Articles & Advice

Portrait of a Promising Young Screenwriter

Don’t worry, this is not going to be another one of my venting, finger shaking, scolding blog posts. Which probably means that no one will be reading this but… what the hell. The bottom line is that for this one, no one angered me, frustrated me, or said something I wish he did not. For once, I am pretty sure that this is one blog that will likely not piss anyone off.

This morning I met up with a coaching client just back from the Austin Film Festival. To put it in context, the writer and I have been working together just over a year; he is smart and capable, and one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. Quiet, and a bit on the shy side, he is always unassuming and never intrusive. Some might even say that he is a bit too quiet, too shy, though always so nice to be with. Lovely though he may be, let’s face it: Nice is not a pre-requisite for a screenwriting career. Though it does help. On that, you’ll have to trust me.

I define him as YOUNG for two reasons: He is young in age, but also young in the pursuit of his screenwriting career. While he has been at it for a number of years, he is one that others would term a BABY WRITER. But I prefer YOUNG or EMERGING so… YOUNG it is!

For the sake of this blog post I will call him David. Calling him Writer or Client, again and again, will get… tedious.

To further set the stage, I will tell you that David is a writer with his sights set on writing for TV. While he’s had some early contest success in the feature space, he has shifted his focus to TV writing almost exclusively. He’s taken a few classes. Received rave reviews from one of his instructors, who I also happen to know. He also participates actively in a writers group with a number of my other clients, all of whom rave about his writing and his character. He has a day job. A “jobby-job” as one of my other clients likes to call it. He works hard, full time, hoping to see the career he is so diligently working for one day become a reality.

Anyway, it’s 8:05am at Akasha Cafe in Culver City, the place that over the past 7+ years has become my home away from home. David walks in, orders his Americano and sits down, excited to regale me with stories from his Austin Film Fest experience. David did make it to Finalist in one of the screenplay competition categories; while he is way too humble to have taken anything resembling a victory lap, I can tell that he enjoyed it, enjoyed that people were impressed by the word FINALIST on his badge, enjoyed that people seemed to take him seriously as soon as they realized he was a finalist, though he tells me that the only reason he tried to enjoy it is because he knows that contests are such a crap shoot, this will likely never happen again. David tells me about the panels he went to. The managers and working writers and executives who shared amazing, meaningful pearls of wisdom he now tried to remember. He tells me how much he appreciated having conflicting opinions expressed on stage so he could hear both sides of it – he wasn’t looking for a particular answer to a question he came in with, but rather just gathering information.

And then he tells me about a couple of writers – working writers, mind you – that he met during roundtables. Like everyone else, he was intimidated. Wanting to connect, but not sure how. So he came up with a couple of questions, while others seemed to sit quiet and from there, the conversation just… evolved. It became, he tells me, something of an organic conversation from there. And then he tells me how both writers, at separate times, seemed to take a liking to him. A liking that surprised him, frankly. One of them liked him so much that she took his email address at the table, offering to keep in touch (whether or not that actually happens or was all talk, he reminds me, time will tell) while the other sought him out in a line to a panel, gave him her email, then double checked his phone to make sure that he got it right, so that technology wouldn’t get in the way of them keeping in touch.

(Before your mind goes somewhere it shouldn’t let me set you straight: It wasn’t like that.)

When the writer told me this, I sat back and thought to myself. “Hmmm. He’s being sought out. He is being identified.” Which is to say: Others, who are further ahead, are seeking him out because they recognize that he could be that writer to break out of the pack. To rise to the top. They have reason to think that he could be the one to break in. To break through. Whether it be due to his personality, or finalist placement, or a combination of any number of things. And make no mistake: most every speaker, be they a writer, a manager, an executive or an expert, seeks out those writers coming up that they could get excited about. Identify those writers that they should watch. Connect with exciting scribes who seem to be traveling steadily up a solid career path.

What struck me as I listened to David’s retelling of the unexpected benefits of his Austin Film Fest experience was that I wasn’t surprised in the least. This, in many ways, suddenly seemed like the natural next step for the young man I had been working with for over a year. But it got me thinking: Can I break it down? Identify David’s specific qualities that got people excited about him?

And so, I decided to dig into what made this scribe exciting to me, as well as others, right here.

And here is what I came up with:

David is completely, 100% genuine.

You sense from David that there is not a fake bone in his body. While he does lean on the quiet side, you always get the sense that every sentiment and experience he shares with you is entirely real. When he roots for people, when he expresses interest in people, when he inquires after your well-being, you get a sense that it really, genuinely (without being overbearing) matters to him. This is the reason that whenever you spend time with David, it feels like an interaction that is more than a transaction; it’s a connection embedded with meaning.

David is a student of the industry.

David studies the industry because he is genuinely interested in it. I can’t tell you how many times he’s reached out to me with an email to ask me to congratulate one client or another of mine when they were written up in Deadline for landing a writing assignment, selling a TV pilot or a feature spec. Oftentimes, he did it even before I had a chance to see that the news had hit the trade. The next time I would see him, he would ask me about the writer’s experience and was always delighted at any opportunity to read their work. Another writer, an industry geek like David, shared with me how great it was to sit down with another writer who knows the landscape not only of writers in his writing class but writers working on shows that he loves, of managers and agents and industry executives.

Because he works in the industry, David always appears in the know and connected. 

Like most LA-based writers, David came to Hollywood from somewhere else, having to start everything – getting a job, building a life – from scratch. He decided that working in the industry would serve him, and has been working on the legal side of things since shortly after he got here. David currently works a desk at one of the industry’s most well-regarded legal firms. Because of this, he’s gained invaluable insights into how business deals work, which agents have a good reputation, and what writers can expect to see in their contracts. While he may not yet be doing what he wants to be doing for a living, David is perceived as part of the machine, earning trust and favor from people who can one day – when he’s ready – become instrumental to his career.

He works hard on his craft.

I mentioned a writers group earlier. I also mentioned classes. What I hadn’t mentioned yet are the consultants and mentors that David engages for notes and feedback and industry advice on a regular basis. Some he pays. Others, he’s developed relationships with. But he is always working on his writing, always seeking to challenge himself and push the work to the next level. He is unrelenting in his pursuit of good writing, even if sometimes, like most every other writer, he feels frustrated and discouraged.

David is willing to step out of his comfort zone.

When I met David, I quickly assessed that even though he is, as I said before, so incredibly nice, the guy is in no way a party animal. Now, this is not me saying that he is a complete recluse, or terminally awkward. He is not any of those things. But he is quiet. The kind of guy who often listens more than he talks. Who never talks over you. Who’s not going to interrupt you mid-sentence when he is struck but a big thought. Even so, when I told David that I wanted him to expand his network of writerly contacts, he immediately stepped up, even though I knew it made him somewhat uncomfortable. But he followed through on his commitment. And when, after a year of coffees with other writers, panels, and mixers he found himself at a post-TV-fellowships drinks thing full of familiar faces, he emailed me the next morning to share how surprised he was to realize that over a year’s time he made himself a roomful worth of contacts. Week after week, coffee meeting after coffee meeting, and even though I know at first he wasn’t all too excited about the concept, David built himself his own little writing community.

At the end of the day, every writer is unique, her own special blend of strengths and brilliance and quirks. The point is not to become David, to emulate his exact qualities, but rather to look inward, to find your way to challenging yourself, to deliver more and better writing, to build relationships, be (at the risk of sounding cheesy) present, and ultimately, eventually, give others the reason to identify you as the sort of writer that has the right qualities to break in. To make it.  To go from a young, promising writer to a working, bona fide professional Screenwriter.
Author of Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches from Focal Press and Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career published in 2014, I am a career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. My clients include working film and television writers, writers who sold feature specs, original pilots and pitches to major studios and networks, as well as contest winners, television writing program participants, feature film lab participants and fellows, and emerging screenwriters just...
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