When I was around six years old, my father took me to see The Goonies at a small Cineplex near our house in rural New Jersey. What I’m certain was meant to be a way to burn a few Sunday hours (or possibly offer my mother a respite from a son with all the caution and respect of a small Kansas tornado) ended up being a pivotal moment in my childhood. Spielberg and Columbus’s tale of seven kids searching for pirate treasure captivated me with such an iron grip that I knew, even at that age, that I wanted to be a writer. Or Batman.
But though I spent that day forward learning about the craft of writing, I never stopped to ask what the day-to-day life of a writer was until college. Like thousands of other aspiring writers, I formed a hilariously romanticized idea of what professional writing is. Maybe it’s something we do subconsciously to motivate us during those days of rejected scripts and closed doors. We imagine a light at the end of the tunnel that tells us the struggle is over, and we can now relax with our Powerbooks and just be creative. Make our own deadlines. Work from wherever we choose on whatever we want. But if you’re reading this, and you have chosen to dedicate your professional life to writing, there are several things I’ll tell you here I wish someone had told me. And before you ask – no, none of these lessons would have changed my mind at all.
1. No story will ever be 100% your own.
Unless you’re self-publishing, no story will be completely controlled by you. There is no scenario in which you will submit a draft and have an editor/director/producer say, “Okay, wait here while we bring your ideas to life.” Even if you are directing your own work, there is always someone to answer to. Every project is a team effort, so check your ego at the door and get ready to invite in ideas from other people. The good news is, this almost always yields positive results. Notes are a good thing, as they offer fresh perspective and relieve the tunnel vision writers suffer from after they have rewritten a scene into oblivion. The flip side is, yes, you will sometimes have to make changes you disagree with. But trust in your team that the change is being made in the service of the story.
2. Being fast is just as important as being good.
Editors expect you to produce, and produce quickly. Your job is to churn out quality pages on whatever schedule is asked of you, no matter how aggressive it is. I’ve had writers tell me, “You can’t force creativity. I’ll just take a few days to recharge. My editor will understand.” Actually, your editor will be calling me or any number of writers who pride themselves on pushing past writer’s block so they can turn in on time, every time. And you’ll be replaced by the time you put down the video game controller. Honor your deadlines and put in the work.
3. Develop a stable of ideas for pitch meetings.
When you start building a name for yourself, you’ll go on what we call generals; casual meet-and-greets with execs around town. It essentially means the script you or your agent submitted isn’t right for them, but they like your work enough to call you in for a chat (this is also jokingly referred to as “The Bottled Water Tour”). During these meetings you’ll be asked to pitch your next idea. And another. And another. This is why it’s never enough to have one big idea. To stay relevant, you need several ready to go.
4. Location matters.
Trust me, I get it. LA is a ridiculous place full of plastic people, shitty parking, and more sushi bars than any city has the right to have. But if you’re looking to break into film or TV, you’re not going to do it from the east coast. Everyone thinks they are the exception to the rule, but the fact remains that the industry is out here. When an exec calls you for a meeting to talk about your script, they want you in that week. No one will wait for you to hop on a plane.
5. Focus, focus, focus.
When I was in college I wrote an action script. Then I wrote a horror script. Then, a comedy. Looking back, all of these scripts were pretty terrible in their own right. But it wasn’t my inexperience as a writer that hobbled me during the agent submission process. Well, it wasn’t only that. New writers who submit scripts in varying genres don’t appear versatile; they appear unfocused. It looks like they are trying to find their stride. This doesn’t mean you have to pick one genre and stick with it the rest of your career. Focus on one until you’re through the door, and then, when you’ve found success, spread out to other genres.
6. Write to learn, not to earn.
I know, it’s such a cheesy expression. But it’s true. Let go of the idea that the script you are writing now is going to sell, because statistically it probably won’t. If it’s good, it will get you one rung up the ladder. It will get you an exec who wants to track you, or an agent who wants to meet you. From there, you’ll take meetings and write another script. That will get you another rung up. Finally, after writing several scripts and paying your dues, you’ll start to see progress. Just be patient and humble and willing to learn from those around you.
That’s all for now! Good luck, and keep writing.