Screenwriting Straight Talk: Early Career Mistakes

My seven-year-old daughter is a fledgling gymnast. Ahead of her first meet, she asked me, “Mamma, what if I fall off the beam?” I told her the same thing I always tell my writers, “If you don’t fall, you don’t learn.”

The truth is that nobody likes to make mistakes. Especially in those all-important endeavors that mean the most to them. Believe me, as a woman with both the natural  and cultural disposition for guilt and regret, I get it. I spent many a night in my youth endlessly lamenting my every mistake. But the reality is that everyone makes mistakes. And if not all the time, then at least once in a while. And in the long run mistakes teach us more than anything else. But do they have to be our own mistake? Or can we learn from someone else’s, and avoid some of the frustration and regret? At the end of the day, isn’t it better to learn from mistakes others have already made? Twice the lesson, half the regret and heartache.

So with that in mind, I turned to friends and clients in the professional space and asked them: “Early on in your career, what are some of the mistakes that you made?” Here is what they had to say:

Hollie Overton, currently a co-producer on Freeform’s SHADOWHUNTERS, whose credits include COLD CASE and THE CLIENT LIST, and whose novel BABY DOLL was recently published in the US, UK and eleven other countries had this to contribute:

“One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was just starting my career was not standing up for myself and my ideas. Early on in my career, I spent a lot of time second guessing myself and my ideas and waiting for other people (reps, execs, etc.) to validate my ideas. A lot of it was the “Nice Texas girl” syndrome.” I worked on lots of scripts and then scrapped them because other people didn’t see the value. The most important part of being a writer is trusting your instincts and having conviction in what you’re writing. By listening to reps that didn’t believe in my vision, I ended up compromising who I was as a writer. 

What I learned from making this mistake is that when you stand up for your work, great things happen.  When the 2nd show I was writing for was cancelled, I couldn’t seem to get any traction. None of my pilots were selling and I wasn’t getting staffed. The reason?  I was still relying on others to tell me what I should be writing, instead of writing what mattered to me.  I decided to write a novel and not worry about selling it or what anyone thought. That was a turning point in my career. Selling the novel and getting a two-book deal reminded me that when you trust your instincts great things happen. Since then I’ve used that experience to remind myself whenever doubt creeps in, I’m in charge and that’s made all the difference.”

Joe Webb, currently on SLEEPY HOLLOW, and who also developed television pilots for Fox, Sony and Fremantle Media, told me:

“Early in my career, I had a tendency to think a project was done…before it was actually done. There’s so much excitement that comes with typing FADE OUT for the first time on a new script — it really is a major accomplishment — and if your demon is hubris, you want to get your genius masterpiece out into the world as soon as possible, so someone can buy it and make it and recognize how awesome you are. But…the hard lesson I had to learn was that typing FADE OUT for the first time on a new script was only a midpoint, not the final destination. If you’re getting good notes, and working them conscientiously, your script is going to get better and better with each draft. And I’m not talking one or two rewrites; sometimes a project doesn’t realize its true potential until you’ve worked it over half a dozen times. Plus rewriting is the step where your craftsmanship improves; it’s where you grow as a writer. I think, at the end of the day, a lot of emerging screenwriters want to bounce on to their next new project because they think agents and managers want to see volume — and it is true that you’ll someday need multiple samples. But there’s never a point in your career where one great script isn’t more valuable than two good scripts. One great script will bust down doors and break through walls. One great script will get you staffing meetings and the chance to pitch on open writing assignments for years. But the trick is…you can’t get one great script without six or seven hard, painstaking drafts.”

Eric Koenig, whose spec screenplay MATRIARCH sold to Paramount for mid-six-figures in 2014 shared:

“One of the (many) mistakes I was prone to make early on is simply not thinking “big enough” in terms of story and concept. I’d routinely find myself trying to come up with a small twist on a genre or story or film that I had already seen before. I was limiting myself, both in terms of storytelling and concept. Just because I wrote one script about a serial killer, didn’t mean all my scripts had to revolve around that same topic. This was a mistake because I believe Hollywood – especially right now – is looking for BIG ideas. There’s still obviously a market for a well-written contained thriller (and many would argue that’s a great place to try and break in) and if that’s your passion, go for it. But I found myself limiting my story concepts. I truly wasn’t thinking BIG enough. Or original enough. Or high-concept enough. Harder sometimes to come up with those (oh, trust me, I’m still trying…), but I’ve found they will universally peak the interest of a manager/agent/producer more than something less original. I think it’s so important to write what you’re passionate about because that passion will bleed through on the pages. It’s also what will motivate you to crank out that script. But if you can find a story or characters that you’re passionate about and it happens to be something that makes someone sit up when they read your logline and think to themselves, “Now that sounds awesome,” then your odds of someone in the business responding favorably to your material is quadrupled.”

Melissa London Hilfers, whose spec screenplay UNDONE was sold in 2015 for mid-six-figures and who currently has television projects in development with USA Network, UCP and Iron Ocean, had this to say:

One of the biggest mistakes I made earlier in my career was trying to pitch a take that I thought was what the producers wanted, as opposed to my own vision for the project. When you go in to pitch on a project, producers ask for your “take.” If you offer only what you think they want, or are pushed into doing a version you don’t believe in, it won’t turn out well. They want to hire someone who is passionate about the project and has her own vision for it. You want to show you are bringing something new to the project that they can’t get elsewhere. Some of the best projects I have worked on have been where I said “listen, my agent says you’re looking for x, but I really see this as y, and if that’s not what you want to do, I understand.” They will always appreciate your honesty and creativity, even if it’s not the movie they want to make. And if it is, you’re going into a project that you are totally behind, which sets you up to succeed. The hard part is, of course, when you’re just starting out you simply want to get the work, and pitching something that deviates from what they might want doesn’t seem like the way to achieve this. But it is. And beyond that, it helps to develop your relationships and get your point of view out there, both of which are important in the long term.”

Greta Heinemann, currently on NCIS NEW ORLEANS and previously a participant in the CBS mentoring program as well as a Humanitas New Voices fellow shared:

“My biggest mistake when I first started working was probably putting myself into the position of a ‘she deals with all the shit’ clean up crew. It was partially a mistake because through picking up that task and shining at it, I painted myself into a corner, blocking myself from the opportunity to shine as a writer because I was busy cleaning up other people’s messes. But… ultimately it earned me the opportunity to impress with my writing. So in all, I think a big takeaway here is that sometimes what feels like a mistake at the time can become a great opportunity if you just don’t forget to keep your eyes on the end goal and handle yourself with the long game in mind… “

Lastly, Danny Tolli, a television writer who graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as well as from diversity program NHMC and is currently on THE CATCH, said:

“One of the biggest mistakes I made early in my career was trying to write material that I wasn’t fully invested in. I spent months agonizing over ideas and scripts, writing and re-writing, to the point where I started hating my words, and myself. There was no emotional connection there — and it definitely showed on the page. A former boss once said about one of my scripts, “This is good, but I don’t see your voice. I don’t get a sense of who you are.” That stuck with me for a long time, and it wasn’t until I realized and embraced who I am as a storyteller, and what stories I wanted to tell, that I was able to shine. I stopped caring about whether “this is zeitgeist-y,” and focused on writing only what I was invested in. Once I made that realization, writing became fun, easy, cathartic. I was able to bang out a pilot I was very proud of, which helped me get representation, staffed on my first show, and to this day gets me meetings. Everyone says “write what you know,” but I am a firm believer in writing what you LOVE.”

No matter the stage of your career – whether just starting out or already on your way – I hope you can draw inspiration and guidance from the stories that these writers so generously shared. After all, one of my favorite bits of advice is: “Always be a student of the game.” So with any luck, I hope you are able to find a takeaway with some nugget of information from these industry lessons as you journey forward, facing the trials, triumphs and tribulations of your own screenwriting adventure.