For her 50th birthday, Colleen Wainwright is trying to raise $50,000 for WriteGirl, the LA-based nonprofit organization that empowers teen girls to fulfill their potential as writers. I've been volunteering with WriteGirl since 2007, and I can attest to the amazing support it provides girls all across Los Angeles via monthly workshops, one-on-one mentoring, in-schools programs and college counseling.
Melanie writes: I was wondering if one needs a literary agent to submit one's work or if a regular talent agent (for actors) is sufficient.
It depends. Let's say you call up NBC and say you have an idea for a show. They'll probably tell you they can't accept unsolicited submissions, and that you need an agent to have your stuff submitted. Simply to mollify their legal fears, I think a talent agent would suffice. Whether NBC would pay much attention to what you submit is another matter.
Moreover, a talent agent isn't really a long-term solution for your writing career. In my experience at the agency, I did come across some talent agents who repped a writer or two, or talent agents who helped their acting clients who wanted to try writing - but this is more the exception to the rule. I don't know a ton about the agent situations for writer-performers like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling and Whitney Cummings (please comment if you do), but from what I've seen, most writers have a strictly literary agent. One of the many convenient things about being at a big agency with both lit and talent departments is that when clients want to try another path, they can easily reach out to the applicable department in the same agency and get expert guidance. You could have a lit agent and a talent agent on your team.
If you have a friend who is a talent agent, you should ask him/her if there are lit agents at the same agency, in the hopes that your friend can pass your stuff on to the more appropriate department. If the agent is at a talent-only agency but is willing to help (and knows whom to contact to get your writing out there), maybe you could A) have the talent agent submit your stuff to a buyer, B) impress the buyer and C) have the buyer refer you to a lit agent s/he regularly deals with. It's kind of a roundabout way to get an agent, but it happens. Some people get the agent first, then get their stuff out there. Others manage to get their stuff out there first, and then attract an agent as a result.
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Last week, I wrote about why readers might pass based on character. Today let's delve into concept.
"High-concept" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. Basically, it means a unique and exciting hook/premise that makes people go, "I want to see that!" INCEPTION is high-concept. ORDINARY PEOPLE is not. These days, it seems like every script needs to be high-concept to sell, unless someone like Leonardo DiCaprio is attached (though I guess it's worth noting that Leo tends to do pretty high-concept projects anyway). Sometimes I kind of sigh when I watch 80s & 90s movies like CLUELESS or THE BREAKFAST CLUB, because I'm not sure if they'd ever get made today.
Not every movie is high-concept, and certainly not every high-concept movie is good or successful. But as a new writer, you'll make life much easier for yourself - and guard yourself against a pass from a reader like me - if your premise is interesting and original. Amazing writing (dialogue, characters, etc.) will often get a Consider from me even without a big concept...but ideally you want people to think your ideas themselves are compelling. Also, you may not knock it out of the park with your execution in your first few scripts. You will likely need the excitement of your premise to open the door. Great concepts with mediocre execution get Considered more often than mediocre concepts with great execution.
One of the biggest mistakes that writers make in choosing a concept is failing to do some research to find out what else is out there. Remember that for every movie in theaters, there are dozens of scripts floating around Hollywood that mine similar territory. If I say "road trip," you can probably name movies like ROAD TRIP, DUE DATE, COLLEGE ROAD TRIP and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. But are you aware of all the road trip scripts in development? DESPERADOS? ASS BACKWARDS? BEST BUDS? What may seem like an original idea to you might be something that producers and executives have seen many times before. Try to follow projects in development through the trades or blogs like Go Into the Story. Keep your industry friends abreast of what you're working on so that they can tell you when they come across similar things.
Something that often comes to mind when I read a script is: "Why would anyone want to see this movie?" Every writer is attracted to something about an idea. Maybe you want to explore the complexity of loss, or you think your taxidermist uncle is fascinating, or you really want to tell the world about the time you got stabbed at the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell. But have you thought about why your idea might be interesting to other people? Have you considered whether you could get people to pay money and sit in a theater to watch it unfold? Try pitching your ideas to your friends and seeing how they respond. Do their eyes light up with interest? Do they start asking you questions? And on a more commercial level - is this something that could appeal to men AND women, young people AND old people (the famous "four quadrants")? Not every script is a four-quadrant movie, but if I feel like a movie will have a hard time attracting enough people, I usually pass.
Remember that different companies are looking for different things. A reader at one company might be told to pass on scripts that can't sell internationally. Another might be told to pass on concepts that require high budgets. Like the Bitter Script Reader has said, readers must serve their clients. You might be tempted to try and please the greatest number of clients..but be warned that this could result in a mediocre script. I don't think it's a good idea to become obsessed with concepts, trends or "whatever will sell." Just because R-rated comedies are doing well right now doesn't necessarily mean that you should write one, especially if what you write best are contained thrillers. I've read a lot of scripts that had great concepts but lacked a soul, voice, point of view and/or any kind of statement about life or the world. Be true to your voice. Ideally, you can find something you're really passionate about and frame it in a high-concept, commercial way. One more thing: be careful that your quest to be high-concept doesn't result in something too ridiculous or over-the-top. Aliens are cool. Zombies are cool. Boats are cool. But we probably don't need a zombie apocalypse on the sea of a distant planet.
Instead of "high-concept," maybe we should all just think about the words "interesting" and "compelling." Is your premise interesting? Also - is it clear, and established quickly? Can I write it in a simple logline? I once covered a script that was set in a kind of futuristic dystopia with confusing rules, meandering plots and no main character. I had trouble even summarizing the concept - and that meant a big PASS.
Sometimes I also see scripts that start out strong, but then miss out on opportunities to really milk their concepts. Are you going as big as you can? Do you have fun twists and complications?
Daniel writes: A lot of the better agencies require referrals in order to, I guess, simply get a meeting. How would one go about getting this referral? Is it as simple as asking a fellow pal who's represented by an agency for the referral? Or is that bad etiquette? And if that is the case, does the pal have to read the script first, or would they just give the referral? Just unsure of how this all works, because I do know some people I could ask.
A "referral" can be anyone the agency deals with on a regular basis, be it client, producer, manager, studio exec, network exec, etc. If you have pals who are represented by agencies, they can definitely help you. Agents want to keep their clients happy, especially important clients who regularly make them money. Agents are usually willing to look at submissions from their clients' friends (though they often ask assistants or more junior agents to read the scripts first).
It's not bad etiquette to ask your friends for a referral, but you should add something in your email like "if you like it" or "if you feel comfortable." Some people might be cool with passing stuff along before reading it, but I wouldn't. I would imagine your friends wouldn't want to stamp their approval/recommendation on something before reading it. Also, you should be prepared for the possibility that they won't like your writing. (And if they don't, that's fine. Taste is subjective. We all have to get used to getting passed on.)
Also, some of your writer friends might not feel like they're yet at the point to be asking their agents for favors - so don't be insulted if this is the case. Let's say I signed with an agency a month ago and I'm still getting used to how it all works. Especially if I haven't yet gotten staffed or sold anything, I'm probably not going to be sending over more potential clients.
You might also ask your friends for some general advice about getting an agent. Most people are flattered when others ask for advice, and they like being treated like experts. This might also be useful if some of the people you're talking about are more of acquaintances than friends.
The last thing I'll say is: make sure you're really ready to look for an agent. You should have multiple polished scripts and a bunch of ideas for more.
Michael writes: I know the industry is very difficult to break into. I've read your posts about the different PA/Agency/Writers' Assistant jobs, which confirms information I've got from an EP I contacted through my alumni network, but, knowing myself, I can't realistically see myself balancing the 10-12 hour/day average with good-quality creative writing, especially over any kind of long haul (especially when one factors in after-hours networking.) I was wondering if you could sketch out a in a little more detail just what the life of an aspiring writer looks like — how many years on average (I know there's a lot of variability and luck to go along with plain hard work in this field) in the "aspiring" category, and how one keeps it rewarding.
This is a great question - and as you might predict, it has a complicated answer. Many assistants on shows do work 10-12 hour workdays...but know that not all Hollywood jobs are this intense. Two of my friends currently working on shows work more like 9-hour workdays. When I worked as an assistant at the agency, I worked 9:30-7 with an hour and a half (!) for lunch, so an 8 hour day and 40-hour workweek. Overtime was expressly forbidden. Some assistants with busier bosses had to log unpaid overtime to stay afloat, but I didn't. I didn't make much money - and I wasn't able to write while I was on the clock or at lunch (for a number of reasons), but I got a fair amount of writing done on nights and weekends. I even had time to drink enough at Happy Endings to add contacts in my phone like "Brian Republican Valley" (oh, to be 22). Here's the ironic part of it all: today in my life as a blogger-tutor-reader, I generally only work 20-30 hours a week - but I honestly don't know if I get much more writing done than I did when I was an agency assistant. I can write at three in the afternoon if I want to - but I can also redeem my CVS Extrabucks and see if Sebastian Stan is at the gym (two of my favorite activities). I bet a lot of readers with full time jobs are really jealous of my odd lifestyle and the fact that I rarely set an alarm in the morning...but it's not as fantastic as you might think. Sometimes I don't speak to other humans until 8 pm. Buying your own health insurance is hella expensive. And writing is still hard.
I guess it all comes down to priorities. If you really want to be a writer, you will get the writing done, even if you're working 10-12 hours a day on a show. I think you have to be realistic about yourself, getting in the writing when you can and knowing that you will have prolific periods and rough periods. Sometimes you will wonder if you're totally batshit for pursuing this career. I think you have to indulge yourself a day or two of "this sucks" and then get back on the horse. I would still try to get a Hollywood job, even if it's super time-consuming, because the knowledge and connections will be invaluable. Just make sure you keep writing so that you'll actually have a sample to hand over when someone important asks to read your stuff. Joining a writing group gave me the deadlines I needed to stick with writing in the beginning. You can also use the Fellowship deadlines to motivate you. Ideally, you won't always have super long hours - and shows all go on hiatus, which could enable you to catch up on writing full time (or at least full time minus shopping and gym-celeb-stalking) while collecting unemployment for a while.
As for how many years it will take before you can stop slaving away all day and writing on nights and weekends...this really varies, depending on how fast you can crank out scripts, how good your writing is and how long it takes you to get your stuff to the right person (be it manager, agent, producer, etc.). But don't feel like you're sending yourself to prison when you take a day job. If you no longer feel your job is worth it, you can quit (like I did) and try something else for a while. You just can't expect certainty or security if you're heading down this path. Even after you sell a script or get staffed, the balancing act isn't over.
I finally finished another draft of a feature so I have a minute or two of free time until I get soul-crushing notes. Woo! In the meantime, I thought you guys might want to read some posts about why readers pass on scripts, since you don't want readers to pass. You want them to consider or recommend you.
So - why do readers pass? First, let's talk about character. Characters don't always have to be likeable, but it helps. If I hate the person I'm reading about, I'm not going to enjoy 110 pages of him. If you're writing people who aren't likeable, then we should at least understand why they do what they do. "Sympathetic" is another way to think about it. Do I feel for your character? Want him/her to succeed? Make sure that you show us how the characters feel about what's happening in the story; emotional tracking will help us root for them.
Characters also need to be specific and unique. Do they have specific quirks or traits? Do their voices sound different from the other characters? Do I know some backstory about them? Do locations tell me about them? Actions? Sometimes plot-heavy scripts suffer from bland characters. If your main dude is simply trying to stay alive and fight bad guys throughout the movie, you may have to work a little harder to show us more about him, since his goal doesn't really tell us much about him as a character. This is where you might work on his emotional needs, flaws and arc. I recently read a script in which the characters were likable and had noble reasons to be looking for money fast - but this was almost the only thing I knew about them. It was a cool, ambitious concept, so it got a consider...but the lack of character work was one of the things that made me add "with reservations."
More about the arc: In features, characters should change over the course of the story. They learn a lesson and apply it to their lives, the way Macaulay Culkin learns to appreciate his family in Home Alone or how Natalie Portman stops pushing Ashton Kutcher away because she's afraid she'll get hurt in No Strings Attached. A common note is that characters don't have arcs, have too small of arcs or have confusing arcs. Make sure the arc actually fits with the theme and the events of a story. I don't think there's always one right answer to the question of what the arc should be, since there are different sides of a story to explore. But if an arc isn't there, you'll likely get a pass.
Readers also think about actors. Would an A-list star want to play this character? Is there depth and range in the part? Is there comedy that will push an actor to his limits? Are there satisfying moments of desperation? Confrontation? Tension? Subtext?
Lastly, don't forget about your supporting cast. Stanley Tucci wasn't just any old scientist in Captain America. Jonah Hill wasn't a boring hotel employee in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Infusing your supporting cast with specific details will make your script polished and memorable. Also, make sure the supporting characters (and antagonists) aren't just convenient devices for our leads. Do their goals make sense? Are their choices believable?
Here are some snippets of character notes I've written in coverage lately:
"Not much conflict is mined out of their differences, or how they might disagree on how to handle each situation."
"It’s not entirely clear what they think they’re going to accomplish"
"he’s a little too omniscient in his advice"
"His antagonism is convenient and unmotivated; he comes across as more of a stock villain than a real person."
"It's too obvious that they're not meant for each other."
"We don't really get a sense of whether she likes him or not."
"Why is he doing what he does? What got him on this path? Is he hoping to one day do something else?"