Pro Screenwriters on Best & Worse Screenwriting Advice

I am a sucker for advice. Any advice. I collect it like kids used to collect stamps (or like today they collect Shopkins or Pokemon cards), catalogue it, organize it, put it away for safe keeping only to pull it out again at just the right time, should it ever arrive. And in the entertainment industry, the one thing no one is ever short of is advice. Good advice. Bad advice. Ridiculous advice. Any writer who has been at this game for any length of time, whether already working or just starting out, has in all likelihood received his fare share of it.

With that in mind, I turned to friends and clients, eager to find out: What has been some of the best and worst screenwriting-related advice you ever got?

Melissa London Hilfers, whose spec script UNFIT sold earlier this year, told me: A friend of mine who had been an assistant at an agency warned me that the industry “can be blindingly fast and mind-numbingly slow.” She was so right.”

Greta Heinemann, writer on NCIS NEW ORLEANS, shared: “Every “No” just gets you one ask closer to a “Yes” (Ron Meyer said something like that, it’s not an official quote). I think it’s self explanatory, but stopping just because this business presents many uphill battles never is a good idea.”

Comedy writer Terrell Lawrence, who wrote on YOUR FAMILY AND MINE as well as UNDATABLE, said: “Some good advice I received is that if you ever sell a pilot into development, leave the title as UNT [YOUR NAME HERE] PROJECT so that way regardless if the show goes to pilot or series, people will continually see your name in the trades building your profile.”

Published author and TV writer Hollie Overton, whose credits include SHADOWHUNTERS, THE CLIENT LIST and COLD CASE told me: “Write what you love. It seems like such simple advice but whenever I’ve done that good things have happened. And when I’ve tried to write to the market or listened to outside voices (no matter how well intentioned) those projects were never as good.  I truly believe that passion and the love for the stories you’re telling leap off the page.”

Eileen Jones, writer on LETHAL WEAPON Season 2, seconded Hollie’s advice: Super tough to summarize — because I do think it depends on whether we’re talking about craft or career, etc — but in general I think following your passion is great advice. It WILL show up on the page, and I don’t think that can be replicated.”

My favorite piece advice – which I hope falls in the Best category – is this: Don’t give yourself a time limit. Either do it – it being writing, getting better, trying to break into the industry – 100%, for as long as it takes, with everything you’ve got, or don’t bother, because frankly it’s just too hard to break in and setting time and/or resource limits is not going to help you or inspire others to help you along. 

Or as manager Josh Adler told me when I interviewed him for my new book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: “If there’s anything else that you could see yourself doing and being happy doing, save yourself the time, energy, effort, and go do that thing now. It will save you a few years of difficulty, heartache, blood, sweat, tears. If you can’t, then this business is for you.”

Things got even more interesting on the Worst Advice front:

Nora Nolan, who recently completed the Warner Brothers TV Writer’s Workshop told me: “Biggest one is that you have to write something totally out there to separate yourself and get peoples’ attention. When I first moved to LA, I had a casual meeting with an agent at one of the big three agencies (friend of a friend) and he told me to write something to get peoples’ attention – his example was how well vampires had been playing (this was 2013). I’m glad I didn’t try to box myself in with this advice – it really went against my nature. Instead, my biggest break came from a very grounded sitcom pilot, based loosely on my own family (who are not vampires). I would not have been able to write vampires, or other absurd things, in a way that felt honest or real. That agent was basically saying to me that all writers are the same and here’s the formula. That’s not how it works.”

Melissa London Hilfers, of UNFIT fame, shared a bit of bad advice she had to work around: ““You can’t be a screenwriter if you don’t move to LA.” It certainly creates challenges but they are not insurmountable if you have the talent and drive.”

A writer who asked to remain anonymous told me: “The worse type of advice I’ve ever gotten is “Nobody’s going to want to make a movie about C.” If you are passionate about a project, write it, whether or not you think it’s what the market wants. The market is fickle, but an incredible story is always in demand.”

The worse advice that Greta Heinemann of NCIS NEW ORLEANS received was: Write a novel. “Greater context here being that my rep recommended I should “just write a novel” because that’s what currently sells. Despite the fact that novel writing is a very specific craft one doesn’t learn overnight, as a young writer eager to please managers and agents it can sometimes be hard to stay on the right “writing-track”… I am still learning myself, but what I’ve come to discover is that unless we can write material that’s true to our voice and heart, it usually doesn’t come out all that great, so advising us to spend time doing something we’re not right for seems to be bad advice overall.”

The Worse Advice that Greta shared actually echoes the advice that I hate seeing given to writers: Go write the book first. Go write the graphic novel. Sell 10,000 copies, generate pre-existing IP for your future screenplay to television pilot, and then we will talk. To me, this is lazy advice, that pretty much adds up to: Go create IP which we can then re-purpose, go build yourself a following, so that when we (we being agents or managers) go to sell your pilot or your feature, our job is made that much easier. Now, don’t get me wrong: Some material is better suited for a book. Other is better suited for a graphic novel. When that is indeed the case, go for it. But the reality is that agents and managers who instruct you as much are more often just asking you to do the heavy lifting when it comes to building your career and your brand, rather than rolling their sleeves back and getting to work alongside you.

Finally, on the worse-advice front, SHADOWHUNTERS’ Hollie Overton shared: “I was once told my writing was too “narrow.”  What that meant was my writing was too female.  It made me doubt the stories I was telling and I started to consider writing things that weren’t as important to me. Fortunately I came to my senses. But as a writer, you have to believe in the stories you want to tell, even if they don’t connect with people right away. Maybe if i’d written less female driven content, I’d be further along in my career, but I don’t think i’d be satisfied creatively.  Ignore any and all voices that try and steer you in a direction that you don’t want to go.”

Lastly, I asked my friends and clients what they wish they would have known – what they wish someone would have told them – when they first got started. Here is what they told me:

Feature writer Melissa London Hilfers, who now has three spec sales under her belt (POP CULTURE, UNDONE and UNFIT) said: “I have two: 1) It isn’t enough to be a great writer, you have to be good at many things: management (of time and people), strategy, marketing, playing well in the sandbox, etc. and 2) I wish I’d known assistants are always listening on the phone. It was really jarring the first time one of them said something and I realized he’d been on all along. Not that I had said anything bad, it just would have been nice to know.”

Eileen Jones of LETHAL WEAPON shared: “I randomly came across this Einstein quote a while back, and it’s genius (as I suppose you’d expect!): If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

When I interviewed her for my book BREAKING IN, Barbara Curry, who wrote Universal’s THE BOY NEXT DOOR and recently sold her pilot REVERSIBLE ERROR to NBC, told me: “Not to sound negative, but getting there is hard. No matter how smart, talented, or hardworking you are, you will face rejection and failure. Many of us are not prepared for this. Our system of schooling and our experience in most “normal” jobs and professions, sets us up to believe that if we are smart, if we do the work, if we get the grades, we will see a rather immediate reward. We will graduate, get a steady job, get the promotion, get the raise. It doesn’t always work like that in this business. You can be talented and hardworking, and still toil in obscurity for years before getting your movie made or being able to make a living writing scripts. I think that before getting into this business, you have to ask yourself if you will be okay with that. There are exceptions to this, of course. But generally speaking you should prepare yourself for a long haul with many moments of despair and hopelessness. What separates those who make it from those who don’t is their ability to overcome the despair, to reignite the hope, and to just keep going.”

Another writer who was generous enough to grant me an interview was SHOTS FIRED’s Marissa Jo Cerar. She told me this when I asked her what she knows now that she wishes she knew before:If you can, have a year’s worth of income in the bank so you can explore the city, see movies, and soak up the culture.  I love this city and wish I had explored more when I was fresh off the plane.”

And finally, author and working TV writer Hollie Overton said: “Getting an agent or manager is the first step in a long journey. It will not change your life or make you rich. You will have a partner and someone to push you to create material and introduce you to the town but know that you must keep writing. Even if that first pilot or feature lands you at the biggest agency in town and you get a job on a hit show, there will come a time when you won’t have any heat. When that time comes, don’t complain or blame your agent/manger. Sit down and keep writing.”

What’s the best and/or worst advice you’ve ever gotten? Share it with me through my CONTACT FORM, and it may just show up in a future blog post!