Articles & Advice

Elaine Loh on "Becoming a Working Writer"

A bunch of people have recently asked me about my journey to becoming a working writer, so I thought I’d use that whole writer skill and actually, well, write something! I can’t tell you how YOU can be a working writer, but I can tell you what I did. Take what you like and leave the rest!

First, I put in more than a decade as an (almost, usually-ish) working actor. So, I developed a lot of relationships that way, along with reading a billion scripts (good and bad), being on set, etc. I cannot stress how much being an actor helped me as a writer. Many people told me to start creating my own content back at the beginning of trying to be an actor and I always said no. I didn’t think I was a writer then. And honestly, I probably wasn’t. So, if you’re in a career change position while reading this, please know that you’re not too old or too late in the game! Even if you weren’t involved in the entertainment business previously, your life story does actually matter when it comes to being a writer.

So, about 8 years ago, I was chosen to be a writer for the CBS diversity showcase. I had auditioned as an actor maybe 4-5 times and not been chosen. I had never written anything before, and I didn’t give off the impression that I was a writer. I honestly think they just felt bad for me. I hated the whole experience because none of my sketches were chosen for the showcase and everyone seemed more talented than me. But, because of that showcase, I started taking sketch writing classes. What I learned from failing at the showcase was that writing a sketch wasn’t all that scary. Like, I could handle 3-5 pages. I could also handle being told I wasn’t funny (over and over again). I didn’t die. And so, I took two sketch writing classes at UCB to just see if I wanted to keep writing. The answer at the time was NOPE!

A few years passed and I just focused on acting. At some point though, I wasn’t getting to act as much as I wanted to, so I decided to produce something for me to act in. I went back to one of those sketches I wrote from class and thought it would be fun to produce it. So I hired a company that would do EVERYTHING for me (direct, crew, edit, music, etc). I found all the locations, hired all the actors, did all the paperwork, but didn’t have to worry about the technical stuff. That worked for me. And it went great!! I loved doing it and I never submitted it anywhere or even really publicized it after I put it on YouTube. It was just fun. The only people who watched it were likely the people in it and the supporters who helped fund my IndieGogo campaign.

Then a friend approached me to make a short with him. We did that, and it was a much bigger budget and production (and another fundraising campaign). I even had to turn down a guest star that I booked the same week we were shooting the short. That’s when I realized how much I cared about my own work, as opposed to someone else’s work. Some people thought I was crazy, but it’s the choice I felt I had to make. We submitted this one to a bunch of festivals and actually got into quite a few. We did not get into Sundance, which was my goal. Spoiler alert, I’ve submitted to Sundance quite a few times, and I’ve never gotten in. 

Anyway, for a few years, I just made little shorts and funny sketches. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was basically my grad school when it came to writing and directing. I learned how to be concise, make choices, kill my darlings. One day, my manager (who repped me as an actor), told me that he wanted me to write a feature film for his company. WHA??? I didn’t know why he chose me, but he believed in me enough to make me believe in myself too. But, I didn’t feel completely ready yet, so I asked another writer friend of mine to co-write, and so we did that. Once that first movie was done (which took seriously almost 9 months to write), I realized that I had been scared of the writer equivalent of the boogeyman: pages!! I never thought I could write so many pages. But then it was suddenly done. And so, I was ready to write a long project on my own.

I wrote a half-hour pilot. I showed it to some friends and got some feedback. The best feedback I got was from a friend who I trusted and who told me that it was not a good pilot and that I should start over. I was devastated, but I also knew in my bones that he was right. So, I started over. I also paid for some professional feedback as well. When I finished, I decided to submit that pilot to all the writing competitions. I had recently read an article called “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year” and it changed my whole thinking. I had been aiming for just a couple of wins a year (hello, Sundance) and had been down when I got a couple of losses (hello again, Sundance). But now, I would aim for those rejections and be happy when I got them! It meant that I had tried!! And when you aim for 100 losses a year, you’re bound to get some wins along the way. With that page-one-rewrite pilot, I got into the Austin Film Festival (second round) and the PAGE Awards (quarterfinalist).

I also got into the Top Ten for Final Draft Big Break. I couldn’t believe it. People actually thought my writing was good! And so, this gave me a little confidence to keep going. I’d like to say that my confidence all came from the inside, but that would be a load of crap. I needed a little outside validation. But, besides just the ego boost, it also helped me know how I stacked up against other writers who were willing to submit their work. It’s a super subjective business, but I needed to know those opinions.

As I continued along the way, my writing started placing higher. I won the Grand Prize for the ISA’s Table Read My Screenplay contest and just this year I placed at #2 for the PAGE Awards in TV Drama. The prize money and the notice I’ve gotten has been fantastic, but truly the most useful thing was just keeping me positive enough to keep trying. Besides the competitions, I also reached out to a ton of showrunners, as well as mid and lower-level writers, who I had met throughout the years and asked them out to coffee to learn their stories, and to see if they might read my work. Some were the LOVELIEST human beings and continue to help me to this day. And some, well, couldn’t have cared less. But, those ones were just another notch in my 100 rejections. Many were somewhere in between, wanting to be supportive but also just very busy. I learned to appreciate them all and not take those rejections personally. I also applied to some of the network programs, started a writers group, and began attending the Asian Women TV Writers networking brunch.

After that first feature script and pilot, I wrote two more features, five more pilots (two half hours and three one hours), and one spec script (one hour). I also wrote a short-form series called Doxxed (six episodes, all 5-7 minutes long), which I produced and is now doing the festival circuit (we just won at Raindance and Catalyst, yay!). Some of those scripts I submitted, some of them I didn’t feel were good enough but I was happy to have gotten them out of my system. Some won prizes, some did not. I learned that with a good outline, I could write an hour-long pilot in five days (and that’s while still working my day job!). I started to feel pretty confident, but I didn’t know what to do next. So, I hired a consultant because I wanted a professional to evaluate my writing and help me craft a career plan. With her help, I crafted a kick-ass personal essay and started applying to network writing programs. Remarkably, I got into the HBO writer’s program (I had previously applied before working with my consultant and didn’t get in). I was thrilled!

A lot of people have asked about that process, so here’s what happened:

I submitted a pilot and personal essay through FilmFreeway to the HBO Access Program. They switch off between writers and directors each year. For the writers, they choose 8 people (or partners) every two years. This year, they had 3,064 submissions. 
I was notified that I had made the next round, and so I had to submit another pilot in the same genre. I did that. I’m not sure how many people get to that round. I want to say about 50. But don’t quote me on that.

Then, I was notified that I had made the next round, which would be a phone call interview. 25-30 people make this round. I did the phone call and felt like I bombed it. I remember making a joke and just hearing crickets. It is very hard to tell a joke to a conference call!

Then the next round was an in-person interview. About 16 people made that round. They told us to pitch 3 TV show ideas. Because of my schedule, I was told on Friday that I had made it and I had to come in on Monday to pitch. I worked around the clock on the weekend. A former participant of the program happened to be crashing on my couch that weekend and she helped me enormously. My amazing consultant also helped me. Plus another writer friend who let me practice pitching to him. And my fiancé, who had to listen to my pitches about 500 times.

So, I did the in-person pitching and it went TERRIBLY. They hated all my ideas. They stopped me halfway through one of them, saying “Okay, I think we get the idea”. HA!!!

And then, I got the call that I made it!!!

And then, I took a big poop, releasing all my nervous energy. You’re welcome. You needed to know that.

                                   
 
So, the HBO program is AWESOME and definitely helped me get ready to be in a writer’s room and take meetings. But, in conjunction with the program, my manager (Matt at CSP Management) was still out there hustling for me. And with the momentum of the program acceptance, he had something to use to help sell me. So, he reached out to a big agency (Paradigm) and they agreed to read my work. They liked the script (the same one that got me into the HBO program, and the fourth pilot I had written at that point). They took me on as a client and immediately started getting me generals. (Btw, as a new writer, I am not yet in the WGA, though I will be shortly and will at that point have to fire my agents, assuming that the agent/WGA conflict is still going.) I went on a bunch of those general meetings and also had one showrunner meeting (to hopefully staff on Gossip Girl for HBO Max).

That showrunner meeting went fantastically and then I had a follow up meeting with the execs at Fake Empire and Alloy. And then, a few weeks later, I was hired for my first staff writer gig. It honestly felt like magic. It had only been a couple years since I had decided to focus on writing instead of acting. It didn’t feel possible that it could go so quickly. But, it also took me my whole life to get here!! By the way, one of the pilots I submitted got torn to shreds in feedback from one of the competitions I submitted to (WeScreenplay Diverse Voices). It is now the pilot that I am developing with HBO. Ahhh, that felt good to say. :)  So, don’t take any of your rejections too seriously. 

Once I decided to focus on writing instead of acting, I chose a word of the year each January and used it to motivate myself. Year one was “DARE”. I had never dared to be a writer before, and I decided to say fuck it and just get on with trying. No more being scared to write or to put my writing out into the world. I dared to ask for feedback. I dared to ask for reads from established writers. I dared to submit my writing to competitions. Year two was “CONSISTENCY”. With another side job keeping me alive and a decently busy enough acting career and, uh, the rest of life!, I felt super busy and found it hard to write. Not to mention, I looooove to procrastinate. But, I realized I had to be disciplined and make my writing a consistent habit. Year three, which was this year, was “NEXT LEVEL” (yes, I know that’s two words). I felt like this was the year that I had to level up. Work harder. Write more. Write better. Submit more. Use all my daring and consistent skills, and just move!! And, amazingly, it worked. 

Does this help you in any way? I honestly have no idea. But like I said, I can only tell you what I did. The path might be different for you, but I have to imagine that many of the values will be the same. Non-negotiables are being willing to fail, working bravely and consistently, asking others for help, and then just fucking crossing your fingers and hoping that all your hard work and preparation comes together in just the right opportunity for you.

Good luck!!

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On November 10, 2019 Karl Steudel said:
 Hi Elaine. That was a great read. You have all the ups and downs,  that demonstrate you worked really hard and kept your focus. The article makes clear, that you had to go through every one of those steps and not give up. Very nice.

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On November 08, 2019 Micah S said:
Great read and motivational perspective. Thanks Elaine! 

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On November 07, 2019 Monique Lai said:
Incredibly inspiring!  Congratulations on all, and thank you for sharing your story ... 

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