Sunday, March 18, 2007

Advice for young writers

I'm always happy to answer questions from young writers as time and space allows. Here are a couple.

HIM: If I can’t get an entry level job in the industry what are the best jobs to get?

ME: Assuming that while you work you’re going to continue writing specs you need a job that pays enough to live on (duh) and you don’t take home with you after your shift. If you’re writing with a partner you obviously have to coordinate your schedules. Work at Starbucks so you can walk around and see what everyone else is writing.Work at an LAX parking toll booth. That way you only have to use .000001% of your brain. I taught idiots how to be disc jockeys at a Broadcasting School. What a jerk-off job that was. But I was done everyday at 6. And no weekends. The students needed that time to memorize how to announce weather forecasts.

HIM: There are sometimes ads looking for screenwriters. Is that something worth pursuing?

ME: I say beware. Usually these are not WGA signatories which means you get screwed. The pay is crap, you have no rights or protection, you’ll work like a galley slave, and chances are the movie will never get made. I know it’s tempting and you’d rather get a job using your skills than putting on a straw hat and serving "cups of dirt" at TGI Fridays, but trust me, your writing time will be better spent crafting a spec, which, if it sells, will pay infinitely more than some laundry magnate’s pet project on the man who invented Sanforizing.


We all have to start somewhere. At times it’s confusing, exasperating, demeaning, and depressing. But when you make it you will look back nostalgically at that period as one of the best of your lives. And for me there’s the added glow that I contributed so much to radio.


Anonymous said...

I've always wondered what it would be like to have a job that didn't require I actually break my back, all the while dripping litres of sweat. Starbucks sounds like a plan.

Ian said...

It's scary how laptop-toting, wannabe screenwriters sitting in Starbucks have actually become a cliche. Personally, I've switched to an independent coffee house, where the screenwriter-to-civilian ratio is a little lower, and use (gasp!) cheap spiral notebooks and pencils... yeah, I'm deep undercover.

Dave O'Hara said...

Don't know how anybody can write in a public place. I don't even have windows in my office. Interruptions really mess with my being in the story/character's heads.

When I was editing my short, The Mojo Cafe, I went to a Starbucks in North Hollywood to get coffee for my editor. There were all the wanna-bes working on the next great screenplay.

That's when it hit me - I had graduated from that huge group to a much smaller group - I had actually made something! Good or bad, I had written, cast, produced, directed, cut and paid for a twenty-minute movie, THE MOJO CAFE!

It was a kinda cool experience.

The Mojo Café is the place to be! Can you give me driving directions? I know it has to be here in Sedona some place !!!! I roared out loud...sitting alone...when I previewed your film and roared even louder with a full audience in the theater. Good job!
Thank you for regarding the festival. Filmmakers are what it's all about for us.
You are the voice. You are the artists who reflect what's around us... yes, even Mojo Cafe!

Sheila Jackman, Sedona Film Festival

IQCrash said...

Good stuff, Ken. Always nice to see someone as successful as yourself taking the time to help out.

As one of the little guys looking to make it, I know I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

And one of those "wanna-bes" might just have the next great screenplay. When I talk to other writers I've noticed they're often condescending about people who haven't made it yet. Shouldn't be. Sure, most won't make it and a bunch of them are dreaming about flying a plane without fuel.

However, I've rarely heard a veteran writer allow that anything besides their meteoric wisdom and talent led to their success. What they don't mention is luck, and since that's part of the equation, too, please look upon amateurs with a kindly eye. There but for the grace of a wildly capricious god go you, after all. "Wanna-be" is a patronizing dismissal of a group many of us were members of not so long ago.

And thanks for encouraging young aspirants, Ken. They won't get in by rabbis in the business but by guides who have scouted ahead.

Gail Renard said...

Surely your coffee cup can be half full and not empty when an aspiring writer takes a job at Starbucks, etc. After all, it might give you some life experience to write about... and all the better if that Starbucks becomes the site of a heist, alien invasion or a romantic/ political/ comedy/ drama/ musical. Ya never know.

Dave O'Hara said...

"And one of those "wanna-bes" might just have the next great screenplay. When I talk to other writers I've noticed they're often condescending about people who haven't made it yet. "

There is a huge difference in looking the part and being the part. If you're writing at Starbucks to be seen - you are being seen - as a total amature.

Any D person or producer will stear way clear of anybody with a laptop at Starbucks waiting to be discovered.

"Oh, you're writing a screenplay? How unusual! How rare! Can I look at it? We don't normaly take anything unsolicited. But this is Starbucks, and you have elbow patches on your jacket, and the pipe, my God, you just oooooze WRITER! This must be incredible! Gotta be a comedy - you don't look tortured enough for drama. And of course you are holding out to direct? Wow...

I'm sure I have a release on me somewhere.

Anonymous said...

To Dave O' Hara... and I post this only to educate you a bit, although I am sure that the "writer, producer and director" of "The Nojo Cafe" certainly doesn't need any education from me, but here goes anyway:

I am a VERY successful writer... I do good work, I make craploads of money, millions of people see my work and although I don't really believe in the Awards that this industry gives itself each year, I have several... and I often will take a legal pad and pen and work in a Starbucks or Coffee Bean or McDonalds or a food park in a Mall... just because I like the stimulation of seeing other people, people I don't know, people whom I imagine are characters, people whom I am fairly sure all have interesting stories, etc. I find it brings out thoughts and questions as I work.

Now, as I said earlier, I know I am talking to the creator of "The Flojo Cafe", someone who certainly doesn't need any advice on writing from the likes of me, but for everyone ELSE who read his posts... don't listen to self-claimed professionals like that. There are a LOT of ways to work when you are a writer... and no one is expecting to be discovered by a development person, the odds are though, that they might hope to encounter another friendly writer sometime, and there is nothing wrong with that. My advice is to do it the way that feels good and productive for YOU.

And in the spirit of giving an extra plug to Mr. O'Hara's short film that he seems to enjoy working in to every post, don't forget to go and see "The Blowjo Cafe"... :)

Anonymous said...

As one of those aspiring writers out there, thanks for the post, Ken. Here's a tip that not all may know about: The Billy Wilder Reading Room at the WGA Building (across from the Farmer's Market) is a terrific and free resource. Open Mondays through Fridays, and you can even read stuff by some team named Levine & Isaacs.

Ian said...

When I commented on how "wannabe" screenwriters at Starbucks had become a cliche, I failed to mention that I'm one myself - minus the laptop. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to shop for a jacket with elbow patches.

Cap'n Bob said...

Anonymouse made that big rant at Dave but didn't mention he'd misspelled "steer." You missed an easy one, there, Mr. A.

You want time to write while working? Try getting a civil service job.

Cap'n Bob said...

Oh, and yes, I meant to spell anonymous with an e at the end. Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, and Anonymouse. Rodents three.

Anonymous said...

Gracious, what I've missed out on. I not only don't drink coffee, but I can NOT bear the stench of the swill. Consequently, I am unable to set foot in a Starbucks. I truely can not abide the reek. When I'm out with friends and they want to stop by Starbucks, I have to wait outside for them.

Plus, I don't own a laptop. I use this creaky old, wood-burning thing in my writing corner at home. It's a "Dell Abacus". So I write at home, but with windows, and even with the TV on, just not to anything interesting (EASY to find on daytime TV) just to have a drone in the background. But while I can write with distractions around, I just can not write around other live people, unless we're collaborating, in which case, they get to do the typing.

As for looking like a writer in public, well, the anonymity is part of the appeal of the job to me. All I try to look like in public is available.

The point is well-taken about condescension towards writers lower on the ladder than oneself. The guy you sniff at may be another John Kennedy Tool. Unless you read their stuff, you don't know if they write better or worse than yourself. And unless you're one of Stephen King's progeny, we all start out at the bottom of that ladder, and talent, skill, and craft, though essential, are not the only things that boost you up rungs. You can look and sneer, or you can mentor like Ken does.

Unknown said...

How can people without jobs afford five dollar cups of coffee at Starbucks?

If the subject is coffee, make mine White Castle. It's well under two bucks for a large. It's fresh, tasty, and sometimes smells slightly of fried onions.

I met the prettiest girl in the world because she was working in an independent coffee shop. Starbucks ran the shop outta business, but the girl is still mine.

I like the advice for young writers post and would love to see more.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a screenwriter, but I think some generalities may apply.
I always wanted to be a writer (either a newspaper columnist like Mike Royko or somebody sarcastic at the New Yorker like Dorothy Parker). Ok, even Erma Bombeck. (Bear in mind, that was when I was 11.)
Anyhow, I wanted to be a famous writer--and as fast as possible. I'm a good writer (IMHO) but becoming one was a slow process. I wrote many, many boring articles and edited quite a few. I don't think you can skip that part.
I used to think there was a secret--but there really isn't. Just write and push yourself to improve. Wax on. Wax off.

Anonymous said...


you guys don't have the balls to number yourself, so I don't know which anonymous I'm addressing.

I'm guessing it's the one with the elbow patches and the pipe who made be a very good writer and still feels the need to look like one.

I push my stuff because I'm proud of it. I list my name because I will take the flack for my views.

Something I said pushed a button with you - which gives my opinion some credulence (at least with you). If my comments were totally without merit, I couldn't have gotten your fur up.

If you haven't seen my short - how can you rip it? You're just ripping me 'cause I got to you.

If you have seen it - rip it all you want. But, dude-in-patches, at least come from somewhere more substantial than your insecurities.

If you are a good writer making megabucks, why would my comments bug you? I was knocking wanna-bes in uniform. Why do you placed yourself in that group?

If you can work in busy noisy places - cool. If you're doing it to be seen - whatever gets you off (and we both know why I ruffled your fur).

If you going to knock my stuff unseen - feel free to knock my poor use of the English language and my bad spelling. They are all cheap shots and evade the point of discussion. But if that's the best you can do?

I'll give you some ammunition. Let my know your Starbucks and I'll bring a DVD of my short. You'll be able recognize me - I'm the one without the laptop or pad and pencil. If it is during the day, my shoes will be dirty as will be my Levis and T-shirt. I work construction. (But I did wear clean Levis when I took my SATs.)

Give me something we can sink our teeth into - a real discussion. If you are any good, you might change my mind.

Anonymous said...


I am a notch above the majority of wann-bes at Starbucks - just guessing, but the majority has yet to do much of anything. Since when does lack of experience make you as good or better a director or writer...or better at most anything?

And as much as I hate to admit it, there's a bunch of people notches above me. I'll wager the top writers in Hollywood all go to Starbucks. It'd be interesting as to how many would actually work there. (I might be totally full of shit and missing out on one of the most inspirational hot spots.)

Hey, Anonymous may be way over my head on writing credentials. I tried to look him up on IMDb. Thought he might be related to Allan Smithie.

I did post the short to self-promote. I made the short to self-promote. Some crazy idea that I might be better off showing what I could do instead of putting on a uniform and talking about what I could do over coffee - year after year after year. (Gee, none of those people at Starbucks or seminars or screenwriting classes).

I've even (gasp!) walked into offices on studio lots to try and get somebody - anybody! - to read screenplays. Sometimes I got the Bum's rush, but sometimes I got read. You don't self-promote in a business as tough as this, it's real hard to get anywhere. It would be easy for person could end up at Starbucks grousing about how unfair the movie biz is.

If I offended Ken Levine (this is his blog, not yours) pushing my short, he can axe me or just give me the word.

And as far as ruffling somebody's feathers with statements containing absolutley no truth - that are totally maufactured out of thin air - those most people can laugh off. Why can't anonymous, if that is the case?

I can laugh off his shots at my short - because it's based on what? (if he hasn't seen it). He's knocking something he knows nothing about 'cause he's pissed at arrogant me. Now that sounds logical.


be real easy to skip my irrevelant, self-promoting posts. Click on Collapse comments - skip Dave O'Hara.

Anonymous said...

To Dave O'Hara

I am the "anonymous" who took you to task and it was not because anything you said had any validity to me at all... but my fear was your arrogance would intimidate some new writer who is just starting out and not sure of themselves. My point was to let them know that however they choose to work if it works for them, is fine. My further point was to shine a light on yet another STILL wannabe who is not playing in the big leagues. And believe me, I would never disparage anyone for their lack of success, but I make an exception in your case because you seemed to enjoy rubbing other people's noses in it. And the reason I remain anonymous is if you found out who I was, as offended as you might be by my remarks, the next thing out of your mouth would be you asking me to read your work.

Murph said...

"And one of those "wanna-bes" might just have the next great screenplay.

The Cox Brothers were working in a Starbucks when they wrote their spec script, Blades of Glory, which opens on Friday.