Screenwriting Wisdom from Working Writers (Volume 1): THE CRAFT
If you’re looking for screenwriting-focused advice, be it for your craft or your career, there is no shortage of content out there: Books. Videos. Conferences. Events. And blogposts, just like this one. Plenty to sift through and consider as you determine your next screenwriting steps, as you zero in on the information that can help give your screenwriting craft and career the push they need.
A few weeks ago, while putting together my blogpost, 10 Simple Things Every New Screenwriter Should Know, I decided to turn to friends and clients, working writers themselves, to get their input on the topic. After all, who better to learn from than someone who is a few steps ahead on their journey? If my book Breaking In: Tales From the Screenwriting Trenches is anything to go by, you probably know just how important I think it is to gather different opinions from people who are versed and experienced in the very thing you are pursuing. Over the decade plus I’ve been coaching, my job has put me in the very privileged position to be able to reach out to writers I respect and ask for their opinion. So… I did just that with the following questions:
What are a few simple (or not so simple) things that every new writer should know or keep in mind going into this (this being screenwriting)?
To say that these writers were generous with their input would be an understatement. They were so kind and thoughtful, in fact, that I decided to break their answers up into a few different blogposts in order to really properly unpack every piece of thoughtful advice shared.
Starting out on the craft, here is what they shared:
Amadou Diallo, currently an Executive Story Editor on the upcoming Sammy David Junior bio-series for Hulu, who previously wrote on Billions (Showtime) and Parish (AMC), said this:
“Writing is hard. The trick is to learn how to love it anyway because it doesn’t get any easier the more you do it, the results just get better.”
In some ways, the more you write, the more challenging the craft becomes. Every time you think you figured something out, something else will present a new challenge. The writers who persevere, stay the course and find screenwriting success are the ones who learn to see it as a challenge; a puzzle of sorts, one that they enjoy solving time and time again, writers who plough through frustrations in order to arrive at the satisfaction of a screenplay or pilot well executed.
Which brings me to…
Greta Heinemann, a graduate of CBS’s TV Writers Mentoring Program, whose TV credits include Good Girls and NCIS New Orleans as well as mini-rooms for Netflix and Apple+, whose feature pitch Dakar sold to Amblin in a competitive situation, and who currently has shows in development at Netflix and FX and a movie in development at Amazon, who added this:
“if this was easy anyone could do it.” Greg Elliot (former TV writer and instructor at UCLA’s Extension program) said this to me a long time ago and it sticks with me until this day. I think it’s easy to forget that screenwriting is an incredibly competitive, subjective and hard job to break into. To expect it to be easy is a green mistake.
Many people who attempt screenwriting will generate 1-2 screenplays or TV pilots (often incomplete) as part of this pursuit, and then turn their sights to other, more approachable endeavors. Why? Because screenwriting is difficult. It’s a challenging craft to master, and each screenplay or pilot presents its own set of challenges. While there is formula and structure, paint-by-numbers just doesn’t do well in this space. Therefore, you have to love it. You have to want to fight for it. You have to be passionate about not only this form of storytelling but the craft itself if you want to find screenwriting success.
Hussain Pirani, Story Editor on FBI International and graduate of NBC’s Writer’s on the Verge shared this with me:
This feels like stating the obvious but… you definitely have to write. Make the time to do the work. Extra bonus points if you finish the thing you started. The act of completion is huge — pretend you level up with each finished script. Also… read screenplays! I learned a ton from digesting other people’s written work.
Not all writers love writing. I’ve learned a long time ago that for many, writing is not about love, but rather about compulsion; writers who can’t help themselves from expressing themselves via this format, be it in a pilot or a screenplay, are the ones who can’t help but finish one script and go to the next. As mentioned, none of this is going to be easy. Therefore, it’s critically important that the writer celebrates every finished script, every step forward in the career that they are pushing towards.
Crosby Selander broke into the industry when his screenplay, Bring me Back, sold for 7-figures in a bidding war in 2020. Since then, he’s been spearheading a pilot for Village Roadshow. Crosby shared this with me when I posed the above question to him:
Being a writer isn’t about telling one story. It’s about having so many stories to tell that you can’t wait to write the next one. And yet to be a professional, it’s also about developing the patience to see stories through to the point of excellence. This contradiction, of maintaining the drive to tell new stories while having the patience to make good on the ones you’ve already made is something all writers struggle with. So do not be afraid to engage with it and to have those conversations with yourself on what you’re choosing to work on. At the end of day, our time is limited and so too is our ability to tell stories. Knowing when to move on to something new and when to keep rewriting is a skill that you will get better at over time.
My advice? Bet on yourself, and invest in the development of your craft. Whether opting to go to film school, seeking independent screenwriting and TV writing classes, reading books and scripts, getting notes from friends, working with reputable consultants or paying for coverage from established analysts, it’s important to keep developing your craft and honing your voice in order to build the screenwriting career that you are seeking.
Thanks, Lee, for offering these generous, talented, and insightful writers: Amadon Diallo, Greta Heinemann, Hussain Pirani, and Crosby Selander. Thank you, writers, for giving forth your support for those of us who continue to write, because we have just gotta tell these stories! Still writing, still hoping, still hard, and still an amazing life process in becoming a writer. Toni Dianne Holm