I am still working on my Women in Entertainment blog but it’s a little bigger than I expected and I wanted to crank out a smaller blog with a few tips for writers which I hope some will find of help. The first few are just about writing – the second are once you’ve gained some traction within the industry…
1. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, please stick to one genre or at least genre’s that have some connection (thriller/drama/spy/action-adventure). When I get queries asking me to read one or two of a few scripts and they are Sci-Fi, Comedy, Sports and Drama, my thought is that this writer doesn’t know who they are yet and needs to find out their strengths. This is where your own knowledge of your writing and where a patient friend or friendly script consultant can some in. Write about what you know and what is the most comfortable for you. I will not read someone who is all over the map – writers who get staffed on cop shows don’t get staffed for sitcoms the next year. You must brand yourself as a writer.
2. If you are going to write for television you MUST learn the format for a television show. It is not the same as a feature script. A television comedy is not the same as a drama and a half-hour show is not the same as an hour. If you cannot afford to take a course on this or learn through an online offering, please buy a book that will teach you how to format correctly. You see, you have to show a reader, agent, manager, executive, etc… that you are serious about your work. If you aren’t making writing your job (and a job you intend to get promoted at!) then no one is going to take you seriously.
3. Please don’t give the director directions in the script or the actor direction in the script. Write a story. Don’t tell people how to interpret it. Don’t tell them how you want it to look to a tee or it should be said this way or even what music to use – it’s not going to be heeded and it gets in the way. As a writer, your job is to write a story that is cohesive and alluring and funny/poignant/etc…that’s all. That’s your job – don’t worry about anything else at this stage.
4. I’ve said this before but again, do your research. If you are writing a cop drama for either television or film, make sure you know all the procedures and the way cops talk and how their lives work. I have mentioned before that I had a client who used to have friends from the LAPD proof his script so he was sure he got all the bits right. Readers, who are not on a SWAT task force or aren’t lawyers or cops have likely watched enough “Law & Order” or various shows to know how certain things work in this world and believe me, they will call you out if it’s not adding up. This is your job – again, please do the research correctly.
5. If you are sending your script into a competition, please know that it’s possible it’s not going to be read completely. This is also true of sending it anywhere. There are times and places for slow-moving period dramas but competitions or writing samples are not them. If you don’t have a clear hook with good structure and character and plot movement in the first 20 pages (maximum) it’s likely your script will not be read further. There are too many scripts on any one persons desk to waste time waiting to get to the good stuff. If you’re writing a comedy, make it funny off the bat. If you’re writing a thriller, give us a twist right away. If it’s action, show us what you can do from the get go.
6. If you are sending a query letter out (and I’ve written a whole blog on this before), make sure you are personalizing the letter. I received a letter yesterday from a young writer who wanted me to read his television pilot. He didn’t even address me by name. Nothing. Because I was tired, I replied kindly but with seriousness that I was passing not only due to the fact that the pilot was not my cup of tea but that he hadn’t even bothered to address me by name! I said it nicely but firmly. This morning I got an email back saying I was right, he knew better but had been worn down by so few responses or rude passes from assistants that he’d forgotten his manners. His email was sincere and well written. I told him I’d take a look at the script. If not for me as it’s still not my cup of tea, perhaps another manager I know will be interested. It’s all about relationships.
7. Lastly, a lot of people like to give advice. Unless someone has a lot of experience in the industry on the literary end or has a career in writing (produced), take their advice with a grain of salt. if it’s coming from a place of their experience, great. If they’re spouting off what they think they know, stop. There are a lot of people on Twitter who think they have a clue about writing and there are a lot who DO know a lot. Just stick to those who do.
OKAY!! Congratulations – your script has gotten read and you’ve gotten some traction. Here are some pointers from here on in –
1. If you get some interest in one of your projects from a production company or the like, don’t do anything without speaking to someone in the know first. That person may at the very least be a friend who has been in this position before. Hopefully, you will have been networking and you may have friends who are agents or managers or who work for agents and managers and you can ask advice. Don’t sign anything without getting advice. If you don’t have an agent or manager don’t worry! At this early stage of things, you don’t need one. You need guidance and if there is anything that looks like a real contract you need an attorney. Luckily, most entertainment attorney’s work on a percentage basis so they’ll work without an up front fee and hope your script gets sold. In the early days, make sure you have an attorney. the agents and managers can’t do anything for you now and if you have someone look over a contract that is at all complex, this will be the start of a long-lasting business and legal relationship. Again, friends and so on can refer you to a good entertainment lawyer but if no one you know knows one, ask me, I am happy to do so.
2. Trust your gut when it comes to representation. I have been right almost all the time and have chosen clients wisely but once I did not. It happened a few years ago and I had an inkling that this woman and I were not going to mesh. However, her material was interesting and she herself had a good story. I actually even checked her out with the person who recommended her to me and he was a little iffy about her as well. I went forward foolishly and within 2 months I quit because she did not listen to my advice and well, though it’s not a rule that you have to do everything your representative says, most likely, if you’ve hired one, you should listen, especially when it’s very specific. Needless to say, the material she had didn’t get made or sold and I haven’t seen her name anywhere since. I am not saying this is because anything I did but my gut said no and though I got her in rooms of heads of networks/production companies, when I changed our strategy to pitch the story and not leave behind the script, (this was for a television show) she didn’t listen and her writing was not up to par. People liked the story, were intrigued by her, but she was not a strong enough writer in this medium to be the writer and I don’t think she could handle that as she had been a journalist. Being a journalist does not make you a great television writer but it does give you access to a lot of good ideas and that’s why I signed her. However, you have to trust your client and vice versa and as soon as I found out she was doing what I asked her specifically not to do and the meetings were going downhill, I told her I couldn’t continue. You are hiring a rep for a reason – they know more than you (at this stage anyway). If it doesn’t feel right, break it off. No harm not foul. But don’t blatantly disregard them and think they’re going to stand behind you. Every great rep has been fired and every great rep has quit. It’s part of the fickle business but it has to be a productive relationship with open lines of communication to work.
3. Here’s one a lot of people might not think of but it happened to a client of mine and had a major effect. If you want to use a writing partner, do so for film scripts but not television. For film, having two writers is fine. You’ve created this and it’s going to be bought and produced (God willing). If you are writing for television and a show has one slot for staffing, you will not get chosen because the producer doesn’t know which of you has written which parts of the script. Write for television alone unless you are already established and on a show. I have a client who wrote a script with a friend for television but the friend really only helped with story. I couldn’t use this great pilot as a sample for television staffing because there were two names on it and no one was going to hire them as a team. That’s a lot of money and one too many writers. It can work better in comedy as partners can work better in a comedy arena but I still recommend writing television alone. (Nota Bene: We did sell the pilot to Warner Bros. so the ending was sorta happy but it never moved past development. Even though that was great I cannot use it as a writing sample because it’s not only his name on the script.)
4. A lot of people want to staff on television shows. A lot. This is how it’s done for the most part. Know people. Network. It’s a man’s world, I’m not going to lie. A show runner and producer usually hire their writer friends. Most are men, more and more are women but it’s still male heavy. There may be a few writers that come through agents and managers and are network approved but that’s a hard gig to get. Become a writing room PA (again, usually who you know) and then graduate to staff writer or story editor. Most of the times I have gotten clients jobs staffing shows it has been because of prior relationships they have had or through diversity (more in a minute). It may have been from 10 years ago but they need to know who you are. Taking a gamble on an unknown writer who cannot be vouched for is hard to sell to network, production and everyone else who must sign off. Also, every year, networks have diversity slots. It’s almost embarrassing that this is still a ‘thing’. However, you need to find out who the diversity executive is and make sure you work on a relationship with them. Meet with them, email them occasionally, make sure they know your work. If you come to visit LA, make an appointment to meet them. Diversity means anything but white but not women. Women are on their own (sigh). African-American, Hispanic, Asian. That’s diversity. And guess what – use it. If it gets you in the room writing, you’re where you want to be.
5. OK, this last one is for those who have gotten ahead and are making a little money. Even if you call yourself John Smith Productions and are spending money on printers, scanners and computers and this and that and the other and you are serious about the money you are going to be making, you might want to consider doing this. Incorporate yourself. I did this a long time ago way before Highstreet Management came to be. I’ve worked from home from before 2005, even when I’ve been the literary part of a management company, and all my expenses for my work can be written off. Therefore, I incorporated myself and I can get an easier tax break that way. Look into it; it may not be the right thing at this moment but it may be on the next deal. If you’re making your own indie movie, definitely do it. It’s saved me a lot of money over the years and many people in the entertainment business do it (actors, directors, writers, producers….everyone). It can also been done very inexpensively, so if you’re making a business for yourself, check it out.
I hope these have been helpful. They’re really off the top of my head concerning a few things that I’ve come across lately or continually think would be helpful to impart. I’m always happy to answer any questions.
And as always, whether it be me or another consultant, please get a professional reading done on your script before it goes out to the industry. We do know what will help you get that script in fighting shape and the cost is worth getting it ready to be seen. You cannot be read first twice! Impressions remain! You cannot work this business alone and getting your material in professional order with as strong a story as possible is worth a few bucks. Good luck!!