Pearls of Wisdom from Working Writers: LESSONS LEARNED

As many of my readers already know, I am one of those always eager to learn. Learning, in essence, was the entire reason I wrote my second book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES. While I love having confidence that I know what I know, I am also keenly aware that my ability to remain successful is directly correlated to my ongoing curiosity about various points of view and experiences, be they of agents, managers, execs, or those of working or entirely new writers. And little provides as much insight as seeking out lessons learned from those who have successfully forged their desired path. 

With that in mind, I turned to my friends and clients who are writers working in the industry today and asked: 

Can you share the important lessons that you’ve learned along your screenwriting journey?

Here is what they shared: 

Hollie Overton had brilliant, overall advice that I absolutely loved (like everyone else’s) but this one I wanted to share right out of the gate: “
“If you want to be a working writer, you have to understand that this is a long game. It takes time to develop your craft and your voice as a writer. It takes time to assemble the right team to get that first job. It takes even more time to establish yourself. Thinking that you’re going to write one script and become an overnight sensation is naïve. It happens to only the smallest percentage of writers. Most of us devote years and years of time to building our career. I’ve also learned that as much as I love being a writer, it’s equally important to have a life outside of the business. Whether I’m going to the movies with my husband and my sister, hanging out with friends, traveling, cooking or doing yoga, these outlets allow me to recharge and escape the pressures and demands of the job.”

Savy Einstein, whose untitled project is set up at ScreenGems with Constance Wu attached to star, talked all about bravely sharing your work in order to constantly get better:
“Don’t be afraid to share your work. Don’t be afraid to discuss your work. Submit your screenplay to all the top screenwriting competitions. Address notes with your head, not your heart (this is a tough one…). Read the trades. Be an expert in your genre. WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY.”

Nora Nolan, previously of TRIAL & ERROR and currently on Netflix’s PARADISE PD also chimed in on the importance of #alwaysbewriting:
“It’s very important to keep producing material because the months fly by and you need new samples for your agents to circulate. It can be tempting, but it’s important not to feel competitive with other writers. It’s really unproductive.”

Moises Zamora, who previously wrote on STAR and AMERICAN CRIME, and is currently head writer and Executive Producer on Netflix’s SELENA bio series had career advice to share:
“General meetings are incredibly important. You have to impress and nail them every time even if they don’t lead to a sale, because the more people calling back to your reps to tell them how wonderful you are the more doors they will open for you.”

Greta Heinemann, currently on NBC’s GOOD GIRLS and the creator of the writer’s productivity journal, Writer’s Wright, said:
“I’d like to think that hard work eventually pays off just as long as you continuously keep at it. I’d like to think that especially in TV your pitching skills are equally (if not more) important than your actual ideas and I’d like to think that you’re exponentially more likely to be hired if you’re a nice (accessible, down to earth) person. I’d like to think that you are the #1 person to have a career plan in mind and should never expect anybody else to do the hard work for you and finally, on a more lofty level, I’d like to think that every new project should be a scary challenge pushing you out of your comfort zone…”

Feature writer Josh Renfree, just recently off of his first Open Writing Assignment, had this to offer:
“The most important thing I can think of off the top of my head is just to do your best to shut off the internal editor, the internal critic, the internal pessimist when you write. Just sit down and write. Especially on early drafts, get the story in your head down on the page. Don’t try to make it perfect at first. It will evolve more than you know, so don’t waste all that time pouring over every word. Screenwriting is a mountain. Don’t calculate every step, just put one foot down in front of the other. It’s not until you’re near the top that you need to be more specific about where you step. But to get to the top, you need to keep climbing.”

Melissa London Hilfers, who sold the spec scripts UNDONE and UNFIT and is currently hard at work on the JAGGED EDGE assignment for ScreenGems, spoke about the importance of leaning into your vision when contending for open writing assignments:
“I think the biggest one is to always be clear about the story you want to tell. Early on when I was up for jobs, I tried to pitch the take I thought the buyers wanted, and I have found it always works out better to pitch my own take, even if it seems afield of what they’re looking for. Doesn’t mean I will always get the job, but the buyers will know and trust my perspective, so that even if this one doesn’t work out, they’ll think of me the next time. It’s a long game.  Not too long ago I was up for a “hot” studio project that a lot of writers were pitching on (no pressure). I came up with something that was kind of wild and out there. I told my husband about it and he was like “that’s a little risky.” But I loved it. That was the movie I wanted to make. And it was the only version of this story that I really felt compelled to tell. When the producers heard it, there was silence for a moment. Then they all said “wow, that’s different from any other take we’ve heard.” I got it, so I guess the lesson is, trust yourself. Be fearless.”

Paul Puri, currently on his second season on CHICAGO MED agreed. Sort of:
“It’s all about POV. Your own. Different characters and switching between them. And the POV of the reader. Get notes. Listen to them all. Try to learn, but don’t take everyone’s opinions as truth. Recognize though that in their POV as a reader, something from your intention may not be translating on the page.”. 

GOD FRIENDED ME’s Richard Lowe took the hard work even further:
“You need to not just be writing, but also learning. There’s a lot of self-reflection when it comes to figuring out who you are as a writer and what kinds of stories make you tick, so with each script you need to figure out why one worked and why one didn’t.”

And iZOMBIE’S Bob Dearden agreed that it’s about hard work: 
“For me, you can’t get anywhere without working hard. Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a show or a movie, and everyone I’ve worked with, no matter how high or low on the totem pole they are, thinks their opinions on TV/movies are unequivocal. And maybe there are absolute storytelling geniuses and prodigies out there, but I haven’t met any. Everyone I know who is successful in this field works their asses off. So if you’re starting out, I would say be prepared for a long, slow slog, and make sure you really enjoy writing and don’t just have visions of fame and riches in your mind. Very few people skip the line – for most of the people I’ve met in this world, it’s a constant grind – but a very rewarding one if you’re willing to endure it.”

Now that you’ve read what these working scribes had to say, I’d love to hear from you: What lessons have you learned while pursuing and building your screenwriting career?