How to Make it as a Writer: Tips from a Pro
I recently received a request for career advice from a graduate starting out in the entertainment industry. Following is my (slightly edited) reply to him. I hope these tips can help others in the same situation. Good luck, Scott
Thanks for writing and congratulations on your graduation. May you have a long, satisfying and illustrious career in the film-TV business. And thanks for asking your question of how to now proceed with your career in this industry. A blunt (and broad and good) question, and so my blunt answer follows. Please excuse the rushed nature of my notes and any repetition.
First, generally, please understand that you are at the bottom. People don’t need you. Most people in the industry will be nice to you, but you have to prove yourself and give good service and value to players in the business.
Make them like, respect and need you. Earn it. But first you need to get in the door to get experience, to prove yourself and to make contacts. My experience has mostly been in Los Angeles, so I presume it works the same where you are. More specifically, my advice to you is to:
Most importantly, as with any endeavour in life: Know what you want. Writer, producer, actor, director, etc. Then work out a path towards that. Ignore the doubters and naysayers. In the following notes, I’ll focus more on writing and producing, which are my background and experience.
Get into the biz! And at the bottom is a good place to start, you can learn so much. Be a reader, runner, assistant, PA, coffee maker, driver; whatever it takes to get in and that can lead to where you want to go.
Hit on all your friends, family, contacts to get in the door. Cold call or write to production companies.
To make contacts, a good way is to ask players for advice.
Help the people in the biz that you want to help you.
Work for free. Yes, working for free at the start is fine!
Look for and do internships. If you are good, you will be noticed and may earn a full-time job. I stress: Internships are a great way to get in.
When you get in, make contacts, impress people, work damn hard, do the hard or boring jobs, ask people how you can help them. Be a mensch. Don’t talk politics or trash. Always be positive about the product you are helping to create. Be passionate.
Learn all aspects of the biz. Knowledge is confidence, power and skill building, and will make you look a pro who can be trusted. You have to learn the talk, know your stuff.
Get credits and experience. Build a resume. Have a page on IMDB.
Study, know thy craft. There are books and articles to read, old timers to quiz. Shoots to watch.
Write knock out stories.
As a writer, read classic plays and novels. Classic storytellers are so much better writers than the screenwriters of today. Study the true classics. Have you read Ibsen, Hugo, Rattigan, and other master storytellers?
I think the best book on fiction writing is Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction, especially the chapter on Plot-Theme.
Get a great editor to story edit your scripts. No new writer can be objective; get help from a real pro.
Re selling your scripts, you have several options: Get an agent or manager or lawyer to represent you and your work or go directly to companies/broadcasters and pitch yourself. It’s hard, but you will have to learn the business end of things. But first, get the story/script finished! Then develop your pitching materials such as your bio, pitch letter, one-page synopsis, and a brilliant log line (1-2 sentences only) and go at it to production companies, etc. But do not submit without your script being FINISHED, as judged by experts, not yourself. (I repeat: It’s very hard to be objective about your own writing!)
For who to pitch your scripts to, search IMDB pro and the internet for the best companies for your type of stories. Then send them a knock out pitch letter (never the script itself). Be gracious in failure, thankful in success. (You can find agents online, to get their email addresses, but the best way to get an agent is by a referral from a pro or through some success like a possible sale or a contest win.)
Look out for wankers, amateurs and bs artists. Check their credits. And beware of some “experts.” Develop your own philosophy and style but keep an open (active) mind.
Don’t forget the people who helped you and build a network of good people. Stay in touch. Don’t just hit on people then run if they don’t help you. If you say you are gonna do something, do it. Be trusted and respectful. Good people notice good people. And always remember that pros are very busy.
*Good luck. It’s a tough biz but a great one that respects and wants talent. Believe in yourself and that your work and life are important. Take pride in your work and character. Most people won’t care but you must! When discouraged, read a good story and study Kipling’s poem If. When successful, remember that once you weren’t but do enjoy your work and achievement. It’s in your hands now….
Happy trails and best wishes,
Scott McConnell is a former Los Angeles film-TV producer/showrunner and now a Melbourne (Australia) based script consultant/story concept developer and writer.