I know there's a lot of WGA/produced/repped cats on this forum, and a lot of post-college/mid-twenties people too. But there's also a group of people I find could use the most advice: the kids.
For my purposes, that means people in high school who already know that they want to be screenwriters. I was in that position in the not too recent past, and I'm gonna give y'all the advice I wish I got. Don't take any of it as gospel, but consider if you will:
- Don't just watch movies. Think critically about movies. Think about WHY you like the things you do, and why you dislike the things you don't. Try and figure out where the act breaks are, where the stakes are defined, where the theme of the movie comes across.
- Don't just read screenwriting books, or books about how to be a writer. Start with Stephen King's ON WRITING, pick a screenwriting book of your choice and then stop. Every book you read about writing is a book you're not reading about a historical event you didn't know about or a social trend you were unaware of or a bit of psychology you were ignorant about. Writing is an expression of your knowledge and ethos. Ignoring that in the pursuit of technical skill is dangerous. Too many people think that knowing what an inciting incident is means they can be ignorant of what it means to be human, and those people write shitty scripts.
- Make short films with your friends. Even if they're idiots. It'll teach you the kind of people to avoid when you're working on the next level. There's also nothing better than hearing people try to spit out the dialogue you've written, because it'll force you to write things humans will say. I know this one from very painful experience.
- Be very discerning about which college you attend and what major you pick. A film degree from anywhere except USC/UCLA/NYU means almost nothing. That's not to say you shouldn't go to college. (That's between you and your people.) But I would say that generally an American Literature or Psych degree would be more helpful in making you a better writer. Also consider that you are going to be DEAD BROKE in your first years of trying to make it, and student loan debt can be really crippling.
- Write every day. No excuses. Don't wait until you're inspired or you have a good idea. Learn how to push through it early and you'll be way better off in the long run.
- No scripts about suicide or quirky criminals. At least not in the first batch. And no student films interviewing people about what their tattoos mean.
- Be respectful of people the next level up that you don't know well. If they give you advice, don't contradict them, even if it's terrible advice. It took me a long time to learn that not everyone has to know how I feel about everything. If I'd figured that out at 18 I'd have had a much smoother five years afterwards. Also, if you ask to meet them, don't change the time or the day. And if it absolutely can't be avoided, apologize profusely. They're the ones doing you a favor, and nothing will sour someone like the smell of entitled newbie.
- Learn how to be empathetic. Think about how other people think and act, and more importantly, WHY they do so. Too many white guys I know can only write women if they're mentioning make-up every five seconds and can only write black people that are sports stars or gangsters. Getting deep into the people in your life will allow you to create real characters that people will recognize as human.
- all in love. Get punched in the mouth and deserve it. Work weird jobs with weird people. Play basketball with the guys who don't look or talk like you. A life well lived is its own reward, but it's also really great for you as a writer.
- Write hard. Write with your whole heart. Don't leave anything on the table. Don't write what you think other people want, not when you're young and you're doing it for free. Write what you want to see, what you believe in, what you're passionate about. It's not going to be good, not at the start, but it'll be YOURS. And that's something.
- Obligatory and unnecessary list of movies/books/music that I love and influenced me that I want to infect you with so you'll write things I like: FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, Joseph Campbell's HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, all the Hold Steady records & BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA particularly, THE THIN RED LINE, the great WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS which will teach you everything about America you'll ever need to know, anything Kendrick Lamar's ever looked at but pay special attention to SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST because it made me tear up in the car once and I'll never forgive him.
- Make your peace with God before you make it big. Being a successful screenwriter will not make you happy. Nothing material or practical will ever make you happy. The reason Jon Hamm can handle his stuff and Justin Beiber couldn't for a while there is because one of them was set in his life before he made it and the other one didn't have a chance to. Success can be very dangerous, and it can enable the worst parts of us. If you don't figure your stuff out before it happens it's really hard to find your footing.
I hope this was helpful to some of you. (reposted from Reddit)