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Which Way Do I Go? A Novice Writer's Quest for Knowledge

Updated on May 13, 2009

The world of writing is full of weirdos, geeks, freaks, recluses and spectacularly entertaining people. Writers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and hairstyles, but one sure-fire constant is their ugly shoes and lack of fashion sense. In the entertainment industry, especially in the case of writers, there is no yellow brick road that leads to success, wealth, and members of the opposite sex serving poolside cocktails. Even the screenplays and television pilots themselves trip into different rabbit holes before being be shot out the other side onto a theater or home television screen in Duluth, Minnesota. Successful writers offer advice varying from "practice makes perfect" to "run as fast as you can away from this profession." However, one theme is the same, story is king and writers would be, well, lawyers, without the ability to construct an entertaining visual journey that audiences cannot wait to experience. There is an abundance of talented, but yet-to-be discovered talent waiting in the wings to be the next great storyteller. However, breaking into the business is about as formulaic as the screenplay for Napoleon Dynamite. Everyone in the industry has a different tale to tell about their big break, but one thing is for sure, the majority have culminated with a sunset over the ocean rather than a sunrise over the Statue of Liberty.

Pack your bags, my friends, this train is heading west! Ever since the sitcom, I Love Lucy, broke the New York tradition and began filming in LA in the 1950's, even television has abandoned the blustery east coast winters in favor of the year-round sunshine of the California coast. Writing opportunities exist in abundance in ethereal Los Angeles, California, but it is also populated with many waiters, bartenders, and valets with dreams of making it big. While New York City has NBC shows like Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, the opportunities are much more limited in the Big Apple. The great NYC is, however, a great place to start. Norm Guzenhauser, acclaimed writer for Murphy Brown among other successful sitcoms, was an NBC page for eighteen months before heading west into television glory.

However, Mike Webber, a rare but successful New York-based screenwriter, started at Tribecca as an intern and worked his way to becoming Robert Dinero's assistant. He used this experience to see how the industry functions and saved money to support his writing addiction. Once he had enough funds to finance a six-month stint in unemployment to take the time to write something amazing, he rolled the dice. His noble commitment did not spawn fame and fortune right away, and he ended up working with Mr. Dinero part time while trying to sell the product of his sabbatical. Eventually, the gamble paid off and he sold his first screenplay.

While Webber currently remains in New York, his writing partner is in LA. He suggests this can only be accomplished by offering to fly to California at a moment's notice. It also helps technology allows for tele- and video conferencing. Even he concedes that eventually, his agent and manager are going to lose patience and he will be forced to purchase sun block and sunglasses and trek west.

Usually, internships are the best way to get a novice writer's pinky finger in the door. The most recommended of these is the illustrious writer's assistant. It includes all the glamorous responsibilities of being an intern such as making coffee, shredding paper, and learning your way around a copier, but it provides a peek into the mysterious world of writers. It is not likely that working as a writer's assistant on a specific show will lead to a job there, but the experience gained will be immeasurable. Besides, as Writer/Professor Richard Dubin always says, it is all about the relationships built along the way. There is no way of telling who a writer's assistant will encounter in the day-to-day slums of interning. No matter where a wannabe writer scores an internship or first job though, enthusiasm and flexibility will build her reputation as someone (important) people want to be around.

Once a writer has made the commitment to her passion for storytelling, it is going to be rather difficult to get an agent if she does not have anything to show. Write a draft of a screenplay, an original pilot for television, or even a potential episode of a current show. Just write anything. If steadfast on a particular medium such as sitcoms, stick to that and write as many spec scripts for these as possible. These firsts are probably going to end up in the back of your filing cabinet under "Embarrassing Crap" anyway. Luckily, this is just beginning and less embarrassing crap will arise out of the rubble soon, hopefully.

Constructing a life-altering masterpiece is probably not the way most people spend their Tuesday afternoons. In fact, it is much more difficult than many would believe. If the idea gerbil in your mind has decided to vacation to a tropical island, Anne Lamott offers some advice on getting jump started in her book, Bird by Bird. Many are lured into the romantic fantasy of slaving away at a typewriter, freeing the inner poetry that has been trapped inside them yearning to climb out anyway possible. However, once the blank page is in front of them their mind follows suit and erase every great idea ever dreamed. Lamott suggests starting with the earliest memory you have from childhood. Describe it using all of the human senses. This is an exercise in visualization as well as story development. Exercises like these are useful when writing in media forms because the writer has to be able to convey what should be shown onscreen using the fewest words possible. Being able to clearly picture the story is just one of the many battles in this war. These exercises will only get the writer so far, and then it is time to get serious.

No matter what the form, all writers know it is all about the story. If the story is lacking, it will not matter how great the production, acting, or special effects are people will hate it. It is important for the writer find her own voice, as reiterated by Norm Guzenhauser. Everyone has a unique story to tell, and yet these personal touches make the story more relatable. Richard Dubin believes that at there are no more original ideas, just an original spin on existing stories. At the base, most stories have been told a million times in different variations, but the most effective and original have been when the writer has put a little of herself into it. Writer, Tom Seeley, calls this "your hook," and without it the story becomes contrite dribble audiences have seen and heard ad nauseam.

Evan Smith, in his book, Writing Television Sitcoms, recommends slaving over prewriting until the story is perfect before beginning to write any dialogue. Writers often get half way through their second act and realize their story is seriously flawed. Smith believes these problems can be easily avoided if the writer spends a little extra time and care on writing a beat sheet as well as a thorough outline or treatment. Important elements in a story to be figured out in prewriting include: character motivation, jeopardy and stakes, and turning points. Conflict is at the center of all great stories and the best include a reinvention of the main characters as they overcome obstacles.

Smith offers that everyone has their own style of prewriting, but believes hammering out the main plot points of a story in a beat sheet. When formulating such a sheet, the main character should be the focus of each line. The action around this character should move the story forward in a logical fashion. Stakes must be raised and minor obstacles must arise to build the story brick-by-brick like a cozy vacation home in the Hamptons. If the beats do not serve these functions, then it is time to exercise the delete button. At the base, the story should have a main character who has a goal, encounters some obstacles and either succeeds or dies trying. Hollywood loves a happy ending, but there are no written rules about main characters surviving the third act.

Once the basics are sorted out, Smith recommends writing a treatment (film) or outline (television) as the next step. Treatments are present-tense, prose paragraphs that read as a short story. If the screenplay does not work as a short story, it is not likely to magically get better in dialogue form. These treatments can later be read by agents and executives to get the gist of the screenplay without having to suffer through 120 pages. The weather is probably nice outside, and there is golf to be played! Outlines are the television version of treatments and are formatted differently, but serve the same purpose, getting the story from A to Z.

If the treatment goes well, then the first draft will swiftly flow onto the paper with ease. Rewriting is a major part of the process, so after the fifteenth or so draft it is time to shop for an agent. In the entertainment industry, there are three distinct sects of people: the creatives (writers, directors, actors, etc.), the representatives (agents, lawyers, managers, etc.) and the executives (important people in suits, etc.). First, a novice writer has to get a representative in order to get any executive to take a meeting for their introduction to the latest masterpiece. Obtaining an agent means sending out scripts to anyone who will take them. Self-promotion is key, but avoid being a jerk. Nobody likes them.

Scoring an agent is sweet, but that does not mean sitting and waiting for him to do all the work. Back to self-promotion, but at least this time there is another person joining in the campaign. When a meeting has finally been scheduled, and this could be weeks, months or even years, be ready with a Cy Young-style pitch. These should be short, concise, entertaining, and fully convey your story without giving away too much. Always deliver with passion and realize that ultimately, you are back to selling yourself. Writers are hired not only for their amazing ideas, but also for being fun to work with, and the personality audition takes place during the story pitch.

A few dozen rewrites later, the masterpiece is being projected on that highly-desired screen in Duluth or it is shelved in the dark, damp archive that neighbors the Batcave along with many others' masterpieces. There are no guarantees, even after a script is sold, that anyone will ever see the final product. The unpredictability of fickle audiences, financial recessions, new trends being born, old ones dying, and even WGA strikes can kill projects before full fruition. Luckily, once the studio pays the writer there is a no-refunds policy. Even if this masterpiece never saw the light of day, at least the paycheck will cover the electricity bill that supports the screenwriting machine known as your laptop, at least for a while.

Unpredictability is just one of the charms and hazards of the writing career field. Norm Guzenhauser and David Israel emphasized how difficult and brutal this business can be. There is little to no job security and industry tastes are as unpredictable as arctic avalanches. This is mainly due to the fact that as William Goldman puts it, "Nobody knows anything." There is no way to know what audiences are going to like and what they will hate. Guzenhauser refers to Los Angeles as "Las Vegas" because it is all one big gamble. This is especially applicable to writer's careers. Television shows are cancelled, development deals are terminated, and writers are often fired at various stages of script development for a variety of reasons. Israel, in an attempt to dissuade a young wannabe writer from the heartache of the industry, suggested she look into other fields such as real estate, retail, or even drug smuggling.

Guzenhauser was obtaining his real estate license when he and writing partner, Tom Seeley, decided to take one last shot at the writing roulette table. The stars aligned and their number was finally called. They had been trying to break into the business for almost six years when this break finally came. Guzenhauser reiterates patience along with passion. You never know when your break will finally come, but when it does, it is better than winning at the high stakes table in Vegas.

In this world of risk and gambles, how does a novice writer know which way to turn? There is no magic answer to that question. Even picking up the phone and dialing Miss Cleo sadly will not solve this mystery. If it did, her line would be too tied up by Hollywood executives trying to get the call through. There is speculation, however, that there are new uses to a familiar medium on the horizon, and it could change the game forever.

Could advances in technology be the treasure map to selling your masterpiece? Well, nobody really knows, of course. However, the Internet has everyone in the entertainment industry in a tizzy. No one ever really knows what is next, but this time no one can even imagine what technological advances could possibly arise. Tony Harding, of THEM Productions, believes the Internet to be an equalizer. Now, an everyday Joe with a camera and a Mac can create content (whether it is good or bad is another issue), post it on a website and millions of people can access it. If a video goes viral, it has the potential to reach a larger audience in one day than all of the American Idol episodes in a season. This opens a new world of opportunities for those talented filmmakers, writers, and musicians without the contacts to reach those desired agents and managers while avoiding getting rejected in person.

This web-crazy environment also allows amateurs the opportunity to hone their skills before embarrassing themselves by sending less-than-stellar reels to big Hollywood-types. Plus, the Internet allows for artists to get near-instant feedback from audiences via message boards and guestbooks. At least some people may possibly realize sooner rather than later that they should not quit their job at Taco Bell to head to Los Angeles or New York for their big break.

Ed Hersh, of Storycentric, reiterates the importance of story no matter how the audience is consuming the content. The Internet is simply a new form of distribution, and it remains that if the story is weak then it is just another worthless package no one will want to buy. The one major difference, however, is the rise of short-form media. Internet content is considerably shorter than television or film and caters to the shorter attention spans of the Internet generation. However, this shorter form equates to more practice for writers who create scripts for multiple Internet pieces. The Internet also allows for cross-training for writers into directing, acting, and editing.

A writer of Internet content can make money without having an agent or a deal with a studio or network. The world of advertising is particularly interested in popular websites that reach their desired demographics, and they are willing to pay. A website receives instant "ratings" without an outside entity, such as Nielsen, by tracking traffic in terms of clicks on the page. These statistics can then be used not only to entice advertisers, but also more traditional players like studio executives.

A major selling point for novice writers who start on the Internet is the popularity of their websites. An agent can argue that the particular writer has the ability to appeal to the masses by quoting how many hits their YouTube video has reached. This helps make an amateur have credibility before entering the big league.

Of course, being a success on the Internet does not guarantee success in the industry. Once again, no one truly knows what is going to be next with technology so the mantra "Nobody knows anything" still stands for the present and future of the industry. Luckily, as long as story remains king, writers will always be the most underappreciated, yet vital, nuts and bolts in the Hollywood machine.


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