two of this particular question, which is:
Regardless of what path you take to becoming a screenwriter, how do you become good enough to break in and survive as a professional?
Well, the good news, Dani, is that is something you can begin working on right now. Today. This very instant. As soon as you finish reading this blog!
“How?” you ask.
Simple: WRITE CONSTANTLY.
Every single day. Write short stories, poems, plays, articles for your school newspaper. Publish your own newspaper! Start a blog. Keep a journal. (I always encourage writers to keep a journal; journaling is invaluable, not only for becoming a stronger wordsmith, but for becoming better at accessing your own deep dark thoughts and emotions, being able to dredge them up and put them on paper.) Write recipes if you have to! Write skits and put them up in your backyard for your parents, friends and family. Write anything and everything that comes to your mind.
NEVER STOP WRITING.
You are an athlete who wants to go to the Olympics … and as a professional athlete, even a future professional athlete, you must keep hitting the gym, running the track, helping your writing muscles get stronger. Olympic athletes don’t start training a year or two before the Olympics; they train their whole lives … so their Olympic training is built on years of other workouts and exercises. Never get flabby … never get lazy … do whatever it takes to keep getting better, stronger, faster.
No matter how good you think you are … no matter how good your friends, parents, and teachers tell you you are … when you get to the professional world, you will be competing against hundreds, thousands of people who are better. So, there is no “good” … there is no “good enough” … there’s only the never-ending pursuit of being stronger.
The second piece of advice I’d give you, that you can also start doing right now, is:
NEVER STOP LIVING.
And what I mean by that is not some corny, carpe diem, Dead Poets Society, seize-the-day baloney. Well, in a way I do, BUT …
As a writer, you need a fully stocked arsenal of unique personal experiences. This is what you’ll draw from when you’re telling stories, creating characters, thinking through emotions. So, take every opportunity you can to do something different, try something unique.
Go out for sports you don’t necessarily know how to play. Join clubs centered on interests that don’t immediately interest you. Take classes on foreign subjects to see what they’re like. Order food using an Australian accent … just to see how people respond. Be rude to a waiter or be extra-nice to a waiter — simply to “try on” different experiences and emotions, to study other people’s reactions and feelings. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Intern for a politician whose views you abhor. Go on a police ride-along. Go to service at another religion’s church.
Try different things in life so you fill yourself with a huge variety of experiences, emotions, reactions, and behaviors. I think one of the biggest flaws or weaknesses in young writers trying to “make it” is they have nothing to say. They have no wealth of personal experiences to draw from. Your “inner library” of experiences is your gas tank … and if you don’t fill it up — and refill it — you’ll soon run out of creative fuel.
(And by the way, this doesn’t mean you have to travel to exotic locations or take outrageous jobs. Your goal is to find new emotional opportunities, big or small, and experience them fully. This is where a journal comes in handy. If you can record your thoughts and feelings just after your first day at a new job … or your first kiss … or your first time getting yelled at by a teacher … or your first fistfight … you will have those thoughts and feelings available to you forever.)
So basically, Dani, your job right now (and you should treat it like a JOB, a real responsibility) is to train, every day, for the moment, only a few years from now, when you will have the opportunity to become a professional screenwriter.
And again, the two ways you need to train are:
- By working out your writing muscles, your ability to create fun, interesting sentences to convey thought and emotion
- By bulking up your internal library of personal experiences to draw from
Okay … on to question #2 …
Do you have to live in Hollywood or New York?
While you’ll hear different answers on this, I believe that — especially if you want to be a TV writer — YES … you must live in Los Angeles. (New York is okay, if you want to write for certain live comedy shows like The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live. But most TV production is in Los Angeles, and that’s where you need to be.)
I’ve written about this a lot on this blog, so rather than go on about it here, I’ll direct you to some other pieces I’ve posted:
- Do All Screenwriters Have to Live in L.A.?
- Does Having an Agent Allow You to Live Outside L.A.?
- How to Break in If You’re Not in L.A.
- How to Find a Job in L.A. Before Moving to L.A.
Do you have to be famous?
Okay — I love you just for asking this.
And fortunately, NO … you don’t have to be famous!
While a few screenwriters, like J.J. Abrams, have become household names, most working writers are simply talented, hard-working, middle-class people trying to pay their mortgages and put food on their tables. Have you ever heard of Tim Meltreger, Maiya Williams, Brad Copeland, Casey Johnson, Dan Goor? These are all successful screenwriters … and they’re all just regular people!
Is it hard to think of anything you didn’t say to the people?
Uh, I’m not sure what you’re talking about. What people? If you mean my wife — YES, I forget to tell her stuff all the time. Like, “Can you please pick up the milk on the way home?” Or, “I have a meeting tonight, so I won’t be home for dinner.” Or, “I’m watching American Horror Story right now, so don’t come in the living room, because I know it gives you nightmares.”
Do you have other jobs?
Established professional film or TV writers often make enough money to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. However, as you’re working your way up the ladder, it’s not always easy.
First of all, when you’re just starting out, working as an assistant, your “real” job — your heart’s job — is still writing, so you have to make time to write every day, even as you’re slaving away at a desk job.
And even once you begin to sell work, or get hired for small writing jobs, you may not make enough to make ends meet.
One of the biggest challenges of being a screenwriter, even a “successful” screenwriter, is that the workplace is never stable. TV shows get canceled, staffs get fired, movies get shut down, options don’t get picked up. While you may have a well-paying writing job today, you could be out of a job in a week … or a month … or a year. So, you need to budget, save, and make your money last.
For example, let’s say you sell a screenplay tomorrow for $100,000. That seems like a nice chunk of change, right?
Well, first of all, the government will take a good chunk for taxes. Let’s say, to make it easy, 25 percent. Your agent will take another 10 percent. If you have a manager, there goes another 10 percent … and your lawyer takes five.
You just lost 50 percent of your paycheck! Fortunately, you still have $50,000 left.
Unless you have a writing partner, in which case you split your income 50/50.
Which means you, personally, are now left with: $25,000.
Still, that’s not a shabby amount of money, unless you have to make it last for an entire year … or two … or three … because you don’t know when the next gig will come along.
So many writers do have other jobs. Or at least they often write other things to help cushion their finances. Some write novels or books. Some write articles for magazines. Others are actors or directors. Many teach college classes or writing workshops. I’ve also known writers who invested in real estate or helped run family businesses.
All writers hope to eventually get to a place where they’re working regularly enough as a professional that they don’t need those extra cushions; their yearly screenwriting income is substantial enough that it can carry them through leaner months. But not everyone gets there … and it can be a long journey.
The solution is to simply keep writing … keep living and gathering experiences … and keep pounding the pavement, meeting new people and forming new relationships. If you do those three things … and do them well … you will get there.
Lastly, here are some other links, books, and resources I hope you find helpful. (I originally posted this list in my December 10, 2010, post, “Does Hollywood Have a Place for Teen Screenwriters,” which you may also find a helpful read.):
BOOKS & MAGAZINES
- Filmmaking for Teens: Pulling Off Your Shorts, by Troy Lanier & Clay Nicholls
- Screenwriting for Teens: The 100 Principles of Screenwriting Every Budding Writer Must Know, by Christina Hamlett
- Digital Filmmaking for Teens, by Gerald E. Jones
- Hollywood 101: The Film Industry, by Frederick Levy
- Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer’s Guide to the TV Business, by Chad Gervich – (Okay, granted, I’m biased, but still … this is the best book out there to teach you how the industry works, how shows are written, and how to break in.)
- Television, Film, and Digital Media Programs: 556 Outstanding Programs at Top Colleges and Universities Across the Nation (College Admissions Guides) – from The Princeton Review and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation
- Script magazine
- Written By magazine (this is the official magazine of the Writers Guild, so it’s a great way to hear the voices and learn from professional working screenwriters)
- Writers Guild Foundation
- Academy of Television Arts & Sciences – the TV academy (the organization behind the Emmys) has several programs to nurture and honor student TV makers
- Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences – similarly, the film academy also has programs to find and award student filmmakers
- University Film & Video Association
- Association of Writers & Writing Programs
WEBSITES & VIDEOS
- The Young Filmmakers Club – This is a series of instructional videos teaching young people the basics of filmmaking. I’ll be honest: I’ve never seen them … or talked to anyone who’s used them. I simply found them online and thought they looked interesting to this conversation, so I figured I’d post them up here.
Anyway, Dani, I hope this answers all of your questions … and I look forward to meeting you out here someday! (And working for you on your hit TV show!)
If you have more questions, thoughts, or comments, please don’t hesitate to write or post.
In the meantime, keep reading … and — more importantly — KEEP WRITING!